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Continuation GT40 - GT40 Special

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It's a GT40 - but not quite as we know it. This continuation car is claimed to have parts that are 90% interchangeable with the original's yet it costs a fraction the price of the "real" one.

There are some cars that beg to be replicated and at the top of the pile are the Cobra – the former Ace that was retro even before a V8  morphed it into an icon – and the GT40, which shared a similar iron engine but not much else.

It was a showroom Ford that became a superstar, epithets which as bedfellows seem strange out of context, but shouldn’t. There was a time when hardly a year went by without another Cobra or GT40 replica rolling out of a farm-estate factory unit somewhere in England, some with period engines, others with Rover V8s, and with a variety of transmissions and chassis and suspension layouts. Almost all wore a body that was dimensionally much like the original’s, for no other reason than it would likely have been moulded on one. Sometimes you had to ask yourself how it kept happening. Would you lend your original so someone could use it as a buck?
 
The car here is no farm barn enterprise but a Continuation GT40.

The prefix has a capital ‘C’ because the makers want you to know that this is as much like the real thing as possible. It’s made in South Africa by Hi-Tech – the outfit responsible for manufacturing the Noble GT cars – and imported by Le Mans Coupes, historic racer Nigel Hulme’s Crawley-based company. It wears a price tag of £100,000 (including VAT), which is either cheap when compared with the real thing (expect to pay anywhere between £500,000 and £1million depending on history) or worryingly close to that of the modern incarnation from the American giant. Ford made about 4000 GTs between 2003 and 2006, with a price tag of about £120,000. They haven’t depreciated and you’d expect to pay about that for a used one today.
 
Whether the new one flatters the old or the other way round is a debate that will continue to rage; but before we see whether the claim of 90% interchangeability of parts means the Continuation car not only looks, but also feels, smells and drives like the real thing, it’s worth another quick look at how the original GT40 came to be and what Hi-Tech has set out to replicate.

Forty-four years ago, way back in 1964, Ford of America’s power brokers had decided that victory – nay, domination – of European sports car races generally and Le Mans in particular would do their sales a power of good and, as was their way, thought the quickest way to the laurels was to buy somebody with a track record and attach the blue oval. Ferrari was top of that pile and the approach was duly made.

Enzo Ferrari – apparently a good friend of Ford the man – had no intention of selling to America but simply used the Ford interest to ramp up the value of his company, then sold it to Fiat, a detail about which the Italians apparently didn’t care and still don’t. Not to be deterred, the Ford men turned from Modena to the next best thing, Bromley in Kent and Eric Broadley of Lola.
 
A year earlier Broadley had been trying to mount a World Sports Car campaign with his Mk6, a stylishly beautiful GT which already used the 4.2-litre pushrod V8 engine from the Ford Falcon, and monocoque construction – where the strength comes from sheets riveted together to form boxes, rather than traditional welded tubes. Ambitious he certainly was, but the cash-strapped Broadley’s creation struggled to fulfil its potential and Ford’s approach seemed like manna from heaven. Broadley was quickly hoovered up by the corporate machine and put to work on a development of his Mk6 where his original inspiration would be an important ingredient in the GT40’s success. Broadley replicated the Mk6’s double box-section sills but skinned the tub in steel, material he also used for the floor and roof panels. It was a heavy mix, but strong – something which also applied to the iron Ford engine.
 
With just the one camshaft and a forest of pushrods, the 4.7-litre (289cu in) all-iron V8 came from Ford’s Mustang and, lightly modified, spun to just 6500rpm and pushed out about 390 horsepower. Compare that with the 450 of the rival Ferrari delivered at over eight, but the Ford’s leisurely pace and simple, stout construction – plus a surplus of litres – in theory gave it a better chance of survival over a long distance. The gearbox was a massive, proprietary German ZF five-speeder and like the rival Porsche it featured road car synchromesh. This might be a hindrance to the lightning shift in a sprint race but for a tired driver at the close of a night stint it helps preserve the gearteeth.

