Cars & Racing | 17 December 2015Ford’s Big Hopes for Le Mans Share article facebook twitter google pinterest The year was 1965, and the Ford Mark II was revved up and ready for its debut at Le Mans. We dig into the story of how the engineers responsible for Ford’s presence at Le Mans developed the big-block car into its race day configuration. That fascinating story is revealed in the excerpt below, pulled from Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans. After the start at Le Mans in 1965, the big-block Fords ran away from the field. “During the first two hours, Chris Amon and I enjoyed some real motor racing in the 7-liter Fords. We both had to resist the temptation to make those electrifying opening laps a real carve-it-up sprint.” —Bruce McLaren In mid-may, while most of the Shelby American team was in England, recovering from the Targa Florio and preparing for the Nürburgring, Ken Miles and Phil Remington flew to Detroit. Roy Lunn and the crew at Kar-Kraft had put together an experimental vehicle they called the X-car. Almost a year earlier, FAV had delivered chassis GT/106 to Dearborn so Kar-Kraft could try to squeeze a big-block 427-cubic-inch motor into the engine bay. But the installation hadn’t been completed until now, and this was to be the car’s first test. Neither Remington nor Miles expected much. After all, power had never been the GT’s problem. No, the big issue had always been weight, and the 427 was about 150 pounds heavier than the 289. For the past two days, the car had been shaken down at Ford’s low-speed ride-and handling test track by “Gentleman” Tom Payne, a 41-year-old club racer—celebrated locally for racing in a business suit—who’d driven Cobras to wins in several SCCA races. But now the dog-and-pony show had moved to the Michigan Proving Ground in Romeo, 90 minutes north of Detroit, where the X-car would be tested on the high-speed, 5-mile banked oval. In the late morning, despite a wicked crosswind, Payne got the car up to 180 mph. Miles was impressed enough to take a few familiarization laps before the crew broke for lunch. After a sandwich, Miles returned to the cockpit. He took his time getting up to speed. Shortly before 4:00 p.m., he announced that he was going to “let it out a little.” Next time on the track, he stunned himself and everybody else by cutting a lap at an average speed of 201.5 mph, maxxing out north of 210 mph. “What does everybody think?” Lunn asked when the session was over. “That’s the car I want to drive at Le Mans this year,” Miles said. In later years, the 427s would be built and dyno’ed in Dearborn before being installed in race cars. But the first two big-blocks came from Holman & Moody. Here, company co-founder John Holman stands next to the V-8 behind so many stock car victories. Thus began the most acrimonious debate of Ford’s Le Mans program, as proponents of the 7.0-liter, 427-cubic-inch monster fought a contentious battle with advocates of the 4.7-liter, 289-cubic-inch V-8. This is a controversy that rages to this day, with some people claiming that the small-block could have won Le Mans while others contend that the big-block was a necessary upgrade. The only surprise, really, is that the argument didn’t begin sooner. It’s unclear who deserves the credit—or blame—for the proposal to stuff the 427 in the Ford GT. But there’s no question that the idea was, at least in retrospect, a no-brainer. Ford had introduced the FE line of push rod V-8s in 1958. When it debuted, it came in 332-, 352-, and 361-cubic-inch forms, but the hefty cylinder block allowed plenty of room for the bore and stroke to grow. During the next two decades, Ford’s “wedge” motor—named for the shape of the combustion chamber—would be configured as a 390, 406, 410, 427, and 428, and it was found not only in cars and trucks but also in buses, boats, and industrial pumps. The 406 was developed in 1962 for stock car racing, but it was trounced by GM products. So for 1963, Ford enlarged the bore to displace 427 cubic inches, or 7.0 liters, which was the maximum permitted by NASCAR. (Technically, the swept area was only 425 cubic inches, but Ford figured that bigger was better even when it came to the engine’s name.) In addition to the race motor, the 427 was sold in milder form as motivation for muscle cars of the era. A high-performance side-oiler version was also fitted to limited numbers of Shelby Cobras. In its original form, the 427 race motor incorporated a low-rise intake manifold. For 1964, the breathing was improved with a high-rise manifold that required a bubble in the hood, but this was eventually outlawed by NASCAR (as was a single-overhead-cam motor known as the “cammer,” which went on to glory in drag racing). So by 1965, Ford had settled on a medium rise side-oiler, so called because an oil galley was machined into the left side of the block to keep the crankshaft main bearing journals well lubricated at high rpm. In stock-car form, a 427 with a compression ratio of 12.0:1 made 525 horsepower at 6,400 rpm. It was so dominant that it would win 49 of the 55 races on the Grand National schedule in 1964. The big-block engines used at Kar-Kraft had been prepared in Charlotte, North Carolina, by Holman & Moody. This made perfect sense since Holman & Moody was Ford’s analog for Shelby American in stock car racing. But the motors weren’t detuned versions of the NASCAR engines. Ford instead chose to go with a lightweight, 425-horsepower 427 that had been developed for the Cobra. Simulations showed that, with the big motor, a GT ought to be able to lap Le Mans at between 3:30 and 3:35. The previous year, Richie Ginther had been the fastest Ford qualifier at 3:45.3 Chassis GT/106 and GT/107 had been delivered to Kar-Kraft with 289s early in the summer of 1964. Several months passed before the engines were pulled so work could begin on the big-block installation. Even then, progress was glacial. “At the outset,” Lunn wrote later in a Society of Automotive Engineers paper, “it should be emphasized that the exercise was intended to generate information for a future model, and