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Ford Runs with GT "4o" Prototype

Ford pushes the virtual limits to get its pending supercar closer to production.
by Paul A. Eisenstein/TCC 11/24/2002

Ford’s new GT supercar will hit the road next spring, barely a year after the project was given the green light by Chairman Bill Ford, and just 15 months after the first prototype was shown at the 2002 North American International Auto Show.

The GT’s debut will come just in time to celebrate the troubled automaker’s 100th anniversary—no mean feat considering the two-seater made its debut in January 2002 at the Detroit auto show, and wasn’t given the green light by Chairman Bill Ford until March, barely a year before the sports car before the first GT hits the road.

Automakers around the world have been racing to put concepts into production as quickly as possible. A decade ago, it wasn’t unusual for an automaker like Ford to need four to five years of “lead time.” To get the GT readied so quickly, Ford is relying on a high-tech development program so sophisticated virtually everything—including crash tests—was done online. But company officials acknowledge that one of the biggest challenges they face with such an accelerated program is making sure they prevent the sort of quality problems that have lately proved so embarrassing to Ford.

The big test

“This is a proving ground for great technology, and great technology being developed quickly,” declared Ford’s North American product development chief, Chris Theodore, during a preview of the first running GT prototype.

Traditionally, much of the development program would have been done through trial and error, Theodore noted. In the past, the process of meeting government safety standards might have required running a dozen or more crash tests with expensive, hand-built prototypes. But in this program, Ford will simulate safety tests using its bank of supercomputers. Only one running GT will be crashed intentionally, and then only at the very end of the program to validate results for federal standards.

The GT, Theodore stressed, “has been virtually done: virtually designed, virtually engineered. It sets an example” for future programs at Ford, which has been pressing to sharply trim lead time. And for good reason: the more quickly it can go from concept to customer, the easier it is to target changing consumer trends. And industry analysts suggest that every day cut out of a product development program can reduce costs by about a million dollars.

To further hold down costs, Ford has given key suppliers an active role in the GT project. That’s quite similar to the way the former Chrysler Corp. kept a lid on the development of the original Viper roadster. Coincidentally, Theodore was a member of the Viper team back then.

The bottom line

Maintaining a strict budget is particularly important on a low-volume program like GT—where plans call for Ford to produce only about 1000 copies. Even though the car will be priced somewhere north of $100,000, it normally wouldn’t be easy to turn a profit. It’s even more difficult with lower-priced niche products. Traditionally, mainstream makers like Ford have not been able to develop a profitable business case for anything with volumes lower than at least 60,000 units a year. But if GT succeeds, Theodore suggests, “there will be more things like this in the future.”

As a showpiece for Ford’s centennial celebrations, the automaker has a lot riding on the GT. The design was developed by the company’s new Living Legends design department, borrowing greatly from the GT race car that proved so successful on the European motor sports circuit a third of a century ago.

The version under development will be a few inches longer, wider and taller than its racing namesake. That’s not surprising since the production GT will have to meet government mandates, as well as customer demands.

“We have great expectations for the car,” said John Coletti, director of Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, which is overseeing GT development. “But we’re going up against a market that has great expectations for the car.”

Even with the added inches, the new GT will be a tight fit, especially for tall drivers. So it’s likely, Ford sources tell TheCarConnection, that they will offer an optional “Gurney Bubble.” Named for legendary GT racer Dan Gurney, it provided a place for his head in a car that would otherwise have been too small for his lanky frame.

Wixom native

The new sports car will be assembled at the Wixom, Mich., assembly plant that currently produces a wide range of Lincoln division luxury vehicles. The GT will have its own corner of the plant, which Ford previously used to assemble one-off prototypes.

The new car certainly couldn’t roll down the same assembly line as vehicles like the Lincoln LS. The GT will be almost completely hand-built, and it will use a variety of lightweight materials normally not found on the assembly line. A mostly aluminum body will be shaped using a process known as superplastic forming. And it will be wrapped around an aluminum space frame designed to ensure accurate fits and finishes.

Aluminum, along with the odd carbon fiber piece, will help minimize weight. So will a new material, called Azdel, which will be used for much of the interior. Developed by General Electric and formed by interior supplier Lear, Azdel weighs about half as much as conventional cabin plastics.

At first glance, the design looks identical to the GT concept car that debuted in Detroit last January. But there have been a few subtle tweaks made since then reflecting engineering reality. “All the openings in the body are functional,” from the engine air scoops to the port used to help cool the center-mounted powertrain.

The original GT had some serious aerodynamic issues. It developed so much lift it could barely be kept on the road at speeds over 200 mph. And it “had the drag of a brick,” laughed Kent Harrison, supervisor of performance development for the new sports car. The GT under development has plenty of downforce and significantly lower drag, largely due to a smooth underbody.

Another big design challenges was finding a way to let the side windows roll all the way down, Theodore said. And the car’s designers realized they had to maintain the original GT’s unusual doors, which rolled into the roof.

“A GT without those cantilevered doors would make about as much sense as a digital Rolex,” said Kip Ewing, the team’s supervisor of packaging.

The 500 club

One thing the new car will have plenty of is power. A supercharger has been mated to a new aluminum block version of the Ford 5.4-liter V-8 that will pump out more than 500 horsepower. And it will hit its peak of 400 pound-feet of torque early, at just 2000 rpm. To boost performance further, the engine will feature an active manifold system. The V-8 will be mated to a new Ricardo six-speed manual transmission.

As one would expect, the GT will feature big brakes and big tires—18-inch up front, 19-inch rubber in the rear.

There have been plenty of subtle touches to improve both performance and handling. The fuel tank, for example, is mounted in the center of the car for better weight balance.

The goal, stressed Theodore, is simple: “It’s got to look great, go fast, and handle fabulously.”

But there’s another challenge the GT team can’t ignore. Ford has taken plenty of hits for the well-publicized quality problems of mainstream products, such as the subcompact Focus. There’s no way mistakes can be tolerated with the showcase GT, stressed Neil Ressler, the engineer brought of retirement to oversee the GT program.

“There’s no room for finding problems and fixing them” after the car is in production, he insisted. “Our quality targets have to be even tougher than with our regular cars. If we have to make excuses, we will have failed.”

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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.

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