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The short, sad saga of the GT40: CAR+ archive, July 1968

Published: 17 November 2015

► As the GT40 nears the end of its life, CAR goes for a farewell drive
► Writer Nick Brittan isn't convinced it's the ultimate road car

► He'd rather spend his six grand on six Cortina 1600Es...

After five years, with less than 100 examples in existence, the most expensive Ford of all time is dead. Nick Brittan tells what it was like to drive

For one brief, beautiful moment I thought I’d found it. A car that would break the speed limit in first gear. But the thought, like the car, was almost too good to be true. As usual I’d made a cock-up of my sums. I never was much good at that bit with the tyre radius versus the revs per minute multiplied by the axle ratio over the number of valves per cylinder times the number you first thought of. What it boiled down to was that by the time we’d used up all the revs in first gear we were doing 61mph. And I want you to know that at this speed we still had four more gears left.

Second gear pulled us up to 90mph; third gave us 128; fourth was going to be 140 and in fifth, with the right sort of courage on a good day, you could have 165. But 130mph in fourth gear going into the Robin Hood roundabout on the A11 is quite enough.

The bright Italian-red beast we were riding was a GT40 — a Ford GT40, cousin of the thing that wins Le Mans, half-sister of the Daytona victor, stepbrother of one of the world's finest long-distance racing cars, on paper one of the greatest, most desirable road cars of all time and the very thing that (according to the advertisements) you wouldn't want your daughter to marry the owner of. In the advertisements. Anyway, this thing could pull you along under acceleration with the sort of G-force that makes you think your brains are being sucked into your boots. Through twisty Essex country lanes not much wider than the car the speedo hovered around the 70s and 80s—no drama. Just the feeling that you are strapped to the front of a slot racing car with someone else operating the button. Like something out of a maniacal automotive Gulliver's Travels . . .

Altogether my GT40, thigh-high to a tail Indian, stuck to the road like porridge to a blanket, drew more stares than a nun with her knickers in her hand and cost more than the likes of you and me would care to pay for a house. It was everything that a masculine automobile should be: it had class, it had muscle. Yet underneath its Le Mans-proved body this £6000 car was a cheap-jack load of junk.

The carpets, for example. They looked as if they'd been tailored to fit another car. All round the phoney leather trim there were great smears of adhesive. Vast expanses of facia and this and that had been painted matt black, with a loo brush by the look of it. The fixed windows were Perspex with tatty little hinge-out eight-by-eight opening sections. The aeroflow nozzles on the facia looked as if they'd come out of a Cortina — which they probably had. All right, so basically it's a road version of a racer. But it was built and released amid a great brouhaha of publicity as the ultimate road car. I know the body shape looks like a million dollars. I know the engine is big and strong and powerful. For six grand I want more than that. I want leather and I don't want matt black paint. If I wanted all that I'd go and build a Mini Marcos and keep the change.

This particular car was a Mark One built in 1965 by John Wyer's operation at Slough when it used to be called Ford Advance Vehicles. It went to the US as a promotion display piece and then came back and was sold, along with three others, to Shell. They used all of them in some strange petrol testing programme. Three of the four wound up eventually being owned by Rodney Lyons and Peter Albon who are the Epping Motor Company. They bought them to resell because, as you may gather, the Epping Motor Company specialises in off-beat motors. The asking price for the red one (the others are yellow and green) was £5750. Mr Wyer’s new price used to be £6700 including tax.

I wound up borrowing the car from Mr Lyons, who is a dark-haired, round-faced young man with an engaging sense of humour who reminds me of someone in show biz – but I can’t remember who. The only condition was that I would not bend it (honoured) and that I wouldn’t write horrid things about it on account of how he had to sell it. Well, I hope it got sold Rodney, ’cos I think I broke that last promise. (The Press Council assures me that a journalist’s first duty is to his readers.)

CAR magazine, July 1968

Anyway that’s how we came to be doing almost twice the legal limit in Mr Ford’s high-powered light truck. Come to think about it, calling it a truck is unfair since it doesn’t boast enough carrying space for me to stow a packet of fags. No kidding. If you’re thinking about a dirty weekend in it pop a tooth brush into your top pocket and send all other luggage ahead.

Getting in is fun enough. Almost as much fun as getting out. It’s a game best suited to field athletic specialists – long jumpers, maybe. The gearshift is on the right of the wheel and in order to get your right leg in you must first engage first gear and thread the leg through the available space. Then there’s the wide ledge to straddle while you’re coping with that. Ladies in miniskirts would be well advised to travel by bus rather than accept lifts from GT40 owners.

Then there’s the getting out bit. You prop the door open and begin to clamber. The process of clambering takes two hands and while the door is unsupported it’s likely to swing closed. The force with which it does this is governed by the prevailing wind. In a mild breeze the knife edge of the door top almost sliced through my windpipe. And all this for only six grand.

But what about the mundane details? Mechanicals. The 4.7-litre engine runs on a compression of 10.5 to one and breathes through a four-barrel Holley carb and with the four-in-one Indy-type exhaust it kicks out in the region of 325bhp. Six-two is about as far as it should revved. The old pushrod drinks juice at the rate of about a gallon every 12-15 miles depending how much time you spend with your foot buried in it.

One look through the rear window, which is immediately behind your head, to see the carb and the throttle linkages at work is enough to remind you that petrol has just gone up in price. Twin petrol tanks with necks you can get a leg into carry a total of 30 gallons. The big quick-release fillers live high on the front wings just in front of the screen.

For reasons best known to someone other than Rodney Lyons the 15in Borrani knock-off wire wheels on our car carried Goodyear racers on the front and Dunlop greenspots on the rear. The fronts live on 6.5in rims and the rears on 8in. All of which presents the problem of which size spare does the average GT40 owner carry with him?

