An exclusive blast in Graham Hill's reborn Le Mans Ford GT40

| 30 Sep 2013

With most great cars I’ve been blessed to drive, I’m usually impatient to get on with it. But with the legendary Ford GT40 MkII, more specifically chassis XGT-2 – the very 7-litre Le Mans weapon that Graham Hill gunned into the lead at the momentous ’66 24-hour French classic – the situation is quite different. As a Ken Miles fan (there’s a tribute to him in my garage), that race has poignant meaning to me, and to find myself sitting in one of the eight MkIIs that lined up at 4pm on Saturday 18 June is a huge moment. I’m role-playing, not just for the photography, but also because I want to live and feel the authentic experience in this brilliantly restored survivor. My gear – period-style Nomex, string-backed driving gloves, cotton-wrap face protection, tank goggles and black helmet – helps me to slip back to that epic day for Henry’s racing army. This morning I even cut up sticky-backed white stripes to make my old Bell helmet look like hero Hill’s.

XGT-2’s preserved state is wonderful, and I feel hugely privileged to be the first to test it after its masterful restoration by Precision Auto, Mark Allin’s talented, Massachusetts-based team. Once ensconced in the Formula bucket seat, a specific request by GP ace Hill over the factory’s signature parachute-silk and brass-ringlet item, you quickly feel comfortable. The preparation for Ford’s third Le Mans challenge reached NASA-style levels of research, testing and development, all with massive investment. The Blue Oval was leaving nothing to chance this time. And, unlike rival Ferraris and Porsches, the MkII feels comfortable and organised from the off. For a racer, the ergonomics – perfectly positioned outside-right gearlever gate, relaxed stretch to the thin, leather-trimmed three-spoke wheel, clear gauges and switchgear – is brilliantly considered. Restorer Allin went to remarkable lengths to source or fabricate an authentic-looking wiring harness, even making the correct connector plugs from scratch. “The big parts were easy, but the little details were a challenge,” recalls Allin of the two-year rebuild.

The ’66 Le Mans saga is one I know in detail, and sitting in XGT-2’s warm cockpit, baked by the high sun, the interior details and dynamic aura of this hugely important car vividly bring history to life. As I carefully close the door, I can’t help thinking about Miles’ frustration when he crushed the flyweight aluminum opening with his helmet in the sister Shelby Team car P/1015 at the start. The resulting crunch forced an early pit to sort the damage, and ultimately may have lost him the race. I practise fastening the belts, remembering that Ford team boss Leo Beeb had ordered that harnesses were secured at the start, rather than waiting for the Mulsanne to clunk-click. Were nobody watching, I’d have tried a running approach, leapt in, slammed the door, flicked the starter, and roared off, leaving long lines of torched rubber just as Hill did for his start from sixth slot along the pit-wall. 

Maybe Hill knew that the car wouldn’t last. Perhaps Dr Dick Thompson’s practice shunt had left a nagging doubt that a weakened component would eventually let go before the 24 hours was up. Whichever way, Hill was on a mission when Henry Ford, the event’s Honorary Grand Marshal, dropped the Tricolore at four. By the end of the first lap the mustachioed ace was well clear in number seven, with the mighty torque of the 7-litre V8 punching it, rocket-style, down the most famous straight in the world. Miles clocked 204mph down the Mulsanne at the April test day, and Hill made the most of the big-block’s pulverising performance by continuing to set the pace, putting pressure on co-driver Brian Muir who’d been drafted in at the last minute to replace the disqualified Thompson. British team boss Alan Mann’s original pairing had been star-studded, with Hill matched with fellow BRM driver Jackie Stewart, but a scary crash at Spa had left the Scot out of action and his pal Jim Clark wouldn’t entertain a Le Mans drive, claiming it was too dangerous.

Hill and Muir remained out front until niggling problems forced unscheduled pitstops, including for a puncture. During the early evening rainstorms, fumbled pit work lost the pair more time. Out in front, Miles and Kiwi team-mate Denny Hulme were storming around, barely lifting in the dark and wet – much to the consternation of the pit crew and the tall Texan team boss. Hill in XGT-2 was having no luck; a pit instruction to switch to rain tyres directed him in, but on entering the pitlane he encountered chaos and overstretched mechanics. This left no option but to rejoin the race and try again later, but the delay cost him two laps and dropped XGT-2 further down the field. Finally, close to midnight, Hill stopped out at Arnage corner after the right-front suspension collapsed. ‘Drawing upon my vast experience, I froze the bloody controls and motored off on to the grass verge, considering it healthier than the track,’ the suave Englishman later wrote.

Sitting in XGT-2, a few days short of 44 years later, I feel very remote from that long, wet night and the filthy, stained Ford MkII team survivors that roared on to dawn. Eventually, Beeb decided to stage a 1-2-3 finish, which ultimately denied front-runner Miles his dream win. Due to a technicality – P/1046, driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, covered a greater distance having started fourth – Miles lost his hat-trick after chalking up Sebring and Daytona victories for the Blue Oval. Two months later Miles was dead after a freak testing accident with the experimental J-car at Riverside. Shelby lost not only a great development driver, but also a dear friend.

