Rivalries have defined racing for over a century but few have been as fierce as the one that separated Ford and Ferrari during the 1960s.
On the surface, it looks like these two carmakers shouldn’t have found themselves at the same intersection. One is an American giant specialised in making mainstream cars. The other is a much smaller Italian firm that plays in the upper echelons of the industry. Their feud began after an unsuccessful takeover attempt and it didn’t end until Ford felt it had gotten even.
And now for the first time the story is coming to the big screen. 'Ford v Ferrari' - to be called 'Le Mans '66' in the UK and some other countries - stars Matt Damon as automotive everything-man Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale (pictured) as British-born race car driver Ken Miles, and is released this coming Friday, November 15.
Let's take a look at how this unlikely rivalry started and where it took the two companies. PICTURE: Ford GT40
For sale: Ferrari
Enzo Ferrari (1898-1988) began toying with the idea of selling his company in the early 1960s. The reasons behind his decision remain murky. Time may have been a factor; he had reached the age at which most Italian men retired. Regardless, news of Ferrari putting his company on the selling block quickly travelled across the automotive industry – and across the Atlantic. PICTURE: 1962 Ferrari 196 SP
Texas oilmen John Mecom Sr and John Mecom Jr were regular Ferrari customers and fans of fast cars in general. They met Ferrari in his office in 1962 and talked about purchasing the factory. Sources familiar with the negotiations pegged the price at anywhere between $20 and $25 million (between $170 and $212 million in 2019 money). PICTURE: 1963 Ferrari 275 P
Ford elbows its way in
The talks between the father-and-son Mecom team and Ferrari broke down when Ford entered the fray in early 1963. Hemmed-in by an all-conquering General Motors at home, the company was actively seeking to add a high-end European carmaker to its portfolio of brands; it nearly bought Rolls-Royce before turning its attention to Ferrari. Both would have allowed Ford to tap into new segments of the market but Ferrari’s roots in racing placed it in a pickle.
The Automobile Manufacturers Association had effectively banned all factory-sponsored racing after the horrendous disaster at Le Mans in 1955 that resulted in the deaths of 83 spectators. Ford boldly decided to ignore the ban in 1962 to return to NASCAR but the firm likely had Ferrari in the back of its mind, too. PICTURE: 1963 Ford Galaxie
Bolts, patents and spaghetti
In 1963, Ford despatched a delegation of executives, lawyers, accountants and engineers to Italy to get a better idea of what they were about to buy. The men toured Ferrari’s headquarters, its factory and, by most accounts, many of the finer restaurants in the area.
Ford agreed to pay $18 million (about $153 million in 2019 money) for Ferrari’s road car division. The sale included patents, intellectual property, real estate and a clause that said the company needed to change its name to Ford-Ferrari. The Prancing horse emblem would stay. While Ferrari would continue to own its racing team, it would have to follow Ford’s guidance when it came to what, where and when to race. If Ford asked for a rally car, Ferrari would have had no choice but to build it. If Ford asked Ferrari to leave Formula One, the company would have had to pack up its bags as quickly as possible.
The $18 million sum disclosed much later came as a huge surprise. The Mecoms stopped trying to buy Ferrari because they assumed they’d never be able to compete with a giant like Ford. The price Ferrari and Ford tentatively settled on was much lower than what the Mecom family was willing to pay. PICTURE: Ferrari 250 P
Donald Frey (1923-2010), Ford’s assistant general manager, held an informal meeting with Enzo Ferrari in the spring of 1963. Ferrari brought up the issue of his company’s racing division; road cars were a means to an end but he wasn’t ready to let Ford – or anyone else – take over what he had spent decades building.
When Frey didn’t budge, Ferrari ended the meeting, said goodbye and showed his American colleague the way out. PICTURE: Ferrari 246SP
Ford’s new goal
Frey returned to Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, without a deal or even a vague promise of one. Ford boss Henry Ford II (1917-1987, Henry Ford's grandson) thoughtfully listened to the ups and downs of Frey’s time in Italy. “OK, then we’ll kick his a**,” he concluded. He set his mind to crushing il Commendatore (pictured).
Lola won’t cut it
Ford already had a presence in international endurance racing. The Lola Mk6 GT (pictured) was powered by a Ford-sourced V8 engine. It raced in 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans but crashed out after 151 laps. Ford realised beating Ferrari would be overly difficult if it didn’t have complete control over the program.
Creating the GT40
Lola engineer Eric Broadley (1928-2017) agreed to help Ford develop the GT40. It was technically similar to the Mk6 GT in the sense that it was low, wide and it used a mid-mounted V8 engine but there were several important differences between the two cars, including the materials used to build them. Design work continued after Broadley quit in 1964 and the GT40 broke cover in April of that year. PICTURE: GT40 prototype.
Off to a rough start
To Ferrari’s surprise, the Ford GT40 (pictured) first raced at the 1964 edition of the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometers. It got off to an admirable start but it retired after experiencing suspension problems. Many cars suffered from various problems the first time they raced and Ford believed the GT40 would perform better during that year’s edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It didn’t.
