Ford vs. Ferrari-again:
June 16, 2003
Almost 40 years after Ford's GT40s Beat Ferrari at Le Mans, The Blue Oval challenges the prancing horse on the street
By PETE LYONS
(All photos by Charlie Magee)
JEFF WALSH CHARGES THE cones, braking late, hard and deep. Tires howling, the red coupe is already rotating before it enters the first gate. As it angles into the apex, the Ford development engineer again jumps ahead of the car, going to gas to keep the tail out.
An instant later, he lifts. The wound-up chassis obediently snaps the other way, starting the next turn of the slalom before it gets there. Straining to hold your helmet against the slashing, g-plus cornering loads, you note Walsh is back on power and counter-steering by the time the second apex cone smears by your eye.
“It’s important to get the kinematics right,” the New Zealand native shouts conversationally over the prototypical cacophony of engine and gear noises. “We’re building a true supercar here, one that people will be able to play with just like this.”
And that’s the message. The Ford GT concept vehicle that dazzled our imaginations at the Detroit show in January 2002 is turning into a real car; it is not a confection, but a fully realized, no-kidding sports machine that we’ll be able to buy for about $150,000 and drive “just like this” by March 2004.
The kinematics target: nothing less than Ferrari’s 360 Modena. Ford’s keenly competitive car guys are so intent on beating the Italian marque, as their predecessors did four decades ago with the immortal GT40 at Le Mans, that they bought a 360 and ripped it apart, benchmarking it. They’re determined their new Ford GT will be a superior performer in every respect.
Along the way, they mean to set a record time in bringing their product to market. If Ford can pull all this off—and to date its Special Vehicle Team claims to be on track— it will mark a revolution not only in American sports cars, but in American auto manufacturing. Normally, Ford figures to take a new model from “okay” to on-sale in 52 months. The GT timetable allows 22.
In fact, Job 1 will have been produced in a mere 13 months. The clock started in May 2002, when top brass said “yes” to a scheme hatched by the madcap race fans in the company, those to whom the world-beating GT40 of the 1960s is still a corporate icon. “Yes,” management said to SVT head John Coletti, who led the fight, “you can make a car out of the concept, but you’ll have to get it running in time for Bill Ford to drive in our centennial celebrations in June 2003.”
So, while the neo-GT is not a race car, it’s being treated as though it were. “We’re going hell for leather,” says chief program engineer Neil Hannemann. He is a veteran racer who was responsible for the first-generation Dodge Viper and then the Saleen S7R, and who has final say in how the Ford GT handles. He wants it tight and crisp and racy.
Another racer deeply involved in the program is SCCA Runoffs champion Tom Reichenbach, the vehicle dynam- ics supervisor. In all, three quarters of the team are said to be racers, performance car enthusiasts or hands-on restorers.
Nobody will reveal the Ford GT budget, but they do say they aren’t being denied any resources. Premium personnel were pulled away from other career paths, lured by the prospect of unusual empowerment. (Their bosses were mollified by a promise of getting them back in two years with 20 years’ worth of extra experience.) Only about 35 Ford employees are on the GT project, but they’re working alongside another 65 or so from various suppliers. The pace is intense, with 10-plus-hour days the norm, and weekends and holidays generally ignored; two of the development cars, normally dull black, were given colorful paint jobs in home garages by staffers who just wanted them to look nice.
But nobody is being compensated for overtime. Sound like a racing program to you? The prototype Walsh is throwing around the black lake at Ford’s Michigan proving ground is one of only nine “workhorses” built for development. A normal program would have many more, but engineers such as Walsh, fellow New Zealander Jamie Cullen, and their vehicle engineering manager, American Mark McGowan, are doubling and even tripling the tasks carried out on each chassis.
This intensity is one factor that sold the program to management. Officials don’t expect to make much money on the GT—though they claim they won’t lose any, either—but Ford does want lessons learned about effective time compression to be seeded throughout the rest of the company.