After the frustrating Le Mans sortie, XGT-2 was sent to Shelby America to join Ford’s ‘MkII Tour’ of motor shows and dealerships across the US. After four months and 25 appearances, from Packy Webb Ford in Wheaton, IL to Lindquist Ford in Bettandorf, IA, XGT-2 went into storage for two years at Holman Moody’s base in Charlotte. Its second life started in ’68, when it was rebuilt to Group 4 spec for Malcolm Guthrie and fitted with a Gurney-Weslake Boss 302 V8.  To meet the new regulations, the original alloy roof structure was skinned in paper-thin steel and the car was renumbered P/10009 – an older GT40 that Guthrie had crashed in the Kyalami 9 Hours – to sway the scrutineers.

For 1969, the disguised XGT-2 was back at La Sarthe, finished in silver-grey with a maroon stripe. Again the Alan Mann-entered car had no luck after Aussie Frank Gardner – another hero of mine – got tangled up in John Woolfe’s fatal first-lap crash on the exit of Maison Blanche. Slicing through the flames, Gardner ran over burning debris, which holed the radiator. Back in the pits, he patiently chatted to the press, reporting a ‘100ft wall of flame’ and the shock of finding Chris Amon’s blazing Ferrari 312P in his path. Moments like that are etched into XGT-2’s history, and such dramatic imagery haunts me as I sit silently in the growing heat.

The delays and damage eventually resulted in retirement after five hours. After a busy European season, in 1970 Guthrie sold XGT-2 to collector Gil Jackson, together with a hoard of spares. The plan to return it to ’66 spec never happened, and in 2007 the timewarp car was sold again. Few people had seen XGT-2 in more than three decades, but top dealer Gregor Fisken was lucky to be present at Precision Autos when the original roof was revealed: “With all the rivets drilled out, we took a corner and peeled off the steel. It was a great moment.” From there, Allin’s team set to work reviving the old warhorse in its most famous livery as the silver hare from ’66.

After reading this, you can appreciate my fever for the ultimate GT40, the top dog of Ford’s racing pedigree. At last, it’s time to fire up that 485bhp 6997cc big-block. The motor roars and, as the oil warms, the heat rises in the cockpit despite the sophisticated insulation. I cruise for the first few laps, eagerly watching the Stuart Warner gauges – specifically the oil and water temperatures on this close, humid day. Sweat weeps under my helmet and the face-wrap feels coarse against my dry mouth, but the sensations are authentic.

Time to stretch this GT40 king, and I’m instantly blown away by the slick, short-fire gearchange. The Kar Kraft T-44 is a rare and highly prized item, so slicing up and down the sweet gate is another privilege, but you barely need to change with such an avalanche of torque from the dry-sump 427. This machine could stroke from a taxi to a 200mph charge with no trouble. As we pound out of a fast left on to the straight, XGT-2 blasts off like Gemini VII, and Neil Armstrong would recognise its thrust. The speed is deceptive because the power is so effortless and, although there’s no speedo, you know the pace is heady. Like all GT40s, it feels strong and safe, a comfort zone no Porsche or Ferrari can deliver. Until 1966, Ford’s mid-engined missile had a clean record, but the deaths of Bob McLean at Sebring and Walt Hansgen testing at Le Mans proved that you can never account for driver error. As I coast around for a final lap, I’m fixated by the wiper: the system is almost identical to that on a Boeing 707, geared to sweep at 100-plus times a minute. Roaring down the Mulsanne, rain slashing at that steeply raked glass, you needed the best wiper in the world. 

A weekend after my drive, XGT-2 was back at La Sarthe for a demo run at the Le Mans Classic, and Fisken was the lucky man following in Hill’s tracks. “The handling feels so friendly and surefooted,” reports the enthusiastic historics front-runner. “At 6000rpm down the Mulsanne, we pulled 150mph with ease and it felt as solid as a rock. The longer nose transforms the aero – a real step forward – and a rival Ferrari P3/4 feels nervous in comparison.” Chris Amon, who won in ’66 with McLaren, reported: ‘You could set the MkII up to slide progressively, but the only problem was that if you got out of line in the wet it was like losing a truck. Its momentum took hold and the thing would spin for ever.’ A year later Amon switched to Modena and was asked how P4 and GT40 compared: ‘Well, it’s like getting on a stallion after a stint on a carthorse.’ Unsurprisingly, Henry J II wasn’t happy! 

For me, however, the experience reaffirmed my feelings about the MkII, and that awesome big-block looks tailored for this legendary racer’s engine bay. The ultimate ’60s sports-prototype? No argument for a Ford fan.

Thanks to Gregor Fisken, Will Stone and James Mitchell at Fiskens; Mark Allin at Precision Auto; Simon Blake at Historic Autos

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Tim Scott, Fluid Images