It started with a letter. In February 1963, a letter arrived at Ford's German headquarters saying that a small but prestigious Italian sports-car maker was for sale. Enzo Ferrari had made the overture. He chose Ford, he said, because he had always been an admirer of Henry Ford. What he did not say was that he was being vilified in the Italian press over the bloodshed among Ferrari drivers, particularly after the 1961 Grand Prix at Monza. At that race, Ferrari's Phil Hill clinched the Formula 1 championship, but his teammate Count Wolfgang Von Trips crashed, killing himself and fourteen spectators. The race was televised, so millions saw the carnage.
Ferrari was interested in selling his customer-car business, provided he could retain total control over the racing operation. Ford, eager for the image-enhancing rub-off from the glamorous Ferraris, was interested in buying. Three months later, a deal was in place. The auto business would be called Ford-Ferrari; the racing arm, Ferrari-Ford. The price was $10 million. As word of the sale got out, the Italian press changed its tune. Suddenly, Ferrari was a national treasure. How could it be sold to the Americans?
A Ford delegation went to Maranello with the final papers. But Enzo Ferrari would not sign. He became incensed at a passage that required him to request money from Ford for racing operations. The deal was off.
"Alright," said Henry Ford II. "We'll beat his ass. We're going to race him."
With that, the Ford Motor Company embarked on a crash program to design and build a racing car to take on Ferrari. The venue would be the prestigious - and grueling - 24 Hours of Le Mans, in the prototype class, the zenith of motorsport. Ford had a year to get ready.
Le Mans was virtually Ferrari's home turf. Ferrari won its very first Le Mans, in 1949, and won again in 1954, '58, '60, '61, '62, and '63. In 1963, in fact, Ferraris placed one through six.
Carroll Shelby was tapped to run Ford's Le Mans effort. His Ford-powered Cobras also would compete, in the GT class. The Ford proto-type racer was unveiled at the New York auto show in April 1964; it was called the GT but became known as the GT40 (due to its ultra-low, 40-inch height). The car's debut at Le Mans was inauspicious; both GT40s crashed in testing. Meanwhile, Ferrari's John Surtees set a new speed record of 194 mph down the Mulsanne straight in a Ferrari 330P, an evolution of the previous year's winning car.
The race itself didn't go much better. All three GT40s bowed out due to mechanical problems. Ferraris took the top three spots. But there was one hopeful sign for Ford: Shelby's Ford-powered Cobra came in fourth overall, winning the GT class.
For the 1965 effort, Ford upped the ante. Whereas the original GT40 had a 289-cubic-inch V-8, Ford went with its 427-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) monster for the Mark II. It was a classic American approach - Ford's heavy, thirsty big-block making 486 hp versus Ferrari's lighter, more fuel-efficient 4.0-liter V-12 making 420 hp. But again it was all for naught. Of the six GT40s entered (both Mark I and Mark II), none finished the race. The factory Ferraris, though, also had mechanical troubles. In the end, a Ferrari did take the checkered flag, but it was a year-old car entered by Luigi Chinetti (Ferrari's U.S. distributor), driven by American Masten Gregory and Austrian Jochen Rindt.
After the '65 debacle, Ford's top people received a card from their boss. The one-line message: "You'd better win, Henry Ford II." Ford threw even more resources into the 1966 program, adding a second team that was run by Holman Moody. In the run-up to Le Mans, things looked good. A GT40 driven by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby won Daytona and Sebring. At Le Mans, Ford entered eight GT40s, while Ferrari prepared seven prototypes (two of which were factory entries). Privateers campaigned additional Fords and Ferraris. Henry Ford II was the grand marshal of the race, and a record crowd was on hand. At last, Ford triumphed. After twenty-four hours, the GT40s led the field. Team managers attempting to engineer a tie had the first two cars cross the finish line together, but French officials declared the Bruce McLaren car (which had started farther back) the winner over Miles. Still, it was a 1-2-3 finish for Ford. The upstart Americans had finally defeated the European old guard. Ford became the first American automaker ever to win Le Mans.
The feat was repeated in 1967 and again with privateers in 1968 and '69. Ferrari hasn't had another Le Mans victory since, but its record of six in a row remains unbeaten.