Ford NZ relates why doing little locally still counts as significant contribution to celebrating the anniversary of a motorsport moment that means a lot here.
LE MANS, June 19, 1966 – three race-weary GT40s cross the finish line in formation, having driven 4800kms in 24 hours to defeat the might of arch rival Ferrari.
Fifty years on, the party to celebrate what remains one of the greatest moments in motorsport – an outcome that lifted Ford’s racing pedigree, turned a car into an icon, put performance specialist Shelby on the road and was the first major international Kiwi moment in motor-racing - is ramping up.
Ford is returning to France to win some more silverware with a brand new car, called the GT, which will contest for sub-category honours with a top-flight team again involving a top Kiwi driver, Scott Dixon.
P/1046, the now highly-treasured race-winning Shelby American-built Mark IIA driven by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren will be there too in fully-restored glory.
And regardless of who wins the race proper – chances are it’ll be Porsche – June 17-18 seems certain to be remembered as a Blue weekend, awash with top Ford executives and invited guests, former GT40 racers included.
The countdown to the big weekend has also been immense, with diverse brand-devised promos, from free trips for fans to celebration special versions of current road cars.
There’s also been third party effort to cash in, everything from reproduction clothing and t-shirts to a prominent electronic games maker developing a celebration controller and a producer of classic reproduction cars making 20 dead-ringers of the history-making trio.
Also, a series of on-line documentaries have been made and a Hollywood film is rumoured to be on the boil. On top of all this, the new GT will be available as a road car - though not in New Zealand.
So much is happening overseas. In the homeland of the drivers that made that ’66 win possible, two in the winning car and the other, Denny Hulme, our sole Formula One champion, in the runner-up, it’s a different story, however.
Ford fans here who are anticipating some sort of gala celebration are going to be disappointed.
Ford New Zealand indicated yesterday it has determined to limit marking a landmark Kiwi moment - made all the sentimentally sweeter by the victorious car being in national colours and bearing a silver fern – more or less to ensuring Detroit-generated bumpf is disseminated locally.
No cake. No presents. No party. Just press releases.
“There is all sorts of material that is going to be coming out of Le Mans that we intend to amplify and send out to our fans,” communications and Government affairs spokesman spokesman Tom Clancy said.
“We’ve been highlighting the GT stuff as soon as it comes out and there’s been huge pick-up on our Facebook page.”
However, he says to the best of his knowledge Ford NZ does not have any specific domestic market events planned, let alone celebration cars or fan trips to the race.
“We have no special vehicles. These are only available in Europe.”
This doesn’t mean Ford here is under-estimating the significance of the winning moment and the contribution by three Kiwi greats, Clancy argues.
He also emphasizes that an attitude that some might translate as indifference is anything to do with the sole living driver from the hat-trick, Amon, having gone on to establish close working ties with rival brand Toyota New Zealand.
“No, certainly not. That has nothing to do with it.”
Ford NZ's understanding is that company boss Bill Ford, whose uncle, Henry Ford II – grandson of the company founder - personally oversaw the big bucks 1966 race effort to humiliate Ferrari, has personally invited the 72-year-old Amon to come to Le Mans as his guest.
However, Ford US has not been working with Ford NZ on any of this, Clancy believes.
Likewise, the Mt Wellington office has not been involved with the making of online interviews with Amon about the race and P/1046. These have just gone live on a dedicated site, http://gt40.rkmotorscharlotte.com/race/, set up by the Charlotte, North Carolina, classic car restoration company that now owns the car.
Ford is expected to invite many US and European media to the race and the associated celebrations, which include a Ford get-together and parade on the famous Mulsanne Straight.
However Clancy has confirmed his office has no plans to invite any NZ media along.
He understands TV3, which for the past two years has covered the race’s obvious Kiwi angle – the involvement of Brendon Hartley and, last year, Earl Bamber with the winning Porsche LMP1 works team – will again be there and hopes they will cover the GT/GT40 story.
However, their visit is without any local Ford assistance. Clancy believes the funding for this has come from Porsche NZ, which is part of the European Motor Distributors’ group of companies established by Sir Colin Giltrap, who also has huge motorsport interest and, in addition to helping Porsche-signed Bamber and Hartley achieve their goals, was also a friend of Bruce McLaren.
It is not clear if Amon is up to making the trip to reunite the machine that provided his greatest single win in two decades of top-level racing, a car he last saw being wheeled away as he and McLaren were drenched in champagne and congratulated by Henry II.
Now living in retirement in Taupo, Amon has previously spoken of his delight about Bamber’s win last year but has also hoped to see a day when another totally Kiwi crew car can replicate his and McLaren’s singular feat.
The 1966 win sparked a GT40 domination of Le Mans, with the type achieving four consecutive outright wins. Ironically, since winning Le Mans, chassis P/1046 was not treated well by Ford – rather than promptly stowing this special car into a museum (as it did with the 1967 winner, driven by two American drivers), it was instead given away.
GT40 makers Shelby and Holman and Moody used it as a test rig. It was then subsequently converted into a road car, then back to a racer before being dismantled and crated up, ending up in a warehouse in Belgium. Fortunately, the remains were spotted by an American collector who brought it back to life.
It has since then gone to the current owner, restorer and race car driver Rob Kaufman who has dedicated to ensuring that the car is exactly as it was when Amon and McLaren first met it and made motorsport history.
The car is now regarded as the most treasured of all GT40s and is cited as one of the most important Ford cars ever.