Also, as the embattled auto-maker turns 100, it wants to show a new face. If the face reminds us of the glory days of Total Performance and race cars that vanquished mighty Ferrari, so much the better.
That image of the old GT40 is both the crux of the program and its crucial problem. The GT show car was designed under J Mays in the Living Legends studio primarily to get attention. That it did, but it was in no way a saleable product. In the normal course of events at Ford, a pure sports concept would have failed cost-benefit analysis and faded to black. What saved the GT was its looking like the GT40.
But it had to keep looking that way. The mandate from management was to freeze the concept car’s body envelope while packing fully functional mechanical elements inside. It must have been like building a ship in a bottle. As Fred Goodnow, manager of design, engineering and launch activities, puts it, “We’re putting 10 pounds into a five-pound box.”
Its exterior resemblance to the historic GT40 green-lighted the GT, but unlike numerous replicas produced by outsiders, Ford’s new car is no copy of its old one. In fact, beyond the basic outline it owes nothing at all to the past. It can’t even be called a “GT40,” because one of those replica-makers owns that trademark.
“That’s okay,” says Hannemann. “The old car was originally named the Ford GT anyway. GT40 was just a nickname they used because the roof was 40 inches high.”
Hannemann, a mere youngster in GT40 terms, seemed unaware that the nickname was adopted way back in 1963 to distinguish the racer from a parallel street car concept called the GT44, the roofline of which would have been four inches higher. That model never went beyond the mock-up stage, but guess what—the new Ford GT stands 44.3 inches tall. Forty years later Ford is finally making its “GT44.”
The new car is larger in every dimension. Wheelbase, for instance, is 106.7 inches, almost a foot longer than the old car’s 95. But the proportions are so faithful that the larger bulk is hard to perceive without an original nearby.
However, drivers familiar with the historic car will immediately appreciate the extra inches of room inside the new cockpit. Also, you don’t have to slither across a fuel cell to get in. The new Ford GT carries its 18.5 gallons in a single tank along the centerline, like the Lamborghini Miura and Pontiac Fiero did.
Unlike many mid-engined cars, you sit with your feet straight out in front. “That requirement was absolute,” says Kip Ewing, who is in charge of packaging and who personally laid out the driving position (he also was one who took bodywork home to paint). Ewing made sure the concept’s wrap-over doors made it to production, too. “A GT40 without the door cutout makes as much sense as a digital Rolex!” he asserts. But whether to include the famous “Gurney bump” over the driver is still under discussion.
The old GT40s had glass fiber bodywork. So did the 2002 show car and all the development workhorses, but the production Ford GT’s skin will be aluminum. Making it so was apparently a real feat. “The concept guys should be down on their knees, giving thanks,” laughs Hannemann, pointing to the voluptuous curves and deep folds. Conventional presswork couldn’t do that, he says. The secret: Mayflower Vehicle System’s Superplastic forming process, which essentially pressure-cooks the metal so it flows into shape.
Whereas the original GT40 had a monocoque chassis made of steel, the Ford GT uses a space frame composed of extruded aluminum rails robot-welded to cast-aluminum corner pieces. Four of those castings carry all the suspension pickups. Also welded into the structure is the aluminum roof, plus flooring made of an aluminum sandwich material. Crush structures front and rear are bolted on, so they can be replaced in case of accident.
Using the hollow extruded rails, rather than stock tubing, let chassis engineers specify ideal cross-section shapes and also different wall thicknesses for each face, to optimize stiffness-to-weight ratios. According to chassis designer Hubert Mees, the production GT’s frame, complete with all panels and brackets, will weigh 448 pounds and yield torsional stiffness on the order of 20,000 lb-ft per degree. That’s twice the resistance to chassis twisting achieved by the historic car, which was a breakthrough in this respect, and an outstanding number even today. Mees indicates it even beats the Ferrari 360 by about a third.
Another departure from original spec is the powertrain. The GT40 of old had iron-block, normally aspirated, pushrod V8s of 4.7-liter and 7.0-liter displacements. The neo-GT will have a fully modern, all-aluminum dohc 5.4 from the Ford modular family. It’s a special version of the block, unique to the GT application, reinforced to take the 500 hp generated by a supercharger.
