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Friday
Mar242017

Road Read: Ford GT

By Christopher A. Sawyer

As someone who grew up in Dearborn, MI during the “Total Performance” era at Ford, I remember watching snippets of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as Ford attempted to topple Ferrari in the mid 1960s. This was an amazing time for the United States. Though the Vietnam war was broadcast to living rooms each night, and racial strife gripped a number of cities, including Detroit, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The first tentative steps were being made in personal computing and the electronics that supported it, and the space program — despite the tragedy of Apollo 1 — was moving inexorably toward landing own the moon.

Ford’s attempt to defeat Ferrari fit into this narrative, though it was no easy task to complete. Though we speak of the GT40 in reverential tones today, the car was not on the cutting edge of race car design, and it would take four years before the car that started Ford’s win streak at Le Mans would notch a pair of wins of its own against newer machinery. The GT 40 had a steel monocoque when aluminum was already the norm. It was powered by a large, heavy  production-based V8 mated to troublesome Colotti gearbox, and weighed more than the competition’s racers. Its greenhouse was massively wide, and its aerodynamics were a shambles. But, boy, was it fast.

It took time to straighten out all of the kinks and turn the GT into a winner, but even that was by no means certain. Ford, worried that the competition was catching up, stuffed a 427 cu. in. V8 in the space formerly occupied by the 289, and created the Mark II. Then it rushed the car into service, diluted the engineering and race efforts, and handed the 1965 Le Mans to Ferrari. Ford also created numerous gearbox designs to replace the fragile Colotti, including a pair of two-speed automatics whose main purpose was to beat Jim Hall’s GM-supported Chaparral at its own game. And, as the problems and weight spiraled out of control with the eventually successful Ford GT Mk. II, a new car — the J-Car — was commissioned to improve the weight and aerodynamic deficiencies of its predecessor, which it would not do until transformed into the all-conquering Ford GT Mk. IV.

It is this era, these cars, and the people who made them that Preston Lerner examines in Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans. This is ground well trod, but Lerner tells the story with an historian’s eye for detail and a knack for storytelling that keeps you immersed in a story that has been written about almost since the first minutes after Ford’s first win at Le Mans. I should know. I own a copy of most of those books, and thought I had read everything about this period in Ford’s racing history. However, despite a distance of nearly 50 years since Ford’s last overall win at Le Mans, Preston Lerner has found a way to tease out new nuggets of information that add to the story. And he is ably assisted by Dave Friedman, who was Shelby American’s official photographer. Friedman’s period photographs, many of which were new to these eyes, add context, depth and richness to Lerner’s words.

You don’t have to wait for things to get good. At the very beginning of the book, Lerner recounts the three main stories — Ferrari’s, Assistant General Manager of Ford Division Don Frey’s, and Ferrari majordomo Franco Gozzi’s — of how negotiations between Ford and Ferrari came to an end sets the tone for all that follows. The semi-operatic photo of Enzo Ferrari contrasts nicely with the official Ford mugshots of a buttoned down Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, and Don Frey, and illustrate the vast chasm that existed between two companies. However, they also suggest the firepower that Ford could unleash to beat the Italian. This ability to “set the scene” with words and appropriate pictures continue throughout, and make this one of the most enjoyable books about the Ford GT program ever written. Especially since Lerner, unlike his predecessors, also tells the stories of the drivers involved in this titanic battle.

Is this book perfect? No. At one point Lerner refers to the Ford GT’s “bundle of snakes” exhaust plumbing as a “bag of snakes”, and wealthy American sportsman John Mecom Jr. as John Mecon Jr., but that’s about it. I highly recommend this book.

Title: Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans

Author: Preston Lerner

Pages: 232

Price: $48

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