DEARBORN - In 1966, Mose Nowland was among a group of Ford engineers who flew to France to tune a lineup of Ford GT40 race cars that were set to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Mr. Ford (Henry Ford II) wanted to do his very best,” recalled Nowland, who retired from Ford last year. “He insisted that we were going to win even before we got to the track.”
Ford was right.
That was the historic year that the Blue Oval made headlines around the world winning the race with a dramatic 1-2-3 victory.
One of the GT40s that Ford flew to France – a Mark IIa inscribed with the No. 4 – started the race but didn’t finish. After the event was over it was painted to look like one of the winning cars and sent on the show tour circuit until 1968 when Ford donated the vehicle to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
The vehicle remained there until 2006 when the museum’s head of restoration Bill Spoerle agreed to allow Nowland, Ford Illustrations Designer Paul Osborn (retired), and Engineers Jim Dunham and Adam Christian to take the multi-million-dollar car back to Dunham’s workshop in Michigan and restore it to its original brilliance.
“This whole project was done on a handshake,” said Osborn. “There was no paperwork done and no money exchanged other than what the museum paid for the materials.”
After bringing the car home to Michigan, the group – who worked gratis on the vehicle in what can only be described as a labor of love – discovered quickly that the vehicle needed a lot more work than they had originally anticipated.
What started out as a six-month project ended up taking five years. Several other Ford engineers were also recruited to help with the restoration.
“After we pulled the engine out and saw the level of decay that had occurred, it became pretty clear that the vehicle was going to have to come clear down if it was going to be saved for another 50 years,” said Christian.
So the group began disassembling the car – piece by piece.
“We photographed and documented everything as we disassembled it and put the pieces in Ziploc bags so we would know how all the parts went back together – every bolt, rivet and nut was removed; right down to the shell,” said Dunham. “We basically hand stripped the entire chassis.”
Nowland concentrated on the engine, which counting all of the nuts, bolts and washers had roughly 1,200 parts.
“That particular engine was engraved in my head because when I joined the company that’s all I assembled for several years,” said Nowland.
The engine that was in the museum car, however, was not the original engine that raced at Le Mans.
“It was half Le Mans and half domestic car engine from that period,” explained Nowland. “And the reason for that is when our race cars returned to the U.S. in 1966 the engines had dimensional data history in them, so we pulled the original race engine out and put in a lookalike workhorse. The original engine was then torn down for analytical purposes to see how the parts endured in the 24-hour race so that we could be better prepared for 1967.”
Amazingly, Nowland still had the original build list from 1966 for the 427 side oiler dry sump engine.
“The unique pieces were basically the visible ones on the outside and they were there thank goodness,” said Nowland. “However, I had to go out and find someone to make the dry sump pieces.”
While Nowland worked on the engine, other members of the team worked on the chassis.
“The car had never been prepped properly so the brake fluid was left in it. It’s corrosive and it destroyed some of the lines and dripped out in several places over the chassis creating rusted spots,” said Christian. “Race cars were never really prepped that well. They were only meant to survive for a year or two at most. So there were a lot of unpainted parts that had rusted over the years.”
The group took the unibody chassis down to the Mayflower Ford plant in Norwalk, Ohio, where ‘05/’06 Ford GTs were being manufactured at the time.
“We put the 1966 GT40 on that same line and sent it through the process for dipping, acid etch, wash, paint, primer and e-coating, so when it came out of the oven it was sitting next to the new generation Ford GTs,” said Dunham. “It was kind of cool.”
All the components from the car either were cleaned, replated, repainted or rebuilt as needed. The group met up to three times each week and many other people volunteered to help as news of the restoration spread throughout the enthusiast community.
“Even with everything labeled it was a chore putting all the pieces back together,” said Osborn. “We found out real quick that it’s a lot easier taking something apart than it is putting it back together.”
Osborn captured the entire restoration process from beginning to end on videotape.
“It was a chance for me to document something that nobody ever gets the chance to do,” he said. “This is one of three cars that still exists.”
After the car was finished and custom-painted back to its original 1966 livery, the group took it to the 2011 Concours d’Elegance of America car show in Plymouth, Mich. where it was honored with two awards.
Immediately after the show, they loaded the vehicle onto a trailer and sent it back to the museum where it remains today.
“All those who participated in the restoration quietly felt privileged to have an opportunity to be contributing,” said Nowland. “The entire team was so motivated and dedicated and it pleased me to see the enthusiasm for it was for a worthy cause.”
Added Dunham, “Everyone can appreciate the car now.”