A new Ford tours a classic circuit. By Matt Delorenzo • Photos by Allan Rosenberg November 2004 Le Mans. It is the raison d'être for the Ford GT. If it weren't for Henry Ford II and his fit of pique in failing to acquire Enzo Ferrari's company, there wouldn't have been a Ford GT40, or a string of victories at this most famous of racing circuits. So it seems fitting that the first Ford GT in Europe should visit the place that created a legend up to which this street-bred reincarnation hopes to live. Chassis No. 42 is a red GT with white stripes. I take delivery at 6:20 a.m. in front of Le Meridien Etoile in Port Maillot, on the western fringe of the Paris city center. Two British journalists, freelancer Michael Harvey and Car's editor, Jason Baldwin, had driven the car, along with other assorted exotica, from Calais and just finished an all-night photo shoot in the City of Lights. They muttered something about a Rendezvous-type shoot, never mind that Claude Lelouche drove a Ferrari in that one. Nevertheless, the GT is delivered clean, dent-free and in great working order. The Brits are off to home, while I'm headed to Le Mans on the autoroute. It's the first time I've been in the car since our road test (December 2003) at Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds and it would be my first opportunity to drive the car on public roads. Easing down into the driver's seat, I'm reminded how impossibly low the GT sits and the effort it takes to move gracefully into and out of the machine. The huge roof cutouts help, and the best way is to step directly in, although in Europe's tight garages, there's a strong possibility of not being able to get out of the GT once you've found parking. The cockpit is just as I remembered it, though several things leap out immediately. There is more leather trim, and the switch gear (especially the dash-mounted toggles) is of considerably higher quality than the bits in our original road test car. The center console-mounted air-conditioning controls, with their backlit markings, look like they've been lifted directly from a Bang & Olufsen sound system, and the general fit/finish is up to the levels demanded in a $140,000 exotic. The sport seats also seem to fit better; they're much more cosseting than I remember from before. A twist of the key, a punch of the starter button and the 5.4-liter supercharged V-8 springs to life right behind my ears. It idles smoothly and quietly. I push in the clutch-no superhuman effort required here-click the 6-speed transmission into 1st and slide away from the curb, swinging around the Palais des Congrès, making two quick lefts onto the Périphérique and into rush-hour traffic. The beauty of this GT, as opposed to its forebear, is that it can be driven in ordinary traffic with no strain. The air conditioning works well, the clutch take-up is light and manageable, and the engine's 550 bhp and 500 lb.-ft. of torque are tractable, allowing light throttle inputs that enable the car to glide effortlessly along at 25-35 mph. Explosive speed at rest in the Le Mans pit lane. From left, a GT40 in its famous Gulf colors; a GT40 Mark 3 with its distinctive headlights; and the modern GT, good for 205 mph. Past Orly Airport and the traffic loosens. Finally, I can get the full measure of the GT's legs. The power is immediate and the throaty exhaust most potent when pushing up past 2500 rpm. I notice a bit of wind noise coming from the passenger-side roof cutout, but beyond that, the body is tight and solid. At full song, this GT shines. Early difficulties getting in and out of the car, along with the realization of how low this car rides, evaporate with each passing kilometer. Like all great sports cars, you wear the GT, thereby losing the sense of how low you're sitting. It's just you, the car and the road, everything else disappears in a blur. Settling back in at about 90 to 100 mph prompts another revelation: It's impossible not to be noticed when you're driving the only Ford GT in France. Bikers gawk and other motorists race to catch up, linger to give the car a thorough once-over, and then speed on as if inspired by the GT's capabilities. When traveling in a pack of traffic, I'm somewhat distracted in my peripheral vision by reflections off the glass window in the bulkhead over my shoulder. Not wanting to explain to Stephane Cesareo, Ford's PR man waiting for me in Le Mans, why the GT needs a body shop, I crane around to make sure no one is close to the car in lane changes. Still, for such a low sports car, outward vision fore and aft is good, and the large side mirrors are especially welcome in making sure that the coast is clear. Past Le Mans, I double back on country roads and come through Mulsanne, the little village down at the end of the circuit's longest straight. It's Friday