Mohawk Blog

A War of Speed

A.J. Baime

The most fascinating manifestation of partnership? Arguably, it’s rivalry. A look back at one of the greatest in sporting history—Ford versus Ferrari in the 1960s.

Like so many historic moments—in sports, politics or war—the people who were living this particular one did not understand its impact at the time. All they knew in the moment was victory, exhaustion, and relief at having survived. The date was June 11, 1967, and the place was France, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Texas-born racing driver A.J. Foyt was in the cockpit of a Ford GT40 Mk IV racing car, rolling across a finish line and watching as a race official waved a checkered flag in front of his windshield. Well over 300,000 fans—almost six times the capacity of Yankee Stadium—were on hand, while millions more were tuning in from overseas. The 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans was piping live into the TV sets of countless living rooms in America, a rare feat in a new era of broadcast television.

“I was a rookie over there,” Foyt now recalls, 50 years later. “I had never been to Le Mans.” Years would go by before Foyt and his teammates could understand the scope of the moment. “It was the only time a team of American drivers, in an American car with an American motor, ever won that race,” Foyt says. “That makes it extra special.”

Le Mans Advertising Poster, 1963
G. Leygnac

The 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans celebrated its 50th anniversary in Spring 2017. It is now remembered not just as one of the most historic events in motor racing history, but one of the most impactful events in all the annals of sports. It was the climactic moment of a rivalry between Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan, and Ferrari of Maranello, Italy—a rivalry that pit two automotive icons and two continents against each other, at the world’s most important motor race.

Rivalry is a unique form of partnership, and perhaps its most interesting manifestation. In this case, the Ford-Ferrari wars of the 1960s were the impetus for a surge in technological innovation that helped turn automobiles into the machines we drive today. The Ford-Ferrari rivalry saw the birth of some of the most heralded cars to date: the Ford GT40, and the Ferrari “P” series of cars, which can fetch many millions of dollars today at auctions. The rivalry saw the first time computers were used in car design, the first time sporting events in Europe were broadcast live in the U.S., the first time racing cars cracked speeds of 220 mph, and the first and the last time an American manufacturer won Le Mans, which is still today the world’s most important sports car race by far.

GT40 in the Team Garage
Getty Images

This story begins in the early 1960s with Henry Ford II, the grandson of Ford Motor Company’s founder, and one of the most powerful chief executives of his era. “Hank the Deuce,” as people called him (though never to his face), saw his motor company failing in a heated sales competition against crosstown rival Chevrolet, the flagship of General Motors. In Nascar racing in the early 60s, GM’s cars proved nearly unbeatable. At the same time, GM’s market share had begun to skyrocket—a clear mandate that the new generation of car buyers (now known as the baby boomers) was nuts for speed.

Henry II and a young Ford upshot named Lee Iacocca devised a plan.

“Now I don’t want to imply that we were building old ladies’ cars. But something had to be done. I had only one thing in mind. We had to beat hell out of everybody.”
Lee Iacocca

1967 Ford J-Car in Wind Tunnel
The Ford Media Company

In 1963, Henry Ford II hurled his family company into racing. The goal: To prove with checkered flags that Ford was the best car money could buy. But he was already a step ahead of his Motor City rivals. He saw that the biggest emerging car market in the 1960s wasn’t going to be in the U.S., but rather in Europe. It was the dawn of globalism. So he set his sights not just on Nascar and the Indy 500 in America, but also on Europe’s biggest motor race—the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Enter Enzo Ferrari, the “Magician of Maranello.” By the early 1960s, Ferrari had become the most heralded name in international racing. Ferrari’s red cars were leading an unprecedented Le Mans dynasty; they would win six straight years at the beginning of the 1960s. At the same time, there was no more controversial figure in international sports than Ferrari. His racing drivers met death with such regularity, Ferrari became known as “The Monster of Maranello.” In 1957, following a racing crash that severed a Ferrari driver in two and killed a number of spectators, Enzo Ferrari was charged with manslaughter (he was later acquitted). He was attacked by the Vatican’s official newspaper, l’Osservatore Romano, which called him “a modernized Saturn turned big industrialist [who] continues to devour his sons. As it is in myth, so too is it in reality.”

