Auto racing was popular in Europe and the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s, but they were different styles of racing. In America, stock car racing on oval circuits (“professional left turning”) was king, with engine size, horsepower, and straight-line speed largely determining the winner. In Europe, road racing was more popular, with winding turns and fewer straightaways, demanding sleeker cars with good handling and smaller engines. Even the fan experiences were different: American fans sat in grandstands and could see the entire track; European road-race spectators only saw the cars speed by one location.
The king of races was 24 Hours at Le Mans, a day-long endurance race where reliability and consistency are more important than speed. The king of racers was Enzo Ferrari, whose racing team had won every Le Mans from 1960 to 1964.
By 1964, Ferrari was facing competition from two sides. On one was the growing concerns over the safety of car racing. In 1955, a driver at Le Mans had rocketed into the stands, car parts slicing through the seats, killing 85 spectators and the driver. In one Formula One season, fully 1/4 of the pilots died during the season. And Ferrari, though a beloved national icon, was developing an unsavory reputation due to his apparent disregard for driver safety.
The second force working against Enzo Ferrari was Henry Ford II, who had set in motion a plan for Ford racers to topple Ferrari at Le Mans. Why? Part of it was business: race wins drove sales in Europe, and Ford was hoping to establish a new market there. But the other part was personal: a few years earlier, Ford had been in talks to purchase Ferrari, but at the last minute, Enzo Ferrari balked and the deal was scotched. Ferrari claimed his reticence owed to a last-minute demand from Ford that he cede control of the racing arm of his company, but some speculate that Ferrari engineered the sham sale as a PR move, inciting nationalistic pride by spurning the American corporate overlords.
Regardless of the motivation for that switcheroo, it royally pissed of Henry Ford II. The Deuce wrote a blank check to Lee Iacocca, with the sole aim being to dethrone Ferrari at Le Mans. This quest was thought preposterous and foolhardy by many—how could Ford possibly match that level of experience and expertise?
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I’m fudging the timeline for brevity’s sake, but Iacocca’s secret weapon was Carroll Shelby, whom Iacocca hired to run Ford’s racing team. A longtime racer, Shelby had won the 1959 Le Mans for the Aston Martin team, but was forced to retire from driving after a series of injuries (the injuries rarely slowed him down: at one point he’d broken his arm and raced with it in a cast attached to the steering wheel). In his retirement, Shelby had taken up tuning and modifying cars for racing. He also loathed Ferrari’s disdain for driver safety, since one of his friends had died while driving for Ferrari’s team.
Initially, Shelby had solicited money from Iacocca to modify street cars. The first of these was the Shelby AC Cobra, employing the novel idea of dropping a huge engine into a tiny car—which sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but it really was a novel idea. The Cobra beat the balls off everything in American racing for several years running and was a complete holy terror to drive: ludicrously fast and supremely nimble, should you possess the rare ability to keep it right-side-up and on the road. Shelby would go on to modify Mustangs in the 1960s and 2000s, and put his stamp on a series of small front-wheel-drive Dodges in the 1980s, including the (in)famous Omni GLH (Goes Like Hell) and Shadow CSX:
Iacocca recruited Shelby in 1963, to design a car for the 1964 race. They produced the GT40, named for its height in inches. The 4.2 liter engine was roughly the same as the Ferrari, and in practice runs it could post lap times at Le Mans roughly equal to Ferrari. But the rapid design and construction—only a year, when three to four times that was standard—ended up producing a car plagued by mechanical issues. In both the 1964 and 1965 races, the Ford entry didn’t even finish, while Ferrari cruised to victory. It was the American racing failure most experts expected.
But over those two years, Ford and Shelby were developing and testing—possibly the first computerized race testing ever—what was called the GT40 mkII. This menacing beast of a car housed a 7.0 liter engine. SEVEN. The mkII topped 220 MPH on the Mulsanne straightaway, easily outpacing the Ferrari and everyone else. Of course, like the Cobra before it, the massive engine introduced sizable issues with both braking and handling, allowing Ferrari to recover time in the corners (Shelby helped alleviate this by developing a new way to swap brakes during a pit stop, a technique so novel he was accused of cheating the first time it was used). And so with the mkII Le Mans became a microcosm of larger racing culture: displacement and top-end speed versus sleek lines and slick handling; American brute force versus European elegance.
The Ford(s) won in 1966. And 1967. And 1968. And 1969. Neither Ford nor Ferrari has won since. For unknown reasons, the popularity of racing waned in Europe. And that lack of interest meant there was no longer an incentive for manufacturers to develop race cars, which were traditionally seen as marketing tools. Ford remains the only American-constructed car to win at Le Mans. The race is still run, and Audi is currently beating the pants off everyone.
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There are a few mentions in the book of Chaparral cars, which were the mad-scientist mobiles of 60s & 70s racing. To wit, the Chaparral 2J:
Why so boxy? That’s the housing for the fans on the underside of the car that were driving by a snowmobile engine mounted to the rear of the car. The fans generated downforce, holding the car to the ground and improving handling. The suction was strong enough, according to math, that the car could be driven on the ceiling. Earlier Chaparral cars included one with a giant adjustable wing/spoiler:
In the 60s and 70s, Chaparral practically dictated the rules. They’d trot out a car that was ludicrously fast and technically legal, and the rules would be “fixed” to render the car’s modifications moot. Unfortunately the team didn’t win as often as one might think, mostly because the cars were too mechanically unreliable to actually finish the races.