None of the three cars entered in the race crossed the finish line. Number 12 caught fire 58 laps in while gearbox problems took out the number 11 and number 10 cars after 63 and 192 laps, respectively. The results were embarrassing. Ferrari added insult to injury by winning the event with the 275 P. Ford was learning the hard way that getting a car to run at full tilt for 24 hours on the trot was an even harder challenge than it sounds. And the cars were unstable at speed, so much so that one normally fearless test driver, Roy Salvadori, quit in fear for his life.
Ford gets a do-over
At this point, Ford had two options. It could stop hemorrhaging money, let Ferrari race and focus on more lucrative projects, like the horsepower war brewing in the United States. Or, it could invest more money into the project in a bid to reach its goal. Its accounts department likely urged it to choose the first option but Henry Ford II was so hellbent on beating Ferrari that he took the second. And with his name on the outside of the company's HQ, he tended to get his way.
The GT40 didn’t manage to win at Le Mans but it showed a tremendous amount of potential. Ford wisely realised it didn’t need to start from scratch. It simply needed to improve the car. It recruited Carroll Shelby (pictured; 1923-2012), whose Ford-powered Daytona Coupe finished fifth at Le Mans in 1964, to help the GT40 win.
The Shelby touch
Shelby was the right man for the job. He had been designing, building and racing Ford-powered cars since he began transforming the AC Ace into the Cobra in 1962. He installed a bigger, 427-cubic-inch V8 engine and bolted it to a transmission provided by ZF. He also fine-tuned many other aspects of the car.
The GT40’s performance became seriously impressive but no one knew exactly how it would fare against Ferrari’s racers until the two lined up on the same starting grid. The long-awaited moment came during the Shelby-modified car’s first race, the 1965 Daytona 2000.
Ford’s first win
Ferrari’s 250 GTO dominated the 1964 edition of the race. In 1965, the tables turned and a GT40 driven by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby finished first. Second place went to Shelby’s own Daytona Coupe while another GT40 occupied the third spot on the podium. The highest Ferrari lingered in seventh.
Winning the Daytona 2000 didn’t come with the same bragging rights as winning Le Mans but the Ford team was nonetheless ecstatic. Shelby’s involvement had paid off; Ford had beat Ferrari.
The 1965 24 hours of Le Mans
While beating Ferrari was a huge accomplishment, Henry Ford II specifically wanted to win at Le Mans. Encouraged by its Daytona 2000 victory, the team arrived at the 1965 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with two cars and high hopes. Other GT40s were entered in the event by smaller teams but all eyes were turned on the examples that participated on behalf of the factory. Meanwhile, Ferrari had prepared its 250 LM (pictured) for battle.
1965 wouldn’t be Ford’s year, either. Car number one retired due to gearbox problems after 45 laps while a bad clutch took out car number two 89 laps in. The other GT40s dropped out, too, and not a single one managed to finish the race. Unsurprisingly, Ferrari took the first three spots on the podium.
Ferrari strikes back
Ford once again had to decide whether to continue fighting an uphill battle or call it a day. And, once again, it declared it wouldn’t rest until one of its cars won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As Shelby continued to fine-tune the GT40, Ferrari was putting the final touches on its best race car yet. The 330 P3 (pictured) was wider than the 330 P2 it replaced, considerably lighter, more aerodynamic and – Ferrari hoped – more reliable. It notably benefited from fuel injection.
Besides, the firm knew what to expect from its American rival. Ford had gotten lucky a few times but there was no way it could win at Le Mans with what was essentially a massaged NASCAR engine, not when Ferrari ran some of the most intricately-designed engines made during the 1960s - or so Ferrari figured.
The 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans
13 examples of the GT40 entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, a race marred by heavy rain. The wet weather made the competition between Ford and Ferrari even more intense. Ferraris dropped out one by one; one of the 330 P3s that the company believed would send the GT40s back to Michigan with its tail between its legs crashed after 123 laps and nine hours of racing and a P3 Spyder retired due to gearbox problems after 151 laps. The last P3 succumbed to engine problems 226 laps in.
Even without Ferrari to worry about, Ford’s path to victory was anything but smooth. 10 of the GT40s dropped out due to various issues ranging from mechanical problems to accidents. The last three cars beat the odds to score a historic one-two-three finish. This time, Henry Ford II had finally gotten his revenge on Enzo Ferrari. The victory helped Ford win the over-2000cc category of the 1966 International Manufacturers Championship with 38 points, two more than Ferrari.
In this photo, a proud Henry Ford II celebrates his sweet victory, flanked by drivers Bruce McLaren (left) and fellow New Zealander Chris Amon. McLaren founded the famous race- and road- car company that bears his name; he was killed in a crash while testing at Goodwood Circuit in 1970, aged 32.
Henry Ford II continued to be the key figure at Ford until his death in 1987, aged 70. One of his last acts was to invest in Aston Martin, thus ensuring its survival. Chris Amon died in 2016, aged 73. Some estimates put the price of Ford's win at $25 million - rather more than what it was prepared to pay to buy Ferrari.
