Auto racing was more popular in both Europe and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s than now. In America, stock car racing on oval circuits was king, a style of racing in which engine size, horsepower, and straight-line speed were the primary determinants of victory. In Europe, though, road racing was popular. With winding turns and fewer straightaways, road racing demanded sleeker cars with good handling more than high speeds. Even the fan experiences were different: Americans fans could see the entire track from the grandstands; Europeans saw only the cars speeding by where they sat.
In Europe, the king of races was 24 Hours at Le Mans, a day-long endurance race demanding reliability and consistency. And by the early 1960s, the king of racers was Enzo Ferrari, whose team had won every Le Mans from 1960 to 1964.
But by 1964, Ferrari was facing competition from two sides. On one was growing public concern over race safety. In 1955, a Le Mans driver had lost control and rocketed into the stands; car parts sliced through the crowd like a massive whirling guillotine, killing 85 spectators and the driver. In one Formula One racing season of the late 1950s, fully 1/4 of the drivers died during the season. And Ferrari, though a beloved national icon, was developing an unsavory reputation due to an apparent disregard for driver safety.
The other force working against Enzo Ferrari was Henry Ford II, who desperately wanted Ford racers to topple Ferrari at Le Mans. Ford’s desire was part business—race wins drove European sales—but it was also personal. Several years earlier, Ford had been in talks to purchase Ferrari, but at the last minute Enzo Ferrari had scotched the deal. He claimed his reticence owed to a last-minute demand by Ford that he turn over the racing arm of the company, but Ford believed that the sham sale had been an orchestrated PR move: Ferrari inciting nationalistic pride by spurning the American usurpers.
Whatever the motivation, it pissed off Henry Ford II, who wrote a blank check to Lee Iacocca to dethrone Ferrari at Le Mans. Ferrari had been at the top of the race game for decades, and this quest was seen as preposterous and foolhardy: how could Ford hope to match that experience and expertise?
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Iacocca’s secret weapon was Carroll Shebly, hired to run Ford’s race team. A longtime driver, Shelby had won the 1959 Le Mans for the Aston Martin team, but had been subsequently forced to retire after a series of injuries (injuries only rarely slowed him: he’d once broken an arm and raced with it in a cast attached to the steering wheel). In his retirement, Shelby had taken to tuning and modifying cars for racing. He also loathed Ferrari’s ambivalence towards driver safety since one of his friends had died while driving for the Ferrari team. He was the perfect man for the job.
Shelby’s initial dalliance with Iacocca and Ford had been modifying street cars. The first of these was the Shelby AC Cobra, which employed the then-novel idea of putting a huge engine in a small, lightweight car. The Cobra beat the balls off everything in American racing for several years running; it was also a complete holy terror to drive: ludicrously fast and nimble to the point of uncontrollable, it went fast and turned quick if you possessed the rare ability to keep it on the road and upright. Shelby would later 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 Le Mans, an absurdly abbreviated timeline. They produced the GT40, named for its height in inches. The car’s 4.2 liter engine was roughly the same as the Ferrari’s, 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—yielded 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 seven liter engine and topped 220 MPH on the Mulsanne straightaway, outpacing the Ferrari. Like the Cobra before it, the massive engine introduced braking and handling issues, meaning that Ferrari would make up 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.The popularity of racing waned in Europe, cutting the incentive for manufacturers to develop race cars, which had traditionally functioned 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.