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Old 06-19-2003, 07:09   #1 (permalink)
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Ford GT40 revives spirit, image of No. 2 automaker

By John McCormick / Autos Insider

It rained on Ford Motor Co.'s centennial parade last Thursday, but in one sense the downpour was appropriate.

More than one observer drew the parallel between the sight of the three Ford GT production prototypes driving in formation behind chairman Bill Ford Jr. and the end of the famous Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in 1966.

Racing enthusiasts will recall that was the year three Ford GT40s made good on Henry Ford II's promise to beat Ferrari, in revenge for his thwarted takeover of the famous Italian sports car maker.

With a steady rain falling, the trio of GT40s crossed the finish line, marking the first American victory at Le Mans and ending a six-year winning streak by Ferrari.

Fast forward 37 years, and the echo of that Le Mans win may come to be remembered in Dearborn as an equally seminal moment in Ford's history.

While Bill Ford led the parade in a new F-series pickup, the anchor product to Ford's recovery plan, the first public appearance of the GTs signaled an important revival of spirit at a company still wracked by internal dissent and low morale.

Beginning in March, Ford will build 4,500 of the 500 horsepower two-seat sports coupes, which will be priced around $150,000.

In such low volume, the GT's direct contribution to the company's bottom line will be marginal, but its impact on the image of Ford internally and externally could be substantial.

Back in the early 1990s, Chrysler Corp. reaped huge marketing and promotional benefits for a product-starved Dodge division from the launch of the Viper.

The roadster cost a piffling $80 million or so to develop, and its value in terms of free advertising alone was many times that investment.

The GT, first seen in concept form at the 2002 Detroit auto show, could work similar magic for Ford at a time when the company desperately needs a home run product.

Certainly the GT appears to have the design and engineering credentials to honor its heritage and to be a serious contender in today's exotic and rarefied world of mid-engined sports cars.

The so-called `dream team' assembled to develop the GT in record time over the last 18 months includes battle-hardened professionals like John Coletti, director of Ford's special vehicle team programs, and Neil Ressler, a former Ford vice president and chief technical officer, who came out of retirement to help bring the car to life.

Another key figure is chief program engineer, Neil Hannemann, whose previous roles included, appropriately enough, development of the Dodge Viper.

Among the impressive aspects of the GTs on display last week was the fine detailing and quality of finish inside and out. "I'll match this car against any Ferrari or Lamborghini," boasted Chris Theodore, vice president of advance product creation.

In terms of engineering, Hannemann noted that his team's efforts to lower the supercharged V-8 engine in the frame helped to produce a car with excellent handling qualities.

"It's hard to upset the car," he said, "It's less twitchy than a Viper or a Ferrari 360 at the limit."

Just to hear serious discussion of a Ford product in the same context as a Ferrari is a revelation. It's been a long time since a Ford set auto enthusiasts' pulses racing, but this GT looks like it could do just that.
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