In a world exclusive, Greg MacLeman gathers two generations of Ford GT with a sublime GT40 MkIII, but which one does he want to take home? Read on...
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 competition-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 spectacles 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.
With ‘just’ 306bhp on tap compared with the MkII’s circa 465bhp, you might think that the MkIII could fail to excite, but any doubts are left at the kerb as you squeeze the throttle and unleash the GT40’s full power.
It might be a Mustang engine, but in such a light machine (1060kg) the sense of acceleration is dizzying and addictive. Plus, the exceptionally low and forward driving position offers a sensation of speed rarely found outside of single-seaters.
At full chat, it sounds like thunder – and from the roadside it’s pure Le Mans. It’s a noise so evocative of La Sarthe that, with the sun shining and a heat haze rising from the tarmac, it’s easy to imagine that we’re shaking it down for the main event and not standing in the shadow of Ford’s engine development and technical centre.
That competition pedigree seared the GT40 into the collective memory of a generation and became the stuff of legend for those who followed.
No surprise, then, that Dearborn would eventually revive the idea with the arrival of the GT in 2005, although the cat had long since been let out of the bag.
The GT90 concept served as a statement of intent at the Detroit Auto Show in 1995, before the more complete GT40 proposal was unveiled in 2002.
While some felt that the GT was the Gumball Rally to the GT40’s Cannonball Run, just as many delighted in Ford’s return to the supercar arena.
Among those to live the dreams of their youth were former C&SC editor Matthew Carter and Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, who was always smitten with the GT40 but too tall to fit into the original.
And who could criticise Ford for adding a sub-$150,000, 550bhp mid-engined machine to its line-up of Fiestas and Focuses?
Whether you were a fan of the GT depends largely on whether you warm to the car’s retro styling, or if the impersonation leaves you cold.
To the layman, the similarities between the GT and the 1960s racers are clear to see, from the low roofline – just over 3in taller than its ancestor – and stubby Kamm tail, to the side vents, bonnet recesses, headlamps and rear lights.
Though it’s noticeably larger, the car’s proportions are well balanced and hold much of the appeal of the Le Mans contenders.
The GT might carry a few extra pounds, but it can still just about squeeze into its favourite pair of jeans. Where it stumbles slightly is once you open the door to reveal the interior, which is dark, staid and studded with low-quality plastics and clunky controls that don’t quite chime with the car’s upmarket image.
During a 2003 road test, Car & Driver described the prototypes’ interiors as being ‘crude mockups, with an SVT Mustang instrument cluster grafted onto a plain, industrial-looking dash’. Not much had changed by the time the car entered production.
While the cabin is uninspiring, it is at least spacious – and there’s none of the sudden-onset claustrophobia associated with the cramped GT40. It’s a comfortable place to be and, unlike the MkIII, it’s easy to imagine blasting across the Continent without getting baked in the process.
The urge to sample the GT’s full performance increases once you turn the key and thumb the starter button, coaxing rather than jolting the 5.4-litre Michigan-built V8 into life. Despite being mounted quite close to the back of your head, the engine is remarkably quiet at idle, only wakening slightly at manoeuvring speeds.
The steering is relatively light and visibility is terrible compared to the early car, although a vast amount of torque – some 500lb ft – allows you to row it along at jogging pace in almost any gear.
With 550bhp at your disposal, you could be forgiven for expecting the GT to be a bit of a handful, but it never feels unruly under normal driving conditions. It rumbles along with all the composure and comfort of a Mondeo.
With the camera car out of the picture, it’s time to bury the throttle to see what the GT can do. It doesn’t disappoint, rushing towards the horizon with a sense of pace that catches you off guard.
If you pin the accelerator in third, the world rushes by in a blur and the engine note – though still lacking the frantic bass-drum beat of the ’69 – builds with menace before being all but drowned out by the whistle and whine of the spooling supercharger.
Glance in the rear-view mirror and you can see its belt whizzing around. The blower really helps the car to come alive higher up the rev range, but unnervingly continues to engage after lifting off.
Prior warning ensures that we ease off well in advance of Dunton’s banked back turns and, once we’ve returned to the pit building, we’re told tales of the white GT switching ends on a nearby motorway sliproad.
By the time production of the GT drew to a close, 4038 examples had been built, eclipsing the minuscule production run of GT40s (just 31 road cars, including seven MkIIIs).
Yet, despite the commercial success, an encore was never a certainty. In fact, the new GT project nearly failed to see the light of day.
With the GTs side-by-side, you’d be forgiven for not immediately spotting the family resemblance – largely because the 2016 GT owes its appearance more to the wind tunnel than Magic Markers.
Ford had planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Le Mans success by taking the new Mustang to La Sarthe, although it soon became clear that the pony car’s brick-like aerodynamic profile was never going to cut it in endurance racing.
The idea was promptly canned, but a small group of stylists and designers forged ahead behind closed doors, eventually unveiling their slippery Le Mans contender – plus its road car sibling – to the top brass.
