During the 1960s, Ford built one of the most successful endurance race cars of all time. It all started with the Blue Oval’s attempt to acquire Ferrari, a deal that eventually fell through and drove Hank the Deuce (Henry Ford II) to greenlight the development of a Prancing Horse-slaying race car.
Initially built around a Lola chassis powered by a huge Ford V8, the car that was modified to perfection by engineering masterminds such as Carroll Shelby ended up beating Ferrari at Le Mans on four consecutive occasions, from 1966 to 1969.
The GT40 would remain one of the most beloved American vehicles ever built. And although some examples were converted for road use, it remained an extremely expensive, thoroughbred racer car. Decades later, Ford decided to change that and build a modern, street-legal version that could be enjoyed by a wider audience. It started with the 1995 GT90 concept but the first modern iteration that made it into production was unveiled in the early 2000s. Though it was by no means cheap, the first-generation GT was far more attainable than a genuine GT40 and best of all, it looked much like the 1960s legend.
A little over 4,000 GTs were built between 2004 and 2006. Then, ten years later, the second generation came into being. This time, it was powered by a turbocharged V6 instead of a supercharged V8. And it was capable of up to 700 hp (710 ps), a figure that made the most powerful GT-badged car produced by Ford. However, the most extreme GT ever…
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That’s because most vintage cars were built in very limited numbers and many of them were crashed, scrapped, or used as a base for other racing projects. And many of those that survived hard years of racing lost many of their original components, especially engines, gearboxes, and all sorts of internals that tended to break at the track.
The Ford GT40 is one of those cars. While not as rare as some 1950s racers that saw daylight in fewer than 10 units a piece, the Le Mans-winning legend is one of the rarest classics bearing the “Ford” logo today. The company made 105 of them from 1964 to 1969, but that number is much smaller now. On top of that, Ford built about a half-dozen iterations that are notably different in terms of aerodynamics and underpinnings.
But because it was so successful at beating Ferrari and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four years in a row, the GT40 is also one of the most replicated race cars out there. What’s more, Superformance is making a continuation series that was approved by Carroll Shelby himself. And needless to say, it looks runs like the real deal.
But the California-based shop, which also produces Shelby Cobra, Shelby Daytona, and Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport replicas, is also taking it up a notch on certain cars. The 1966 GT40 you see here, for instance, packs a supercharged V8 engine. That’s big because the original GT40 relied on naturally aspirated power only.
If you’re not very familiar with the 1960s racer, it left the factory with a…
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Remember when Elon Musk bought a McLaren F1 supercar with the proceeds of selling software company Zip2 for $300m? That wouldn’t happen today, claims former Apple engineer and Nest co-founder Matt Rogers, who says newly-minted Silicon Valley executives are increasingly going electric.
He should know, since Rogers this year became the first US customer of, and investor in, Everrati, a British company that takes classic cars, removes the engine, and makes them electric.
“We love our cars here…but overwhelmingly people are wanting to move to electric, ” Rogers says. “We had a similar story [to Musk’s McLaren purchase] at Nest. One of the entrepreneurs from one of the companies we acquired at Nest bought a McLaren the next day and people looked at him funny. Like, ‘what are you doing?’. It’s so loud and with a spewing exhaust. It’s like ‘gosh, it’s kind of tacky actually’. That is the culture, especially in the Bay Area. People are very environmentally conscious.”
But that doesn’t mean California parking lots will be filled exclusively with Teslas and Nissan Leafs – the latter a car Rogers was an early owner of, but which he admits is “super dorky”. Instead, wealthy Californians who care about cars as much as the environment are turning to companies like Everrati. That way, they get to enjoy driving (and being seen in) a classic car with none of the tailpipe emissions….
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Why does the 2006 Ford GT offered at Gooding & Company’s “Geared” online auction look so much like the original Ford GT40 race car of the 1960s? And will an owner find it a versatile and robust supercar, one to be driven often? And does the GT have a backstory to justify its special place in the collector car market?
