The 24 Hour War


For five years in the 1960’s, a titanic duel was fought on the banks of the river Sarthe in northern France.  Following an abortive attempt to blend popcorn and pasta, the might of the Ford Motor Company decided to take on the elegance of Ferrari for the honour of winning the Le Mans 24 Hour Race.  The tale has been told many times, but the incredible nature of it has gone down in racing history.  The latest take on this story is The 24 Hour War, a documentary directed by Nate Adams and Adam Carolla.

The tale starts at the very beginning, with the births of Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari.  The first third of the film charts the differing rises of Ford and Ferrari, Ford to a mass production titan of industry and Ferrari as the racing director of Alfa Romeo before setting up his own shop in 1947.  The racing pedigree of both marks is stated early on, with Ford’s win in 1901 given the boost his company needed and Ferrari’s marshalling of Alfa to famous wins with Tazio Nuvolari in the 1930’s, until the arrival of the Germans in Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, which isn’t mentioned.  The meat of the film really starts post war, with Ford agreeing to withdraw from motorsport and Ferrari embracing it wholeheartedly.  The divergence of the two companies, one based around volume and the other about detail, is fascinating to watch.  When Ford is forced back into motorsport with the success of Chevy’s Corvette, their first instinct was to buy Ferrari to bring them the racing edge, hence the popcorn and pasta.  It was the failure of this merger, based mostly on a total misunderstanding of the people across the table from each other, that lead to Henry Ford II to demand that Ford build a car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans.  This ushers in the creation of the Ford GT40.

The film spends the vast bulk of its time on this period, with the development of the GT40 and the failures that lead to Carroll Shelby being brought in to head up the Ford racing program.  Shelby and his team developed and tuned the GT40 into the beast that finally claimed the famous four wins between 1966 and 1969.  The film brings in all the main cast from this period, including archive recordings of Shelby explaining what when on.  Seeing the likes of Mario Andretti,  Dan Gurney, John Surtees (who passed away on 10th March) and even Ralph Nader discuss the period and the passion that was brought to bear to beat the skill of the Italians is thrilling, as is the archival film.  And yet, despite the attempt at even handedness, with serious love showered upon Ferrari, the film feels like it was produced by Ford’s film department.  In 1967 Ford’s film unit produced 9 Days in Summer which traced the building of the Ford Cosworth DFV and the Lotus 49 that Jim Clarke won on debut with.  In that film, they claim a few times that the Lotus’ failed to finish races due to suspension failure.  In reality, the DFV was still working itself out and eating cams.  In The 24 Hour War, very little mention is made of the international effort Ford undertook to ensure that they could compete with and ultimatley beat Ferrari.

The iconic Ferrari 330 P3 of 1966

The iconic Ferrari 330 P3 of 1966

Shelby had gone to come to Europe to understand the black art of making a car go around a corner quickly in the past.  Shelby went to AC for the Ace chassis which became the Cobra and, following this lead, Ford turned to Lotus and Lola for the GT car they desperately needed.  Lotus would pull out of the competition (returning to Ford for the DFV two years later) but Lola’s founder Eric Broadley, building on Lola’s rather beautiful Mk6 which used a Ford V8, won the contract to build the prototype.  The result was that a number of Mk6’s headed to the States for testing and Broadley setup a design shop and factory in Slough, Berkshire, which is not in the USA, to build Ford’s challenger.  When the completed prototype GT40’s were handed over to Ford and Shelby, they were tested to death by Shelby’s head test driver, the legendary Ken Miles, an Englishman who insisted a cup of tea was waiting for him at the end of each stint behind the wheel.  While the cash and the brute force of the Detroit muscle clearly came from Michigan, the expertise of the first three marks of the GT40 were an international team of dedicated racers.  While a lot of the film pushes towards the 7.0 litre Mk II and MK IV cars, it is neglected to mention that the last two GT40 wins came when the MK I’s were built by John Wyer who bought the Slough factory and ran the cars in the now iconic Gulf Racing livery.  Yet, the film implies that all four wins were masterminded out of Detroit and Shelby-American.  Which is a shame.

The 1969 John Wyer run MK I GT40 in Gulf Racing colours of Belgian Jackie Ickx and Englishman Jackie Oliver

The 1969 John Wyer run MK I GT40 in Gulf Racing colours of Belgian Jackie Ickx and Englishman Jackie Oliver

The direction Ford took in 1964 is the epitome of good corporate behaviour and solid approach to problem solving.  Ford did not have the expertise to succeed and they tried and failed to buy it outright.  They learnt from that experience and made smarter, targeted investments across the world, bringing in the very best to ensure that the goal would be met.  That this is not made clear is disingenuous, not just to international GT40 brigade, but to the Ford Motor Company itself.  That that pragmatic decision was made is a credit to Ford, that it is glossed over in this film is a serious discredit to Ford and the film makers.

This is a real pity because the film is very well made and paced perfectly, even if there is not enough John Surtees.  Surtees was a true gentleman and his tales of Ferrari are only bettered by him discussing his Norton days, which if you ever get the chance to see, I would highly recommend it!  Surtees aside, The 24 Hour War is one of the missed opportunities that you makes you rather sad.  The racing film is going through a great period at the moment following on the wonderful Senna.  We have in recent years had TT:Closer to the Edge, 1Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans.  The 24 Hour War can stand tall as a good racing documentary, but, and unfortunately it is a big but, in this age of jingoism and closing down of people’s horizons, seeing how a corporation looked to the world to take on the world would have been a tonic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *