US:Team spiritless: Ford's SVT concept is history
Team spiritless: Ford's SVT concept is history
By Steven Cole Smith
Quietly, Ford Motor Co. has been dismantling SVT — the Special Vehicle Team — and sources inside the company suggest that as of April 1, SVT as we've known it since 1992 will cease to exist.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a column titled "SVT: A near-death experience?" It was more prophetic than I'd hoped. SVT, responsible for such products as the SVT Cobra Mustang, the SVT Lightning pickup, the SVT Contour and the SVT Focus, no longer has a dedicated marketing staff, a dedicated public relations staff, an independent engineering team, a press fleet or an events trailer. The dealer network that was painstakingly assembled among Ford's top dealers has crumbled, and some dealers reportedly are talking about a class-action lawsuit.
SVT's longtime executive staff is gone, and, oddly enough, so are the Ford executives who developed and executed SVT's demise.
Yes, the 2007 Mustang in Shelby Cobra trim is still coming, and yes, it was developed by SVT. And yes, it'll have SVT badges, because it's too late to take them off. But it is the last genuine SVT product.
By "genuine," I mean it was developed by SVT, from concept to execution, then sold through the network of 600 dedicated Ford SVT dealers, who paid to be part of SVT, sent employees to SVT training and stocked SVT parts. Any future Ford products that carry an SVT badge, and it is unlikely any will, will be more of a "suspension tuned by SVT"-type vehicle. And the 7,500 Shelby Cobra Mustangs sold for 2007 — more, if they can get enough transmissions — will be offered to all 3,900 Ford dealers, not just SVT participants.
SVT has had no dedicated products since 2004. A high-performance version of the new Sport Trac, called the Adrenalin, was shown at the New York auto show in March 2005. At a preview for journalists, SVT Director Hau Thai-Tang said that the Adrenalin "is going to turn the performance vehicle market upside down" when it goes on sale as a 2007 model. Then, last month, the Adrenalin was canceled as part of Ford's "Way Forward" restructuring campaign. "As part of our way forward, we are adjusting our product plan and decided not to produce the Sport Trac Adrenalin," said Ford spokesman Jon Harmon. The Ford GT supercar, which was developed largely by SVT engineers but was not called an SVT model, will end production later this year.
If you check the official SVT Web site, there remains a glowing story about the Adrenalin, and when it's coming to market. "I guess we're a little behind on that Web site," said one Ford executive. Yes, I guess.
This is the second such embarrassment for SVT: The company showed a concept version of a new 500-horsepower Lightning in 2003 and promised to produce it, but in late 2004, pulled the plug.
SVT was founded in 1991 by Robert Rewey, Ford's vice president for marketing and sales, and Neil Ressler, Ford's chief technical officer. The idea was that SVT would consist of a small group of engineers, designers and marketing professionals who would work inside Ford, charged with building and selling high-performance versions of existing products. SVT also set up a separate dealer network, signing up Ford dealers who had an interest in selling performance products.
In 1992, the first two SVT products were launched: the 1993 F-150 Lightning pickup and the 1993 Mustang Cobra. In 1997, the SVT Contour was introduced, and in 1999, the second-generation Lightning went in sale. In late 2001, the '02 SVT Focus went on sale. By 2004, when production of the Lightning, Mustang Cobra and SVT Focus ended, the company had sold about 145,000 SVT products.
So what went wrong?
It appears that the balls-out effort to build the Ford GT by the company's 100th anniversary took its toll on the SVT staff, slowing development of more mainstream future products, such as the next-generation Lightning, an updated SVT Focus and an SVT version of the Fusion. The Ford executives who oversaw SVT, group vice presidents Steve Lyons and Phil Martens, didn't give SVT the resources it needed to rebuild.
Martens is gone; he's running Plastech, a company that supplies spoilers and scuff plates and other bits and pieces to the manufacturers. And Lyons retired March 1 to move to Arizona and run a Ford dealership. Reportedly Lyon's replacement, Cisco Codina, likes SVT, but it's too late.
Why? Because SVT's top executives are gone, too. John Coletti, the bulldog engineer who was the heart and soul of SVT, retired at the end of 2004. Tom Scarpello, Coletti's counterpart on the marketing side, moved to Jaguar. Chris Theodore, a Ford vice president who spearheaded the Ford GT, is gone. This leaves the talented, personable Hau Thai-Tang to run SVT. Essentially, he's a captain without a ship.
It's painful to see what has happened to SVT, especially when you look at the success of Chrysler's SRT program, which in many ways mirrors what SVT was. In the grand scheme of Ford's problems, botching SVT is a small one. But to enthusiasts, it speaks volumes.
Nearly 10 years ago I was in Las Vegas, the first to drive the upcoming SVT Contour. John Coletti and I, en route to some all-you-can-eat buffet at a casino, were talking about GM's current strategy of hiring brand managers for each model. It was not a successful program, but I was playing devil's advocate.
"Maybe it's a good thing," I told Coletti, "to have someone whose job it is to be excited about the Chevrolet Cavalier."
Coletti thought for a moment. "But wouldn't it be better to just build cars that you didn't have to pay someone to be excited about?"
Yes, John, it would. And you and your team always did.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....