Ford vs Ferrari: The Feud That Altered the Course of Motorsports History

February 17, 2024 3:41 PM

By: MPH Team

The Spark of Rivalry


In the early 1960s, American consumer culture was undergoing a dramatic shift. The coming of age Baby Boomer generation, with its appetite for sportier, sexier cars, was steering the market in a new direction. Unlike previous generations, this demographic sought cars that prioritized speed and performance, over conventional comforts and reliability. 


Henry Ford II, also known as Hank the Deuce, CEO of Ford Motor Company, and the eldest grandson of Henry Ford was at the center of this pivotal moment in history. Ford was emerging from a major sales downturn, marred by the failure of products like the Edsel and the rising popularity of rivals GM and Chrysler. Ford saw an opportunity in this burgeoning demand for sports cars. At the time, Ford's lineup lacked a true sports car, with Lee Iacocca's legendary Mustang still in the pipeline.


The idea to acquire Ferrari, then a prestigious race car company selling street-legal vehicles mainly to fund its racing endeavors, emerged as a swift solution to Ford's absence in the sports car segment. The negotiations began in the spring of 1963, with Ford prepared to pay millions for Ferrari and its assets. However, the deal fell through when Enzo Ferrari, the strong-willed owner of the Italian carmaker, was offended by a clause that would allow Ford to control the budget and decisions over Ferrari’s racing team.


In a dramatic turn of events, Enzo Ferrari abruptly backed out of the deal, and informed the delegates from Ford that he would never agree to such terms. It’s also rumored that Enzo personally insulted Hank the Deuce by claiming he would never live up to his grandfather’s legacy. Ouch.


The Clash of Titans: Ford's Vengeance


Enraged by Ferrari's withdrawal and personal insults from Enzo, Henry Ford II vowed revenge on the racetrack. His ambition was not just to compete with Ferrari but to beat them at their own game – at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the most prestigious and grueling automobile races in the world.


The stage was set for a historic showdown. Ford’s answer to Ferrari’s dominance was the GT40 – a car that was to become a legend in its own right. The GT40 project was an embodiment of Ford's industrial might, technological innovation, and relentless pursuit of victory. The car’s name itself, standing for “Grand Touring” with a height of forty inches, was a testament to Ford’s commitment to excellence.



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1966 24 Hours of Le Mans: The Battle Royale


The 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans was more than just a race; it was the culmination of Ford's tireless efforts and the defining moment of the Ford vs Ferrari rivalry. Ford’s GT40 Mk II cars, with their impressive 7-liter engines, were a stark contrast to Ferrari’s traditionally smaller, more agile cars. The race was an intense affair, with Ford’s cars showcasing their superiority in speed and endurance.


Ford's victory at Le Mans was emphatic. Not only did the GT40 Mk II clinch the first position, but Ford also made history by securing the second and third places. This impressive feat brought an end to Ferrari's six-year winning streak in a stunning fashion, relegating them to a mere eighth-place finish. This victory marked the first time an American manufacturer had won a major European race since Jimmy Murphy's triumph in the 1921 French Grand Prix. Ford's achievement not only marked a significant victory but also symbolized a dramatic shift in the racing world's balance of power.




Controversy at the Finish Line 



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Three GT40 Mk IIs crossing the finish line in Le Mans together.



The climax of the race was not without its share of controversy. Ford, aiming for a PR stunt, orchestrated a tied finish among its top three cars for a photo finish. However, this led to a complex technicality based on the rules of the race. Ken Miles, who had led most of the race, was denied the victory due to the rule stating that in a dead heat, the car that had traveled the furthest distance would be declared the winner. This rule handed the win to Bruce McLaren, whose car started the race eight meters behind Miles.





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The Aftermath and Enduring Influence


The GT40's victory at Le Mans in 1966 was a watershed moment in automotive history. It was a vindication of Henry Ford II’s vision and the relentless spirit of the American automotive industry. For Ferrari, it was a moment of introspection and the realization that even giants could be toppled.


The long-standing clash between Ford and Ferrari has transcended the racetracks, capturing the imagination of popular culture, most notably in the cinematic portrayal "Ford v Ferrari." This film captivates audiences, regardless of their mechanical knowledge, with its vivid reenactment of the iconic 1960s feud between these two automotive magnates. For car enthusiasts, the movie is a treasure trove, featuring meticulously crafted replicas of the GT40, complete with Ford 427ci engines, and immersive racing sequences that transport viewers to the heart of the action. Yet, beyond the exhilarating races and automotive machinery, the film poignantly honors the legacy of Ken Miles, an engineering and racing genius, whose contributions had largely been overshadowed since his premature death the same year he won Le Mans.



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In August 1966 Ken Miles passed away in a fatal car crash while testing Ford's J-Car.



A Rivalry for the Ages


The Ford vs Ferrari feud was more than a battle between two carmakers; it was a story of human ambition, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of success against all odds. The legacy of this rivalry continues to inspire and captivate fans, serving as a reminder of the fiery passion and competitive edge that fuels the world of automotive racing.




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