Ford GT40 Revival
Watching the sun set over Kyalami as a Superformance GT40 blasted down the start-finish straight during the recent 9-Hour Revival rekindled an old memory. It was a memory of paging through one of the many books that lined my grandfather’s shelves. It is amazing what you can find to do instead of homework. Grandad was a heavy at Ford SA, so instead of tomes on agriculture or woodwork, I was fated to be drawn to a spine that read ‘Ford versus Ferrari’. My selective mind raced past the ‘Ford’ and, like any kid growing up in the Magnum era, locked on ‘Ferrari’. A full-colour dustcover showed the best-looking red car I’d ever seen leading a pack of racers down from a Dunlop bridge. I knew it was a Ferrari because it was red and in the lead. Wrong! By reading a bit further I learned that the lead car was a Ford GT40 and as soon as I got home I swapped the 308 and Countach posters above my bed for one of Sarel in an XR6 – not quite the same but the closest I could get.
In 1963 Henry Ford II ended up with egg on his face. In an attempt to give Ford’s European racing campaign some oomph, and urged on by Ford CEO Lee Iacocca, Ford got personally involved in a proposal to purchase Ferrari. It seemed like a sure thing but the effervescent Enzo Ferrari shot down the arrangement at the last minute and Ford was forced to make another plan – a revenge plan. The result was the Ford GT40. Ford coughed up huge amounts of cash and the public was treated to one of motorsport’s greatest rivalries. Ferrari attacked the task with the 275LM and P4, scooping five Le Mans victories in a row between 1960 and 1965. But Ford put a stop to the streak in 1966 when Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren led home an all-GT40 podium. Ford won Le Mans from 1966 through to 1969 and scooped the ’66 and ’67 International Prototype Championship. Debate as to whether Ferrari or Ford ruled the roost continues today. However, as a pleb with a 1965 Cortina GT in the garage, my mind is stuck on the GT40. I’ll take no persuasion. As was hoped, sports car racing and Le Mans proved the place to be for Ford. Endurance racing required a fully equipped road car so the project became marketable and the technology and skills learned could trickle down the product range. This meant well-heeled fans and racers snapped up the privateer versions and the masses could purchase the likes of a Cortina GT and claim some sort of race breeding. While Ford was American, the GT40 hailed from the UK, borrowing heavily from Eric Broadley’s Lola experience, so helping to boost the cred for European Fords. South Africa also saw the GT40s in action and you only have to look at the number of Cortinas, Capris and Escorts still running around to realise that the brand had a strong following back in the day. In 1965 Peter Sutcliffe and Innes Ireland piloted a GT40 to second in the Kyalami 9-Hour and a week later Sutcliffe took a win at Hesketh. Two Fords entered the ’66 9-Hour but both failed to finish after transmission issues. Mike ‘the bike’ Hailwood and David Hobbs didn’t fare much better at the ’66 Killarney 3-Hour but the Hobbs and Sutcliffe GT40s filled the final two steps on the podium at Lourenco Marques that year. 1967 saw the arrival of the Mirage in South Africa and although slightly different in silhouette, the Gulf-liveried cars were basically modified MKI GT40s. Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman scored victory for Mirage at Kyalami while Hailwood and Edward Nelson secured third in a run-of-the-mill GT40. Ickx and Hobbs took the Mirage to the double at Kyalami in 1968 while the Hailwood/Nelson GT40 crashed out of contention. The Mirage finished second in Cape Town and won in LM. 1969 saw Malcolm Guthrie retiring the Mirage from the Kyalami race with clutch issues but he bounced back to take third at Killarney with Paddy Driver. Richard Atwood steered the car to third in LM. The 1970s saw the arrival of another sportscar super power, the Porsche 917, and the GT40/Mirage South African presence dwindled.
In the years that followed, local Ford fans had to make do with Capris, Cortinas, Escorts and Sierras. These equipped themselves well and the home-brewed Gunston Perana all but matched the GT40 times around Kyalami. Rumours of a genuine GT40 living in the Cape area abound but no-one has backed that up, so for now we’ll conclude that South Africa is somewhat starved of the legend. I say somewhat as there are options, other than an XR6, for Ford fans.
South Africa has a pair of leading replica manufacturers but, in the Port Elizabeth based compay Superformance, they also have the only factory in the world that can churn out a continuation model. Interestingly the GT40 name is owned by Safir GT40 Spares LLC, so Ford had to settle for just GT on its retro car while Superformance got permission for the full moniker. ‘Continuation’ literally means that legally the car can be called a GT40 and continues the line of chassis numbers. The chassis produced by Superformance, which also builds Nobles, are an exact replica of the original monocoque structure, even down to the pressed steel roof spider. The only departure is the use of electro-galvanized sheet steel in the construction.
