• In the ’60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40

In its blinding madness, Ford built a fully street legal version of the GT40

The Ford GT40 is arguably one of the most famous racing cars ever. Four times a winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the GT40, in its various iterations, changed the racing world forever moving the goalposts further than ever before. In the shadow of the brash, unadulterated racer, however, FoMoCo concocted something Dearborn thought could work as a Sunday driver - a road-legal version of the GT40.

Road legality was a natural feature of ’60s racers

Modern racing cars are, by and large, precision tools made to go fast around a given race track. Covered in carbon fiber and befitted with numerous parts that make them infinitely adjustable, modern sports cars, touring cars, GTs, stock cars, and single-seaters are hardly ever road legal. Basically, nothing save for rally cars can be driven both in competition and on the open road without substantial modifications. There are, of course, grassroots-level race cars that have begun life as fully-fledged road cars and those can be road-legal but that’s no longer the case if we talk about purpose-built vehicles.

In short, what makes a modern race car impossible to register for the road isn't the ludicrous wings, nor the terrifyingly low rear diffuser. The main things that cause headaches to any vehicle inspector have to do with noise and eco-friendliness.
In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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To extract maximum performance from a drivetrain, a race car isn’t conceived to be friendly to the environment. It lacks the cacophony of filters that are fitted to modern cars and it also has different types of mufflers which usually make these cars very loud. Being loud is something that is generally frowned upon and decibel meters exist to measure the noisiness of each and every car.

Getting a race car road registered - which also implies you stick some road-legal rubber on your wagon - is a hassle that makes little sense given these cars are impossibly low to the ground and are also completely impractical. The cabin can only take in one person and there’s no luggage space. However, once upon a time, racing cars were closely related to road cars and, even if they weren’t, they were designed to pass a basic inspection.

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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Take any ’50s or ’60s racer you like. Even the wildest of the lot - unfathomably fast stuff like the Porsche 917 or the Lola T70 - could be registered for use on the open road. The reasoning is simple and it seems from necessity. Up until 1973, the famous Targa Florio was a round of the World Sportscar Championship (today’s FIA World Endurance Championship). The race was being held annually on bits of Sicilian public road that was only shut off to civilian traffic on race day. Practice sessions would usually go on while random motorists in their puny little Fiats and Autobianchis made their way down the same route as the race cars.

This meant the race cars too had to have working lights, blinkers, a luggage compartment, and everything in between to get number plates. Unless you had plates, you couldn’t go out to practice on the open Sicilian route. Now, this doesn’t mean a Lola T70, for instance, was a friendly, sedated car. Not even in the slightest. The Lola as well as all of its brethren were purpose-built racing cars, designed from the ground up to go racing. It just so happened that the rules and regulations that were up at the time left enough leeway for pure racing cars to have plates. This is one other reason why today you could never have the Targa Florio back in the way it was back then.

Why does the Ford GT40 road car exist?

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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Now that we’ve established that every Ford GT40 could be registered for use on public roads, you may ask yourself what’s up with these so-called ’road legal’ GT40s? After all, we’ve just taken the time to explain that all of them were road legal. Well, Ford thought there may be a market for a GT40 that was actually mildly usable as a car for the weekends. First off, a batch of 30 Mk. I-specification GT40s were modified to better suit the needs of a civilian motorist and then, a while later, the redesigned GT40 Mk. III broke cover and that version was, in truth, the friendliest GT40 of all. It had a bigger boot, a bigger cabin, and a re-tuned engine and transmission making it almost bearable on A and B roads but still a handful in the inner cities.

What’s the story of this Ford GT40?

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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Covered in Warwick Green, a tint reminiscent of the famous British Racing Green, this Ford GT40 was born in Britain, coming through the doors of the Ford Advanced Vehicles headquarters in Slough all the way back in 1966. Chassis #P/1057, one of only 30 road-spec GT40s to be built by FAV, presents itself in its original paint scheme and also remains one of the very few GT40s of its kind that was never converted for use in racing. The car was originally sold to an American owner and, at first, FAV’s plans were to build over 70 road cars.

Powered by the ubiquitous 4.7-liter V-8 engine, the skinny tires are certainly having a hard time keeping up with the 306 horsepower and 329 pound-feet of torque that the manual ZF gearbox delivers.
Engine 4.7-liter V-8
Horsepower 306 HP
Torque 329 LB-FT
Top Speed 164 mph
In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Drivetrain
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Tom Hartley Jnr., who handled the sale of this (presumably) multi-million-dollar example, claimed the car comes with its original luggage boxes, spare wheels, its original fuel/oil lines, cams, and valves. While the car has recently changed hands and the new - and very lucky - owner will hopefully experience how this time capsule feels on the road, most of us will never be bestowed with such an honor.

Luckily, veteran journalist Denis Jenkinson used an identical GT40 Mk. I for a week back in late 1966 and took the time to write about the obviously hair-raising experience in Motor Sport Magazine for us all to enjoy. First, Jenks said, "the specification was not changed," when FAV put together the non-competition GT40s. The shape [was also the same], but there was a lot of attention to ’home-comforts’, such as interior trim, door pockets, radio, heaters, silencers, heavier flywheel, and a less-fierce clutch," were the things that set an FIA-legal Mk. I apart from the model Jenkinson handled.

