How Ford, a manufacturer best known for making consumer cars, became involved in motorsports at all is a little baffling. How Ford went from not having a performance division at all to winning one of the most prestigious motor events in the world is one of the greatest sports stories in history.
Ford’s original ambition was reasonable. Modest even by Ford standards.
When Henry Ford II saw how much winning a major motorsport event boosted the sales of luxury cars, he decided to obtain a racing program. Purchasing Ferrari was a business decision and a savvy one at that.
But when Enzo Ferrari slighted him, the head of Ford became a volatile enemy.
In the end, Ford entered Le Mans for the classic reason: Revenge.
It took two years after Ferrari famously walked out of a business meeting to “get lunch” and never returned before Ford was ready to enter Le Mans.
[click the infographic below]
1964 24 Hours of Le Mans
Le Mans is an endurance race that tests not just speed, but also reliability and the competency of a team to change out drivers and successfully pace themselves. For the pit crew, it’s just as trying. Some crews have remarked that while the driver’s work last for the twenty-four hours, the pit crews Le Mans run is much closer to seventy. Even that wasn’t enough to keep the cars running all of the time.
Of the Fords that were entered, two were struck down by gearbox issues. One Ford caught fire. Not a single one finished.
It wasn’t a good year for Ford Racing. That said, most cars at this point in history didn’t finish Le Mans. Fewer than half of the vehicles entered this year finished and the next year would be even worse.
One of the cars that did finish was at least sponsored by Ford though. A Shelby Daytona Coupe with a 4.7L Ford engine that Carroll Shelby had talked Ford into donating to his own war against Ferrari managed to place fourth that year, with Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant driving. It was Shelby American's first year competing as well, but already they were doing better with Ford's engine than the official Ford team was.
1965 24 Hours of Le Mans
For 1965, Ford took control of the racing division away from Eric Broadley and Lola Cars and gave it to Carroll Shelby and his team of mechanics and drivers. A lot has been said about Carroll Shelby and ridiculously at least most of it is true. The team that worked with him was no less ridiculous, full of people who loved the mechanics, the speed, and the camaraderie of competitive racing. Shelby American made a few crucial tweaks, but even so not one of the Fords finished that year.
Overwhelmingly, the problem existed in the gearbox and the head gasket, which meant that Shelby and Ford knew exactly what to fix for the next year.
1966 24 Hours of Le Mans
The famous 1-2-3 finale of Ford’s made 1966 a jaw-dropping year, and even if you ignore the controversy surrounding the photo op that essentially gave McLaren and Amon the win over Miles and Hulme, there’s no doubt that Ford earned the first three positions.
Ford may have initially entered Le Mans for simple revenge against Ferrari for a perceived slight, but that didn’t change the excitement the nation felt watching Ford actually dominate.
The drivers of the winning car were Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon.
The McLaren automotive company and Formula 1 team are both named after Bruce, whose contribution to motorsports far exceeds what one might expect given his short life. Four years after winning Le Mans, McLaren tragically died in an accident on Goodwood Circuit in England at the age of 32.
Bruce McLaren famously penned the line “I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone,” in an obituary for a teammate, and if he truly felt that way then his life was infinite as his name is forever tied to automotive performance and exceptionalism.
Chris Amon never had as much commercial success as his teammate, but he was acknowledged by other drivers as one of the most talented Formula 1 racers who never won a race. Though the 1966 Le Mans was his greatest racing achievement, he went on to accomplish a great deal personally and till his death counted a great many drivers amongst his close personal friends. Likable and clever, Amon was acknowledged as a remarkable test driver.
1967 24 Hours of Le Mans
Though perhaps not as impressive as Ford’s 1-2-3 finish, Ford placed first and fourth, with a general acknowledgment that if it weren’t for an unfortunate accident Ford may have very well taken all three lead positions.
The accident occurred just a little over halfway into the race when Mario Andretti’s brakes failed due to an installment issue and he was slammed into a wall. Despite his broken ribs, Andretti crawled out and behind a wall for safety. Unfortunately, there was no way to relay this to teammate McCluskey, who came upon the accident and slammed into the opposite wall instead of wrecking into the other Ford out of fear that Andretti might still be inside. Schlesser, in a third Ford car, was surprised by the two wrecked cars and also crashed.