With just a few exceptions like the Taurus SHO and the 5-liter and SVO Mustangs, Ford in North America had been selling “stickers and stripes” pseudo-performance for two decades when Ford marketing boss Bob Rewey and his frequent partner in Ford programs, CTO Neil Ressler, started Ford Special Vehicle Team in the 1990s. To maximize creative liberty, Rewey assigned a part-time Ford manager to ride herd on an outsourced group of marketing and PR guys. Housed in Roush Engineering facilities away from mainstream product development, Ford Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) was comprised of seasoned engineering managers commissioned to develop performance variants for SVT to sell through a subset of Ford dealers. As an interesting side note, this little pirate ship included the solitary (and sometimes cantankerous) engineer, Steve Anderson, who produced Ford police packages, under the glamorous banner DSO, for Dealer Special Order. Anderson also quarterbacked the 1995 Mustang Cobra R. One might say the engineers of SVE were the happy few.
By the early Noughts, SVT and SVE were an established, cohesive organization with several excellent niche performance cars to their credit. They were ready for a much bigger assignment, one that only rarely arrives at a mainstream volume carmaker: a supercar.
“We scheduled a Product Evaluation day at Brands Hatch for a few years in a row,” says John Coletti, who was the manager of Ford Special Vehicle Engineering. No matter the marketing managers who shifted through, Coletti was the boss and everyone knew it. “During the third year, maybe 2001, word about the event spread throughout Ford of Europe and our supply base. Ford of Europe offered to bring the original GT40 press car from the 1964/65 Le Mans races.”
“When we were doing the Ford GT program, I had the green GT40 shipped to the States to inspire the vehicle designers to recreate the look of the original car. Interestingly, they shipped the car to the States without carburetor and distributor in the hopes of preventing us Yanks from driving the car around Dearborn,” says Coletti. “They must have been totally unaware that carburetors and distributors for smallblock Ford V8s were a dime a dozen in the States.”
“Having the car in our Petunia Studio proved invaluable. The original designs that [VP Global Design and Chief Creative Officer] J Mays had Camilo Pardo working on were essentially Audi TT knock-offs. They looked like an upside-down bathtub to me,” says Coletti.
“I complained to Ressler and we went to [CEO Jacques] Nasser to share our concern. Jac asked for a review around the first clay. After listening to J Mays spew a lot of bull about how the clay was a modern interpretation of the original design, Jac told J, ‘I want that clay to look like that car,’ pointing to the green GT40 press car. And he reinforced his statement with a closing, ‘J, do you understand what I want?’”
And that’s why the 2004-06 Ford GT designed by Camilo Pardo looks like an 11/10ths scale Ford GT40. And with all due respect to J Mays, who I met in the early 1990s at VW/Audi’s Westlake Village design studio, he assembled one of the industry’s most impressive design “dream teams.”
Is the GT a car to drive hard and enjoy? Robert “Bob” Brown served as quality engineer on the Ford GT. He was once my boss on a validation study in Japan performed for the late, great Martin Leach. Thanks to Brown, these Ford GTs are remarkably well put together and in fact there was only one quality error in the tightly compressed development timeframe, which was caught before more than a handful of cars were built. In the case of the Ford GT, quality truly was Job 1.
Ford GTs are not adornments, not trailer queens. The car offered here by Gooding, which was exported to Japan, has a few scars from its life on the road. Ford GTs are meant to be driven. Bob Brown picked up a development GT in Los Angeles and drove it back to Michigan.
“I was driving the car cross-country from Los Angeles. Early morning in Iowa, we were looking for breakfast. We were moving along, and an Iowa State trooper gave chase. Rolling roadblock slowed us down. The trooper says that the first speed he clocked was… … …rather high, and I was braking hard. I told him I wasn’t braking hard at all. Turns out the trooper was a great SVT fan, and owned one of our Lightning trucks. Turns out I had been in a 55-mph speed zone and I thought the limit was 70. In the end, he gave me a ticket for 64 mph in a 55 zone, and a $100 fine. He took us to his relative’s restaurant and we finally had breakfast. His patrol car was a Ford Crown Vic, featuring the police package we had developed.”
On that same trip, Brown drove the car through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Highway 70, with snow all the way down to Denver. The GT is a real car, meant to be enjoyed.
Any supercar is measured by its powertrain, by its engine. The GT engine may have shared basic geometry of bore, stroke, offset and interface surfaces with the mainstream 5.4-liter V8 with iron block, but there the similarities end.
Curt Hill was in charge of powertrain at Ford SVE. “Roush was my engineering team, but we had tremendous support from Ford cylinder block and casting to take advantage of opportunities we could only do on a low-volume aluminum block. I recall the casting tech, Dan “Dusty” Duszkiewicz, proudly proclaim he designed the casting to support 1000 hp. Field experience suggests he over-achieved his own target,” says Hill. Tuner shops have built Ford GTs to produce phenomenal amounts of power and set very high top speeds, so the block and basic architecture have been proven “in the wild.”
