The Vehement History Behind Ford v Ferrari

When Enzo Ferrari rebuffed Henry Ford's attempt to buy his company, Ford set out to beat Ferrari at their own game - racing.

The Vehement History Behind Ford v Ferrari
Ferrari 330 and Ford GT40 1, 2

On November 15, 2019, the new movie Ford v Ferrari will be released. Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, the film tells the real-life story of Ford Motor Company's attempt to break the winning streak of Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With a 91% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie looks to be a hit, but even more interesting is the true story of what happened when Ford took on Ferrari.

The history

Back in 1963, Henry Ford II, President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company, decided he wanted to get into the auto racing business. It may have had something to do with his new wife, Italian socialite Maria Cristina Vettore Austin.

Henry Ford II in 1963
Henry Ford II in 1963, Source: Hugo van Gelderen/Wikimedia Commons

That year, Ford attended a race at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida and watched Ferraris win. Ford then dispatched an envoy to Modena, Italy with an offer: $10 million to buy the company.

Ferrari's crusty leader Enzo Ferrari was happy to let the street-legal end of the business go, but he balked at selling the racing group. This enraged Henry Ford II.

Enzo Ferrari in 1967
Enzo Ferrari in 1967 Source: Rainer Schlegelmilch/Wikimedia Commons

The assault begins

Ford tasked his auto designers with building a car that would crush Ferrari at the most important racing event in the world — the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What resulted was the iconic Ford GT40.

Ford GT40
Ford GT40 Source: Iain Wanless/Wikimedia Commons

While the new car was fast, it was also both unreliable and unstable. When the Ferrari P3 and the GT40 first met at the 1964 Le Mans race, all the GT40s failed to finish, while the Ferraris came in first, second and third. Score one, two and three for Enzo.

Ferrari P3
Ferrari P3 Source: Fibble/Wikimedia Commons

After that humiliating defeat, Ford brought in famed automotive designer, racing driver, and entrepreneur Carroll Shelby. In turn, Shelby brought in British race car driver Ken Miles.

Miles deemed the GT40 terrible, and Ford added a new, more reliable engine. In 1965, the GT40s won at both the Daytona International Speedway and Sebring, but before Le Mans, Ford swapped out the engines again. The result was that again, all the GT40s failed to finish, and Ferrari won again. Scores four, five and six for Enzo.

By the 1966 Le Mans race, Ford had a new GT40, the Mark II, that had again won at both Daytona and Sebring. The car had a 427-cubic-inch V-8, with a top speed of over 200 mph. It also had no power steering, no power brakes, and no electronic safety systems.

The biggest change to the car was a new braking system. When drivers braked after Le Mans' Mulsanne Straight, the front brake rotors would reach 1,500 degrees F, frying the rotors. An engineer on the Ford team, Phil Remington, created a quick-change brake system which allowed new pads and rotors to be placed during a driver change.

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Other teams cried foul about the GT40's pit-stop advantage but to no avail. After the first 12 hours, four of the eight GT40s had broken down, however, by the end of the race, all the Ferraris were out of commission, and Ford took first, second and third place. Score one, two and three for Ford!

In 1967, Ford, with Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt driving, Ford took first place at Le Mans, with Ferrari coming second and third. Gurney and Foyt became the first, and as of this writing, the only all-American victors.

After that race, Ford withdrew its official support, but in 1968 and 1969, privately owned GT40s won in both years.

In all, it's estimated that Ford spent at least $25 million to win at Le Mans. From 2005 to 2007, Ford released the Ford GT, which was a retro-styled homage to the great GT40. In 2017, Ford released a new Ford GT priced at around $500,000.

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In 2010, author A.J. Baime published an account of the epic battle between the two car makers entitled, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.

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