Peter Brock returns to watch his Daytona Coupes at Le Mans

Photography Credit: Bruno Vandevelde

Traveling to France this year to cover the Le Mans Classic delivered a real return in time for me. This iconic vintage event reprises all eras of motorsport with six separate groups, starting with cars from 1923, the first year of the Le Mans 24-hour race, until the last and fastest through 1981. 

My focus would be on the five Daytona Cobra coupes running in Plateau 4, event organizers using that wonderful French word for grid. Each such group comprises the fastest cars from a particularly heady segment of motor racing history. Plateau 4 included cars of all displacements that ran between 1962 and 1965, including the Ford GT40, various Ferraris, Jaguar E-types, a fast Bizzarrini and, of course, the Cobras in both roadster and coupe form. 

Since all cars running in each group have to conform to the homologated rules specific to their era, I was interested to see what improvements might have materialized in the Daytonas over the past 59 years. This is not to imply that illegal “improvements” might have been made, but time and concentrated effort have a way of continually refining what was considered best in its day to an even higher degree today. Countering that trend are the fanatical, extremely knowledgeable FIA tech inspectors who do their best to ensure that each car conforms to its original homologated specs. 

Just to give you an idea of what gains might transpire over time, I had a brief glance at a dynamometer sheet for one of the Cobra Coupe teams: 440 BHP was being extracted from the same exact parts, specs and materials that comprise a race-legal 289 Ford V8 today. In 1965, the best we could manage with that hardware was 385.

With those improved numbers, I expected some significantly higher top speeds, but it was not to be thanks to two significant changes from yesteryear that limited speed. First was the circuit; the course had been modified since the mid-’60s, now with two chicanes midpoint on the 3.4-mile-long Ligne Droite des Hunaudières (the Mulsanne Straight). 

One hundred seventy mph was still possible for the two fastest Daytonas, but their speed was still some 12 to 15 mph less than what the Daytonas were capable of when they ran in ’64 and ’65. That didn’t make sense, especially with some 50-plus more horses today. 

Second was the disturbing appearance of IMSA-type Balance of Performance restrictions that try to “equalize” capabilities by limiting the inherent advantages of one marque over others in class via various limitations to reduce potential performance. 

More than 60 years of careful refinement should have made the GT40 the overdog, yet somehow two of the recreated Daytonas were still more than competitive. This may have been why the organizers, unilaterally, decided to impose limitations on the Daytonas–perhaps to encourage more GT40 owners to participate? 

Sixty years ago, Shelby American arrived at Le Mans with two new Daytona Cobra coupes. This year there were five, with Jim Bouzaglou and Bill Bowdish (No.14) running the sole American entry. Photography credits: Courtesy Cahier Collection (top), Bruno Vandevelde (bottom)

Daytona wheel widths were reduced by 1 inch all around from what they ran in ’64 and ’65, maximum engine speed was electronically limited to 6600 rpm and, most questionable, every Daytona was required to remain stationary in its required pit stops for an extra minute: 6 minutes versus the 5 minutes imposed on all others. 

I wish I’d had an entrant or team manager’s position, plus enough of a command of the French language, to meet with the officials and question these changes, but I’d resigned myself to being a reporting spectator and tried to be objective. Had the Daytonas not been limited, it would have been a far more interesting race. 

Carroll Shelby’s support from Ford Motor Company was minimal in 1964 when he unexpectedly entered two Cobra Daytona Coupes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ford was just introducing its own team of GT40s at Le Mans, so Shelby’s Coupes were actually competitors. 

It created a strange internal problem for Ford management, as they’d been completely unaware of the Daytona’s development within Shelby, but after the Coupe’s surprising initial success at Daytona and Sebring in ’64, although Ford was still testing the GT40s, there wasn’t much resistance.

There was also the rather embarrassing and undiscussed matter of the GT40’s classification. It was supposed to have been developed as a GT car like the Daytonas, but instead, because of the production numbers not being met for homologation, it was required to run as a Prototype. 

Shelby’s two Daytonas weren’t exactly unknown on the Sarthe circuit in ’64, as a single example had been quietly tested there several weeks before and had set a GT lap record–in the rain. There was no mention of this in the official Ford press releases of the weekend as it wasn’t a “real Ford.” This official bit of trivia was barely mentioned in the media, as the results from the official test days garnered minimal coverage in the general press. 

In 1964, Peter Brock (in sunglasses, standing next to team driver Alan Grant) arrived at Le Mans with a couple of radical, Ford-powered contenders for the GT class win. This year, he stood between Aaron Shelby, Carroll Shelby’s grandson, and Jim Bouzaglou’s ATS team. Photography credits: Courtesy Peter Brock (top), Gayle Brock (bottom)

Shelby’s reputation as a contender in the FIA’s International Championship for GT Manufacturers had yet to be recognized. Enzo’s Ferraris had been so dominant at the famed race for the six previous years that the Texan’s twin Daytona entries were barely mentioned. Even though the Daytona had won the GT class at Sebring just 10 weeks earlier, beating the works GTO Ferraris, the French media seemed solely focused on Ford’s new GT40s. 