there was no intention of racing the car.” Aided by a chin spoiler and canards affixed to the front fenders, Hill claimed the pole with a record lap at 3:33 or 141.37 mph. Unofficially, he was timed at 213 mph on the Mulsanne straight in what was clearly the fastest car ever run at Le Mans. At the time, Kar-Kraft’s top priority was developing a replacement for the fragile Colotti gearbox. It was decided to use the heavy-duty gear cluster from Ford’s synchromesh four speed Toploader—which had been introduced in 1962 to replace the venerable Borg-Warner T-10—already found in muscle cars equipped with the 427. A team led by Ed Hull and young engineer Pete Weismann, who would go on to become one of the world’s foremost transmission designers, created a lightweight magnesium case to house the gearset. Incoming torque ran through a two-plate dry clutch, and the back end of the unit contained a pair of quick-change gears. The new transaxle was designated as the T-44, and while it was big and heavy, it could handle the torque of the 427. “The gearbox is easy to shift after broken in and has completely unbeatable synchros,” Miles later told Road & Track. Privately, though, Shelby American team members bitched constantly about the endless hours they had to devote to breaking in trannies at the racetrack, and they begged the folks at Kar-Kraft to do this on their dynos in Dearborn before shipping the gearboxes to California. Eventually, Kar-Kraft would develop not one but two automatic transmissions as potential alternatives to the T-44. Although the Mark II was heavy, it took a lovely set and could be four-wheel-drifted through fast sweepers with reliable precision. But the gearbox was only one reason the engine project was moving so slowly. The other issue was that the plan to develop the big-block motor for road racing provoked strident pushback from FAV. John Wyer lobbied vociferously against the project, which he considered unnecessary and ill-advised. “There is no evidence that the Ford G.T. is not going to be fast enough for Le Mans,” FAV director Walter Hayes wrote, no doubt at Wyer’s request, in a memo to Dearborn. “Our problem is not power but reliability, and all the development and testing has been with the existing engine. I think it is a dangerous risk to put all that extra power through the transmission, which has proved to be the main questionable component of this vehicle.” Hayes’ memo fell on deaf ears. First of all, the new T-44 seemed likely to solve the car’s transmission problems. Second and more important, the folks in Dearborn weren’t convinced that the GT, in current form, was quick enough to win Le Mans. At Monza, which was nearly as fast as Le Mans, the 289 cars had been thoroughly outpaced by the Ferraris. That said, swapping engines in mid-season was a huge gamble, especially since it wasn’t simply a matter of yanking out the old motor and dropping the new one neatly into its place. “The extra cubic inches came with extra weight, which meant a bigger and heavier gearbox, bigger and heavier brakes, more cooling, and so on,” John Horsman said. “But that was the engine they knew. The fact that the whole car had to be designed around it wasn’t their concern.” This is what the field saw of the two 7-liter Fords in the first few hours. “We learned an important lesson at Le Mans in 1965. We made the classic mistake of thinking Le Mans was a speed contest not an endurance race. We now realized that it didn’t matter how fast you went if you didn’t finish. That mistake wouldn’t be repeated.” —Leo Beebe To fit the 427 in the engine bay, both the seat and the rear bulkhead had to be modified. That was the easy part. The bigger challenge was dealing with the extra 150 or so pounds and greater cooling requirements. Larger Halibrand wheels were spec’d—to the ones Shelby was already using in his 289s—and the T-44 transaxle was installed. The front and rear structures attached to each end of the monocoque were strengthened. A longer nose was designed to accommodate a larger radiator, and a remote oil tank was attached to the bulkhead. The conversion wasn’t completed until April, and it wasn’t until May that the first tests were run. But almost immediately after Miles pushed the car past 200 mph, Ford decided to race the 427, and the crew at Kar-Kraft started working feverishly to finish the second car. Le Mans was less than five weeks away… To find out what happened at Le Mans, get your hands on a copy of Ford GT. The pits at dusk on a warm summer night. Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans Author: Preston Lerner Photographer: Dave Friedman Get the whole story on the car built to beat the world–Ford’s GT. Henry Ford II, “the Deuce,” wanted a race car capable of winning top-flight sports car events in Europe. Specifically, he wanted to win Le Mans. Ford learned that Enzo Ferrari would consider selling his company and negotiations quickly ensued. But after Ford spent considerable time and money reviewing Ferrari’s operations and negotiating with Enzo, Ferrari abruptly backed out of the talks. The Deuce took Ferrari’s actions as a personal insult. Word was sent down from on high: beat Ferrari. Ford settled on UK-based Eric Broadley’s Lola GT, a cutting-edge car that featured a mid-engine chassis and small-block Ford V-8 power. The Lola GT would morph into the Ford GT. Carroll Shelby helped shape it into the “Mark II” GT40. The result was one of the most legendary wins in racing history: Ford’s 1-2-3 sweep of Le Mans in 1966. Ford GT celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ford’s iconic victory, providing the detailed back story leading to that historic win, as well as the follow-up win in 1967. The GT40’s last two competitive seasons in 1968 and 1969 are also covered, for a complete view of this remarkable era in racing. Author Preston Lerner details the ups and downs of Ford’s GT program, accompanied by Shelby American photographer Dave Friedman’s historic images. Come re-live one of the most exciting stories in all of racing history! Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.