Ford hot-rod king retires
The departure of John Coletti,who revived the Mustang, changes team's gears.
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Phil Martens, Ford vice president of product creation, says SVT is what it is today because of John Coletti.
1991: Ford SVT division established
1993: Mustang Cobra, Mustang Cobra R, F-150 Lightning arrive in showrooms
1994: Mustang Cobra chosen for Indy 500 pace car
1996: Mustang Cobra tops 300-hp benchmark with output of 305 hp
1997: SVT Contour arrives in dealerships; all-time SVT sales hit 50,000 units
1999: Lightning introduced with supercharged V-8 making 360 hp; a shortfall of 50-horsepower leads to Mustang Cobra recall
2000: Third-generation Cobra R debuts as fastest production Mustang ever with top speed of 170 mph; last year for SVT Contour as base car disappears from Ford showrooms
2002: SVT Focus added to lineup; all-time SVT production hits 100,000 units
2003: Mustang Cobra output hits 390 hp; SVT announces hiatus until Mustang Cobra returns as a 2007 model
2004: Last model year for SVT Focus; plans for next-generation Lightning shelved indefinitely to allow engineers to focus on the Mustang Cobra
Ford Motor Co.'s high-performance car guru, John Coletti, is retiring after 32 years with the company, a departure that leaves the automaker's Special Vehicle Team at a crossroads.
The charismatic Coletti, 55, will leave Ford this month as director of SVT, which gave birth to popular vehicles such as the SVT Mustang Cobra and F-150 Lightning.
Regarded throughout the industry as a leading innovator of hot-rod vehicles, Coletti helped SVT chalk up sales of more than 100,000 premium-priced, high-performance cars and trucks since 1992.
"John is an icon," said Phil Martens, Ford's group vice president of product creation. "Inside and outside of the company, he is extremely highly regarded. You have to step back and say, quite frankly, SVT is what it is today because of John."
Coletti said his decision was a personal one. "I've been thinking about this since March," he said. "This is the right time. It's an orderly succession."
Coletti is confident that SVT will thrive. "They have a cycle plan," he said. "That organization is going to endure."
At the moment, though, SVT is stuck in neutral. The end of the 2004 model year marked the beginning of a two-year hiatus for SVT-brand Ford vehicles.
Production of the next-generation F-150 SVT Lightning pickup will be postponed until after the debut in 2006 of the 2007 SVT Mustang Cobra. And the 2004 model is the last for the SVT Focus, which garnered acclaim for its spunk and handling.
Longtime fans of the SVT vehicles are concerned about the direction of the line.
"Lightning owners are very disappointed," said Brian Shafranek, 42, of Pittsburgh, who owns a 2003 SVT Mustang Cobra. "I would like to see the brand expanded."
With SVT in for a prolonged pit stop, the competition is expanding their high-performance offering.
The Street and Racing Technology, or SRT, division of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group is launching its eighth product in February with the debut of the Chrysler 300 SRT-8.
And General Motors Corp. is rolling out a pair of Saturn vehicles under its Red Line brand, while Cadillac and Chevrolet plan to market more high-performance models.
While SVT engineers work on the next Mustang Cobra, Ford could miss out on potential profits.
"A lot of us are making some reasonably good money because niche products are selling," said Dan Knott, director of Chrysler's SRT group.
Recent studies show that specialty vehicles, despite the considerable investment required to bring them to market, boost the bottom line for an automaker's mainstream products.
Rochester-based Foresight Research surveyed 40,000 households that purchased new vehicles and found that certain niche vehicles can burnish a brand's image. High-performance brands such as BMW's M line and Mercedes-Benz's AMG division can inspire the purchase of a mainstream vehicle or draw showroom traffic that could lead to a sale.
"We would love to see Ford continue emphasizing SVT because it has a lot of positive effects," said Steven Bruyn, Foresight's chief executive officer.
Martens said Ford plans to be back in the high-performance game eventually.
"We have a very clear view of what we want to do," he said. "And one or two is not enough."
The F-150 Lightning was postponed to allow engineers to focus on the Mustang Cobra, which has an avid following among horsepower junkies.
"The demand for the Mustang is beyond our wildest dreams," Martens said. "The expectation is that the Cobra will be delivered on time with quality."
Ford will reveal more plans for SVT next spring at the New York auto show.
"We absolutely have to be a leader ... in performance vehicles. It's part of our DNA. But we have to do it in a broader range than just the traditional SVT product programs," Martens said. "There's a broad opportunity for four-wheel-drive, high-performance, (four-cylinder), turbo-type of programs."
Hau Thai Tang -- Ford's newly appointed director of advanced product creation, replacing Chris Theodore, who is retiring -- has assumed responsibility for SVT.
Ford also has disbanded its Ford Performance Group, which was launched in 2002 to develop performance vehicles for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.
Ford plans to adopt engineering lessons it learned from the quick development of the Ford GT, a 550-horsepower super sports car launched this year.
Coletti and Theodore played key roles in bringing the GT to market.
The GT and SVT vehicles helped make a star out of Coletti, who holds several performance technology patents. Coletti, who joined in 1972 as a product design engineer, was instrumental in reviving the Mustang in the early 1990s after then-Ford Chairman Alex Trotman considered killing the nameplate or turning it into a front-drive Mazda derivative.
"He was at the forefront, from the engineering side and even the marketing side," said Steve Saleen, president of Saleen Inc., which makes its own brand of high-performance Mustangs.