By now the story is well known…
Ford astounded autolandia when the sheet came off its four-wheeled fighter jet at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. For months details were scarce. We knew it would have a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 yanked from the Ford Riley Daytona Prototype running around in IMSA’s new United SportsCar Championship; we knew it would be hand built by the hired guns at Multimatic in Markham, Ontario; and we knew the company intended to rekindle its war with Ferrari at Le Mans.
Oh, and there weren’t going to be many.
Eventually, we learned Ford would mete out 1,000 cars over four years to a carefully curated cadre of buyers, giving preference to former GT owners and Ford aficionados with an affinity for motorsports, philanthropy, and social media. Applicants were asked to bare their souls in a convoluted ordering process that demanded your vehicle history, intended use of the GT should the privilege to spend $450,000 ($560,000 CAD) on one be granted, plus a 60-second video where you would politely ask for one. It was a process that would embarrass even Maranello’s overwrought old boys club.
Richard L’Abbe met almost none of those criteria, yet he recently became one of the first four Canadians to receive the half-million-dollar Ford. He doesn’t own a previous generation Ford GT nor other road cars of its caliber, for many years he preferred the anonymity of small SUVs and minivans, and his experience with the Ford brand prior to GT ownership could be described as middling at best. He doesn’t publicize his philanthropy nor use social media, in fact, L’Abbe didn’t even submit the required video with his application.
Before you start screaming shenanigans, there are a few things you need to know about Richard L’Abbe’s unorthodox path to Ford GT ownership.
L’Abbe wasn’t even into cars, let alone motorsports, until about a decade ago when he attended an event at Calabogie Motorsports Park and decided it was the kind of venture he wanted to get involved with. After an arduous interview with the tight-knit ownership group, a few hot laps in a Porsche 911 track-rat, and an obligatory round of golf, he was in.
Richard then waded into the world of motorsports, taking high-performance driving lessons before procuring himself a racing license and eventually proper racing cars like a 1996 Lola T96 Formula 3000 car and a 2013 Radical SR3—in which L’Abbe can certainly do some damage.
The story of Richard’s GT ownership begins in April of 2015 when the L’Abbes were traveling to China for the Formula 1 race at the Shanghai International Circuit. But there was a second reason for Richard’s visit to the People’s Republic—8 days after Lewis Hamilton took his 41st Formula 1 victory the Ford GT was due to be unveiled, again, at the Shanghai Motor Show.
From the entrance of the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai, it took forty-five minutes of brisk walking to arrive at the Ford booth, where L’Abbe was hoping to speak with someone about the GT. Of course, upon arrival, the well-meaning local Ford staff were quick to turn Richard away for lacking an appointment.
“I ended up, by hook and by crook, going into the offices and I met a gentleman that I had no clue who he was,” L’Abbe recounts with a slight grin. “It ends up that it was Raj Nair [Ford president and vice president of North America]. So, we start chatting and I say, ‘Mr. Nair, I’m one of the partners at the Calabogie Motorsports Park.’”
As Ford VP of Global Product Development at the time, and one of the main architects of the GT program, Raj Nair knows all about Calabogie Motorsports Park.
Calabogie is a small town with a ski hill about 150 km Northeast of Ottawa, just off the Madawaska River. The circuit itself is an up and down, side to side tarmac ribbon ride through the woods in the middle of nowhere; it’s also where Ford and Multimatic had chosen to clandestinely develop the GT, with Scott Maxwell laying down thousands of laps before the car even debuted publicly. Not many people know this, but Ford doesn’t win Le Mans in 2016 without Calabogie Motorsports Park.
“So, I ask him, how is this car going to be allocated? And he says, ‘Richard, we haven’t decided that, but just leave your name with us, speak to the guys at Multimatic, and when the [application] process is announced, we’ll contact you.’”
Despite his peripheral connection with the car’s development, Richard was skeptical of his application being accepted. “I filled it out as best I could, but I must admit that maybe my application wasn’t in the top percentile because there were a lot of holes in there.”
But the story gets even more incredible following L’Abbe’s approval in September 2016. Richard needed to have his order finalized by February of 2017, except, the Ford GT Concierge Service couldn’t send him one of their splendid ordering kits because they weren’t ready yet. “They called and said we don’t have the kits yet, but we want you to order the car with the finishes you want, so would you be willing to come down to the Ford New Product Development Center in Dearborn?”
Richard was the first person on the next flight to Detroit. After a morning perusing the Henry Ford Museum Richard simply walked across the street to Ford’s New Product Development Center where he got to hang out with members of the twenty-two-human skunkworks team that took the GT from ideation to final iteration in under a year.
“They explained why they use clay models and how important they still are, then they went through the development process, which for me was an absolute walk in a candy shop with all of my favorite treats. And then we chose the finishes and that was it. I came back to Ottawa and I put my deposit down.”
L’Abbe wanted the Detroit debut car the minute he saw photos of it, so that’s the way he ordered his, Liquid Blue with the optional carbon-fiber wheels. Once Richard had committed half the value of the car Ford gave him a production window, GT chassis No.71 was scheduled for production in late July or August. In late August Richard visited Multimatic’s production facility just barely north of Toronto where they walked him through the car’s six assembly stations from tub, to frame, paint, then motor plus 6,000 other things, before validation.
“No one had told me I was going to see my car for the very first time.” As part of the quality control process, Multimatic uses spotlights mounted on a big arch one-and-a-half-times the length of the car to illuminate the car evenly in order to check the paint for defects. “So, I’ve just finished looking at a car being assembled in the last stage, and I turn around and this baby is sitting right under the lights.
“I don’t get emotional about cars, I’ve got a number of race cars, but when I saw this, and I knew the whole history behind it, it was just an amazing experience for me. Because throughout my entire career I was always very big on creativity and innovation, pushing the boundaries of the state of technology. And that’s exactly what Ford has done with this car. And to know that the Canadian component was such a big component of the development of the car and the fact that it was tested here at Calabogie by Multimatic and to know it’s built in Canada, well that, for me, was just off the charts.”
That’s why Richard plans to use the car in his philanthropic work with local schools and universities, hoping to stimulate and spur curiosity in young minds about science, technology, and engineering. As part of that work, the 647-hp Ford GT will serve as the centerpiece during the grand reopening of the Canadian National Museum of Science and Technology on November 17, alongside the first car ever built in Canada, a 113-year-old Ford Model C.