We all know the legendary story of Ford taking on Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, but while Bruce McLaren’s GT40 was crowned victor, it’s not the car that should have won. Ford number 1 piloted by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme finished the world famous race in second – but only on a technicality.
The sole purpose of the blue oval’s racing program was to seek revenge for sour business dealings with the Prancing Horse. 1964 and ‘65’s Le Mans 24 hour race proved to be disastrous debuts for the GT40, resulting in each of the cars retiring due to mechanical failures. Sure, the new Ford was fast, but it was also fragile. 1966 needed to be different.
Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby had managed to get a Shelby American Ford GT40 across the line in first place during the 1965 Daytona 2000, but the car would need extensive modification if it was to win in France. Carol Shelby and his Shelby American team were given carte blanche to make the Ford supercar into a winner for 1966.
The Ford GT40 MKII was superior in many ways to its forefather. A larger 7.0-litre Ford Galaxie motor born from NASCAR was adapted for the enhanced GT. This larger engine meant comprehensive redesign work was necessary for it to be accommodated midship. A hardier four-speed transmission was also added along with the famed ‘bundle of snakes’ exhaust system.
With Ford and Shelby’s sights set firmly on the handsome Ferrari 330 P3s, the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hour got underway. Ken Miles, driving the same GT40 chassis that won Daytona in 1965, experienced an issue with his door not closing after a collision on the opening lap. An unwelcome early pitstop fixed the issue, with Miles’ impressive pace serving to make up for lost time.
The MKII GT40s were incredibly fast and more than a match for their Ferrari counterparts. Skilful driving, weather, and Ferrari misfortune all played into the hands of Ford. Ferrari mechanical failures and a crash quickly saw Ken Miles and Denny Hulme’s car take the lead, from where it commanded the remainder of this race.
However, Ford were keen to make the most of their GT40s occupying the top three positions. In a bid to wash away the pain of the previous years, it was decided to orchestrate the cars in a way that would result in a 1, 2, 3 dead heat and an amazing photo opportunity. Miles was ordered to slow down and allow his fellow Ford racemates to pull alongside.
Ford’s PR stunt worked in that it did create one of the most iconic motorsport images in history, but it also cost Miles victory at Le Mans. Rule-makers deemed that Bruce McLaren’s GT40 had traveled a greater distance due to its starting position, and was thus the winner. Car number 1 that had controlled this race from the front for so long was consigned to second ahead of GT40 number 5.
McLaren and his black GT40 soaked up the prestige and fame, while Miles and his blue and orange racer have largely been forgotten. There was a lot of politics between Ford, Shelby and Miles, something that may or may not have influenced decisions made on that day.
The car that deserved to win Le Mans 1966 resides in the Shelby museum.