Visitors to The Henry Ford may have noticed that we have a very special guest in the Driving America exhibit: GT40 chassis number 1075, one of the world’s most celebrated race cars. The car has six race victories to its credit, but it is best known for winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans – twice. Race fans know that Le Mans is not only the most prestigious event in motorsport, but also among the most grueling. Cars and drivers are pushed to their limits, running hard on the difficult course for 24 non-stop hours. Simply finishing the race is a major accomplishment. Winning is the capstone in any car’s career. Winning twice, well, that’s nothing short of extraordinary.
Car 1075 has its roots in Ford Motor Company’s legendary fight to beat Ferrari in the 1960s. After avoiding motor racing for many years, Ford jumped in with both feet in the early 1960s. The company actually tried to purchase Ferrari in 1963. It was a shrewd idea – the acquisition would have given Ford instant prestige and a massive head start in its racing efforts. But it was not to be. The two companies could not come to agreeable terms and the negotiations ended. Unable to buy the Italian automaker, Ford decided to beat it.
Ford turned to Eric Broadley, of British-based Lola Cars, to jump-start its sports car racing effort. Broadley designed a car based on Lola’s own sophisticated 1963 GT car and powered by Ford’s Indy Car 289-cubic inch V-8. The resulting racer stood a mere forty inches off the ground – hence its name, the GT40. Results in the 1964 season weren’t particularly promising, and Ford turned to its big NASCAR 427 V-8 to power the GT40 Mark II. The bigger engine started winning races in 1965, and a Ford-sponsored Mark II took the checkered flag at Le Mans in 1966. As if to prove the victory wasn’t a fluke, Ford came back and won again with the Mark IV in 1967. The Mark IV, having been designed and built entirely in the U.S. and piloted by Californian Dan Gurney and Texan A.J. Foyt, gave the 1967 win the further distinction of being an all-American effort.
Ironically, Ford’s domination with the big 427 engine provided a break for the smaller 289. The big engines regularly pushed cars past 200 miles per hour on the Le Mans circuit and French officials, fearing a catastrophic accident on a track designed for slower speeds, imposed a 305-cubic inch limit for 1968. The Mark I’s 289 cubic inches suddenly didn’t seem too few. Ford ended its involvement at Le Mans after 1967, but other teams continued to field GT40s. JW Automotive Engineering dominated the next two racing seasons with Mark I cars, including chassis 1075.
Mexican Pedro Rodriguez and Belgian Lucien Bianchi drove 1075 to its first Le Mans win in 1968. It was an unusually cold and wet race (held in late September, rather than the usual June, due to political unrest), but the drivers – and the car – performed flawlessly and held the lead for 17 of the 24 hours. It was the third win in a row for a Ford car, but the first for the original Mark I design. Sadly, Rodriguez and Bianchi both died in separate racing accidents within three years of their Le Mans triumph.
Car 1075 came back to Le Mans in 1969, this time with Belgian Jacky Ickx and Brit Jackie Oliver at the wheel. Ickx started the race with a bold protest against the fabled “Le Mans start,” in which drivers stood across the track, ran to their cars and then drove off – buckling their harnesses as they sped along. Ickx took his time getting to his car and carefully strapped himself in before setting off. Tragically, Ickx’s point about the inherent danger was proved on the first lap: British driver John Woolfe was killed in an accident before he had a chance to buckle his harness. The fatal crash foreshadowed one of the most dramatic Le Mans races. Car 1075 traded the lead with a Porsche 908 constantly during the last 2½ hours. On the last lap, the Mark I crossed the finish line a mere 100 yards ahead of the Porsche – in a race of more than 3,100 miles. With that second win, car 1075 earned its place in history and cemented the GT40’s reputation as one of the most successful cars in motorsport.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford
1968 Ford Mark I, Chassis Number 1075
Maker: Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Michigan
Engine: Ford V-8 with Gurney-Weslake cylinder heads, overhead valves,302 cubic inches
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Overall length: 164.5”
Weight: 2186 pounds
Horsepower: 425 @ 6000 rpm
Pounds per horsepower: 5.1
Competition History: Winner of Le Mans 24-hour in 1968 and 1969. Winner of BOAC International 500 in 1968. Winner of Spa 1000-kilometer in 1968. Winner of Watkins Glen 6-hour in 1968. Winner of Sebring 12-hour in 1969.