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Drivetrain
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He also went on to say that, due to the engine’s less aggressive tune, Ford said the car wouldn’t surpass 164 mph whereas, at Le Mans, racing GT40s topped out at 190 mph or more. Even though a top speed of 164 mph may not seem impressive nowadays, it was quite a lot when you consider that your average ’60s Ferrari couldn’t surpass 145 mph. Back then, the national speed limit had just been introduced in the UK (following some antics done on the M1 by the AC works team that prepared a Le Mans coupe ahead of the 1964 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans) and, as such, a 164 mph top speed was anyway pretty useless.

Carroll Shelby too was of the opinion that a road-spec GT40 made little sense, as Jenks recounts. "I had long discussions with [Shelby] about the GT40 concept as applied to an everyday GT car, he being of the opinion that it could never come about due to heat, noise, space, and comfort." However, Jenkinson’s initial impression wasn’t that of a quantum leap upon first mashing the throttle in the GT40. Admittedly, his usual daily driver at the time was a meaty Jag E-Type with the 4.2-liter engine installed that, as the journalist points out, helped him to " become pretty used to speeds between 100 and 140 mph with acceleration to match".

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40
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Jenkinson was, though, impressed by the car’s road-holding abilities saying it also impressed some of the passengers he took on board which, in turn, could care less that the car’s trunk was insufficient even for ’pajamas and a toothbrush’. "[I] was absolutely staggered at the smooth ride and ability of the wheels to stay on the ground not only over undulations and round bumpy corners but over long brows at 120m.p.h. or more and over short humps at half that speed." He did make the point, however, that this car wouldn’t feel at home in London where it is an unsuited piece of kit, especially when it comes down to start-stop traffic and parking.

Having said that, Jenks reckoned the heavily reclined seating position was "o good is the visibility through the large raked screen with its pillars wrapped around the sides, that even in heavy traffic there are no problems." Going through the knobs, buttons, and dials inside the GT40, Jenkinson notices the "horizontal hand-brake looking suspiciously like a standard Ford Anglia component." But no Ford Anglia comes with an odometer that goes all the way to 200 mph, nor does an Anglia feature a five-speed ZF box.

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Interior
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This transmission, the journalist noted, was at least as good as whatever Porsche and Alfa Romeo were fitting to their cars and it also helped that the car was impressively serene while traversing the landscape at 5,000 rpm or more in fifth. "Reverse and first are on the left, first being back towards you, second and third are in the center and fourth and fifth across to the right, the movement across the gate being infinitesimal. There is a very clever and foolproof interlock mechanism that only allows two segments of the ’gate’ to be open at any one time," Jenkinson said of the gearbox.

Moving away from the transmission, which is only slightly annoying at low speeds, the man who co-drove Moss in the Mille Miglia was also taken aback by the GT40’s acceleration. "Apart from sprint bikes and dragsters, [acceleration] now has a new meaning for me, for the GT40 is doing 100 mph before you can say Barbara Castle, and it feels constant right up to 150 mph." The result? Naturally, the Ford "makes the Jaguar seem dull and woolly."

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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At the end of the day, as Jenks pointed out, "getting this sort of performance is no great problem these days, but getting it as safely, smoothly, and confidently as the Ford GT40 does is a new conception of motoring". It was this sense of safety that made the road-going GT40 to stand head-and-shoulders above all other supercars of its day (1966’s Miura included). "I have yet to find adjectives good enough to describe the way the GT40 motors about the place, and can only sum it up by saying that it is an entirely new conception of motoring," Jenkinson once more underlined.

Was the Ford GT40 Mk. III an improvement

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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Seeing as folks who’ve driven the GT40 Mk. I road car in period saw it as something really special with the only issues really only linked to the car’s shape (regarding reward visibility), its 40.5-inch height, and its lackluster trunk space, one may question the mere existence of the Mk. III.

But it shouldn’t be questioned. The Mk. III is 8.5 inches longer than the Mk. I and that’s because Ford wanted to make the model roomier with more luggage space. Bumpers were also added to 1967’s Mk. III and the shifter knob was relocated to the right-hand side of the cockpit. Behind the driver’s head, the 4.7-liter, pushrod V-8 now made just 306 horsepower.

In the '60s, No Road Car Could Match the Ford GT40 Exterior
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It all seemed well and good until you looked at the price tag. As MotorTrend wrote, the Mk. III cost $18,500 in 1967, about $2,000 more than the cost of a Mk. II race car. That’s almost $146,000 in today’s money. Not much when you consider the modern Ford GT’s $500,000 MSRP but a lot of money back then when a house cost you under $15,000 and a car under $3,000.

In the end, Ford only built seven Mk. IIIs as tougher safety and emissions regulations came at odds with Dearborn’s wish to push out high-performance exotics in droves. The age of the muscle car had well and truly arrived and barely anybody in the US was on the market for a mid-engined supercar and those that were probably looked at ways of importing a Lamborghini.

Source: Tom Hartley Jnr

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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