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The one that got away - Driven: Ford GT70

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Before the Escort became a dominant force in rallying, Ford experimented with the purpose-built GT70. Was its non-appearance a missed opportunity or a close shave?

Forty-seven miles per hour isn’t really that quick. You’ll probably pass that mark countless times on your daily commute. But when you’re at Ford’s Dunton test track, barrelling into the intimidating and crumbling banking, taking your hands off the wheel should feel very wrong.

But that’s not really foremost in my mind right now. I’m at Ford’s proving ground to drive the company’s one and only GT70 prototype, and decide for myself whether Uncle Henry was right to pull the plug and not take this promising car rallying, opting for the safety of the Escort RS instead.

My plan had been hatched on a visit to Ford’s Heritage collection back in 2007. I’d spotted the purposeful-looking car under a dust-sheet in a quiet corner of their ‘shed’ and instantly knew that it needed to be driven. Hard.

The GT70 actually hasn’t been under that cover for too long; it had been one of the stars of the 2003 Goodwood Festival of Speed following a full restoration the previous year. Be that as it may, something that looks so squat and sporting deserves a regular airing on the track – competition cars should never be static exhibits.

Thankfully, Ford Heritage’s boss John Nevill feels the same, and almost as soon as I’ve made the obvious request he’s tasked the engineers back in Dagenham with recommissioning the GT70 especially for Octane. But what is it about the car that’s so fascinating, and why do I feel magnetically drawn to the GT70?

It never won any rallies, nor did it go on to become a showroom superstar – and yet I can see its influence in future rallying supercars such as the Lancia Stratos and Ford RS200.

‘The GT70’s creation had been triggered by our poor performance on the 1970 Monte Carlo Rally,’ Ford Competitions manager Stuart Turner says. ‘The Escort Twin-Cams, driven by Clark, Timo Makinen and Hannu Mikkola, at best finished fifth and seventh, and had been left behind by the winning Porsche 911S and Alpine-Renault A110.’

It was in the snow-covered mountain passes where the Escort struggled, and the pair concluded that Ford needed a rear-engined two-seater cast in the same mould. The idea was germinated on the BOAC flight back from the South of France, ‘…and even before we’d made it to the UK, I had sketched out a series of rough ideas on the Trident menu, determined to turn them into reality.’

Turner developed the idea and was soon on the ’phone to Ford’s UK boss Walter Hayes. ‘His support was absolutely essential to the programme. Walter was a charismatic leader, in the sense of being able to see things through, and he fully understood the importance of motor sport to the company,’ Stuart says. Hayes allocated a budget, and Turner was on his way.

‘I always worked on the theory that it’s better to produce something tangible to show to management rather than try to sell them an idea. The GT70 wouldn’t have stood a chance had we not built the first car.’

The Competitions departments in the UK and Germany worked feverishly on the GT70 to deliver a running prototype in just nine months. Turner outsourced much of the project – he gave the job of body and chassis design to GT40 veteran Len Bailey (who’d never actually designed a rally car before). The chassis was then built by Maurice Gomm, while the interior layout was penned by Joe Oros, under the watchful eye of Hannu Mikkola.

Beating the opposition was the ultimate goal of the GT70 but, because he needed to get it past the company accountants, the car that Turner’s team had put together needed to stack up financially. Walter Hayes commented at the time: ‘The GT70 needed to achieve great simplicity, and utilise as many Ford parts as possible.’

Turner smiles at the memory. ‘We gave Len access to the local Ford dealer’s parts store and made sure that if he needed a switch, he’d get one off the shelf rather than design a special one.’ It worked. The first prototype cost a mere ,000 to put together. ‘Small change’, as Turner describes it.

The ingredients that the Competitions department came up with in the end were nice and simple. Kit car-like, even. The chassis was elegant, fabricated in straight lines, and drive was provided by the Capri RS 2.6-litre V6 engine mated to a ZF DS25 five-speed ’box.

In September 1970 the mid-engined GT70 had its first competitive outing, on the Ronde Cevenole road race in France. Roger Clark piloted the car on this event and realised that it had genuine potential, even though it didn’t have front-running pace. ‘One item in the rather impossible brief to Len Bailey was that the car had to be strong enough to win rallies, and light enough to win races,’ Clark said after he retired with engine, brake and suspension problems.

But Turner now had his car to show to management, and by the following month the GT70 was looking like a production reality. Hayes approached Ford USA to ask for the funding to build 500 cars, citing the need for a competition weapon as well as a showroom trinket. He called the GT70 a ‘prestige sports car’, justifying the need to build it by stating: ‘Ford’s biggest image deficiency is in the field of engineering reputation. We believe that GT70 would add tremendously to the status of the cars that come out of AVO.’

While the Americans pondered the GT70’s future, development continued. A rough-road and circuit programme took place across the UK and Europe, and Peter Darley, the Competitions manager at Broadspeed, remembers the German Ford team rolling into Paul Ricard with the GT70. ‘It was quite an operation, and the unadorned silver prototype looked unlike any other rally machine I’d seen before,’ he says. ‘François Mazet was test driving, and Len was also there, flitting between the ’70 and a selection of Cologne Capris.’

Peter adds: ‘This was a major test. Ford’s top brass, including Neerpasch and Braungart, were there, as were the drivers Stuck and Glemser. Stuck didn’t drive, saying that if he ever got in the ’70, it was certain he would never get out without removing the roof!’

Although they didn’t know it at the time, the GT70’s days were numbered. Even as the engineers decamped to France, the programme was losing impetus. ‘AVO was to build the 500 cars, but they produced a 15-page paper detailing 100 changes that would be needed to enable production,’ Stuart says. ‘We saw it as a hostile act, but in reality they were right.’ In the end, just six cars were built.

Production problems aside, a nine-week strike at Ford hampered its introduction at the beginning of 1971. Changes in rallying regulations and restlessness in the Middle East also conspired to knock the wind out of the GT70’s sails. As Turner says, ‘When difficult conditions apply, it’s the wrong time to follow such an oddball project.’ For 1971 the Ghia-styled MkII version appeared on the motor show circuit, and it looked to have the potential to be a stunning road and track car.

The final nail in the coffin came from an unexpected source.

After its less than promising start, the Escort started to come good in rallying in 1972. In RS1600 form it was more than capable of winning events outright, while the GT70 continued to disappoint. François Mazet and Jean Todt crashed out of the 1971 Tour de France while leading, while Guy Chasseuil showed promise in the Ford France-prepared BP team’s GT70 on French tarmac rallies throughout 1972 and ’73, but solid results were elusive.

The GT70 had been designed to run with a variety of engines, and when Ford France fitted a Cosworth BDA the car was transformed.

‘It was hopeless with the V6 in the back,’ Stuart recalls. ‘But the GT70 came good with the Cosworth.’

It’s a lot to ponder when I climb aboard for the GT70’s first shakedown in six years. First impressions are good – it’s a dainty-looking car, smaller than it looks in pictures, bright in its BP colours. Ford Heritage’s top engineer, Ivan Bartholomeusz, has bolted a pair of Cibi�s to the front, and they add character to the fairly generic-looking sports car.

The cabin is well stocked with instrumentation, as you’d expect in a competition car. Clambering in reveals what Stuart Turner describes as the GT70’s biggest mistake – its cramped cabin. Hemmed in with the racing seat as far back as possible, my knees are still wrapped around my ears, and the shirt-button wheel is practically rammed in my chest. The gearstick isn’t ideally placed either: it’s high and mounted too far rearwards. Competing in a full-length rally must have been torture.

Best ignore the strong smell of petrol and glassfibre because it’s time to fire the ignition. Switch on the electrics, prime the fuel pump and hit the starter, and the Cosworth BDG (it received the larger engine during its 2002 restoration) explodes into life. There’s no soundproofing, and ear defenders are recommended to deal with the cacophony. A blip of throttle clears the GT70’s throat. Time to go.

The clutch pedal is weighty, and take-up is sudden. There is no way of getting the GT70 off the line cleanly without dialling in 4000rpm and dumping the clutch, racing style. Do that, and it takes off like a kicked cat – the rear squats, the wheels dig in, and I’m pushed into my seat most rudely. There’s nothing left to do but keep my right foot in and stretch the GT70’s legs, as the Heritage boys have egged me on to do.

Snatching second from dog-leg first is delightful – the change is quick and mechanical and feels deliciously immediate.

We’re not timing the GT70, but my bum-dynamo would estimate a 0-60mph time in the region of six seconds, although its special stage sprint gearing precludes being able to speak in big numbers for its top speed. But then again, who cares? Dynamics are what counts, and as I pitch the GT70 into the first banked, sweeping arc it reveals a couple more pleasing dynamic traits – astonishingly talkative, direct steering and the utterly stable four-square suspension set-up.

Good news is that, caned this way, the hard-edged Cosworth BDG sounds epic. Anyone who says that ‘fours’ lack aural drama would be left floundering by the GT70, because it sounds almost musical at high revs – purposeful and loud, but, once singing, never annoying in the way that other four-pots can be.

And it’s all rather addictive. I’m circulating the Dunton track increasingly quickly, taking the banks with confidence – I’m leaning on the powerful brakes, banging from gear to gear, and I can feel the tail moving around on the exit of the final curve for the main straight under full throttle. The small crowd that’s watching seems to nod its approval as the GT70 flashes by.

Inside it’s getting mightily hot, although I’m having so much fun.

I don’t actually realise that until I’m waved in so the car can be checked over. Suddenly the temperature and petrol fumes hit me, and I’m again left wondering how physical tackling a hot rally in a GT70 would be.

I’m encouraged back out for some more quick laps by the Heritage boys. I should be reticent, but I’m not. This is one great car to drive, even if it demands no less than 100% all the time and is cramped to the point of discomfort. Ivan’s suggested that I try playing on the banking with my hands off the wheel. He says that 47mph is the optimal speed – less and I’ll drift down; any more and I’m heading for the Armco.

It should be alien, and yet such is the GT70’s innate stability that on my very first go I nail it, and master the art of 47mph hands-free banked cornering. Then I realise it’s not my ability as a driver that’s gifted me this unlikely skill, but the innate class of the car beneath me. That saddens me a little – not because my ego’s taken a dent, but because the GT70 was never given the chance to rule the world…


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