02
Sep
08

Ford GT: Quite probably the most “spectacular road car” Ford will ever build.

Ford’s GT, which celebrated 100 years of company history, capitalized on the popularity and success of the GT40, one of the most fabled automobiles of all time from any manufacturer.

As a somewhat stylized, more modern and civilized version of a flat-out race car for the street, the GT had to look the part and play it, too. It’s the acid test for any vehicle that recalls such a rich and victorious track history.

The original GT40 race car, (the “40” referred to the car’s height, in inches) captured the top-three positions at the famous 24 hours of Le Mans (France) endurance race in 1966. Back then, Ford poured millions of dollars into the program, hiring the best drivers, engineers and specialty suppliers with the sole purpose of beating arch-rival Ferrari, then the undisputed endurance racing champion. Following three more years, including a trio of Le Mans victories, the company retired the GT40.

Thirty-five years later, Ford not only captured the moment, but the mood that prevailed at the time, one of prosperity, success, a desire to win no matter the cost and to unabashedly celebrate that victory. The new GT delivered the goods and was instantly ranked among the best road-going sports cars ever built thanks to some amazing technology.

Perhaps more impressive was that although the GT made its press debut in 2002, the car’s development group, led by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) boss John Coletti, was given just 12 months to produce the first three working examples in time for Ford’s anniversary celebrations in June, 2003. In a perhaps coincidental duplication of the 1960s process that led to the GT40, Coletti imported some well-known outside advisors, including respected race-car engine builder/NASCAR race team owner Jack Roush and Steve Saleen, creator of the limited-production S7 sports car.

Translating a decades-old hand-fabricated competition vehicle into a modern-day street-driveable sports car with real bumpers, windows, air conditioning and a warranty proved no simple task. Working with the set exterior proportions of the original meant that to comfortably accommodate two passengers and build a modern, aluminum platform, all key measurements such as length, width, height and wheelbase, had to be enlarged.

Computers obviously played a vital role in the quick turnaround while providing answers to some tough design questions. For example, computer modeling determined that the safest place to put the gas tank was in a tunnel between the seats. Computer crash testing, instead of wrecking the expensive prototypes, also saved time and money.

New methods of forming the intricate aluminum body parts were also developed. In fact, the giant rear “clamshell” engine cover was just one piece with light-weight carbon-fibre inner panels attached to add strength.

Another breakthrough was the creation of a capless fuel filler neck, which automatically opened and closed as the gas nozzle is inserted and removed. You’ll find spin-offs of this technology in other Ford products for the 2008 model year.

As with the auto-show prototype, the production GT’s powerplant was simplistic by exotic-car standards, but certainly effective. Mounted behind the passenger cabin was a supercharger-and-intercooler-equipped (truck-based) 5.4-liter DOHC V8 that put an impressive 550 horsepower and to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. The powerplant provided roughly the same level of performance as the race-prepped 427-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) V8s used in the Le Mans-winning GT40s.

Test cars produced zero-to-60 mph times in the low three-second range, besting all but the most exotic sports cars. Ford rated the GT’s top speed at 200 mph all the while providing modern creature comforts with race-car touches. There were leather-bolstered adjustable carbon-fibre bucket seats, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, CD-equipped audio system and power windows and door locks. Aluminum trim was everywhere.

Even with a price tag in the $150,000 range, Ford set out to produce 1,500 GTs in the first 12 months. And why not? With the car’s blend of heritage, high-tech construction, stunning looks and performance that put it in the company of cars costing much more, an initial-year sellout was a given.

Numerous attempts at building and reliving past automotive glory have been made – many by Ford – however the GT might just prove to be the perfect example of the past meeting the present without clashing. Will Ford ever produce such a vehicle again? it’s doubtful, but for a couple of seasons, the automaker recalled what it was like to have the attention of the world.

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Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ chief road tester and historic writer. You can send him a note online at http://www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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