The mid-1960s were a high-water-mark in performance automotive design and styling. Many of the design icons of that era are still breathlessly coveted by gearheads and connoisseurs. It was a time of high art in machinery. Consider this brief honor roll:
1961: The Jaguar XKE. Long, low, and very modern. Sort of the beginning of the look of a modern sports-car, at a time when many contemporaries still had flaring fenders right out of the 1930s.
1962: The AC Cobra. A bulging little monster. Tough and sleek.
1962-1964: The Ferrari 250 GTO. The car that marked the maturation of Ferrari as a world sport leader at the height of its power.
1964: The Corvette Stingray. Just super cool. A design that still turns boys’ heads fifty years later.
1964-1968: The Ferrari 275 in all its variants. Perhaps the most gracefully shaped pieces of metal of all time. They are “Italian” in the sense that an Amati violin or Ferragamo loafer is Italian.
1965: The Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO. The beginning of the American Muscle Car. Cold War hubris in steel.
1965: The Aston-Martin DB6. British grit and elegance that just gets classier year by year.
In this Valhalla of velocity, the Ford GT40 beat them all. Literally. In 1966, GT40s beat Ferrari to take first, second, and third place at LeMans. A GT40 won again in 1967. And again in ’68. And ’69. It was the first and perhaps the only true American supercar.
The GT40 wasn’t just a race winner. It was beautiful and unique. It just didn’t look like anything else. The design had this broad, distinct American accent. It wasn’t lithe like a Ferrari; it was more of a bruiser. It had a brutal elegance, like a Chicago pugilist. It had a manner that would make the Lords drop the monocles out of their regal eyes. It was more Humphrey Bogart than Charles Boyer. It had the tough, confident, no-bullshit brush-strokes of an Ashcan School painter.
Bottom line: if there’s one American car to get romantic about, it’s probably the GT40.
In the past two decades, we’ve seen design revivals of pretty much every American (and some European) car model that’s come and gone. It’s some combination of nostalgia, Post-Modernism, and a lack of a new design language. Some of these have been great (Dodge Challenger), some not so much (Ford Thunderbird). The GT40 didn’t seem like a prime candidate for revival, since it wasn’t a mass production car, and it’s not as widely known outside of motor enthusiasts. It’s not the thing you see on posters in diners. It’s also not something you’re going to see an original at a Saturday cruise-in.
But they did it: in 2005 – perhaps at the height of the retro wave – Ford released the GT, a very literal design revival of the venerated GT40. Some argued this design was too literal, hewing too closely to the 1966 car, but the 2005 GT was inarguably still beautiful and tough.
At the North American International Automobile Show this week, Ford debuted the next generation: the 2016 GT. It was unquestionably the star of the show, and for good reason: it is spectacular.
It is more of a design departure than the previous iteration. The most distinctive GT40ism is the broad, low front end and identifiable headlight and windshield shape. The rest of the machine, though, goes in more of a superhero direction. It feels more adolescent, like perhaps it should fold into a fighting robot. This makes that classic front end look out of place, like grafting a great Roman aquiline nose onto a dysmorphic runway model. This car will be amazing, but the styling has gone a little too much tequila and not enough fine whisky.
The original GT40 and the 2005 GT were brawny, but they didn’t rip their shirts off. They had a very grown-up virility. Fine things take time to learn to appreciate, but they are worth it. That is why we should be careful about letting teen aesthetics be the arbiter of taste. The best designs provide deep, lasting pleasure, not just eye-pop.
I don’t mean to pick nits off of what is definitely an amazing American automobile. It is lovely to see a car with a blue oval on it that will go toe-to-toe with any machine in the world. I am afraid, though, that all our attention will be on the funky, flashy bits, rather than its enduring dynastic elegance.