The place is the fabled Le Mans 24-hour endurance contest. As the final seconds dissolve, three champions approach the finish line. They are not powered by intricate V12 powerplants. They are not Maranello Red. How the steam must have rolled out of the ears of Enzo Ferrari as three Ford GT40s tore past the finish line. Henry Ford II probably tore a smile muscle that day.
In the early 60s, Ford and Ferrari might have been sitting around over coffee and cannolis, discussing Ford's interest in purchasing Ferrari to bolster its high-performance image. The deal went sour, prompting Ford to create an advanced-vehicles division to challenge Ferrari and other established racing marques. The GT40 program was born.
The GT40 borrowed much of its original layout from the Lola GT, engineered by Englishman Eric Broadley. The team also consisted of John Wyer, racing manager for Aston Martin, and the legendary Carroll Shelby. Initially, the cars were equipped with heavily-modified 260 cubic inch Ford V8s. The 289 V8, arriving in 1965, produced horsepower of 380, with 330 ft-lbs of torque. The mid-engine layout transmitted power through a ZF 5-speed manual transaxle. Four-wheel disc brakes and the rack-and-pinion steering were Girling items. The rear suspension employed Broadley's Lola configuration, using widely spaced transverse links and long radius arms. Front suspension was independent double wishbone. Using carbon-fiber body shells, the GT40 weighed in at just less than 2,000 pounds.
Initial tests at Le Mans in the spring training of 1964 proved favourable, contributing to the development of a much-needed rear spoiler. Impressive showings were returned in 1965 at Daytona and Sebring events, thanks to the introduction of the Mark I model. The powerplant was now a massive seven-litre, 427-cubic-inch, big-block V8. This is the setup that resulted in the 1966 sweep at Le Mans, as well as the eventual banning of the 427-powered cars from GT racing. With all the possible powertrain and bodywork combinations, just less than 200 GT40s were produced. Even fewer exist today, with many suffering a racing-induced demise.
Warren Schettler's GT40, considered to be a Mark V model, takes the rarity issue one step further. It has just over 600 original miles on its odometer! Schettler located the car in Arizona, where the current owner was a touch anxious to move the car quickly, with the purchase of a new Ferrari 360 Modena hanging in the balance. Its lineage is chronicled in the Shelby American registry book, listing the most minute of details. Schettler is a bona fide disciple of the blue oval, having raced Ford-sponsored dragsters in the 1960s. "I'm a Ford guy," he says. "To me, this is the high-water mark. There's nothing beyond this." Schettler's GT40 was built to compete in the five-litre class, its 289 enlarged to 304 cubic inches. (Horsepower creeps up to 395).
There is no mistaking the car's intended purpose. The three white circles awaiting their racing numbers. The quick-change knock-off wheels sporting new, but period correct, Dunlop racing tires. Even the bodywork, where the weave of the carbon fibers can be clearly seen under the paint. "It's not finished like a brand new car", Schettler explains, "And there was never any intention to do so." As race-ready as the GT40 is, you begin to notice features more commonly found on the family sedan. Turn signals, windshield washer, even a parking brake were required for the GT class.
Four simple latches release the engine cover, which tips rearward. The "trumpet" style Weber carburetors have been temporarily replaced by a Holley four-barrel for easier daily driving. The tail section also houses engine oil coolers for the rigors of the racetrack. Close inspection of both the front and rear suspension parts defy logic, the space between them and the tires seeming dangerously close. "It's a totally tunable car," says Schettler. Even the battery can be positioned on the left or right side of the GT40, depending on the predominant types of turns on a course.
Getting into a GT40 is something you have to think about. The car is only 40 inches high (hence the name). You have to slide one leg at a time over the massive rocker panels, which are actually the dual fuel tanks holding 57 litres a side. (Please, no side impacts!) Seat-belts are naturally four-point harnesses. Both myself and Schettler are in the neighbourhood of 5' 8", though I think I clipped off a few of my hairs when I closed the door. I considered rolling down a window, which is when I realized that option never existed. The plexi side windows have small tip-out panels for something resembling ventilation. Forget the drive-thru, unless you like your fries handed to you one at a time.
The right-hand drive GT40 uses a close-ratio five-speed shifter with reverse lockout, and is actually placed to the right of the driver. The instrument panel makes sense only to the race-bred. They aren't worried about speed traps; they're more worried about blowing an engine, and possibly their sponsorship. For that reason, the tachometer is front and centre. The speedometer is way off to the left.
As expected, the GT40 draws maximum gawks per kilometre. If you don't see it, due to its low profile, you'll definitely hear it. I asked Schettler how he deals with the uninitiated who ask if it's a kit car. He just shrugs it off. "I know what it is."
As our photo shoot wrapped up, I hitched one last ride. Schettler did not disappoint, closing off our time together with a blast up to the legal highway limit that almost induced a sense of weightlessness. As my brain repositioned itself in my skull, I uttered two words. And Warren, let me say them again with the utmost sincerity.