Those who know me may call me phlegmatic, unemotional at best. Romantic comedies don’t affect me. Touching stories of heroism and bravery? I appreciate them, but remain largely unmoved. Don’t give me a sob story. Deep down, however, there is a dark corner that wells up in certain situations, and some of you may relate to my plight: acts of mechanized derring-do bring me closer to the brink of crying tears of joy than nearly anything.
That’s why my neck hair stood up when I beheld this marvelous motor vehicle, which is, in my opinion, the most beautiful race car to turn a wheel on a closed circuit, or indeed any circuit. Forget those Ferraris and Alfas; to me, this is it. How many cars can a manufacturer reintroduce 40 years later with minimal updates to their basic appearance? The GT40 is an icon, and this example may be the most iconic.
This is GT40 chassis number P/1075, the car that won LeMans in 1968 AND 1969, the latter by about the length of a football field after 24 hours. It was the underdog that year, with a pack of Porsches able to circulate the famed course significantly more quickly. But you can’t win if you don’t last, and at this point in its career, the GT40 was well-sorted. Moreover, with drivers like Ickx, Oliver, Rodriguez, and Bianchi at the helm, could any car be considered an underdog?
I photographed P/1075 at the Henry Ford Museum, where the above car is usually in permanent residence. It is GT40 Mark IV number J-5, the one that Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove to victory in the 1967 LeMans 24-hour classic. Apparently, it was damaged in transit from England, where it participated in the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2012, and is being repaired by, interestingly enough, Gurney’s All American Racers shop. Ford entered it in one race, giving it a 100 percent winning percentage.
The Mark IV was the last of the “factory” GT40 efforts, and with its NASCAR 427 under the hood, it handily won the 1967 race in record fashion, with Gurney famously spraying the crowd with his magnum of champagne. Maybe he was more of a gin guy. Either way, the 7-liter was outlawed for the following year, and Ford decided it accomplished what it had come to do by defeating Ferrari in one of the world’s most prestigious events, twice (GT40s finished 1-2-3 in ’66).
That’s where our feature car enters our story. I was surprised, to say the least, to see it occupying the Mark IV’s space temporarily, as this may be one of the most historic race cars of all time (as is J-5). Its sister car, P/1074, which had a less impressive racing record, recently sold for $11,000,000 at auction. P/1075, instead of a thumping 427, motored along with a 302, which wore Gurney-Weslake cylinder heads. The 302 had enough guts to push the GT40 over 200 MPH on the Mulsanne Straight, and was durable enough to last the full 24 hours to boot.
Interestingly enough, P/1074, one of the sister cars to our featured GT40, initially started life as a 1967 JWA Mirage, which is pictured above on the right. An easy way to differentiate a Mirage is by the much thinner greenhouse; in this case, the rebody looks far more proportional. Some have argued that P/1075 was also built from a Mirage, but many enthusiasts now feel that it was purpose built as a new car, and not as a rebuild. The Mirage above is apparently the only survivor, M10001.
This is probably a good place to mention that the GT40’s history is a convoluted one, involving JWA, Ford, Lola Cars, Holman and Moody, and Shelby American. The number of GT40 iterations is staggering and confusing. The 1967 Mark IV that Henry Ford usually displays is quite a bit different from P/1075, and was one of the entries that Shelby American fielded.
For the 1968 and 1969 LeMans classics, John Wyer’s JWA race team headed the GT40 effort, and Gulf sponsored the cars, painting them in one of the coolest paint schemes man has ever sprayed from his suction cup Binks…the Gulf colors of Powder Blue and Marigold Orange. Not much needs to be said about the GT40’s looks; even 50 years later, the car is eye candy, everything about it. Under the hood, the internal combustion seduction continues with four Weber carburetors sitting atop the 302, and snake-like tube headers wrapping around the engine before exiting through the truncated tail. Of course, a glorious car must produce glorious noises, and the wail echoing from the trees while P/1075 sailed down the Mulsanne at 200+ must have been like the Sirens to Odysseus.
By 1970, the GT40s were finally obsolete as endurance racing cars. JWA replaced them with new Porsche 917s that won the 1970 race; one can watch them in all their glory in Steve McQueen’s LeMans (as an aside, I dare you to watch that movie, listen to the 917’s howl, and not feel a bit weird). Gulf hung onto P/1075 for years, displaying it for a time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s museum. I don’t know who owns it now, but I’m appreciative that s/he loaned it to The Henry Ford. To a guy like me, it’s bigger than life.
If you’re interested in learning more about the GT40 in all its greatness, I suggest the above volume, which also includes stories about Ford’s Indianapolis, NASCAR, and Carrera Panamericana efforts. Ronnie Spain’s GT40: An Individual History and Race Record is also very well-done.