Le Mans, 1966

June 18th, 1966—A steely grey sky hung over the crowds and cars gathered in the ancient French city of Le Mans, but even the promise of rain couldn’t take away from the anticipation that seemed to grow by the minute for the world’s most legendary car race to begin.

As the 4 pm flag drop approached, many spectators craned to catch a glimpse of the year’s Grand Marshall, Henry Ford II, and his GT40 racers. In 1966, expectations were high—Ford had already claimed victory at Daytona and Sebring that year, and Le Mans could be the jewel in crown.

A map of the world renowned Le Mans racetrack
A map of the world renowned Le Mans racetrack

Something to prove

But the formidable shadow of Ferrari also loomed large over the day. The Italian car manufacturer had often dominated Le Mans in the 60s, and Henry had set out to prove that his technology and vehicles were superior.

Le Mans was the perfect setting for Ford to stir the coals of competition with Ferrari. Since 1923, the race has become an institution, bearing witness to stunning victories and crushing defeats. Its myth-making status has inspired films, including the eponymously titled 1971 classic starring Steve McQueen and the iconic Ford GT40.

An iconic race, a gruelling challenge

The goal of Le Mans is simple enough: cars must cycle through the 13.6 km-long Circuit de la Sarthe over a 24-hour period. As drivers navigate sharp turns, winding curves, and the all-out rush of the Mulsanne Straight, speed is important, but so is durability and technology—winning cars must rely on fuel efficiency. There’s a reason the race is also known as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, after all.

Le Mans 1966 required Henry Ford II’s team to push the boundaries of innovation to endure 24 hours of speed and outlast rival Enzo Ferrari’s cars. The GT40s were built to last, thanks in no small part to the work of legendary driver and mechanic Carroll Shelby. As the rain began to fall and the daylight faded into night, the GT40s kept on going.

Images of the historic Ford victory at Le Mans in 1966
Ford makes history at Le Mans in 1966

History is made

There are few moments in auto racing as defining as when Ford placed first, second and third at Le Mans that year, leaving Ferrari in the dust of ninth place. “The splendid sight of the irresistible phalanx of MK 2s crossing the line in formation made it abundantly clear to the world who had won Le Mans,” reported Autoweek of the astounding victory.

It was the beginning of a legacy that would see Ford win Le Mans for four consecutive years. Five decades later, Ford’s accomplishment is still widely acknowledged as a defining moment in automotive history, and the inspiration behind its return to the iconic race in 2016 with the revolutionary EcoBoost engine.