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The Aesthetics of Racing: Ford GT40

August 8, 2012 by Matt

Ford GT40 Mark II 2 Gulf Racing

Pure function can be brutally attractive.

Even though its profile changed in detail between its four incarnations, whatever specific shape it took, the legendary Ford GT40 epitomizes the function-as-form racer aesthetic.

The Mark I and II shape, shown above, remains the most well-known GT40 variation. The car’s genesis is familiar to most car buffs: After an aborted attempt to buy Ferrari outright, a racing-victory-hungry Henry Ford II decided to build his own Ferrari beater, and after a few years of working out the kinks, scored 4 straight 24 Hours of Le Mans victories from 1966 through 1969. The body of the 427-powered Mark II, which delivered the first Le Mans victory in 1966, was a British-based Lola creation, so it was technically an Anglo-American car. Still, whoever made it, the GT40’s design is absolutely arresting (especially for the mid-’60s), devoid of anything that would compromise its singular mission. There were no wings, no frills, no fancy multi-cam V12s—just brute American pushrod force to complement the stubby, blue-collar shape.

Ford GT40 Mark III 3 Road Car Blue Gray Grey

With the Mark III, shown above, Ford civilized the GT40 just a bit for road use. It’s a tribute to the basic appeal of the car’s proportions that the only major external changes came in the form of different headlight clusters and a slightly lengthened tail for additional storage. A contemporary of the groundbreaking Lamborghini Miura (the first mid-engined supercar), the GT40’s dynamics and racing pedigree easily trumped the Italian exotic’s. Sadly, only 7 were made.

Ford GT40 Mark IV 4

The wholly made-in-America Mark IV was a substantially different beast. Even though it retained the same overall look and feel as its predecessors, much of its aesthetic appeal was sacrificed in the name of additional aerodynamic refinement. Dispensing with the Lola-designed bodywork, Ford brought the design in-house, tweaking and refining the basic theme. The Mark IV kept the GT40’s signature stubby shape, and delivered the only true all-American Le Mans victory, driven by the all-star pairing of Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt in 1967.

I don’t know that there’s even been a car quite as effective looking as the GT40. Delicate F1 racers and more modern endurance machines are typically festooned and underpinned with far more sophistication, but the results seem to be cars that politely ask the elements (air, road surface, etc) to cooperate. The GT40, on the other hand, commands respect; its shape demands compliance from its partners in victory. It gets the job done, not glamorously, but effectively, and there’s an undeniable beauty in that.

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series examining the aesthetic merits of cars designed almost wholly with function in mind. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Aesthetics, Aesthetics of Racing, Ford, Racing

7 Comments

  1. John D says:

    Great post. Very informative with just the right touch of sentimentality and nostalgia. It makes me wish I could look back and remember these certain events as they happened in my own lifetime…but I’m a little young for that. ;)

    • Matt says:

      Thanks John. I’m still kinda surprised you’d be so complimentary of a post featuring a F*rd. :D

      • John D says:

        Lol. Well, I don’t really consider the GT40 a typical F*rd. It’s more of a one-off. Either the GT40 is the purest F*rd ever produced…or a fluke. If the first were true, I’d hate F*rd for making their ‘regular’ products so crappy when they obviously have the skill and ability to do otherwise. If it’s the second, then it’s not really a F*rd anyways and I’m safe to shower it with praise. ;)

        • John D says:

          (In either case it doesn’t change my opinion of F*rd at all…)

          Although, in the spirit of full disclosure, the new Ford trucks and 4.0 Mustang GT have actually had me, for the first time ever, actually consider owning a Ford. I’m still not sure that I could do it…too many bad memories of what kind of cars they have produced up to this point…but I do consider the Ford of the past 5 years as having undergone a dramatic change for the better.

        • Matt says:

          Hahaha

          I can’t argue your logic. :) For what it’s worth, I think you could probably consider it a one-off, seeing as how it didn’t start a dynasty a la Porsche 917, etc.

  2. areopagitica says:

    While it is not oft revealed, the GT40 initial design after the Lola Mk6 was apparently done by Peter Perry. I was told this by Bob Andrews, and eventually I found myself at a picnic table across from a gent of that name, a Ford of North America designer. Although surprisingly reticent, he indeed corroborated this. Now I myself prefer aesthetics of front engined race cars like GTOs and D-types and Listers, but of the functionally aerodynamic mid engined coupes the GT40 had to have been the very tops. Along with the P4 Ferrari.

    Where the GT40 broke new ground (bad pun) was in the exhaustive development expended toward the goal of to keeping it ON the ground. From the get go it was operating in the 180 mph range. That is where “liftoff” for all such competitors had become incipient. High noses and inverted airfoils were theorized, and even tried by a dinghy like Chaparral Mk 1 but they failed to understand the “ground plane” beneath the tires defeated the concept.

    • Matt says:

      Very interesting. Re:the D-Type, I did write an article about it. I should roll that into the Aesthetics of Racing series. It’s certainly worthy.

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