Unless you’re a corporate lawyer with a thing for thorny litigation, most company spats are nothing to write home about. Then again, Ferrari and Ford aren’t most companies.
See, when the Blue Oval and the Prancing Horse had a great big falling out, the result was something altogether more exciting than an out-of-court settlement: a fabled fracas that would gift history its most legendary racer, the Ford GT40.
Picture the year 1963. Ferrari was the biggest name in sports car racing but in dire need of extra dollar. Ford was the biggest name in, well, cars, but desperate to get into endurance racing.
Specifically, Ford wanted to win at Le Mans – a 24-hour spectacle staged since 1923 on a ring of French roads and race track. A thrilling, deadly event, where hay bales and painted trees counted for safety measures and simply reaching the finish felt like victory. It was the ultimate test of man and machine. And Ferrari had won it three years straight.
Makes sense, then, that Ford would offer to buy Ferrari. Combined, the two heavyweights would take the race by storm, Enzo would have his cash and Henry Ford II would have his win. Only, things went as smoothly as a gear change without a clutch. Ford wanted control of the race programme and its budget. So did Ferrari. Talks broke down and the deal was off.
Did Enzo ever intend to sell? Did Henry slip in a secret clause? Whatever the truth, one thing is certain: having spent millions on due diligence, the American was not best pleased. Incensed might be a better term. So he marched right back to Detroit, gathered the high-ups and issued a simple instruction: build a car that could whip the Prancing Horse at Le Mans.
Problem was, Ford didn’t know how. So it bought a pair of radical Mk6 machines from British outfit Lola and set up shop in the birthplace of all great ideas: Slough. There, a crack team knuckled down, crunched the numbers, drew the lines and, in less than a year, Ford’s first 200mph challenger was born.
Just 40 inches tall and powered by a 4.2-litre V8, it promised to be a proper pocket rocket. And it was, in the sense that rockets are flighty and explosive: the new machine proved woefully unreliable and terrifyingly unstable at speed. At Le Mans in ’64? Far from the glory Henry had hoped for, all three machines retired – and Ferrari took another emphatic win.
Something had to change. Enter Carroll Shelby, the creator of the legendary Cobra and a man who knew how to make cars fast with Ford power. Shelby tasked race ace Ken Miles with refining the fragile GT40 and he was quick to find its flaws. Less quick, though, was the process of fixing them. Le Mans came around and the cars – now equipped with 7-litre motors – were better, but not their best. All retired. And Ferrari won. Again.
Pull out or plough on? There was only one answer: Ford poured yet more millions into the programme. It ran the GT40 MkII through thousands of test miles and countless gruelling simulations. And it went bigger than ever for the race itself, shipping an arsenal of spares, an army of staff and some nine cars to the Circuit de la Sarthe in ’66.
Its opposition? The Ferrari P3: a streamlined fibreglass thoroughbred that looked every bit the winner in waiting, coming off the back of six straight Ferrari victories at Le Mans.
And so, with Henry Ford II in town to wave the starter’s flag, the 1966 event had a back-story fit for a film. A film due to be released later this year. But did it have a Hollywood plot? You bet. Four GT40s were out by lap 110, Ferrari was leading by nightfall and it was all looking very familiar. Yet, by Sunday morning, everything was different: the P3s had retired to a man, Miles was leading and Ford was running first, second and third.
With the race all but in the bag, team manager Leo Beebe stage-managed a poster finish for which the Blue Oval had paid millions. Miles was ordered to back off and cross the line with the other Fords – a controversial move that gifted Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon the win because they’d started further back. It was a cruel result for the man who’d done so much to develop the car – and who’d be killed testing its successor just a few months later.
As for Ford? It finally had its victory and would go on to win the next three Le Mans races, sealing the streak with a scintillating win over Porsche in ’69. After that, Ford walked away, Ferrari switched its attentions to Formula One and neither won Le Mans outright again.
So the ultimate battle had its final winner and Henry had his vengeance. But at what cost? Ford probably spent as much beating Ferrari as it would have spent buying it. Worth it? To settle a score and create a legend, absolutely.