Hand Built Classic – Ford GT40

November 8, 2014 9:51 am

Special guest contributor, Matt Bolton, brings us his account and photographs of his friend, Jim Cowden’s, hand-built Ford GT40 replica which he has seen develop over the last decade. Over to Matt.

It’s a noise that sucks you in, it’s addictive, that rare combination of induction and exhaust fed by multiple throttle bodies. It doesn’t matter what the engine configuration is: flat six, in-line four or, as in this case, eight cylinders in classic V-format. That noise, it makes you to want to be a better driver, brush off those old skills of heel-toe down shifting and even the odd double de-clutch on the up shift, just to hear more.

The Ford GT40 was originally designed as a function over form device, a car built to be a middle finger to the Europeans, Ferrari in particular, the goal being to beat them at their own game at Le Mans. The fact that the form also happens to be beautiful is a very fortunate by-product of the process and science of aerodynamics ca. 1966. Those original cars were fibreglass, of course. It’s a nice simple material to form and replicate and it’s relatively lightweight and strong – the modern alternative would be to make use of carbon fibre – and it’s been done to this shape with great success. Aluminium? It seems like an odd choice in 2014. Sure, it’s lightweight and relatively strong too, but it’s a huge task to shape large sheets of the stuff to form the complex curves of a GT40.

Jim Cowden has always loved the GT40. A child of the ‘60s he grew up with images of Ferrari P4s, Porsche 906/917, Lamborghini Miuras and, of course, the GT40. A mechanic by trade, Jim has always been a frustrated artist. Whilst changing cambelts on Camrys, his mind would be conjuring up garden sculptures or handmade dining furniture, which he would then produce in his spare time.

Already a highly skilled and sought after fabricator for many race teams, Jim was destined to build his own car and it was always going to be a GT40. Originally this car came with a fibreglass body, as part of the Roaring 40s kit, but it always bugged him. He felt that it was too heavy and that there must be a better alternative, so why not hand form a new one from aluminium? The fact that Jim had never done this before was never considered an obstacle.

There were stuff ups along the way – Jim’s metal recycling bin would pay testament to that – but the end result is nothing short of rolling art produced by a true craftsman. Jim recently said to me, “It’s not really that difficult, the reason most people wouldn’t give it a go is that they are scared to fail and have to throw it in the bin”. Wise words and, of course, easy to say when you are blessed with such talent.

There was time where this car was destined for paint, McLaren orange if I recall, but as the new body started to come together it was clear that covering it would be a travesty. Instead this car makes do with raw aluminium, scotchbrite and some careful thought. In sunlight this car is a shape and colour shifter like no paint could emulate, the hand sanded “GT” stripe looks white from some angles, then various shades of silver, grey and even black in the right light. Sure, there’re imperfections – the odd exposed rivet head and faint weld lines here and there – but it’s raw, purposeful and there’s no hiding the fact that this thing is made by human hand and eye, just the way it should be.

To drive, Replica GT40s can be a bit of a mixed bag. Most, let’s be honest, will never see the business side of a pit lane wall. The countless hours and dollars their owners invest usually mean they are destined to be gingerly driven to and from car events, washed, polished, waxed and then hidden away until the next dry and sunny Sunday. The handling can be ‘interesting’ to say the least, brakes a bit of an afterthought and vague steering. Basically, not always a car that lives up to the promise of the looks or the legend, but not this car.

The plan from day one was to build it to be driven, hard, on a race circuit. There were even discussions about target lap times along the way. It’s already a multiple track day veteran and it gets driven regularly on the road too. Jim invested a huge amount of time in researching and then fabricating most of the suspension componentry with race car principles always in mind. The geometry was almost entirely changed as well. There have been countless discussions over the years around roll centres, Ackerman angles, polar moments…

I always smiled and nodded like I understood. The research and R&D have paid off though: this thing hangs on and corner entry speeds are high, but it’s the mid corner to exit transition that is the big surprise. There’s none of that classic mid-engine sphincter-tightening where you are just waiting to get bitten by an overly aggressive throttle input. You feel the weight shift to the rear, it squats on the outside rear tyre and then screams at you to bury the throttle. Those familiar with a well setup 911 on stickies would understand and be familiar with the feeling. I’m sure there’s a limit to the grip out there somewhere but I’m not convinced that, without a more ham-fisted operator or more horsepower, you’d find it.

It’s fast too. The shortish straight at Wakefield Park will see you getting on for 190km/h, a surprisingly light brush of the brake pedal, turn in and you’re back on it. And there’s that noise again…. 8 individual throttle bodies (handmade of course) are sucking jet engine like quantities of air in just over your shoulder behind a clear Lexan sheet, the howling exhaust in close proximity. There’s an immediate split-second silence as you lift off, dip the clutch, slot the next gear (with your right hand) and then it’s on again, sensory overload at its finest. It’s a completely analogue experience, there’s no power assistance anywhere, yet the steering is nicely weighted and direct with excellent feedback about what’s happening out front. The brake pedal is also unassisted, how hard you press is how quickly you stop, simple, like it should be.

Around town it’s not a physically demanding thing to drive, but your brain is working overtime in the knowledge that it’s quite a small car and it’s very low, most people will hear there is something next to them, but unless they look down you remain unseen. You are acutely aware of your surroundings when driving in traffic: you are looking at peoples’ mirrors to see if they have seen you; you are avoiding blind spots, and; you are blipping the throttle to let people know you are there (and, well, for that noise).

The driving position is a little unconventional by modern standards – race car designers back in the day paid little attention to ergonomics, drivers would just have to adapt. Back then race car drivers also smoked, drank and ate as many carbs as they liked. A gym would have been a place full of boxers who smoked and drank too, the good old days when men were men and all of that. It’s not a bad driving position, it’s just not familiar, the gear shift is on the right nestled next to your knee (Jim made that too, even stitched the leather gaiter – why wouldn’t he?). It all feels very 1960s race car, no real surprise there I suppose. The only modern conveniences are a rear view camera (very useful) and A/C, that works really well. Given the windows don’t really open it’s a welcome addition.

It’s been a long journey getting the car to where it is now, nine and half years, but the end product is a testament to Jim’s skill and dedication to the project. I feel privileged to have watched this project unfold over those years and to finally get to have a drive is an experience that ranks with anything else car related I’ve ever done and will stay with me forever.

Hours after my drive I catch myself mimicking that noise – bwooaarrr, snick, bwooaarrr, snik, brmmm, brmmm, bwooaarrr… Told you, it’s addictive.

 

– Matt Bolton is an IT-guru, gun driving instructor and long-time friend of GT40 owner, Jim Cowden, who owns Cowden Autmotive in Brookvale. Matt’s young son Max helped out and actually took photos #6, 8, 12 and 13 – well done, Max!

For even more of Matt’s photos of this stunning GT40, please visit our Flickr page.

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