A tremendous and continuing barrage of promotional material from Ford in the weeks preceding the 24 Hours might have had you believing there was little chance that anyone else would be competitive. Ferrari’s latest masterpiece, the 250 GTO, had won there twice overall since its introduction in ’62 and was still considered the finest and fastest design of the era. But for those of us who had witnessed the first-built Daytona’s speed in Florida, there was a sense of change in the air.

Ford’s original plan to thwart the Italians in ’64 was to have its new GT40 on track at the season’s first two races at Daytona and Sebring, but development problems negated their appearance until the official LeMans test days–and that had gone badly. Both GT40s crashed because of aerodynamic instability. Ford’s fortunes wouldn’t improve in the 24-hour race, either. 

By the time of the Le Mans race in ’64, a second Daytona had been built. Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant, driving this newest Coupe–one of the two Shelby Daytonas entered–managed to win the tough 24 Hours despite almost losing an engine during the night when an errant rock destroyed the car’s oil cooler. 

Shelby’s other Daytona had been disqualified midrace when leading because of a Le Mans pit stop technicality that required all cars to start under their own power after a required shutdown for refueling. Its battery had failed. 

The Shelby crew, unfamiliar with the arcane French rules, had automatically jump-started the car, causing the hovering Ferrari team manger to immediately protest. The protest was upheld, and Shelby was furious. Dan and Bob’s win several hours later assuaged his temper, but he vowed to retaliate and annihilate the Italians at their own game. 

To add further insult to injury, when it looked like the Daytonas could have passed the Ferraris in points to win the ’64 season, Enzo Ferrari used his political influence to have the sanctioning of the season-ending race at Monza canceled. 

Enzo, now having barely won the ’64 championship, publicly announced he was abandoning the GT wars as he did not wish to race against his privateer teams. 

In truth, the Daytonas had so outclassed his works-prepared 250 GTOs that there was no point in continuing. It would be far easier to defeat the Ford GT40s in the Prototype class, so that was where the real Ford versus Ferrari wars started. 

In ’64, the Daytonas had proved fast, strong and reliable, doing exactly what Ford’s GT40s were originally intended to do. The new Fords unfortunately had proved uncompetitive, brittle and unreliable. Not one GT40 finished a race in ’64. 

It was the Daytona’s repeated successes all over Europe that finally convinced Leo Beebe, Henry Ford II’s right-hand man and director of the Ford Racing effort to win Le Mans, to essentially shut down Ford Advanced Vehicles in the U.K. and transfer almost all responsibility for Ford’s on-track fortunes to the affable Texan’s facilities in California. What was even less publicized was the fact that all further development on the GT40s was given to Kar Kraft in Dearborn. (For those who have seen Hollywood’s version of the ensuing struggle against Ferrari, those strategic moves were the beginning of the movie.)

Unknown to most, Ford’s contract with Shelby had also required the dominant Daytona Coupes to be removed from his team so all involved could focus on the GT40’s development, which was now required by the rules to race as a Prototype. All on-track responsibility for the Daytonas was assigned to the Alan Mann Racing team in the U.K. in ’65. Shelby didn’t get Ford its Le Mans win with the GT40s until 1966, but in ’65 he did get his FIA GT championship win over Ferrari. 

Bondurant scored the final vital points at the Reims 12-hour race with the winning Daytona Cobra Coupe. Shelby walked away with the FIA International Championship for GT Manufacturers and Bondurant took the ’65 FIA GT drivers’ championship. It hadn’t been easy with all the shuffling around of the Cobra and GT40 programs that year, but it’s in the history books that the Shelby Daytonas won the FIA world GT championship against Ferrari in 1965 and the Shelby Ford GT40s won against Ferrari at Le Mans in ’66 and ’67. 

Since just six Daytona Cobra Coupes were constructed back in the day, their value today is so astronomical that they exist only in museums and private collections. A number of “vintage specialists” across the globe build Daytona Coupe replicas, but only a very few build to the homologated standard required by the FIA to qualify for the Le Mans Classic. 

One of the best is Mike McCluskey in California. McCluskey built about 30 such replicas for Shelby before his special Coupe construction facilities were completely destroyed in the infamous California wildfires of 2018. 

Those fortunate enough to have purchased one with the “correct” Shelby-authorized serial numbers are now naturally reluctant to risk one in competition. However, hardcore, California-based McCluskey Daytona Coupe owner Jim Bouzaglou isn’t one. He’d never raced in Europe, but after attending a special Shelby anniversary event at the Cobra Experience museum in the San Francisco area, he made up his mind to go. 

His application for entry in this year’s Peter Auto events, which comprises a series of rallies and races in Italy, France and Portugal, was accepted in late 2022. With approval in hand, he began to prepare, amassing enough engines and spares to last the full season. His co-driver, William Bowdish from Colorado, had also never raced in Europe but was just as excited to go. They would make up the sole American team with a Daytona Coupe at the Le Mans Classic.

