Marco della Cava
A new documentary looks back on the great Ford-Ferrari rivalry of the 1960s
As movie titles go, The 24 Hour War is a bit of a misnomer. The latest artful racing documentary from avowed car and film aficionados Adam Carolla and Nate Adams doesn’t chronicle one 24-hour race, but rather the years-long mid-1960s battle for supremacy between Ferrari and Ford at iconic Le Mans.
And what a war it was, pitting sinister machines, rakish engineers and courageous drivers against each other in a literally death-defying contest that bestowed on the winner not only sporting bragging rights but also the financial spoils reaped from marketing buzz.
Ford had all but abandoned the race-on-Sunday, sell-on-Monday mantra when it duelled Ferrari a half-century ago. And race-centric Ferrari was known mainly as a racing team that happened to sell cars.
But when the dust settled on this contest, Ford would forever be associated with the exploits of its GT40, and Ferrari – thanks in part to gripping television coverage – would overnight become the red cars that haunted the fantasies of many a future US car buyer.
‘This rivalry resulted in your everyman learning more about Ferrari and what it stood for,' says Adams, who along with TV personality and racer Carolla is behind a documentary on the automotive passion of Paul Newman (Winning: The Racing Life Of Paul Newman) and, coming soon, films on the exploits of Carroll Shelby and African-American racing pioneer Willy T Ribbs.
‘What you realised was that this really was the first time in the history of racing that a company [Ford] spent millions of dollars to win,’ says Adams. ‘In terms of Ferrari, after this duel, they largely pulled out of Le Mans [as a factory team] and focused on Formula One. They realised they could not spend what Ford was willing to do. In the end, that all began the high-priced war to win that we see now at many levels of racing.’
Adams says that when he and Carolla read A J Baime’s 2009 book on the Ferrari-Ford battle, Go Like Hell (long rumoured to be made into a motion picture), they knew that the archetypes of a gripping drama were all in place.
After Enzo Ferrari spurned an acquisition overture from Henry Ford II in the early 1960s, the Detroit scion decided to get his revenge on the track. But not just any track. Le Mans was not only the most gruelling race for drivers and cars alike, it was also a venue where Ferrari was virtually indomitable with its stable of 250s and 330s, claiming victory six years in a row between 1960 and 1965, thanks to drivers such as Paul Frère and world champion Phil Hill.
As The 24 Hour War highlights, Ford charged into this Ferrari lion’s den led by Carroll Shelby, who commanded a rather ragtag group of youngsters that were hastily assembling cars, which, while they looked the part, didn’t go at the show and failed outright during the 1965 contest.
‘It’s really hard to appreciate how much work, on both sides, went into building, designing, setting up and testing a race car, which then had to not break for 24 hours,' says Adams. 'Blood, sweat and tears were all poured on to that grid.’
In 1966, fate shone on Ford, big time. Despite a constant threat from Ferrari’s sinuous P3s and P4s, over the next four years at Le Mans drivers piloting either Ford GT40 Mark IIs or GT 40 Mark I Gulfs – racers with now-iconic names such as Bruce McLaren, A.J. Foyd and Dan Gurney – all took the top trophy at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
After 1969, neither Ford nor Ferrari would ever return to that podium again to claim factory honours.
‘Ford may have won in the end, with those last late 1960s victories, but to me the amazing part of this whole story is the duality of it,’ says Adams. ‘Enzo Ferrari literally lived to race, and out of grudging necessity sold sports cars. Henry Ford II had all but given up racing, but then threw all his resources behind beating his rival on the biggest stage he could find. It was an arms race, but on a racing track.’
The 24 Hour War is available on iTunes, Amazon (in the US) and at www.chassy.com