The 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans
Enzo Ferrari was furious. After he calmed down, he wondered whether Ford had a tremendous amount of luck on its side and benefited from his team’s bad performance or if the Americans posed a long-term threat. Ferrari started the 1967 season on a high note by winning at Daytona and Monza while Ford took first at Sebring and Spa. There was more at stake than ever before when the two teams lined up on the starting grid of the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ford raced an improved GT40 while Ferrari competed in the new 330 P4.
The GT40 (pictured) again proved its superiority but the team couldn’t repeat 1966’s one-two-three finish. Second place went to the Ferrari 330 P4 wearing number 21. It finished four laps behind the Ford. Another 330 P4 (number 24) finished third, 11 laps behind the leader.
Ford extends its streak
Ford’s winning streak at Le Mans continued during the 1960s. 1968 was a disastrous year for Ferrari because only one of its cars finished the race. First went to a GT40, which Ford continuously updated. 1969’s rankings looked similar. The GT40 finished first and the only Ferrari that stayed in the race for 24 full hours was in eighth.
Ford didn’t race in the 1970 edition of the race; Ferrari returned but lost to Porsche, whose 917 took the first two spots on the podium. Executives realised the GT40’s time had come and gone. Ferrari often came close to winning but it never managed to take first and it closed its factory-backed endurance racing program after the 1973 season. PICTURE: Ford J-Car in a wind tunnel
The DeTomaso Pantera
Ford had proven to the world that it could beat Ferrari at the highest level of international racing but the Italian firm’s range of road cars remained unattainable. No one compared a Mustang with a 275 GTB/4. Ford indirectly challenged Ferrari’s hegemony when it helped DeTomaso build a supercar with Italian flair and an American heart. The Tom Tjaarda-designed Pantera touched down on American shores in 1971 with a mid-mounted Ford V8 engine.
Ford figured wealthy enthusiasts didn’t want to buy a supercar in a store that peddled the Pinto so it gave the task of selling the Pantera to its Lincoln-Mercury division. 5674 examples of the Pantera had found a home in America by the time Ford stopped distributing the model in 1974.
Rekindling the rivalry
The rivalry between Ford and Ferrari ran out of steam at the dawn of the 1970s. Ford had accomplished its goal of humbling Ferrari on the track. It had more important matters to worry about, like the market share it was alarmingly losing to Japanese automakers in America. Meanwhile, Ferrari continued racing in Formula One and making powerful road cars. For decades, its path didn’t cross with Ford’s.
Ford rekindled the feud when it announced plans to race in the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans with a modern-day GT. Its goal wasn’t to win the race; it had no interest in competing in the top LMP1 category dominated by Porsche, Toyota and Audi. It set its sights on the GTE Pro class Ferrari raced in.
The 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans
Ford developed the GT with endurance racing in mind from the get-go. The limited-edition, mid-engined coupe used a 3.5-litre V6 engine twin-turbocharged to 647bhp in its street-legal tune. It received an array of track-inspired components, including its pushrod suspension, and it relied on carbon fiber to keep weight in check.
Also introduced in 2016, the 488 GTE was Ferrari’s entry into the category. It was based on the road-going 488, and it displayed an equally impressive specifications sheet, but its engine boasted two additional cylinders.
The number 68 GT took first in its class and 18th overall during the 2016 race, finishing one spot ahead of the 488 wearing number 82. Ford’s result wasn’t as impressive as 1966’s one-two-three finish but it had once again beaten Ferrari. This time, no one saw it coming.
Ford retires again
Ford announced it will stop racing the GT after the 2018/2019 season of the FIA World Endurance Championship. GT production will continue until 2020 and the firm will provide support to customer teams in the foreseeable future. As of 2019, Ford isn’t planning to return to Le Mans.
Ford v Ferrari: the movie
The new movie Ford v Ferrari - to be called Le Mans '66 in the UK and certain other countries - goes on general release on November 15 2019 in the UK and in the US. It tells the story of the central drama of the events of the lead up to the 1966 Le Mans race, the rivalry, and the race itself. But we'll also get to see some of the 20th century's leading automotive luminaries portrayed including Enzo Ferrari, Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Bruce McLaren, Gianni Agnelli, Dan Gurney,and Phil Hill. For anyone interested in both road car and race car history, it promises to to fascinating.
The central protagaonists in the film are Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon, left) and Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale, right), who are tasked with beating Ferrari by Ford.
Enzo Ferrari did eventually sell out to a much larger car company. But he picked Gianni Agnelli's Fiat, which bought 50% in 1969 and the rest 20 years later. Fiat wisely mostly left Ferrari to get on with doing what it knew best, perhaps imagining that would be the route to long-term value creation. It's hard to imagine Ford's legendary command-and-control culture allowing Ferrari to do the same, still less the company easily micromanaging Maranello from Michigan,nor the Italians easily tolerating it.
Ferrari became independent again when it floated on the New York Stock Exchange in 2015; the Agnelli family continue as large shareholders, as does Piero Ferrari, Enzo's son.
Today, Ferrari, which sold 9251 cars in 2018, is valued at $29 billion (£23 billion).Ford, which sold 6 million vehicles the same year, is valued at $36 billion (£28 billion).