In April 1967, Bill Kolb and I tested America’s first real Supercar for Hi-Performance CARS Magazine. We dodged New York City taxis, delivery trucks and the occasional cop car, and frightened woman, children and puppies! It was a glorious day.
Fortunately my friend Bill Kolb, then High-Performance Sales Manager at Ford’s factory store in Manhattan, Gotham Ford, had a beautiful blue GT40 Mark III prototype on its showroom floor. It was a Ford-owned prototype. Bill, a successful drag racer and one of the top Shelby Mustang & Cobra sales guys in the country, didn’t have any problems sharing its keys with me!
The 1967 Mark III, unlike the version Ford tried and failed to sell the year before passed Federal regulations (headlamp placement and ground clearance). Kolb was ready to take orders at around $18,500 to $20,000. Since you could buy a current model Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini for less, finding buyers for a Mark III proved to be an exercise in futility. Who could have ever anticipated that one day a Mark III would be valued at a million dollars?
NOTE: The Ford Division executive I spoke with after driving the Mark III prototype valued it at $70,000. Chump change by today’s standards!
Bill and I spent the morning driving the Mark III around Manhattan, and then headed to Randall’s Island for a photo shoot, below. The Mark III had a 306-horsepower Shelby 289 and ZF 5DS-25 five-speed transaxle with 2.50-to-1 final gearing. It was obviously best suited for the Autobahn and not driving in traffic on Manhattan’s First Avenue!
Here are some of my notes from that day:
“It was a beautiful spring day and I was cruising along the sun-drenched FDR Drive, playing hero driver in a 175-mph GT40 in midday traffic. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“Incredible throttle response as long as I keep the Rs up. Braking and handling, superb, like driving a fully sorted-out racecar on the street. A little scary.”
“That red warning light on the dash means I have to turn on the electric cooling fans, lots to think about when driving a GT40 in traffic. Small outside mirrors do very little.”
“I think I’m in love. No, lust!”
Driving back to Manhattan, I took the FDR Drive and got off in the 60s, left, to play in traffic before returning to Gotham Ford.
“Hey, don’t you think it’s time to slow down?” barked my co-pilot. “I think you’re getting carried away.”
Kolb, who normally treated every red traffic light like a drag strip Christmas Tree, was not happy. His knuckles were turning a lovely shade of white!
“Mainly because you’ve been darting in and out of traffic at just under 105 mph for the last three or four minutes and we’re going to get nailed. Or worse!”
There’s nothing like a dose of reality to screw up your whole day. I knew I was speeding, maybe 25 or 30 mph over the 40-mph limit, but it didn’t feel like 100-plus mph. The GT40 Mark III proved that it’s a racecar in street duds and racecars like to run.
“At 100 mph, the 306-horsepower Shelby 289 just loafs along in Third gear. You tend to forget just how fast you are going, as the low semi-reclining driving position minimizes the feeling of speed,” CARS, July 1967, THE ONLY WAY TO FLY!
With its wide carpeted sills and doors that contain sections of the roof, right, getting in and out of the Mark III is not a pretty sight! It’s eight-inch (rear) body extension, needed to make room for a stowage box (trunk) South of the engine, unfortunately takes away from the lines of the stunning GT40 racecar. Extremely limited visibility, approximately five inches of ground clearance and windows that tilt open rather than roll down, did little for the Mark III’s marketing appeal.
By comparison, the GTs from Italy were less racecar and more GT, cheaper and considerably easier to live with. Unlike the competition, the Mark III was a 2,500-pound racecar with 45/55% F-R weight distribution and basic street amenities. However there were few Ford dealers in the country that could service a Mark III.
Ford’s Don Frey, a key engineer in the development of the Mustang and later, as head of Ford Division, a big supporter of the GT40 and all motorsports activities. He campaigned for a roadworthy GT40 to support the racing program and to serve as a halo car for the Ford brand. The First-Gen street GT40 was a thinly disguised racecar with up level interior and detuned GT40 289 fitted with Webers, mild cam and mufflered exhausts. Air conditioning was an option. While production records are somewhat murky, it appears that less than a dozen were built and sold at a tick over $15,000.
In 1967, Ford Advanced Vehicles contracted with John Wyer and his partner, John Willment (JW Automotive Engineering) to create a street version of the GT40, a real road-going GT. Wyer, a Brit who had headed up Ford Advanced Vehicles along with Roy Lunn, were the Godfathers of the GT40 racecar. Lola’s Eric Broadly was responsible for the Ford GT, the GT40’s predecessor. The GT40’s platform traces its roots to Lola.