Clutch pressure is light thanks to a twin-plate affair and the fitting of a non-racing-type flywheel. The brakes are something else. Only muscle brings you to a halt. The total all-up weight is around 2800lb and it comes as no surprise to discover that she’ll get up and go from standstill to 30mph in just 1.6sec. The rack and pinion steering gives you 2.5 turns from lock to lock, which is nice since it makes the car feel rather like a thoroughbred racer on the move. Those racing tyres make the whole thing go all hoppity-skippity over anything but the smoothest surfaces. And when that’s happening everything, but everything, is clattering away like it is going to fall off.

The seats are the hammock-type racing kind which in later road models were replaced. Tough on anyone who got the replacement ones; these are really great. The seat not only breathes but is also ventilated and in case you want to know why they have ventilated seats it's because works drivers need more money if they're going to fry as well as drive. And that cockpit can get very warm once that engine sitting in behind your head has been pounding away for an hour or so.

Handling is difficult to fault. The ride is firm and you instantly have that feeling of being able to feel the whole car in the same way you would if someone had nailed two wheels on to your ankles and two on to your elbows. The suspension is basically the same as the racing versions except that spring, shock and roll rates are lower and some of the geometry has been altered to give more anti-dive and better ground clearance.

All the oversteer you'll ever need is there under your right foot. The car is as near as dammit to being neutral but like all mid-engined jobs loss of adhesion happens with all the suddenness and viciousness of a whiplash. The ZF gearbox is a real delight and you can slice away at it without bothering about the clutch. Later models had a central gearshift which made finding gears about as difficult as locating a men's loo in the YWCA. Maybe the Mk 1 isn't so bad after all.

That fifth gear that takes you all the way up to 165mph will also toddle around at 20mph. The big Fraud is at least tractable. I just wish it was as desirable and practicable as it is tractable.

'Would you own it?' is always the big question. If someone gave me six grand to spend with Ford I'd probably buy six Cortina 1600Es; each a different colour and each one sign written with a day of the week. Red: Monday, Blue: Tuesday and so on. What would I do on Sundays? I'd stay home trying to convince myself I'd made the right decision.

CAR magazine, July 1968

Postscript: GT40, RIP. Ralph Nader strikes again

If Nick Brittan doesn't put you off buying a GT40 and you still want one and you have the necessary loot stashed away—forget it; you couldn't buy one even if you wanted to.

"Even if you came to me with £20,000 and begged us to build one I couldn't do it," says John Horsman, who is John Wyer's right-hand man at JW Automotive Engineering Ltd which is the successor to Ford Advanced Vehicles. For a start, the roadgoing Mkl GT40 has been out of production for nearly 18 months, having ostensibly been replaced by the MkIII. But the replacement never really got off the ground, only a few were actually built. The way JW's contract with Ford works is that they are licensed to build as many racing Mkl GT40s as they need for their own racing programme or they can sell to customers. They can also repair road and racing GT40s and supply spares but they can only build road cars if Ford give them an order.

So, if you want a MkIII you will have to contact Ford — but the chances of getting one are pretty slim, as JW have just finished a batch of seven cars and seem to be under the impression that they will not be asked to build any more. Four of those they have built are apparently for use by Ford at exhibitions and so on and three are intended for private owners, one of them being for musician Herbert von Karajan.

The current safety kick in the States has apparently scared Ford more than somewhat and the thought of a GT40 scattering itself over the countryside in a 150-mph shunt sends shivers up and down the spines of the front office executives in Dearborn. If Ralph Nader and safety boss Dr William Haddon got their teeth into a prang like this Ford think they could be in real trouble. So the best way to avoid getting involved is not to build any fast cars—it's unlikely that the MkIII could meet the new safety regulations anyway. On the other hand a disastrous road test in America's Car and Drivel in June 1967 may have had some effect on the buying public, for they slated almost every aspect of the car apart from the handling, brakes and steering. The MkIII had been modified considerably from MkI specification mainly in an effort to make it a more habitable car on the road. There is a lot more sound deadening padding which apparently was always coming unstuck all the time on C & D's car while the gearshift lever for the five speed ZF box has been moved to the centre of the cockpit from the right-hand side so that the driver can get in without

finding the lever stuck up his trouser leg. Unfortunately C & D found that the tortuous linkage invariably left them without a gear at the vital moment. What with insoluble electrical problems, a door which continually flew open, unworkable safety belts, a broken fuel tank transfer switch (leaving the car with only half fuel) and upholstery which was detaching itself, they did not look too kindly on the MkIII.

From my own experience of a week and 2000 miles on the road with a MkI and 20 laps or so round Goodwood with a racing MkI I tend to agree with both Nick Brittan and C & D. The ride, handling, steering, braking and performance are out of this world but if two people have to go anywhere in it even for a weekend then they begin to discover the disadvantages. When Ford can graft the GT40's road manners to an equally exciting body which can take luggage and not be uncomfortable after six or seven hours at the wheel then this will undoubtedly be the ultimate road car. Until then you will just have to make do with your Lambo!

What's going to happen to JW Automotive? Well they are still building the racing GT40 although this business will probably taper off by the end of this year or 1969 at the latest as the Appendix J regulations have been changed once again so that no luggage space is required, a spare wheel need not be carried and the weight regulations have been changed. This will also affect the Len Terry designed Mirage-BRM they are building at Slough which could with luck be racing during July. This car is built to the current Appendix J regs so it too will be out-dated next year.

To keep the wolf from the door JW have several other projects in hand which they are not too keen to talk about but they have taken over production of the Gurney-Weslake heads for pushrod American Ford V8s. which seems to be developing into a profitable sideline. So while JW will probably keep their heads, above water, for the GT40 it seems to be the end of the line.

By Mike Twite

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