Christmas Gift for Car Guys
This week I finally had enough quiet time to open a new book that should be on any Christmas shopping list that includes a car enthusiast: Ford GT: How Ford Silenced The Critics, Humbled Ferrari, and Conquered Le Mans. Covering a topic documented in excruciating detail by several pedantic journalist-historians of the 1960s, and mulled over by countless lesser scribes for a half-century, this book might seem unneeded. But the Ford Le Mans program rates among a limited few topics in racing’s distant past that possess intellectual relevance today.
Long-time magazine writer Preston Lerner read the available source material, then successfully pulled together the significant skeins of this complex tale into a dynamic narrative. Lively and engaging, written in a contemporary voice, Ford GT reads like a 50,000-word magazine article, complete with multiple sidebars that provide deeper shades of meaning.
When challenged to encapsulate the book, Lerner offered a simple thesis: Henry Ford II didn’t have in-the-blood passion for motorsports. But when Enzo Ferrari backed out of a deal to sell his company to Ford in 1963, “Hank the Deuce” vowed to “whip his ass” and launched what to this day is arguably the greatest and certainly most expansive motorsports program in history, changing forever Formula One, rally, Le Mans sports-prototype and GT racing, and Indy car racing. Not even the 1930s race programs of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, partially sponsored and aggressively promoted by the National Socialist Party, approached the sheer scale of Ford’s privately funded endeavor.
Lerner argues that Henry Ford II understood that the only reason to go racing was the marketing value of victory. You’ve got to win. His then-new head of Ford Division, a young Lee Iacocca, had pushed for the purchase of Ferrari because he knew Ford’s dowdy image needed a boost. After all, it was only a handful of years prior that Ford had shut down Edsel.
To defeat Ferrari, Ford Motor Company lavished unprecedented resources on the Le Mans program, and in so doing established a rough corporate template that’s used to this day. Ford engineers performed much of the work in-house, but farmed out the operational aspects to professional race teams and motorsports vendors. Porsche and Audi have at different times applied the template with their racing partner, Joest. Jaguar won at Le Mans in the late 1980s and early ‘90s with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) managing much of the effort. GM engages an engineering firm, Pratt & Miller, to field its Le Mans Corvettes. Subaru’s past successes in world rally were owed to a small English firm, ProDrive.
Faced with a relatively tight word count and wanting to deliver a cogent narrative car nerds like me would appreciate, Lerner limited scope to the Ford factory effort, which ended with the victory of Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt in 1967 in the American-engineered and –built GT40 Mk IV. “The FIA announced new rules two days after the race,” says Lerner, “and the following week Ford announced that the program was being ended.” As a Californian and American, I of course prefer the triumphal Shelby American skein of the story, as the California sports car guys took over the inventive but unsuccessful early efforts of Ford of England and brought victory. The Shelby American element is emblematic of the good old-fashioned American know-how way to get things done.
The book does not cover the Gulf-sponsored GT40s that were entered by race manager John Wyer in 1968 and ‘69, in spite of the fact these cars—in fact, the same GT40, chassis number 1075—won Le Mans two years in a row, cementing the Ford Le Mans legacy. The 1969 race rates among the closest finishes of all time, as a Porsche 908 and the Gulf GT40 swapped the lead back and forth over the final hour, the race won only in the last few hundred yards.
Because the book ends at the peak of the factory Le Mans effort, it also does not cover the corruption of the late stages of Ford’s wide-ranging motorsports program in the early 1970s, when Henry Ford grew disgusted with suppliers who were sopping up money. Subsequent big motorsports programs learned this lesson, and financial accountability is certainly much higher today.
The book is not an art piece. Ford GT is a populist book, a Christmas book. But thanks to the refined talents of the author, Ford GT is also far better than those coffee table books that were cranked out in the 1990s and 2000s to fill the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble . Lerner benefited from the editing skills and intellectual sounding board provided by his long-time girlfriend, Emily Young, who is a talented editor. You will find a few typos in the captions, but blame lies with the publishing company, not Lerner. Well, that and the fine art of editing has been flushed away, supplanted with blind trust in computerized spell checks.
A large-format book measuring 12 x 10 inches, Ford GT has plenty of real estate to let the photos breathe—no postage stamp images to be found. They’re all quarter-, half- and full-page images. The book is designed for non-linear breezing, the reader enjoying the photos and captions, dipping into the main text here and there until the moment comes to read it front to back. Breezing the book a few times helps because the tale is complex, though that also makes for a rewarding read.
A child who dreams of creating racecars will find this 50-year-old story fascinating, from a time when men were men, and the racers were the real deal, knowing that their lives were at risk in the cars. I have worked with many of the men whose careers were elevated by the Ford effort. Bob Bondurant, who raced for Shelby American, now operates the Bondurant School in Arizona, where I helped organize national dealer meetings for Ford SVT. And I’ve published stories about two of the critical engineer-mechanics who made these cars successful, Steele Therkleson and Phil Remington.
And that forces an admission. Preston Lerner wrote that piece about Phil Remington for me. He started writing about cars in earnest 26 years ago, for my humble sports car magazine. Preston is not a race reporter. He approaches racing history as if pursuing an unorthodox Ph.D., yet he has the honed talents of a man who has been published over the past three decades in most of America’s top-flight men’s magazines. He can spin a tale.
Dave Friedman was Shelby American’s documentary photographer, and as such his images fill much of the book. Many of the photos are gritty, behind-the-scenes glimpses that bring a sense of immediacy, and intimacy—you’re actually there. Friedman’s father went into the movie business in 1919, and was the Studio Production Manager of MGM until his death in 1967. Dave grew up around the best cinematographers of the 20th Century. He entered the movie business as a camera assistant on The Sound of Music, then spent many years as the stills photographer on big movie productions, working with the likes of John Wayne, John Travolta, Steve McQueen. Friedman’s race photography archive is now held by the Henry Ford Museum. And Dave is another known quantity: long ago I published his racing photographs, often alongside words by Preston Lerner. You can find him on Facebook, where he regularly posts images from his Hollywood career.
No matter our age, when men escape to the world of cars, we can get lost in the topic like we’re once again 12 years old. Ford GT is a book that a father or a son will enjoy for many hours, a book to revisit over the years. It might be too big to stuff in a Christmas stocking, but it warrants a spot under the tree.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.