The historic engines drove through five- and four-speed Colotti, ZF and Ford transaxles. The new GT’s gearbox is a six-speed made by Ricardo, the English firm that supplies Audi’s racing boxes. Ford flirted with automatics on the old racer, but there is no thought of one on the new car. Nor is any kind of paddle-shift system planned. Shifting is strictly manual, through a cable linkage that feels very solid.
Unfortunately, the “bundle of snakes” exhaust system that was such a spectacular feature of the GT40 won’t be on the new GT. Ford explains the catalytic converter would have to be located too far from the exhaust ports.
What does survive from the old car is that iconic shape, but here, too, modernity has crept in. Ford still owns one of the original GT40s, and Hannemann had it tunnel-tested. “We were surprised to find out it had quite a lot of front-end lift,” he reports, “about 200 pounds at 130 mph.” For better aerodynamic balance the new GT wears a chin spoiler.
“They could have done that in the old days,” says the youngster, “if they’d only known.” Another necessary departure from the familiar old outline: the rear bumper. On the production car it’s been added as deftly as could be, but it looks... additional.
Is this a GT you’d like to own? First consideration may be your feelings for the old GT40. It can take a while to get past the thought, “But it’s not a real one.” Well, no, but if you want a real one the price tag will be many times as high. And you won’t want to drive it very much. The real GT40 is small, cramped, hot, noisy, uncompromising. It’s enormous fun to drive in the same way a drop-bar sportbike is fun to ride: for a while.
GT means Grand Touring, and that’s what Ford has in mind with the new model. After driving rough-looking but dynamically accurate development mules at the proving ground, and also studying prototype production cars, we expect the Ford GT to be a real-world car that 21st century enthusiasts will enjoy driving, an all-day sports machine for those of us who like this sort of toy. But the emphasis is on the words “enthusiasts” and “driving” and “toy.” This one is not for the Town Car crowd.
Negative factors in everyday use will include the care needed to get in and out under the door overhang, so you don’t warp it with your shoulder or bruise your head. That and the frankly dismal visibility to the rear are faithful reproductions of the original GT40. Luggage capacity beats that provided in the old car—zero—but the bin in the new Ford GT’s nose is merely satchel-sized, far less generous than the “two golf bags” trunk of the Ferrari 360. Serious Grand Tourers may consider hanging a trailer on that bumper.
All the work going into kinematics results in a sports machine that feels friendly immediately and familiar in minutes. The clutch isn’t heavy, the gears feel like they’re right under your hand, the throttle response is delicious. With the wheels precisely positioned by that immensely rigid chassis, your hands feel directly connected to the tire treads. They’re Goodyears, by the way, expressly and exhaustively developed just for the Ford GT. According to onboard data logging, even beginners easily pull over a g through the slalom.
The historic GT40 was praised for its stable, predictable handling. Engineer Cullen has worked hard to make the new GT’s steering response perfectly linear, and to iron out any trace of bump steer on the worst proving ground roads. Engineer Walsh has fine-tuned the chassis balance so this 3200-pound (estimated) coupe can be tossed around like a go-kart.
And there is no traction or yaw control to spoil the fun. Stand on the gas, you go sideways. In fact, the only electronic intervention at all is ABS. It works magnificently. Stand on the brakes, and you hang in the belts.
Once the full 500-horse supercharged V8 is plugged in (the ride-and-handling mules only have 390-hp 4.6-liter Cobra engines), this will be one seriously marvelous mountain road, slalom or track-day mount. For you Silver Staters, Vmax should be 190-plus, according to Hannemann. But he says, “We’re not really going for speed. If we don’t break 200, that’s okay.”
Will Ferrari lose any sales over this? Unlikely. It’s a different clientele. Can Ford sell the 1500 a year they’re talking about?
We don’t advise procrastinating on your order.
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.....