Balance Of Power
Classic & Sports Car|April 2018

Greg MacLeman gathers – for a world exclusive – two generations of Ford GT with a sublime GT40 MkIII, but which one does he want to take home?

There are faster, prettier, more valuable cars, certainly. But few can hope to match the sheer thrill and blue-collar appeal of our test cars – gathered as a trio for the first time in their history. We’ve been at Ford’s Dunton high-speed test circuit for five minutes and are already struggling to contain schoolboy levels of excitement, pressing our noses to the glass of the brand-new, otherworldly blue GT and eyeing the sumptuous lines of its white predecessor. But one of the three commands our attention like nothing else: the stunning GT40 MkIII.

The story of the GT40 began with a bust-up. Henry Ford II attempted to buy his way into top-flight competition by throwing money at Ferrari, but it ended with a bad-tempered parting of the ways. Ford, peeved at paying for dinner and not even getting a peck on the cheek, threw his weight behind his own Le Mans project. His bloody-mindedness helped to bring together some of the best engineers and race-preparation specialists in the business – Eric Broadley, Roy Lunn, John Wyer and later Carroll Shelby – to create an endurance legend from the acorn of the 1963 Racing Car Show starlet Lola GT.

Despite a shocking performance test for Le Mans that led to two cars being all but destroyed, and an embarrassing defeat to Ferrari’s P2s in 1965, the GT40 was eventually fettled into contention. The 4.7-litre engine was supplanted by the 7-litre V8 from the Galaxie with the introduction of the MkII, and with it in 1966 came a spectacular 1-2-3 clean sweep at Le Mans led (just) by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren. Ken Miles and Denny Hulme did the heavy lifting, though they were denied a first-place finish by factory orders. Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt landed the spoils the following year, with John Wyer’s cars taking the chequer in 1968 and 1969.

Following its on-track success, demand for a roadgoing version of the GT40 was high – particularly in the United States – and many MkI examples were converted for road use when their competition life drew to a close. It wasn’t until 1967, though, that the MkIII – the first true GT40 road car – arrived on the scene, bringing with it a number of changes. Most notably it featured more delicate styling and a centrally mounted gearlever (instead of in the right-hand sill) to allow a left-hand-drive configuration. A detuned small-block V8 was borrowed from the Mustang GT350, the competititon-spec fuel bags were replaced by tanks and a simpler exhaust manifold was devised that allowed more space for luggage. More of nothing still isn’t a lot, however, and anything you put in the storage space gets nicely cooked due to heat soak from the engine and gearbox. The bodyshell had a longer rear overhang, wire wheels were fitted and the headlamps, so attractive on the MkI and MkII models, were given an ill-advised revamp. Being kind, it looks fussy compared to the racers – almost as if it’s trying on different pairs of spectalces at the same time – but its appearance doesn’t matter once you’re in the driving seat.

Ask anyone what they know about the GT40 and the first fact that they’re likely to mention is the famous 40in height that inspired the car’s name, but it’s impossible to put into context until you attempt to squeeze your frame into the tiny cockpit. The trademark doors, which take a large section of roof with them when they open, suddenly make sense. Without them, you’d have to be put behind the wheel piece by piece.

Anyone taller than 5ft 11in will have their knees jammed hard into the underside of the dashboard, while the wood-topped gearlever brushes your left thigh in anything but first, owing to the dogleg ’box. With the seat firmly against the bulkhead, it takes some contortion before you find an agreeable position, but things become easier when you’re under way and your left leg is given a break from the heavy clutch.

Our drive becomes more poignant as Ivan Bartholomeusz from Ford Heritage leans in to remove a photograph from the dashboard of his friend and former colleague Colin Gray, who sadly passed away last year. Gray had more history with ‘M3/1107’ than most, regularly demonstrating the MkIII during its course car duties at the Goodwood Revival, where last year his name was emblazoned on the door.

Turning the key sets the fuel pumps buzzing, but it takes a couple of prods to prime the carburettor before the engine fires with a familiar V8 bark. Like the clutch, there’s a lot of travel in the accelerator, and both require a degree of commitment: the biting point is near-instant and unforgiving, demanding a hefty dose of revs to prevent the Ford from stalling.

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