morning and the Le Mans Classic Historic Races have yet to start practice, so the roads that comprise a good chunk of the long track are still open to the public. I soon find myself clipping along Hunaudières (aka the Mulsanne Straight) in the opposite direction to the race at triple-digit speeds. After hooking up with Allan Rosenberg, we decide to do some photography along the track's public roads, stopping at the Auberge des Hunaudières. What a difference four decades makes. Instead of racing down that famed straight in anger, the GT is the kind of sports car that allows you to travel at speeds faster than the original's 201 mph, but also can comfortably transport you to lunch after the event. We run through the Mulsanne corner again and down toward Indianapolis. There's no doubt that straight-line acceleration offers the greatest thrills, but the GT's ability to corner virtually flat registers a close second. While the GT attracted attention on the autoroute, in and around Le Mans the car is mobbed. Everywhere people stop, take pictures and inquire about the car. Seeing that level of interest in the GT, whether you agree with the retro styling or not, is evidence why the project is simply the right thing for Ford to do. The GT not only celebrates tremendous heritage, but it also gives Ford a bit of breathing room, providing the company something else to talk about other than declining market share and its stock price. That this car exists at all is cause for celebration. The blurred signage behind hints at the modern GT's capabilities, all the more impressive considering how docile this Ford is at urban crawl velocities. Should the GT reprise its predecessor's success in competition? We think it should. Easing the car into the Ford compound inside the circuit, there are two company-owned GT40s trucked in from Great Britain. The GT's design, penned by Camilo Pardo and micromanaged by J Mays, is faithful to the original. Although taller and wider, the GT looks like a bigger, football-playing brother to the more lithe GT40. Where the original car can be described as scrappy, the modern GT is strapping. Even on the inside, the GT and GT40 are mirror images of each other, an impression further enhanced by the GT40's right-hand drive. The speedometer is positioned to the center of the dash on both, while the tach takes center stage in the instrument cluster. The row of toggle switches is the same, ditto the roof cutouts, the lack of carpeting and the aluminum pedals and shifter. The biggest difference is in the seating. Where the GT divides the two buckets with a center tunnel, the GT40's seats nearly touch. The center tunnel on the GT is home to the fuel tank, while on the GT40, the wider doorsills house the car's fuel cells. It is a credit to the purity of the design that the GT looks natural and in no way forced when compared side-by-side with the GT40. During the afternoon it's the turn of French journalists to bask in the GT's glow. They take the car, along with the GT40s, out on part of the circuit to do photography. Watching the trio sail up and down the start/finish straight, I squint at the horizon, my senses reeling, imagining the stands full, hoping to see Henry Ford II and perhaps a young Edsel Ford walking down pit row. Because all this happened here at Le Mans, the GT is a far bigger deal in Europe than America. While there's no doubt Americans rank the GT high in the pantheon of cool cars, in Europe, even non-enthusiasts actually get it. Le Mans is woven into the general history and cultural experience of Europe, whereas Le Mans on our side of the pond is appreciated only by dedicated motorheads. As a result, a much wider swath of the public knows and understands what the Ford GT and Le Mans are all about. It's a pity that France will get only seven GTs this year. While there's no doubt that the Ford GT is a great car, in a world where there's no shortage of comparable machines, the question is, what does Ford do with the car's legacy? Viewed in the harshest light possible, the Ford GT is a one-trick pony, living off the glory of a Ford two generations removed. Do you build 4500 GTs over three years and then walk away? Looking across the start/finish straight, the signage from the most recent 24 Hours of Le Mans is still in place, evidence that Audi, Porsche and, seemingly most prominent of all, Corvette, have been here. Chevrolet, like Ford, has a legacy here; the difference is that the former is building on it, the latter reveling in it. There's no doubting the capabilities of the Ford GT. The numbers, including a top speed of 205 mph recorded at the Nardo circuit in southern Italy, speak for themselves. But numbers alone didn't create the GT40 legend. If Ford is truly serious about living up to its heritage, it must race the GT and win.