The GT slipped its dust sheet at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, but one of its first major appearances came rendered with pixel-perfect accuracy in the racing simulator Forza Motorsport 6.
Before Ford had even started to take orders for the new GT – and long before journalists were able to put it through its paces – gamers had thrashed the new car to within an inch of its life, everywhere from the Nordschleife to Laguna Seca.
Forget Sellotaping boring press clippings and brochure shots to your bedroom walls: fans of the Blue Oval – the younger, wealthier breed that Ford was hoping to attract – could fly around the GT in 360º, zooming in on every detail from every conceivable angle.
What they found was a futuristic, wide and wildly aggressive creature that more resembled the new breed of Ferraris than its pastiche namesake.
The 2016 GT’s scissor doors might be a more elegant solution than in the model’s previous iterations, but clambering aboard still requires some dexterity thanks to an enormously wide sill – a by-product of the aerodynamically efficient teardrop cabin, which hugs airflow and reduces drag.
Unlike the Ferrari 458 Speciale and McLaren 675LT, which the GT was designed to take on, there isn’t much in the way of luxury.
The cockpit is sparsely appointed, with the lion’s share of controls affixed to the steering wheel. The carbonfibre racing bucket seats don’t move, all adjustment instead coming via the steering column and pedalbox, which slides back and forth via a weight-saving cloth strap.
The result is a fabulously ergonomic driving position, but one that becomes slightly cramped if you carry a passenger who sits close enough to measure your inseam thanks to the narrow cockpit.
Technologically, the 2016 GT represents a step-change for Ford, throwing out the big V8s of its predecessors in favour of a 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged and intercooled V6 capable of producing 647bhp.
It can propel the blue missile to 60mph in just 3 secs and on to a top speed of 216mph.
A carbonfibre tub ensures that the GT weighs less than a Ford Focus at just 1385kg, while futuristic inboard pushrod suspension comes with five selectable set-ups, ranging from Normal to V-Max – a low-drag setting for achieving top straight-line speeds.
Select Track mode and the car instantly drops 50mm to the deck, as hydraulic actuators compress the springs and the Multimatic spool-drive dampers switch to the least forgiving of three firmness settings.
At the same time the active rear spoiler – which pops up at 71mph in Sport mode – raises to the sky, ready to pile on the downforce and pin the rear tyres to the asphalt.
Gear selection is via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission operated by column-mounted paddles in fully or semi-automatic mode.
We opt for the latter, clicking into first and tickling the throttle, which responds with a guttural growl as the GT powers onto the banked circuit.
Acceleration is brutal and turbo lag practically non-existent. Before you can even think about an objective review, you’re changing from second to third, eyes wide with astonishment at its face-contorting turn of speed.
Screaming at full throttle down the back straight lasts for mere moments before the imminent bend and its uneven, unsettling surface forces us to ease off at about 130mph.
You still come in too fast, working the cold carbon-ceramic brakes hard as it turns in, but the skittish buttock-clencher that you’re expecting never comes.
Even in the most aggressive mode, the coil and torsion-bar suspension is incredibly compliant, absorbing the worst of the bumps and knocks despite maintaining virtually zero body roll and a ride height of just 2¾in.
The fixed-ratio steering impresses, too. It’s assisted via an electro-hydraulic pump, but never feels too light, always offering plenty of resistance even when it isn’t loaded up.
A snappy 2.5 turns lock-to-lock ensures a quick response to the driver’s inputs, plus there are no dead spots or vagueness.
It’s lively, communicative and more fun to throw around than the 2005 model. But can it hold a candle to the MkIII?
Comparing the three generations of GT is a difficult task.
The GT40 was an out and out racer, built with the sole aim of beating Ferrari at Le Mans.
In contrast, the 2005 GT was never meant for the race track, instead drawing a whole new cache of enthusiasts to the Blue Oval – a group with money, plus expectations of comfort, reliability and ease of use that are completely alien to owners of the company’s earlier model.
The final GT, meanwhile, represents a return to past form – a model designed primarily for racing, appearing in showrooms solely to help offset the cost of the competition programme. As a result, it is animalistic and uncompromising.
So which to take home? The first set of keys we hand back belong to the 2005 GT, which, though spectacular to look at, feels more like a muscle car than a mid-engined supercar.
It’s almost too easy to drive – the prodigious torque doesn’t reward working through the gears, and the engine, while hugely powerful, doesn’t shout like a big American V8 should.
Ultimately, it’s the first in the trilogy that holds the most cachet for devotees: the one capable of making your stomach do somersaults and the hair on the back of your neck bristle is the 1969 MkIII.
But if we had to have a modern in our two-car garage, there would always be a space for its 2016 sibling.
Unlike its rivals from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini, the Ford is an almost unapologetic race car, shrugging off any playboy associations despite a ticket price that could make a dot-com billionaire blush.
It’s a sense of purpose that speaks to me, and to the spirit of the original GT40.
Photography: James Mann. Additional pictures: LAT Photographic