The 1966 Le Mans Winning Ford GT40
Courtesy of Ford (edited)

Why the Ford GT40 Is the Quintessential American Car

How do you find a car that's quintessentially American? It is no easy feat. First, you have to think about what America is, what she stands for, her accomplishments. I think Ali Krieger, soccer player for the US Women's National Team, sums it up quite nicely: there is a "distinctively American culture, rooted in our struggle, shared aspiration, hard work, and self-determination. We are resilient, focused, determined, committed -- and we will find a way to win."  

With those thoughts in mind, one vehicle stands tall above the rest (which is ironic, because at 40in high, it's not exactly tall). What car is the most quintessentially American? The Ford GT40. With British roots and original American ideas, this car's meteoric rise to superpower status stemmed from hard work, ingenuity, and innovation at the bleeding edge -- all of which it has now sustained through three generations.

The Ford GT40 Mk II wins Le Mans in 1968
Courtesy of Ford

When you look back over its history, you'll see that the GT40 has more in common with the story of America than the Jeep, Mustang, Camaro, or Corvette, even though they're all American icons in their own rights. If you're unfamiliar with the story of the GT40, its incredible accomplishments, and its enduring legacy, here's the CliffsNotes version:

In the early 1960s, Ford was set to buy Ferrari when Enzo Ferrari canceled the deal at the 11th hour -- ostensibly over control of Ferrari's racing program. Henry Ford II took it personally, declared motorsport war on Ferrari, and hired a who's who of drivers, engineers, and project leaders to design a car that would deliver his victory. With names like Carroll Shelby, Bruce McLaren, Ken Miles, and Dan Gurney dotting the roster, the GT40 effort accomplished this goal by 1966. It won again in 1967, 1968, and 1969, before fading away like an old soldier that had done its duty.

Ford GT40 at JFK airport
Courtesy of Ford

It comes from British roots

When Ford decided to take down Enzo in his own backyard, it needed to quickly design a competent car to jump-start the Ford racing program. Lola, a British racing team that's legendary in its own right, had begun work on a promising solution, so Ford contracted with Lola engineers to take the existing car and make something better. By the spring of 1964, that something was the Ford GT40, an essentially British race car with an all-American V8 heart. What you're looking at above is that car's first moment in the US, at JFK Airport, where it was flown for a brief inspection by Ford brass, before returning to Europe to take the fight to the racetrack.

The Ford GT40 didn't finish its first race -- at the infamous Nurburgring
Courtesy of Ford

It battled against both the establishment and foreign tyranny

Ford taking on Ferrari might seem like Goliath taking on David, but in the world of motorsport it was very much the opposite. Enzo Ferrari's political capital in Italy was nothing short of impressive, and he had a long-lasting feud with Carroll Shelby. When Shelby's Ford-backed Cobra Daytonas were set to overtake Ferrari and win the GT-class championship at the last race of the 1964 season -- in Monza, Italy, no less -- Ferrari pulled some tactical maneuvers and leaned on that capital to ultimately have the race canceled, thereby granting Ferrari the championship. That's like a banged-up baseball team winning the pennant by canceling the last week of the season.

OK, so this might not have been on the same tyranny-fighting philosophical plane as no taxation without representation and inalienable human rights. Still, the GT40, fighting a battle in foreign lands, as a protagonist against the well-established Ferrari -- which was in the middle of a six-year winning streak at Le Mans -- was, even with an unlimited budget, definitely the David to Ferrari's Goliath.

The Ford GT40 Won at Daytona in 1965, but that's it
Courtesy of Ford

The GT40 program was all about combining business and passion

After Enzo's intervention, Shelby uttered the now-famous line, "Next year, Ferrari's ass is mine." The Daytonas won the 1965 class championship -- a first for an American team, while Ferrari focused on the ultra-fast, spaceship-like, prototype-class race cars, since the battle with the GT40s was looming. That entire year was nothing but hard work and development by everyone involved in Ford's effort. A few flashes of brilliance were mostly drowned out by a string of crushing defeats as the still-young team struggled to get the car to where it needed to be.

Ford's 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966 is Legendary
Courtesy of Ford

The dominant one-two-three finish in 1966 was a lesson in globalization

This wasn't just a British car with American help. Drivers from many different types of racing drove a total of eight GT40s, and ultimately it was the New Zealand duo of Bruce McLaren and Formula One driver Chris Amon who took the checkered flag in '66. Eventually, drivers from even more countries, from Belgium to Mexico, joined in on the fun.

The Ford GT40 Used Military Wind Tunnels to Go Faster
Courtesy of Ford

The GT40 program was the embodiment of innovation

As the GT40 program gathered steam and evolved, it became, much like the post-WWII United States, a high-tech superpower. While Cold War interests prompted greatness like the SR-71 Blackbird, the need for stability at ever-faster speeds sent the GT40 team into a military wind tunnel designed for testing missile designs. Initially, this merely meant that the GT40 was the first car to top 200mph along the seriously long Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. Eventually, the entire car evolved into the monstrously fast GT40 Mk IV. By that time, the program was entirely based in the US so that Ford could prove it could develop its own designs without falling back on European racing knowhow.

The GT40 Mk IV was all-american
Courtesy of Ford

When the GT40 won again in 1967, it was one of the greatest "USA! USA!" moments in sports history

Seriously. It's right up there with the 1980 Miracle on Ice, and that's no exaggeration. It marked the first -- and to date, only -- time an American-designed and -built car won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with American drivers (Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt). Gurney, in particular, was so overjoyed he couldn't contain his excitement and inadvertently started a brand-new tradition on the spot: spraying Champagne everywhere. It was a particularly American moment of relaxed celebration while surrounded by Europeans that were decidedly more formal at the time.

The 2017 Ford GT Heritage Edition
Courtesy of Ford

Two generations later, those traditions and values are still intact

While the first GT40's spirit was rooted in proving a point, its aerodynamic advancements set the mandate for future generations: the GT needed to contribute something major. When Ford revived the GT for a second generation in 2005, its engineers worked on new ways of using aluminum to save weight... ways that, a decade later, found their way into the F-150 pickup truck as a means of improving fuel efficiency. Of course, it paid homage to its ancestry with a Gulf-liveried Heritage Edition, as well.

Today the 2017 Ford GT has myriad advancements, from using cellphone-like glass to those structural supports on the side for both aerodynamic and cooling purposes. And, of course, it pays homage to its ancestry, with a new Heritage Edition (shown here) made to resemble the Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon car that won in 1966.

The Ford GT won Le Mans in its first attempt since 1969
Courtesy of Ford

And of course, it's still winning

Everyone I've spoken to that was directly involved in the new GT shares two things in common: their eyes light up when they talk about working on the project and respecting the enormity of the accomplishments of their forebears, and they know that in order to truly be a worthy successor, the GT must advance the technical playing field en route to winning its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If you've been paying attention, you'd know that this year, it did exactly that, winning in an absolute dogfight against Ferrari in which both sides tried to use the rulebook to their advantage.

The winning car was driven on June 19th, the 50th anniversary of that first multinational win, by an American, a German, and a Frenchman. As unlikely as it might have been to win in its very first attempt at Le Mans -- that's an incredibly rare feat, after all -- from the very moment the car was unveiled, even before Ford formally confirmed it would race at Le Mans, it never once seemed like any other option was possible besides winning. Call it manifest destiny if you want to be hopelessly cheesy, but I call it the end result of self-determination and hard work, mixed with eternal optimism.

What's more quintessentially American than that?

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook. He loves many cars, but for him, the GT40 has always stood out as special, even amongst legends.