“The cylinder head was derived from the  Cobra R, redesigned for improved cooling, strength, structure, and tolerance control. The casting is distinguished with ‘Ford GT’ embossed on the side. To feed the engine we added a second fuel injector for each cylinder. At that time, a single injector that could support the fuel demand at max load, did not have the control at idle to meet emissions. To control the companion injectors, we added a separate module with the necessary drivers and interfaced it back to the EEC IV engine processor,” says Hill. Take that to mean this is a unique remix of Ford pieces, and the head is a unique piece due to the secondary injectors.
“The closest part to carryover from the base 5.4-liter is the crankshaft, which was already a twisted forged crank,” says Hill. These forged cranks were all produced by Ford partner Gerlach-Werke. “We did serious design work on the front of the crank to manage stresses. Pistons, rods, and bearings were all new.”
“A major change to lubrication is the dry sump system. That let us lower the engine in car, reduce crankshaft windage, and improve dynamic management of the oil. Cooling performance was significantly upgraded with the aforementioned casting mods and addition of a new high-flow water pump. The supercharger is a Lysholm screw-type compressor, which is much more efficient than the traditional Roots style, common at the time,” says Hill.
Twenty years ago, the no-lag turbocharging technology we have in today’s supercars simply did not exist and superchargers had their day in the sun. Superchargers were the best guarantee of meeting horsepower goals. SVE/SVT used them on the second-generation Lightning truck, which should be considered a collectible piece, and also on the “Terminator” version of the Mustang Cobra road cars. If you wonder why the latest Ford GT has turbochargers, it is simply because engineering breakthroughs of the past decade make it possible. But just as superchargers distinguish the Jaguar Land Rover R car V8s sold today, they bring similar character to the Ford GT engine.
For those who really need to know, to build the library around their Ford GT, Hill recommends an SAE paper that touches on many of the engine design features and processes. It is entitled “2005 Ford GT Powertrain-Supercharged Supercar.” SAE Technical Paper Series 2004-01-1252.
Many people don’t know this, but during the early stages of development, a V10 proposal was explored and subsequently dismissed. Why, you might ask? “The V10 proposal had its appeal, being naturally aspirated, but it had challenges that would have jeopardized the program,” says Hill.
“Probably the biggest of which was lack of an engine controller for it,” says Hill. “The prototype engine was controlled by two processors, one for each bank. That was not a viable production path. The time and resources to develop a new controller, strategy, and software was not feasible. Aside from that, it would have been a challenge to comfortably hit the 500-horsepower program target. It made 500 horsepower on dyno, but that was with very aggressive cams, inlet and exhaust losses. By the time it was tuned to meet emissions, I would have been spending a lot of time in meetings explaining my performance shortfall, not to mention the struggles I would have had achieving durability.”
“The supercharged V8, on the other hand, easily made target performance and passed the critical durability test relatively early in the program. It also provides superior drivability due to the supercharged characteristic torque curve,” says Hill. One must only explore YouTube for Ford GTs built by tuner shops to set extremely high top speeds to understand the engine’s robust nature, and fully understand the series of excellent engineering decisions made in a tightly compressed development time frame.
John Coletti deserves full credit. After working on a number of successful niche vehicles for SVT, with fairly tight development timeframes, he and his small band of engineering managers knew that to succeed there could be no wild inventions and that in speccing pieces, it was best to err on the side of over-design because there’s little time to recover from mistakes. The resulting car is as robust as any supercar ever made.
Without Coletti and Neil Ressler, the car would not have been produced. As I myself experienced in my tenure with SVT, there were forces inside Ford Motor Company that did not want this program or any of the other incredible SVE/SVT programs to succeed. More than anything, the Ford GT demonstrates the need for wise executive leadership capable of aggressively imposing air cover. The old line about how “the machine gets what the machine wants” certainly applies in most mainstream automotive companies. Special cars only succeed if the senior executives protect the program.
Though Ford SVE was partially dismantled at one point in the Noughts, the program was brought to the attention of then-marketing boss Jim Farley by a former SVT marketing guy, and Farley immediately saw the value and took it to CEO Alan Mulally. The group was reestablished, and morphed into Ford Performance. I for one hope Ford maintains the group for years to come. A small group of smart, clever pirates can accomplish great things.