During the Super Bowl on this day in 2004, the first TV commercial airs for the Ford GT, a new, high-performance “supercar” based on Ford’s GT40 race car, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France four years in a row starting in 1966. The TV ad for the two-seater Ford GT featured a driver’s eye view of the car noisily zooming around California’s Thunderhill Raceway, and ended with the tag line: “The Pace Car for an Entire Company.”
The history of the GT40 dates back to the early 1960s, when Henry Ford II (1917-1987), head of the Ford Motor Company and grandson of company founder Henry Ford (1863-1947), decided to launch a racing program in order to better promote his company. Ford set his sights on winning the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race, which was dominated in the first half of the 1960s by Italian automaker Ferrari. Endurance racing tested the stamina of both car and driver, and a victory at Le Mans was considered as a testament to a car’s superior engineering. The first Le Mans race was held in 1923; Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard drove 1,373 miles in a Chenard & Walcker auto, for an average speed of 57 mph, to win the event. (Today, along with Le Mans, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Rolex 24 at Daytona are known as the Triple Crown of endurance racing.)
In pursuit of his goal to win races, Henry Ford II attempted in the early 1960s to acquire Ferrari; however, company founder Enzo Ferrari (1898-1988) abruptly pulled out of the deal. Ford went on to invest millions developing its own racing program instead. In 1964, the Ford GT40 (the initials stood for Gran Turismo or Grand Touring; the number represented the car’s height in inches) participated in pre-race testing at Le Mans with lackluster results. Ford then hired car designer Carroll Shelby (1923-) to run its racing program. Shelby, a former race car driver, who in 1959 became just the second American to win Le Mans, oversaw improvements to the GT40, and in 1966, Ford’s race cars experienced major success, first at Sebring and Daytona, then Le Mans. That year in France, the team of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon drove a GT40 MkII a distance of some 3,009 miles with an average speed of 125.39 mph to win the race. The following year, a GT40 Mk IV took first place at Le Mans, while a GT40 Mk I won in 1968 and 1969. Rule changes after the 1969 race ended the GT40’s four-year winning streak at Le Mans.
The Ford GT that appeared in the 2004 Super Bowl ad was a bigger version of its 1960s namesake and carried a price tag of around $150,000. Although the Ford GT generated great interest upon its debut, in 2006 the company announced it would discontinue the car, stating it was only intended to be built for two production years. In 2007, Ford shuttered the Wixom, Michigan, plant were the GT was built.