Automotive icons. We love them.
These are the bedroom wall heroes. The shapes that define an entire generation of cars. They usually crackle, pop and spit as they embed themselves in your heart.
Even in the company of automotive royalty, there is one silhouette that stands out as arguably the most iconic of all time. The Ford GT40, slayer of Ferrari at Le Mans in the mid-60s, is the quintessential picture of the glory days of racing.
A lesser known fact is that one of the original drivers of the GT40 at Le Mans (and various other important races) was none other than Bruce McLaren. Motorsport heritage literally drips off this car.
If you want to drive along without disturbing the neighbourhood or attracting attention, this isn’t the car for you. Standing only 40 inches tall (hence the name) and with a thunderous V8 in the back (in this case a Ford 302), a GT40 replica draws a crowd wherever it goes. The bright yellow paintwork only adds to the magic.
We won’t belabour the replica point and will rather just refer to it as a GT40 from here onwards. Unless you are European royalty or have owned some American oil rigs, you are unlikely to be in the market for a genuine GT40. There are GT40 replicas built to a very high standard for Porsche money that are at least somewhat attainable if you have some financial muscle.
Undoubtedly one of the most photogenic cars ever made, the GT40 is genuinely an artwork. It just gets prettier the more you stare. As you walk around the car taking in its astonishing proportions, delicious styling details continue to pop out at you.
The swooping fenders are glorious, guiding your eyes over the Halibrand wheels and enormous tyres (315/35/17 at the back). The unique door shape, cut into the roof, is an absolute necessity for anyone to get into and out of the car. This is without doubt the trickiest car to enter and exit that we’ve ever driven.
This particular example has the “Gurney Bubble” – a roof bubble over the driver’s seat that enabled 6’4” Dan Gurney to drive his GT40 to victory in 1967. A journey in the passenger seat as a 5’8” petrolhead quickly confirmed the need for the bubble.
The driving experience is…extreme. Replicas vary enormously in quality, trim and thus price. This car started out as a racecar so it is particularly violent, although it has subsequently had a perfectly acceptable dashboard fitted. The most difficult thing to get used to is the driving position, which is significantly offset. This is apparently not the case on all GT40 replicas.
The V8 roars into life with a predictably magnificent rumble. As you check the mirrors for any other cars around you, all you can hope is that other drivers are intelligent enough to stay out the way, as visibility is close to non-existent. At least the GT40 is borderline impossible to miss thanks to the bright yellow paint and the symphony out the exhausts.
Releasing the clutch feels like taking the lid off a container that you know houses an angry snake. Even without going near the accelerator pedal, the clutch bites and lurches the car forward. No doubt it gets easier when you own the car and get used to it, but we were very glad to be experiencing it on a quiet Saturday morning in Noordhoek rather than in traffic.
The sensory overload continues as you pull away. The V8 roars behind you as a constant reminder of the frightening power under your right foot. The steering is precise, but the 5-speed gearbox isn’t – it definitely takes some getting used to. The best driving gear by far is 3rd which has enough torque for any traffic situation and enough top-end to get you into plenty of trouble.
Unfortunately, trouble did hit on the drive. Just as I started to build confidence in the car, it decided to go full racecar on us and throw a tantrum at the upper end of the rev range in 1st gear. The smell of radiator coolant is never as enjoyable as the smell of petrol.
As we forlornly stopped at the service station and opened the engine bay, we were met by the tragic sight of steam and water everywhere. Highly-stressed performance cars have a way of passing that stress through to the owner and this GT40 is no different.
Thankfully, the scene of the crime was established quickly. A pipe blocker had literally blown off the engine, resulting in an engine bay fountain that any Italian garden enthusiast would be proud of.
With hearts pounding and certain areas of the body clenched tightly, it was confirmed that the engine was totally undamaged. The sick feeling in our stomachs started to slowly disappear.
We jumped in the other car with us that morning (a Honda S2000 that revs to 9000rpm without springing a Fountain of Stress) and journeyed back up the road in search of the elusive rubber stopper. Astonishingly, we found it in perfect condition on the side of the road.
A quick screwdriver session later and all was well. After such a scare, we tossed the keys back to the owner who kindly offered to show us how to actually drive this car.
Our suspicions were confirmed. It’s an extraordinary machine, but you need time to get used to it. Using the punchy mid-range of the car is the right way to work the 5-speed ‘box, rather than taking it all the way up the rev range. In experienced hands, the power delivery is smooth and plentiful. The passenger seat is a different experience altogether, with your head touching the roof and your nose about 3 inches away from the roll cage.
For 99% of drivers out there, a GT40 is simply too compromised and far too hardcore. It is unquestionably the most masculine car we’ve ever experienced. If you are in the other 1%, you do need to give yourself time to get to grips with everything going on around you. This isn’t the plug-and-play performance that a Porsche GT3 gives you. But, unlock its full potential and you will enjoy performance that will embarrasses supercar owners who have spent 5 times as much (or more).