McCluskey carrying Andretti, commandeering a car, and driving his teammate to a medical center may be one of the most memorable moments of Le Mans, but ultimately it Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt who brought home the championship.
When Gurney was handed the customary bottle of champagne and looked down from the podium at Henry Ford II, Carroll Shelby, their respective wives, and several journalists, he sprayed them all with the champagne from his victor’s stand in a spontaneous moment. It was a moment that became a tradition.
A.J. Foyt had been declared dead in 1965, but obviously got better. Mostly thanks to Parnelli Jones, another racer who thought he saw Foyt move and insisted on trying to revive his fellow driver after the doctor declared him passed. Thankfully, Jones was right, and though he had a long road to recovery, Foyt went on to become one of the most acclaimed racers of his generation.
1968 24 Hours of Le Mans
Even from the start it was clear that there were many changes made for the ’68 season. The 1968 Le Mans was held on the 28 and 29 of September due to unrest in France. That wasn’t the only thing unusual about this year though. There were new rules imposed in an attempt to reduce the number of people killed in motorsports. Though these ideas were mostly good, they did cause several manufacturers, including Ford, to pull their prototypes out of the lineup.
Even with a dramatically reduced roster, it was still Pedro Rodriguez, Lucien Bianchi, and their Ford GT who won.
Rodriguez was always acknowledged to be a talented driver, but he shone especially bright when the weather was wet and the September weather worked in his favor. Chris Amon famously shouted during the race “Won’t someone tell Pedro it’s raining?” because Rodriguez’s speed alone was wholly unaffected by the weather. Rodriguez and Bianchi finished ahead by five laps.
Tragically, Lucien Bianchi’s younger sibling, who was also in Le Mans, was in a terrible accident in the 20th hour. He survived, but with horrible burns.
1969 24 Hours of Le Mans
The traditional Le Mans start was for the drivers to start across from their cars, run at the waving of the flag, get in, and start driving. It was unnecessarily dangerous.
The year before, Jacky Ickx’s friend had died and he blamed this tradition which rewarded drivers for not fastening their safety gear. At the beginning of the race, Ickx mounted a one-man protest in which he walked at a normal speed to his GT40 and fastened his belt.
Tragically, an accident occurred during the first lap where an unbelted driver was killed, illustrating Icyx’s point and making this the last year with a “traditional start.”
Despite his protest, Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver went on to win the 1969 Le Mans, the last one that Ford would participate in for many years.
2016 Return to Le Mans
On the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first win at Le Mans, they returned to attempt it again. Though they haven’t had the same success they did in their last Le Mans run, Ford’s GT program has been on the edge of many innovations. They’ve run their EcoBoost engine, a V6 in Le Mans against V12s, and experimented with carbon fiber and other methods for lightening the overall chassis.
Though Ford hasn’t placed, they also have finished every year, often ahead of some of the most luxurious vehicles being manufactured around the world.
2019 Final Le Mans
And just like they returned on the 50th anniversary of their first win, Ford has decided to leave at the end of the 2019 season, the 50th anniversary of their final win. Though everyone is sad to see the end of the GT40’s endurance race campaign, Ford has demonstrated exactly what they wanted to: That they’re still creating the kind of innovations that can put companies like Ferrari and Porsche on notice. For a company that works hard to make a wide spread of vehicles for everyone from young adults on a budget to enthusiasts looking for a lot of horsepower and a car that’s a blast to drive. Whether or not they “win” this year, I think everyone can agree that Ford won quite a few victories.
In the early years of Le Mans, as few as fourteen cars would finish routinely, now though there are still a fair number that don’t finish, last year forty-one entries finished. Even more importantly, there has not been a death at Le Mans since 2013, and before then, 1997. From an event where nearly one driver perished every year and countless cars were lost to an event where most cars finish and drivers can instead focus on where they place rather than whether or not they’ll even arrive.
The spirit of competition has improved us all, leading to innovation in automotive design and safety that trickle through the ranks and into the cars that we drive every day.