It should be noted that Wyer Ltd. In the UK also continued to construct road-going Mark I GT40s, built off real GT40 racecars. Those cars showcased the stunning lines of the original GT40; did not have the Mark III styling updates and extended body. The Mark I had a 335-horsepower detuned GT40 race engine and appealed primarily to enthusiasts who wanted a real GT40 they could drive on the street.
The Mark III marketed in the U.S. was fitted with a more comfortable interior with shifter mounted on a center console, a rear-mounted stowage box for small items, and engineered to meet all 1967 Federal regs. Priced at $18,500, or close to $2,000 more than Ford priced a GT40 racecar to teams, production was to be limited to just 20 units. As best as we can determine, only seven or eight were actually built and some records show that they were all LHD. Some claim that four cars were built with RHD. Shelby American was named the U.S. GT40 street car distributor and Carroll Shelby, below, personally delivered an air-conditioned RHD GT40 Mark I street car built off the racecar platform, at approximately $20,000, to David Heerensperger, Spokane, WA. It is currently owned by Colin Comer, Colin's Classic Auto, Milwaukee, WI.
There were a lot of people at Ford who were not happy with the fit and finish quality of the JWA cars and did not commit to ongoing Mark III development and marketing programs. Ford kept a number of “prototype” Mark IIIs for press drives, auto shows, executive loans and dealer promotions. Those cars, including the one we drove, had vins and were legal for road use and sale. Ford engineers saw the writing on the wall and knew that the Mark IIIs would not meet 1968 emission and safety standards. By the end of 1967, those Mark IIIs were disposed of. It is not clear exactly how many Mark IIIs were owned by Ford. I remember in the late-1960s, seeing a Mark III that Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford II and currently a Board member of the Ford Motor Company, was driving when he spent time in the Hamptons. It had been parked under a cover in Ford’s New York executive garage (58th Street & 11th Avenue) where they also kept media test cars.
It’s interesting to note that when Ford brought back the GT40 Mark III concept as the Ford GT in 2005-2006, they got rid of the wide sills, engineered at great expense power roll down windows and kept much of the original GT40’s beautifully-proportioned styling. It has more horsepower and is actually faster than a Mark III and just about as fast as a GT40 racecar. And, air conditioning is standard!
Today “real” GT40 Mark IIIs are million-dollar-cars and rarely come up for sale. There are continuation, replica, turnkey and GT40 kit cars from ERA, Safir, Superformance and others. Lee Holman, son of John Holman, legendary Ford racecar builder and racing team owner (Holman & Moody) whose GT40s finished 1-2-3 at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring, is building arguably the most authentic GT40s (Holman GT MK II).
NOTE: Shortly after we tested the Mark III in 1967, Bill Kolb called and asked if I wanted to buy one. Ford wanted little to do with the Mark III. They had three cars in a warehouse in Secaucus, NJ and offered Kolb a three-car package deal. The cars were not perfect. There were some scratches, bruises, flat tires and bent Borrani wire wheels, etc. But they all ran and were complete.
“Marty, Ford offered me the Mark IIIs that had been used for auto shows, dealer promotions and advertising for $3,500 each. Are you in?
I was almost finished building a Shelby-powered street roadster that would a few months later debut at the New York City Rod & Custom Show at the Coliseum in Manhattan (and take First in class). While I had fallen in lust with the GT40 Mark III, I figured down the road they would be just used cars and affordable. I passed. Bill passed as well. We were unquestionably dumb and dumber!
Bill Kolb and I are still friends and whenever we get together we joke about the Mark IIIs that got away. Today Bill and his wife Maryann own Bill Kolb Jr. Subaru, Orangeburg, NY, one of the most successful Subaru dealerships on the East Coast and they own a 2006 Tungsten Ford GT. In 2006 Ford introduced a new GT color, Tungsten with silver stripes, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GT40 1-2-3 win at Le Mans. As far as Kolb is concerned, he has a very streetable GT40! On November 14, 2011, I took delivery of a one-owner, four-option 2006 Tungsten GT, exactly like the one in Kolb's garage.
For the latest on Lee Holman’s GT MK IIs, please visit, http://www.holmanmoody.com/gt40_gal.html
For more information about Ford’s phenomenal GT40s and their domination of Le Mans, check out, http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/carroll-shelby-the-ford-gt40-four-yrs-of-domination-at-le-mans/
A.J. Baime tells the story of the Ford-Ferrari battle at Le Mans in his best selling Go Like Hell, http://www.amazon.com/Go-Like-Hell-Ferrari-Battle/dp/0618822194