DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co., to mark the premiere of the film Ford v Ferrari on Friday, Nov. 15, is unearthing archives on the Ford GT program and the victory at the 1966 Le Mans race.
Ted Ryan, Ford's archives and heritage brand manager, said the movie is giving the company an opportunity to celebrate the team of engineers behind the project.
"Ferrari had 30 years of racing experience," Ryan said. "Ford beat them on the third try having zero experience."
Longtime Ford Chairman Henry Ford II's rivalry with Ferrari began in 1963 when a contract giving majority control of the famed Italian automaker to Ford was left unsigned by Ferrari officials in May, canceling the deal. (Enzo Ferrari sold half of the company to Fiat in 1968.)
Ford began the GT program one month later in June 1963, giving the automaker just a year to design and manufacture a car that could compete for 24 hours in the 1964 race.
The first car to race, the GT40 Mark I, was designed and built "on a crushed timetable" by Ford Advanced Vehicles in England, Ryan said. "There was so much wrong with it.
"It was kind of underpowered, and Ford did not at the time have a lot of the technology or know-how to make some of the parts, so we purchased aftermarket parts," he said. "We just weren't ready."
The 1965 race was a different story, Ryan said.
Shelby American and Holman-Moody teamed up with Ford to fit a new 427-cubic-inch engine in the GT body, he said.
"That engine helped Ford just dominate NASCAR during the same time period," Ryan said. "Endurance racing is all about aerodynamics, endurance, speed and power. It has to be a balance of all of them."
But, Ryan said, the team was too late, testing the engine with the body in March 1965.
"They worked frantically between March and June to try to get the car ready," he said. "It was fast but not aerodynamically efficient."
The media buildup to the '65 race placed tremendous pressure on Ford and its engineers, Ryan said. "It escalated the attention, and Ford not only failed but did so spectacularly," he said.
The second failure prompted the automaker to form a committee, which met monthly in Dearborn, Mich., dedicated to success in the 1966 Le Mans.
Instead of engineering a new vehicle, Ryan said, they worked with the guts of the 1965 car to create the 1966 Mark II.
"They did the smart thing and perfected the car," he said. "The results were the famed 1-2-3 finish."
Ryan said the pressure on the Ford team in 1966 was exponential, with Henry Ford II to drop the green flag at the start of Le Mans that year.
Ford sent a handwritten note to all the engineers working on the project with a simple message: "You better win!"
Mose Nolan, a Ford engineer in the pits at the Le Mans race in 1966, told Fox 2 Detroit last week that he received one of those cards.
"At the win, I got this shot of adrenaline," Nolan said.
"Thankfully for Mose Nolan and the rest of the engineers, the hard work they had all done paid off," Ryan said. "Winning an endurance race like that is a combination of engineering, artistry and imagination."
"Ford couldn't have won without Shelby or Holman and Moody, and they couldn't have won without Ford," he said.
Ford won in 1967, 1968 and 1969 but dropped out of Le Mans because of a change in engineering priorities, Ryan said, until 2016, when it won the Le Mans Grand Touring Endurance professional-class race with the No. 68 Ford GT.
Ryan said he's excited that the film will bring widespread attention to the people who worked toward Ford's victory.
The win also came at a time when Ford's engineering and product development teams had other key priorities.
"Our engineers rose to the occasion," he said. "At the same time, Ford delivered the Mustang, the Bronco and built Mission Control in Houston, Texas, because it was the lead contractor on the space program."