The body bore a distinct resemblance to the Lola’s, although it had a style of its own and rapidly became the icon that Ford had hoped. Handsome rather than stunning, it’s attractive in most people’s eyes and similarly most people know by now that the suffix ‘40’ that has since attached itself relates to the height of the body in inches.
 
When you first see and sit in a GT40, there are several details that strike you and the first is the driving position. You lie back at such an angle it’s like lolling in a deck chair, a perception heightened by the canvas seat cover with its steel ventilating rings. You have to bend a helmeted head to miss the roof – or more correctly the top of the door which curves over to form part of the body above you – but this is essential if you are to enter and exit in a hurry and, provided the pedals have been mounted in whichever of the three positions is appropriate to the length of your legs, from the shoulder down a GT40 is an unusually spacious place to start a 24-hour race.
 
But what about the more important thing, which is the drive? What is it that says to your backside and fingertips that this is the basis of a Le Mans winner? Road or race car, the engine sits inches from your shoulders and thrums, rattles or howls down a row of eight Weber trumpets according to where the needle on the Smiths tachometer is pointing. The steering is always weighty and feels quite low-geared, while the stubby gearshift down to your right needs a very deliberate movement to overcome powerful synchronisers. There’s also a lock-out mechanism on the gate which obliges you to go up all the way through the sequence before you can go down. It was a logical defence to stop drivers selecting second instead of fourth – something which probably wouldn’t break the engine but which would definitely lock the rear wheels and spin you off the road.
 
If it all sounds heavy and deliberate, it is, but this is strength not weakness. You pile into a corner a little too fast and the nose just edges wide in mild protest, more like a saloon than high-strung race car. Hit the power too early, wake up those lazy American horses too soon and the tail just sways to one side. Straighten up the wheel and it comes back almost by itself. Lock a wheel into a corner, decide that the right hand is better occupied with steering rather than the deliberate up and up then down and down of a downshift, and it hardly matters. The engine is nearly as happy in fourth as it would have been in third.
    
About the only thing you have to treat with a gentle touch is the brakes. Broadley fitted the best technology of the time – as did all his rivals – but by today’s standards it seems distinctly lacking. The discs are solid and the calipers small, with only two pistons each. It is one area where extra weight does extract a real penalty and some of the hotshoes of the time simply had to accept that lapping 10 seconds slower was the only way to ensure they had something to hand over at the pit stop. Some – like Jochen Rindt – hated this kind of discipline and would rather not bother with GTs.

Yet despite this talk of restraint and lazy progress, the race GT40 was undoubtedly quick against its rivals. Maybe with the tyre technology of the time, a friendlier feel allowed the driver to put together a better lap more often. Simplicity, stamina, strength; easy to live with, easy to drive. Not values you’d normally associate with a Le Mans winner, but they worked for Ford and arguably still do. But, to return to the question posed at the beginning, how exactly might these values confer to a continuation car – and should they?

The original driving experience is friendly, certainly, but only when compared with what else was about at the time. As a racer the GT40 could not hold a candle to a modern GT, or indeed to a Chevron B8 or B16 of the late ’60s, only two years newer and with less than half the engine. As a road car, a GT40 is exactly period. Minimal heating and demisting, useless wipers, engine loud and lumpy at low speeds, no window winders, rubbish headlights. Add to that an inability to see anything that might be about to run over you from behind and there you have it. That’s what a Le Mans winner of 1965 is like on a modern road. There are more comfortable ways to reach ‘B’ having started at ‘A’, just as there were 40-odd years ago.

