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What it’s like to drive legendary, retro, and modern examples of the spectacular Ford GT back-to-back

Ford dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans during the late 1960s. In 1966, which marked the company’s first entry in the grueling endurance race, the legendary Ford GT40 not only won but also placed second and third, definitively unseating Ferrari, which had taken the checkered flag each year during the early 1960s.

Just 105 examples of the GT40 were built between 1964 and 1969, and Hagerty says the average value for one is a cool $3.8 million. That’s 14 times what a 2005 Ford GT goes for.

To celebrate its 100-year anniversary, Ford resurrected the GT at the height of the auto industry’s infatuation with retro design. Offered only for the 2005 and 2006 model years, the Ford GT once again showed the world that the company’s performance know-how wasn’t limited to Mustangs with V8 engines. Production of the resurrected GT amounted to 4,038 examples, and then Dearborn’s supercar took another nap.

For the 2017 model year, the GT returned once more, the flagship of a Ford performance lineup that included everything from the Fiesta ST and Focus RS to the Mustang Shelby GT350R and F-150 Raptor. With a teardrop-shaped carbon fiber body laid over an aluminum frame, a twin-turbocharged V6 engine, and lusty levels of sex appeal, the latest GT represents the pinnacle of Ford’s engineering know-how. The price? A half-mil to start.

Chances are, you’ll never get an opportunity to drive one of these cars. But Michael Harley, an occasional contributor to Daily News Autos and current Executive Editor of KBB.com, recently drove all three of ‘em, back-to-back (the lucky son-of-a-bitch). Mike is an old friend of mine, and he graciously offered Daily News Autos his driving impressions from that day.

I think you’ll enjoy his recollections as much as I did. – Christian Wardlaw

The smell of fuel is overpowering, even before I open the door and wiggle into the cockpit of this ‘60s-era racecar. Resisting my fight-or-flight instincts – training says the distinctive aroma is an alert to potential fire – I squirm, twist, and then slide into the driver’s seat. With the help of someone outside the vehicle, my four-point harness is cinched tight and the door is slammed shut while I tensely duck to avoid decapitation.

A glance around the purpose-built cockpit reveals a bank of analog gauges, a handful of toggles, and not much else. Without question, Superformance has done extraordinary work faithfully replicating the Le Mans-winning GT40 MK1 down to the core. This is a purpose-built machine with zero creature comforts and a passenger cell designed for a physically fit racer, not a 50-year-old man.

Thus, my six-foot two-inch frame doesn’t really want to fit, even after pulling out the seat padding and replacing it with nothing but a thin foam liner.

With a press of the start button, the all-aluminum 427 Windsor V8 barks to life with a startling roar. I’ve awakened a 560-horsepower carbureted monster.

Seconds later, I take a slow breath and begin tapping my toes between the floor-mounted clutch, brake, and accelerator pedal. My right hand fiddles with the gear lever, moving it through its dogleg pattern (first is down to the left) in an attempt to commit it to memory. It’s a futile exercise.

Starting in second gear, as instructed, I’m aggressive with the throttle as I release the clutch because I don’t want to stall. As I gingerly apply the gas, the GT40 rolls down the road and begins to pick up speed.

Everything about this vintage Ford is physical. The brakes demand an improbably hard press on the pedal, as does the clutch. The steering requires manhandling too, the 3-spoke wheel vibrating and shaking as the front wheels interpret the surface of the pavement. Cautiously, I shift to third and open the throttle.

The 2,400-pound GT40 blasts forward, seemingly attempting to leave the earth’s surface. The sound and fury from the engine is overwhelming. “This could be the loudest vehicle I’ve ever driven,” I think to myself, half wishing for earplugs. The cabin is stuffy and warm, and the smell of fuel continues to linger. But now there’s a hint of exhaust – burnt oil – mixed in.

As expected of a racecar, the GT40s reflexes are accurate and extremely predictable. It steers, corners, and brakes remarkably well. The challenge is building the nerve to increase speed, which takes true talent.

Nobody who drives the Superformance GT40 MK1 will recall its ridiculously fast velocity, as that’s assumed. The real take-away is the primeval engagement; a mixture of excitement and thrill, blended with a massive dose of terror. Bungee jumping is less of a rush.

Engineered as a modern reincarnation of the original GT40, but intended from the start to be a road car, the 2005 Ford GT accomplishes its primary objective impressively well. The throwback styling is unmistakable — passers-by immediately identify it as a Ford GT — and it looks as good in 2018 as it did in 2002 when it first rolled out as a concept car in Detroit.

The doors have the same awkward roof-incorporating overhang as its predecessor, which threatens to take out your forehead each time you climb in, but the cabin is exponentially more comfortable than the original. The seats are comfortable and the foot pedals are well positioned for fast footwork.

Drivers face a row of analog gauges and switches, which represent a clear visual connection to the Le Mans winner. The interior is spartan, lacking creature comforts, but the ergonomics are surprisingly good and everything is precisely where you expect it to be. Most important, of course, is that everything works perfectly (including the ice-cold air conditioning).

Press the start/stop button and the GTs supercharged 5.4-liter V8 roars to life. The deep exhaust note is accompanied by the mechanical whine from the screw-type supercharger, and the car feels and sounds viscerally alive.

Compared to the GT40, the ’05 is a cinch to drive, even if the massive air pump fills the rearview mirror. The clutch is easy to use, and the aluminum cue-ball shifter feels great in your hand as you row through the gearbox.