Ferrari 330 P4
Getty Images

At first, Henry Ford II thought the almighty dollar was the key to winning Le Mans. He attempted to buy Ferrari, which would give him instant access and know-how, as Le Mans racing cars were technological marvels unlike anything any American car manufacturer had ever built. After a business deal between the two men went sour, the stage was set for a war of speed. On June 20, 1964, a team of Ford men wheeled the first Ford GT40s onto the tarmac at Le Mans. The car was revolutionary. It stood just 40 inches off the ground (thus the “40” in its name), and its V8 engine was situated just behind the driver. The building of this car represented “a scintillating technical challenge,” according to its original chief engineer Roy Lunn. “The competition [Ferrari] has reached its sophisticated product level after nearly 40 years of evolutionary development.” This car had been designed to hit speeds of over 200 mph, and it had been dreamed up and materialized in very little time.

La Mans Circuit Map
Frédérique Gravier

Le Mans was run on a curvy 8.36-mile loop of public roads, closed off each June. The rules (circa the 1960s): two drivers to each car, one in the car at a time. The car that traveled the farthest after 24 hours won. Le Mans was known to massacre racing drivers. It had seen so much death that, the year Ford debuted against Ferrari, Car and Driver called the event “a four hour sprint race followed by a 20 hour death watch.” It was “probably the most dangerous sporting event in the world.”

Hundreds of thousands watched the opening laps of Ford’s debut, in 1964. Most could not believe their eyes and ears when a Ford GT40 rocketed past a Ferrari to take the lead in lap two. Jim McKay, barking over ABC’s Wide World of Sports microphones: “Word from the course is that [racing driver] Richie Ginther, who had moved up from eighth to fourth place, has passed some more cars. As a matter of fact, the word is that Richie Ginther has taken the lead in the second lap in the white Ford with blue stripes. The American racing colors are in the lead at Le Mans! There he is on the right of your screen. Get a look at that low-slung Ford! I’ve never seen a car as low as that!”

Dave Friedman

The Ford-Ferrari rivalry captured the imagination of millions, and while Americans tuned into European racing in ever greater numbers in 1964 and 1965, Ferrari still proved to be unbeatable. Ferrari’s factory turned out one winning car after another—the 275P, the 330P—cars as remarkable for their beauty as they were for their speed. In 1965, Ford countered by putting a Nascar engine in the GT40. No one had ever put a motor that huge (7 liters) into such a lightweight vehicle standing just 40 inches off the ground. The cylinders were as big as “wine bottles,” Ferrari observed. The Ford car became so rocket-fast, engineers had a hard time figuring out how to slow it down and keep it on the road.

Meanwhile, many of the world’s greatest racing drivers chose sides. Ferrari had the late John Surtees, the only man ever to win Grand Prix world championships on two wheels and four. Ford had Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, and a rookie named Mario Andretti. When a Ford executive was introduced to Mr. Ferrari at a racetrack in ‘65, he said, “I would like you to know Mr. Ferrari, we at Ford have a great respect for you.” Ferrari responded, “Yes, I know. Like America respects Russia.”

24 Hours of LeMans, LeMans, France, 1967. Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt on Victory Rostrum
The Ford Media Company

Ford finally captured the Le Mans title in 1966, with New Zealanders Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon driving, and team manager Carroll Shelby at the helm of the program. The rivalry between Ford and Ferrari did not reach its climax until a year later, when A.J. Foyt drove his red #1 Ford GT40 Mk IV over the finish line in 1967. His teammate Dan Gurney, the most versatile racing driver of his day and still considered one of the greatest of all time, jumped on the car just after Foyt saw that checkered flag waving. On the victory podium, Gurney popped a magnum of Champagne and sprayed the crowd, including Henry Ford II. Thus the tradition of spraying Champagne after a race victory—de rigueur in Europe, to this day. Since it was the first (and only) time an American manufacturer had won Europe’s most important race with a team of American drivers, the New York Times called the win “an All-American Victory.”

The rivalry continues to this day. In June 2017, Fords and Ferraris once again dueled at Le Mans. But neither has won the race outright since the 60s (Ferrari won from 1960 to 1965, and Ford won from 1966 to 1969). The rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari was career defining for so many automotive icons, and one the likes of which could never happen again.

This article was originally published in Issue 12 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here.

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