Yes, I know I’m missing the point, but you have to ask yourself the question. Would I spend the best part of £100,000 on something that looks like the real thing but isn’t, and is something that, once the novelty wears off, is transport I will use only to make an entrance a few times a year? On the other hand, if I am going to take my lookalike to as many track days as possible, drive it to Spa, the Nurburgring, Oulton Park, Snetterton, Goodwood or Dijon, and feel exactly how the racers felt in 1965… If I am going to race it, maybe in a series which doesn’t need FIA sanction for originality, just the opinion of a scrutineer as to the specification of its component parts… Or if, maybe, I am going to insist that the makers use yet more of those original-spec parts, and I will apply for a Historic Technical Passport, and race the car in FIA events where the organisers will allow continuation cars – well, then… You see where I am going with this.

So, back to where we came in. How does the Continuation GT40 feel when compared with the original? Will it do all the above in the appropriate style? It is very nicely made and at Goodwood it was possible within seconds to spot the difference between this and the host of replicas that have appeared over the years. This one isn’t, however, completely to original specification. The engine is by Roush, using aluminium rather than iron heads, electronic ignition and fuel injection and displacing 5.6 rather than 4.7 litres (there are different sizes available and 5.6 is the smallest). The idea is to push out an original amount of power (about 400bhp) but with a little less temperament and a little more environmental friendliness.
 
Gearbox is a period specification five-speed synchro ZF (a pattern item made by RBT in America) but the lock-out is thankfully absent. Suspension is similar to the original’s but with modern dampers, and discs are ventilated, as they were on later GT40s (1966 onwards). The BRM-style spoked aluminium wheels are 8in front and 10in rear as per the 1966 specification (earlier cars had 6in front and 8in rear wire wheels) and tyres are tall Avon CR6ZZ road-legal racers (which most people use in FIA endurance events where it’s likely to rain), rather than the square-shouldered CR65 Dunlop race tyre which is lethal on wet roads.
 
Inside, it’s just like the original except there is air conditioning, discreet but present and correct and one of the few obvious concessions to modernity. The doors slice in to fill the hole above your head, just as they should, the centre section is steel, just like it was, and there’s a welcome bulge to clear the helmeted head of a six-footer like me, something they did in period for the likes of lanky Dan Gurney.
 
The fuel-injected Ford fires up instantly (unlike the original) and is much smoother through the range, but it sounds very similar – albeit without quite the same howl from the induction system. The gearshift too is easier to manage, and you can miss out gears if you want (like coming down to Woodcote at the end of Goodwood’s back straight) and it has the same kickback to the wheel, the same cockpit ambience.
 
Like the engine, it isn’t quite like it would have been had it left Lola in Bromley in 1965. It’s been set up with a bias towards modern track use, with stiffer suspension, and this makes it sensitive to a bit of drizzle (need to be careful with the power) and to set-up (the front anti-roll bar had slipped on its splines and the car got snappy on the exit of Lavant and Woodcote), but it was still quick – and here is the real point about this car. Racers are not volume cars homogenised for the masses, and how they feel has always depended on how they are set up. This is a racer that can be driven on the road rather than the other way round.
 
It’s usable in a way that a 1960s Ferrari isn’t. Forget air con and power steering; using one regularly has more to do with an American V8 for which parts are cheap and easy to find. You could rebuild it yourself in a weekend and that is not true of a Ferrari, or a Porsche, even if you can find the bits. Added to which, most  GT40s racing today are stiffer and more powerful than they would have been, so they aren’t absolutely like the original either. The Continuation car manages to drive much like one of these and also does the more difficult trick which is to affect the style – something which is hard to define but easy to recognise.
 
You could have it set up like the original (the road spec Continuation is much more like that), just as you could request an original-spec iron engine complete with a row of downdraught Webers. It just depends on your point of view, and your bank balance. Mine is too small to own the real thing, and besides I get to drive those from time to time. But would I have a Continuation instead of a new-millennium Ford GT? Probably, but that’s because I still want to be a racer…       
                 
The Continuation GT40 is available from Rod Leach’s Nostalgia, Herts, UK. +44 (0)1992 500007, email rodleach@waitrose.com

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