Power from the 550-plus horsepower V8 comes on strong, so I use a delicate throttle foot to prevent peeling out. Otherwise, the 3,400-pound GT will effortlessly light up its rear tires and whirl them until they melt into oblivion.

This car is loud, too, but the noise isn’t lawlessly deafening. Instead, it sounds like a well-honed dragster – pure American muscle car.

As expected, the 13-year-old GT handles with precision, yet it doesn’t feel as light and agile as the ‘60s-era car.

While it gives up a few points in overall agility – it’s not a racecar, after all – the more modern vehicle more than makes up for the deficiency in overall stability. The chassis is rock solid and perfectly planted, even at triple-digit speeds (top speed is a blistering 205 mph). The advanced chassis engineering also pays dividends in the braking department – pedal feel is excellent and the stopping power is exceptional.

The 2005 Ford GT is a wonderful sports car that contains more than sufficient GT40 DNA to be thrilling, but with a dollop of modern engineering and safety technology that guarantees preservation of life and limb in the event something goes wrong.

Unbelievably fast, extraordinarily competent, yet humane enough that you can drive it all day long, the second-generation GT is the real deal.

The 2018 Ford GT couldn’t be more unlike its 50-year-old predecessor. Yet, while I maintain that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, there’s a strange twist. Like the GT40 racer, and unlike the resurrected 2005 GT, the latest edition of Ford’s supercar was also primarily engineered to win at Le Mans. And in June of 2016, it did just that – claiming class victory at the famed French race.

Purebred racing DNA explains a lot about the new vehicle, especially when it comes to styling. While there’s a hint of the original GT40’s sensual good looks still lurking around, the all-new GT is an aerodynamic masterpiece that utilizes carefully crafted carbon fiber body panels and a flat underbelly to maximize downforce. Its most prominent feature is a pair of gorgeous flying buttresses that sweep from the cockpit rearward.

In short, the car is simply stunning.

There’s no forehead smashing when entering the new vehicle, as its dihedral doors rise high to allow the driver and passenger to drop into the narrow shoulder-touching cabin without obstacles. The cockpit is futuristic, and all business. This $500,000-plus vehicle is not luxurious, the interior best described as cold-to-the-touch rather than warm and fuzzy.

A pair of flat digital displays provide information to the driver, and nearly all primary functions are located on the flat-bottom steering wheel. The seats are comfortable and upholstered with grippy Alcantara and nice leather, yet carbon fiber is understandably the dominant theme of the interior, as that’s the primary building block of the visionary machine.

Mid-mounted in the chassis, the twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 is a noted departure from the GT’s traditional V8. Purists moaned when the vehicle was announced, but the new engine boasts 647 horsepower, making it the quickest and fastest of the three vehicles.

Additional controversy erupted over the choice of gearbox, as Ford dropped the traditional manual in favor of a quick-shifting 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Blame humans. We are simply too slow.

The electronic ignition process is anticlimactic. There’s no monstrous roar when the engine is started, and the chassis doesn’t shake as if it is trying to rip itself apart. There’s a deep growl, of course, but it’s muted.

Spin the transmission dial to D, just like you do in a Ford Fusion, and the late-model GT is ready to rock and roll. While it’s thoroughly modern, there’s almost no sound insulation within the cabin. The interior is acoustically reflective, and the tire noise drowns out just about everything.

Unlike its mechanical predecessors, five computer-controlled drive modes allow the driver to configure the GT to specific needs. In Normal driving mode, the car is tame, and it takes aggressive accelerator pedal movement to coax motivation, as there is notable turbo lag to overcome. This lack of response is eliminated in Sport and Track modes, which are much more exhilarating. Mash the throttle and the V6 comes to life with a punch – the sticky rear tires squirm and the GT catapults forward.

Under full boil, the latest Ford GT is a beast. Turn the steering wheel and the chassis responds immediately, with zero body roll. Push the sports car hard and it returns nearly unfathomable cornering grip, thanks to a very low center of gravity and massive tires. Slam the brake pedal to the floor and multi-piston calipers chomp down on carbon-ceramic rotors. And the rear spoiler even rises to serve as an air brake!

The harder you drive the new GT, the better it feels, driver confidence growing with velocity and easily making it the fastest and most capable of the bunch.

This is not a tale of three identical vehicles separated by a few decades of technology. Instead, I would consider each a distinctive high-water mark in Ford’s engineering program.

The ‘60s-era car is an absolute beast – uncomfortable to sit in, difficult to see out of, frightening to drive, and likely a death-trap if something goes wrong. It is visceral, yet exhausting. Truth be told, I’d keep the GT40 in a museum.

The 2005 Ford GT is a modern throwback that exhibits modern polish and technical poise. Manual controls, with a lack of electronic nannies, ensure that the driver is fully absorbed by the driving experience. Smoky burnouts, an exhaust note that wakes the neighbors, and neck-snapping power are present in abundance, with a strong safety cage and airbags for self-preservation.

The 2018 GT is the most civil of the trio, tame and innocent when driven with respect, but an E-ticket ride when pushed aggressively. The automatic transmission and twin-turbo V6 polish the carbon fiber GT’s rawness and dilute its engagement. But, with a talented driver behind the wheel, it’s a scalpel.

I’m a driving enthusiast who appreciates a traditional manual gearbox, responsive throttle, accurate steering, and confidence-inspiring brakes. I yearn for an engaging behind-the-wheel experience, without concession, and without interruption.

Put all three generations of Ford GT in front of me, and I’ll dive for the keys to the 2005.

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