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The strange, sad tale of Big Ed, Ford’s most unloved GT40 roadster

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Sebring 1966: Big Ed, driven by Ken Miles and LLoyd Ruby, makes a night pit stop. Images courtesy of Ford Motorsport History.

Ford’s GT40 coupes were once the scourge of racing circuits across the United States and Europe, besting formerly-dominant Ferrari. Though lesser-known than the coupes, Ford built five open-top GT40 roadster models for racing as well, including Big Ed, a car that achieved a single victory (the only win on U.S. soil for a GT40 roadster in-period) before meeting its fate at the hands of a cutting torch.

Of the five GT40 roadsters built, four used steel frames, but Big Ed (an unkind reference to Ford’s other folly, the Edsel) received an aluminum frame. Unlike its brethren, Big Ed, also known as chassis GT/110, wasn’t initially intended for endurance racing glory; instead, it was to be campaigned by McLaren in Group 7, a series that would later give rise to the wildly popular Can-Am series.

After the aluminum chassis was constructed by Abbey Panels in England, chassis GT/110 was shipped to McLaren for the addition of a body (featuring a long nose with canards and a tall rear spoiler) and a V-8. As The World Registry of Cobras & GT40s, Fourth Edition explains, the bare chassis was diverted to Lola Cars for close inspection, oddly fitting as the original GT40 was itself a variation of the Lola Mk. 6.

GT40 roadster GT110

The oversized, reinforced rear spoiler was needed to counter turbulence created by the open cockpit.

McLaren’s goal was to shave a significant amount of weight out of the GT40 coupe, and while the roadster was lighter, even Chris Amon couldn’t win Group 7 races in the car, then called the Ford X-1. After a DNF at Mosport (overheating), Amon drove the X-1 to a fifth place finish at Riverside, followed by a pair of DNFs at the Bahamas Speed Weeks (broken final drive and transmission failure) to round out the 1965 season. Its days as Ford X-1 over, McLaren shipped the car to Shelby American to be prepared for the 1966 Sebring 12 Hours.

Its disappointing performance during the 1965 season solidified the Big Ed nickname, used even in written correspondence between Shelby American and Ford. In preparation for Sebring, Shelby American rebodied the car with a Mk II nose and tail, adding a tall and reinforced rear spoiler to counter the turbulence generated at high speed by the open roof. At the hands of Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby, the car proved competitive enough at Sebring, running in second place on the closing lap.

Big Ed’s redemption came in the form of mechanical failure for the car leading the race, a GT40 Mk II piloted by Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant. With the finish line in sight, Gurney jumped out of his stalled race car and pushed it roughly a quarter-mile across the finish line. His heroic act may have drawn applause from fans, but the violation of the rules prompted officials to slap the car, chassis P/1031, with a DNF. Shortly after, Big Ed crossed the finish line, earning its sole racing victory.

GT40 roadster GT110

Big Ed, with the GT40 coupe driven by Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant, in the pits at Sebring.

By this time, it was becoming clear that the GT40 roadsters were largely a failed experiment. Any gains from weight savings were offset by increased chassis flex and aerodynamic drag, and following Sebring, plans were made to have Holman and Moody rebody Big Ed as a coupe. The idea didn’t last long, and a month after its 1966 Sebring victory, chassis GT/110 was being cannibalized for parts on a regular basis.

This death of 1,000 cuts carried on until 1970, when it became clear that U.S. Customs wasn’t going to forget about the importation of chassis GT/110. Brought in on a temporary import bond, long since expired, Shelby had but two choices: pay the import duty plus late fees, or scrap the car. He opted for the latter, ordering the car cut up ahead of the Customs inspector’s visit.

GT40 roadster GT110

Big Ed even starred in a 1967 Autolite spark plug ad.

This proved to be a violation of the rules, as vehicles in questions had to be destroyed in the presence of a Customs inspector. With no other options, Shelby ordered the car to be tack welded back together, then cut apart under the watchful eye of the government inspector. Rumor is the chassis was buried on land that later gave rise to an apartment building.

As for the other Ford GT40 roadsters, chassis GT/108 was the prototype, and never raced in period. Perhaps the most original example, it sold at a 2014 RM Sotheby’s auction for $6.93 million.

Chassis GT/109, the sister car to 108, was prepared for the 1965 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans by Shelby American, and during the race it was driven by Maurice Trintignant and Guy Ligier to a DNF. Later used to develop the J Car, GT/109 was purchased by Dean Jeffries, who undertook a lengthy restoration of the car. It was acquired by its current owner in 2013.

Chassis GT/111 was raced at the Le Mans trials in 1965, then at the 1965 Targa Florio, where it was driven by Bob Bondurant and Sir John Whitmore. Crashed during the race by Bondurant, the car was returned to Ford Advanced Vehicles where it was used as a parts car until later being scrapped. In 2006, its bisected frame was found in a London warehouse, and the car has subsequently been restored.

Chassis GT/112 was raced only once for Ford Advanced Vehicles, at Nürburgring, where it was driven by Dick Attwood and Sir John Whitmore to a DNF. Sold to Brian Sutcliffe, it was campaigned extensively throughout England and France before being sold to Bob Vincent, who continued to race the car in England through June of 1968. Later that year it was purchased by Malcolm Sinclair and converted to road use, and in 1973 it was sold to Ken Senior. As of 2008, GT/112 remains on display in a museum run by Ken’s son in Weybridge, Surrey, England.