The cloning process is so precise that owners of original GT40s get spares from the PE outfit. It has also been said that it is possible to identify a fake by whether or not the SA-made components will fit or not; precisely the reason for a certain F1 big-timer’s recent embarrassing moment. Superformance manufactures both MKI and MKII continuation models which comply with FIA Appendix K regulations. MKI and MKII differ in body style. The MKI gets a single cooling vent on the bonnet and just one vent on each rear side panel, while the MKII doubles up on the bonnet and rear side vents as well as getting two air feed snorkels on the tailpiece. The back end of the MKII also gets individual lights instead of a one-piece cluster and there is a bigger area of ventilation mesh.
If having the latest and greatest is your style but you still want that classic look, then hop on the internet and purchase a Ford GT. Built between 2004 and 2006, the Ford GT mimics the GT40’s lines but has the latest underpinnings. For the purist the only options for a Cortina GT upgrade are to import a genuine Ford GT40 or Ford GT (at silly pound prices), or pop down to Superformance. But why have either? Sure, a racing pedigree holds some appeal. But even excluding that, both cars make the grade entirely on looks. The Lamborghini Miura might have introduced the world to the mid-engined supercar look, but the GT40 took it to a new level by removing the contoured femininity and slapping it silly with some brute force. Simply by following the form follows function rule Ford created a sleek, squat, aggressively beautiful and practical machine – that is, practical for racing, not grocery shopping. GT designers knew that the GT40 was a winner with both old and young so simply copied its appearance. Bang: an instant hit. However, designing the GT wasn’t a matter of carbon-copying the old drawings as new regulations and technologies meant the dimensions differ dramatically. As part of the 9-Hour 50th birthday celebrations we put a Ford GT and the continuation SPF GT40 face to face. Parking the pair alongside each other revealed one major difference – size. An original GT40, and therefore a SPF GT40, has a 2413mm wheelbase and a height of 1016mm (that’s 40 inches, and where Ford got the ‘40’ in the title). The GT is the bigger car, with a 2710mm wheelbase and 1125mm (44.3 inch) roof height.
Getting into either is the same process: flip the door up and slide over a wide sill before dropping down into a thin but supportive and surprisingly comfortable seat. The GT seats pay homage to the original with their many breathing holes, but why they opted for tacky plastic eyelets instead of metal ones baffles. The same goes for items like the alloy wheels, fuel filler cap and the toggle switches. They’re all horrible reinterpretations. The GT designers should have admitted they couldn’t top the original and, like Superformance, opted for the likes of Hartwell door latches, metal seat rivets and a quick-release fuel cap. Crank the respective Ford eight-pots into life and it quickly becomes evident that the GT is the more refined performer. Despite a lairy 5.4 litre being strapped behind your back it is surprisingly quiet inside the cabin compared to the noise and vibrations that resound inside the Superformance car. Interior amenities are also more abundant in the GT but the continuation version can be fitted with a cleverly disguised aircon unit. In both cars you sit low down and get the idea that a squat centre of gravity is vital in performance motoring. Large windscreens conjure up the thought of stargazing while eating away at the Mulsanne Straight, which isn’t recommended in the safe driving manual. Rear vision is limited but sufficient to close the door on a Ferrari.
Despite the continuation car being such a close facscimile of a 40-year-old machine, it competes admirably with the GT in the performance stakes. The GT should sprint from zero to 100km/h in 3.3 seconds and see to a quarter-mile in 11.6 seconds, while equivalent claims for an SPF GT40 are 3.7 and 11.2 seconds. Pricing is a tough one as the GT is no longer in production and rarity does funny things to car values. Classified ads in UK magazines show stickers of around $150 000 (R1.5 million depending on the day) while a host of options and powertrain choices make determining a price for the locally built car a bit of a thumbsuck at R1.4 million. A tricky choice, then. The SPF is spot-on but loses out because it is readily available. The GT has exclusivity but lacks a little in the detailing. Personally, I believe there’s a clincher in the Ford versus SPF equation. Rose-tinted shades or not, the sight of both cars tearing apart the surviving sections of old Kyalami, namely Sunset, Clubhouse and the Esses, with a dark Highveld thunderstorm brewing in the background, brought it all home. A GT40 was made for racing and there is very little better in life than the sight of one lapping a track. The GT looks good but its slightly bulkier form, and the knowledge that it was made to look like something rather than simply win races, meant that it didn’t fit the scenery as well. The original GT40 was the pinnacle of form follows function. The SPF GT40 continues this but the GT is all about form being the primary function. It’s a bit like the ‘new’ Beetle and ‘new’ Mini. VW made the Beetle look like the original but Mini made its retro rocker perform like the original. Why change a brilliant recipe? Now all we need is for someone to recreate those Dunlop bridges.