Ford's GT40 became one of the most recognized racing cars of the 1960s after company boss Henry Ford II dispatched it to Europe to settle a little tiff with Ferrari boss Enzo, and the blue oval trounced the prancing horse no less than four times in the Le Mans 24-hour marathon between 1966 and 1969.
There was also a Canadian connection to these legendary racers that's worth recalling. Particularly as visitors to the Canadian International Auto Show - which opens tomorrow in Toronto - will get a rare chance to see the survivor of a pair of GT40s that played an early role in putting Canadian racing on the world stage.
The car - Ford GT Mk1, chassis number P1037 - was fielded by the Comstock Racing Team, Canada's first truly professional-level racing organization in 1966 and campaigned across Canada and at Sebring in Florida, driven by a pair of our own legendary racers, Eppie Wietzes and Craig Fisher.
The car is now owned by long-time racer and vintage car collector Tom Mabey of Bountiful, Utah. He has owned the GT40 for 11 years and raced it in the U.S. and at vintage meets at Spa, Le Mans, the Nurburgring and the Goodwood Festival. It will be part of a 45-vehicle tribute to American racer and car builder Carroll Shelby, who played a key part in creating the GT40 legend.
First a brief look at Ford's GT40.
In the early 1960s, Henry Ford II was determined to rule the automotive world and saw racing success as a vital part of the overall scheme. He was also in negotiations with Enzo Ferrari to buy his company. But after Ford had spent a bundle and talks were well advanced, Ferrari walked away from the deal.
A mega-miffed Ford decided to get back at Ferrari by building an endurance racer that would beat him at his own game, in his own backyard. A deal was struck with Eric Broadley's Lola concern in Britain, ex-Aston-Martin team manager John Wyer signed on to manage things and a few million dollars handed over to make Ford's challenge a reality.
The Ford GT emerged in 1963 and was first raced in 1964, failing to finish in the Nurburgring 1,000-kilometre race. At Le Mans a few weeks later, all three entries failed to make it to the flag.
More millions were thrown at the project and, by 1966, the cars - now known as GT40s because they were 40 inches tall and fitted with 427-cubic-inch (7.0-litre) V-8s - finished one-two-three in the French classic. And they went on to do so in each of the next three years.
The Canadian connection also began with Ford's aspirations for North American market dominance, which led to a five-year alliance with what was to become one of our best-known racing enterprises, Chuck Rathgeb's Comstock Racing Team.
Charles Rathgeb Jr. was a fascinating character. Born in Quebec in 1921, he attended Upper Canada College in Toronto, then joined the RCMP and served with the navy in the Second World War before completing his education and joining the family firm, Toronto-based engineering and construction company Canadian Comstock.
A keen sportsman (among other things, he was a mountain climber and coached the gold winning 1964 Olympic bobsledding team) he discovered auto racing by chance.
David Charters, in his book The Chequered Past, says curiosity took Rathgeb to the St. Catharines, Ont., workshop of Bill Sadler, who was building highly advanced racing cars at the time; and then to a still-under-construction Mosport racing circuit (which incidentally celebrates its 50th anniversary this year).
Car racing had a new convert and Comstock Racing was soon formed and fielded a trio of Sadlers for 1961. But Charters says it was Mont Tremblant Que.-born rising star Peter Ryan who first put the team's name in the headlines.
Ryan won the first Canadian Grand Prix for Sports Cars in a Lotus 19 painted in Comstock's colour scheme - white with twin green stripes and maple leafs on the doors - that year, beating a field of top international drivers.
Comstock, now sans Sadler who had gone his own way, hooked up with Ford for 1963 and Toronto's Wietzes and U.S.-based Ken Miles won 18 overall and 35 class wins in a pair of Carroll Shelby's new Ford-powered Cobra sports cars.
The team at various times also raced rear-engined Cooper-Fords (known as King Cobras), Ford Anglias, Cortinas and Mustangs and ran Holman and Moody Falcons in the cross-country Shell 4000 rally, chalking up four wins.
With Ford's GT40's teething years behind it, and an impatient Henry Ford II still looking for revenge for Ferrari's bad behaviour, Comstock joined the company's assault on the world sports car championship for 1966 and took delivery of a pair of GT40 Mk IIs equipped with the smaller 289-cubic-inch (4.7-litre) engines.
Selected to drive the cars, which were prepared by Shelby America, were Eppie Wietzes and Craig Fisher from Ontario, Jean Ouellette from Quebec, and 1965 Canadian champion Bob McLean from Vancouver.
Expectations were high, but the team's first outing, the 12 hours of Sebring, ended in tragedy with McLean crashing his GT40. The car flipped, hit a pole and burst into flames, killing him instantly. The team withdrew the Wietzes/Fisher car.
Charters quotes Fisher as saying that McLean's death seemed to hit Rathgeb hard, and that while the team continued to run the other GT40, his heart was no longer really in it.
The Comstock GT40 went on to race briefly in the new Can-Am series in 1967, but wasn't competitive; by the end of the year, Rathgeb pulled the plug on Comstock Racing, ending a short but intense and dramatic episode in Canada's racing history.