In both Europe and the US, auto racing was vastly more popular in the 1960s than now. But they were two different styles of racing: Americans favored stock car racing, where horsepower and straight-line speed usually determined victory. Europeans favored road racing; the winding turns and small straightaways of which demanded sleeker cars with precise handling more than top-end speed. Even the fan experience was different: American fans saw the entire track from the grandstands, whereas Europeans saw only individual cars speeding by where they sat just off track.
If road races were king in Europe, the king of road races was 24 Hours of Le Mans, a day-long endurance race demanding reliability and consistency of both car and driver. Enzo Ferrari, the company patriarch, was by the early 1960s the undisputed king of Le Mans: his team had won every race from 1960 to 1964.
By 1964, though, Ferrari was facing competition from two sides. On one side was growing public concern over race safety. In 1955, a Le Mans driver had lost control and rocketed into the stands, sending car parts slicing through the crowd like a massive whirling guillotine and killing 85 spectators. In one Formula One season, fully 1/4 of drivers died during the season. And Ferrari, though a national icon, was developing an unsavory reputation thanks to his apparent disregard for driver safety.
The second force working against Enzo Ferrari was Henry Ford II, who desperately wanted Ford racers to dethrone Ferrari. The desire was part business—race wins drove European sales—but mostly personal. Several years earlier, Enzo Ferrari had at the last minute scotched a Ford deal to purchase the company. Ferrari claimed reticence over a last-minute demand to cede control of the racing arm of the company, but Henry Ford believed the entire sale was an orchestrated PR move, with Ferrari inciting nationalistic pride by spurning the American usurpers.
Whatever the motivation, Ford II wrote a blank check to Lee Iacocca to take on Ferrari at Le Mans. This was seen as a preposterous and foolhardy campaign: Ferrari had spent decades atop the racing game, and Ford could not possibly match that experience and expertise.
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Iacocca’s secret weapon was Carroll Shelby, hired to run Ford’s race team. A longtime driver, Shelby had won the 1959 Le Mans while driving for the Aston Martin team—the last non-Ferrari team to win—but he’d been forced to retire due to injuries (once, Shelby had raced with a broken arm in a cast attached to the steering wheel). He was the perfect man for the job: he’d taken to tuning race cars in his retirement, and he loathed Ferrari’s ambivalence towards driver safety, which he thought contributed to a friend’s death.
Shelby was known to Iacocca both for his racing prowess and for his modifications of Ford street cars. The first of these was the Shelby AC Cobra, which employed the then-novel idea of putting a giant engine in a small car. The Cobra beat the balls off everything in American racing for several years running and was a complete holy terror to drive. Shelby later modified Mustangs in the 1960s and 2000s and put his stamp on a series of front-wheel-drive dodges in the 1980s, including the infamous Omni GLH—for Goes Like Hell—and Shadow CSX:
In 1963, Iacocca recruited Shelby to design a car for the 1964 Le Mans. It was an absurdly abbreviated timeline almost doomed to failure; a standard Le Mans car would spend three years or more in design and testing. But Shelby 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 it often posted lap times close to the Ferrari. The rapid design and construction was the flaw, and in the 1964 and 1965 races, the Ford GT40 didn’t finish due to mechanical issues—exactly the American racing failure everyone expected. The Ferrari cruised to victory.
But over those two years, Ford and Shelby were developing something new. Developed using possibly using the first computerized race testing ever, the 1966 race would feature the GT40 mkII. The new-and-enhanced version housed a beastly seven liter engine and topped 200 MPH on the Mulsanne straight, easily outpacing the Ferrari. And like the Cobra before it, the massive engine introduced braking and handling issues, meaning that Ferrari could make up time in the corners (Shelby eventually 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). 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. Four straight victories, and neither Ford nor Ferrari has won the race since. In that short time, the popularity of racing waned in Europe, cutting the incentive for manufacturers to develop race cars that for years had served 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.