You’ve got to hand it to Ford as a car company. It has history unequalled including four consecutive wins at Le Mans in the 1960s when it was all or nothing against Enzo Ferrari on the world’s stage. It was exclusively about ego and the age-old battle of winning at all costs. Henry Ford II wanted Ford to be a world class automaker with an impressive resume of global racing wins. To get there, he needed to acquire a European automaker with a reputation for winning. That automaker was Ferrari.
Ferrari, facing serious financial woes, was searching for a suitable buyer. Ford saw Ferrari as a means into the European market and worldwide racing success. Then, as now, what wins on Sunday sells on Monday. It could be nothing but good for Ford. Car buyers like hitching their wagons to successful car companies though this has never really made a difference in the end. You may win races, however, if you don’t offer the customer a great product and reliability, they will never return for that second purchase. Ford learned this one the hard way in lost sales in the 1970s from disappointing quality and poor customer service. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Ford began to recover and regain market share.
Ford and Ferrari had been in talks for months about a deal for Ford to acquire Ferrari. Ferrari faced tremendous regional pressure for selling out to an American automaker. When it came down to the wire, Ferrari backed out, which made Ford’s blue blood boil. Ford wanted complete control of Ferrari’s racing operations as part of the deal. That wasn’t going to happen at any price.
Mr. Ford decided to build one heck of a racing operation within the Ford Motor Company and beat Enzo Ferrari at his own game. The goal was to kick Ferrari’s butt at Le Mans. Getting there would be a monumental task. Ford’s great racing success began domestically at Daytona, Sebring, Road America, Watkins Glen and a host of other racing venues. These wins prepared Ford for the exhausting journey to Le Mans.
Winning Le Mans was never going to be easy for Ford. Defeats in 1964-65 turned up the heat at Ford. Mr. Ford’s words were simple and concise to Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Either win Le Mans or be fired. Of course, Ford was never going to find anyone as qualified as Miles and Shelby. It was a moot point because Mr. Ford had the best. Carroll Shelby, who was never short on words, explained to Ford what it was going to take to win. It was going to require more money and resources to win Le Mans. Shelby’s position was simple—either get on board or stay on the porch. It was risky business to tell Mr. Ford how the cow ate the cabbage. However, Shelby had Ford’s attention and support. Beat Ferrari at all costs.
At Le Mans in 1966, Shelby and Miles, and drivers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon came in with Ford’s first Le Mans win. There would be more. That spectacle was followed by three consecutive Le Mans wins—Ford’s glory, and surely Ferrari’s public humiliation—spanked by an American supercar and a large V-8. This took great teamwork—world class drivers and the eye-opening Ford GT—to corral these wins. Ford was center stage using the phenomenal power of an American big-block V-8 and the experience of seasoned drivers who knew how to stay the course and win.
At the heart of these Le Mans wins was Ford’s 427ci “Side Oiler” FE Series big-block V8. The Side Oiler was the result of extensive research and development and having your keister handed to you repeatedly on the racetrack. Ford learned in educational baby steps how to make the 427 more durable. This quest began in 1962 with the 406 and a cross-bolted main cap block. Only very few 406 engines were cross bolted, swiftly replaced by the big-bore 427.
Cross-bolting the 427’s main caps and giving the block thicker main webs were valiant first steps. Still—racers continued to scatter 427s all over racetracks from coast to coast, especially in NASCAR competition. The remaining issue was lubrication. The FE’s oiling system fell short, with main bearings becoming oil starved at high rpm. Ford engineers had to develop a completely different “side oiling” system that ensured main bearings got adequate lubrication. The “Side Oiler” 427 was born.
Once Ford achieved solid durability in the 427, it went to work on the GT40 racecar chassis, which was a tremendous challenge. It took the extensive knowledge and experience of Miles and Shelby to make the GT40 not only an endurance race finisher—but also a winner against Ferrari. It was a picture-perfect finish with Ford leading the pack ahead of Ferrari. What’s more, Ford did it three more times before Mr. Ford concluded there was nothing left to prove. Ford got out of racing.
Carroll Shelby’s objective, aside from winning Le Mans, was also to design and build the world’s fastest production sports car — and he did in 1965. The 427 Cobra did 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds, 0-100 mph in 10.2 seconds, and had a top speed of 160 mph. It tipped the scales at 2,350 pounds with more than 500 horsepower.
Shelby’s 427 Cobra held the crown of world’s fastest production car (0-100-0 mph in 13.2 seconds) for more than 30 years before Ferrari caught up and passed the Cobra in more recent times. In competition form, the Cobra was a Ferrari-spanking 580-horse powerhouse using real American V-8 power. In street form, the Cobra was closer to 500 horsepower. Cobra magic came of a sweet US/Britain alliance that has been solid for approaching 60 years.
We’re at JGM Performance Engineering in Valencia, California covering a unique 427 Side Oiler from one of those historic 427 Shelby Cobras—the real thing (CSX 3147) from Shelby’s racing facilities in Southern California a lifetime ago. It is a rare privilege to be invited into the JGM shop to cover a build like this. What makes this 427 build unique aside from the obvious is its limited production “PROCESS FD” aluminum cylinder heads, which were produced in 1964-65 as a C5AE casting number and considered Medium Riser cylinder heads available over the Ford parts counter for a very limited time.
This 427 FE build gave us the opportunity to explore the Side Oiler block and get a closer look at the limited production PROCESS FD aluminum heads, which were a rarity at the time as Detroit became familiar with aluminum casting techniques. Before us was a genuine 427 Side Oiler that had lived in a production 427 Cobra since 1965. Seeing the “CSX 3147” hand stamped in the block casting gave us goosebumps. So did the “C5AE” casting numbers. This 427 had a front row seat for American automotive history in a sports car known to be the fastest production automobile in the world at the time. Not bad for raw American iron that also won Le Mans.