56 years after Ford beat Ferrari at Le Mans, historic artifacts from the race endure

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Ford vs Ferrari Race Cars Ronnie Schreiber

In anticipation of the Ford v Ferrari feature film that opens November 15, it isn’t surprising that Ford Motor Company would decide to share some artifacts of its Le Mans-conquering GT40 program. At a recent media gathering to commemorate this seminal moment in Ford’s corporate history, the automaker displayed a replica Ford race car, a real Ford race car, and an entire room full of historic documents, drawings, and period memorabilia.

The event was held in Henry Ford’s original Ford Engineering Laboratory, adjacent to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (Where the Model A and flathead Ford V-8 engine were developed.) On hand was retired Ford engineer Mose Nowland, who worked for Ford for 57 years and spent some of that time in the FEL.

Ford Historic Archives
Ronnie Schreiber

Nowland worked on the engine programs for both the Ford-powered Lotus that Jim Clark drove to victory at the 1965 Indy 500 and the 427 V-8 used in the Le Mans effort. He described the way the team set up an automated electromechanical 24-hour dyno test for the GT40 drivetrain, controlled by paper punch tape programmed from test drives by Ken Miles at the La Sarthe circuit. After the test was successfully completed, they tore the engine down, inspected the parts, reassembled it with new gaskets, and then put it on the dyno for another ’round-the-clock test, just to make sure the engine would last. 

Just before the Le Mans race, however, on-track testing revealed that form-in-place hylomar gaskets were blowing out. Engineers determined that reinforcing the polymer with a particular kind of trout fly-fishing line worked. 

Hedging its bets, Ford had both the Holman-Moody NASCAR team and Carroll Shelby’s Shelby American operation in California running cars at Le Mans in 1966. Once the gasket fix was determined, Nowland flew from Detroit to North Carolina and then to California to implement it (without sleep), buying the appropriate fishing line from local bait and tackle shops when he reached each destination. Then Nowland flew back to Detroit, where his wife handed him another packed suitcase, and he flew directly to France for the race.

Ford vs Ferrari Man
Ronnie Schreiber

By 1966, after a couple of years of embarrassing losses due to breakdowns caused by racing the car without sufficient development work, Henry Ford II put the full resources of Ford Motor Company at the disposal of the Le Mans effort. To give you an idea of how serious the Deuce was, the GT40s were originally supposed to run at Le Mans with windshields made of glass with a new hardened surface. In testing, debris on the public roads that made up the la Sarthe course caused some pitting on the windshields, resulting in the race organizers banning that glass. Ford had its own glass operations at the time, so getting replacement glass made wasn’t an issue. Getting the windshields to France in time for the race was, however. Fortunately, the CEO of a major international air carrier was on Ford’s board of directors. The glass was loaded onto the last possible flight to Paris, but only because the plane was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical” issue. Mmhmm.

The weight of the big 427 V-8 meant brake life was an issue. The Holman-Moody team was used to performing quick NASCAR pit stops, and it came up with a solution for quick-changing the brake discs as well as the pads. Unfortunately, when the foundry in Pennsylvania that was casting the brake rotors got a rush order to have enough discs ready in time for the race, the vendor informed Ford that it could not schedule production in time due to higher-priority jobs. When he got the news, Henry Ford II simply said, “How much do they want to sell the foundry?” An $8 million check was cut, and the brake rotors were made in time.

Why did Henry Ford II care so much about beating Ferrari at Le Mans? Because Enzo Ferrari dangled the idea of selling the Italian company to Ford, only to rescind just before the contract was signed. Neither man was one to be trifled with, resulting in a grudge match at Le Mans, a story that still resonates more than a half century later.

Benson Ford Research Institute
Ronnie Schreiber

Engineering work is still being done at the Ford Engineering Laboratory today. That’s where Ford is developing its electric vehicles before it moves those operations to the campus being built around the old Michigan Central Station, which Ford is renovating. The FEL is also the location of Ford’s modern corporate archives, where business and engineering documents, drawings, film, and things like signage, promotional items, and even Ford related Lego sets are preserved. (Ford Motor Company’s historic archives are housed in the Benson Ford Research Institute.)

Since no automotive press event takes place without trying to promote current product, attention was also paid to the contemporary Ford GT, which was a class winner at Le Mans in 2017, again beating Ferrari. Ford recently opened up the order book on the GT again, so there is metal (and carbon fiber) to be moved. The contemporary GT was represented by a road version done up in a tribute livery based on the black  #2 Bruce McLaren–Chris Amon GT40 that was awarded the ’66 title in what is still considered a controversial finish. Surprisingly, Ford didn’t bring out the 2017 Le Mans winner, instead substituting one of the GT cars that competed in the IMSA series. There was also a black #2 GT40, a replica of the 1966 race winner, which was used in the filming of Ford v Ferrari.

Ford vs Ferrari Cuff Links
Ronnie Schreiber

While the GT40 race car wasn’t real, there was at least one genuine Ford at the event: Edsel Ford II, Henry Ford’s great-grandson, who attended the 1966 race as a teenager. The display included the gold “24 HR” cufflinks he was given after the victory—along with Ford executives, the race team, and important vendors. The gold Wittnauer watch that Ford gave McLaren was also on display, complete with Bruce’s last name misspelled as “Maclaren,” as were the trophies won in 1966 and 2017. Interestingly, the gaudy trophy for the class win in 2017 dwarfs the silver vase awarded for the overall victory in 1966.

Those awards have been in the public eye before, but the event was a rare opportunity to see, and even touch, irreplaceable historic items from the archives. 

Wearing white cotton gloves to protect the document, a Ford representative opened up a fireproof safe to retrieve Ford’s technical book on the “GT and SPORTS CAR PROJECT,” still marked “CONFIDENTIAL.”

Ford vs Ferrari Official GT Project
Ronnie Schreiber

That was pretty cool, but two significant artifacts on display really caught our eye. The first was the actual contract, already negotiated with all supplemental notes and revisions, that Enzo Ferrari refused to sign. It isn’t often that you get the chance to hold real history in your hands, even if you have to wear cotton gloves.

The coolest item on display, though, wasn’t a car or a contract, it was a small, handwritten card that indicated just how important beating Ferrari was to the Deuce. When Henry Ford II finally decided to put everything behind the effort to beat Ferrari, he called a large meeting in Dearborn for the heads of every Ford division, including aerospace and Ford’s Philco electronics subsidiary (the one that built NASA’s Apollo Mission Control in Houston). When Ford executives arrived, they were each handed a name card with a message on the reverse, written in Ford’s own hand: “You Better Win. HF” 

With their jobs on the line, they did.

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