By contrast, Olivier Galant, a young but experienced French racer now living in Dubai, placed his full confidence in a veteran English racing operation called Gelscoe Motorsport. The group handles everything for its clients on an arrive-and-drive basis, including transportation all over Europe. 

Since Galant was young, his dad, Xavier, brought him up as a racer. Both relied on Gelscoe to not only prepare their various racers but also construct Olivier’s Daytona replica from an officially recognized COB serial number, which was the designation for AC’s works-built cars in the U.K. and Europe. I’d never heard of Galant prior to this year’s Le Mans Classic but made it a point to meet with him as his times in practice were impressive.

When looking at the time sheets from practice and qualifying, I saw some half-dozen Ford GT40s were the fastest in Plateau 4. Knowing race history, I knew the BOP was affecting the Daytonas. Two familiar names were at the top of the time sheets: Jim Farley, president of Ford Motor Company, was teamed with my old friend, Eric van de Poele, in a GT40. 

I knew van de Poele from my days covering motorsports in Europe, where he drove the first Cadillac LMP at Le Mans in 2000 before moving to Bentley and then Ferrari. In the GT40, they posted a top speed of 180 mph. That seemed low, but I later learned from van de Poele that they were topping out at 193!

Turns out the Classic was using the same on-track speed traps as the 24Hours of Le Mans a few weeks before. For the “modern” 24-hour race, the traps were set at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, just before those current-day racers would be braking for the turn. 

The older cars in the Classic had to brake far sooner, so they weren’t going through the speed trap at their peak speed. Even so, Galant’s posted top and average speeds in practice seemed too low. Was he sandbagging?

Farley, who won this class in 2022, did not repeat. During the opening race, the Farley/van de Poele GT40 easily led the field until Farley lost a door, causing him to pit and scratch for the day. Local Le Mans racing expert Robert Sarrailh, whose nearby shop, ATS, specializes in both Ford GTs and Cobras, was able to supply a spare door from a GT40 in for restoration. 

The Farley Ford would make its races on Sunday, but again the door opened. This time, however, Farley was able to make it into the pits before the door disengaged from the Ford entirely. In the pits, it was unceremoniously taped shut, allowing Farley to finish his stint. 

Friday, each of the six Plateaus has one 50-minute daytime practice/qualifying stint and one 35-minute nighttime practice session. This allows each driver to experience the circuit at different times and under different conditions. During the 24 hours of the race, each group runs three different sessions, one Saturday, one in the evening and one Sunday. Each timed race session lasts 43 minutes. 

It’s the sum of their three session times that determines each team’s finishing position. The six groups running three sessions each, with time in between to grid, combines for a total of 24 hours, meaning you can hear cars racing at all hours through the night–pure music for the 235,000-plus fans, many of whom are camped out within the circuit. 

With the huge length of the circuit (just short of 8.5 miles per lap) there are up to 84 cars per group, many with smaller-displacement cars from the era, like Alfas, Porsches, Healeys, Lotuses and even MGs. Speed differentials can make things dicey for both the faster guys and those tiddlers, always about to get run over–’specially at night when it rains on different parts of the circuit.  

When you stop to consider the logistics and complexity of conducting the Classic’s 800-plus entries over 18 race sessions, it’s easy to understand why the real 24 hours of endurance, held a couple of weeks earlier with only 60 cars, is far less complicated for those trying to keep track. 

Not surprisingly, the high number of GT40s entered this year improved their odds of success, so the first three overall winners in Plateau 4 were Fords. Most impressive, though, in fourth overall, was Olivier Galant in his U.K.-built Daytona Coupe, along with a second Daytona driven by Erwin France in fifth. German driver Christian Glasel, whose family owns one of the six original Daytonas, turned the fastest time overall driving his GT40 in one of the three race sessions. 

Having driven both types of cars in various other events, Glasel knows the true value of his GT40’s five-speed transmission on the Mulsanne. He ended up ninth overall, followed by another French-built Daytona in 10th. Count ’em: That’s five GT40s, three Daytonas and one E-type Jaguar (in seventh) in the top 10 out of a field of 84 cars.

Three Daytonas in the top 10. Not bad for an “antique” front-engine, four-speed relic further crippled by Balance of Performance restrictions. The best-finishing Ferrari was a French-entered 250 LM landing in 80th place. Jim Bouzaglou and William Bowdish, the two American newbies who finished 19th, said they had a great experience and learned a lot about racing in Europe and especially why their Daytona was such fun to drive against the best from the era. Both said they’d be back in ’25.

The fact that the five die-hard Daytona entrants even agreed to show up this year with the imposed limiting regulations was surprising. It proved that acceptance for the Classic, just for the memorable experience to race at all hours on this hallowed track, is worth it. They loved competing against the technically superior GT40s, even with artificial limitations placed against them. It says a lot for those who understand real competition. 

My time at the Classic was quite special as well, walking a paddock filled with race cars I saw when I was there with the Daytonas in ’65. Only this time, I could stick my head into any stall and ask all the questions I wanted. This year I wasn’t considered “the competition.”

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