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New Ford GT on fast track

Mark Truby / The Detroit News
John T. Grelick / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- Last May, with Ford Motor Co. reeling from red ink and falling sales, North American product development boss Chris Theodore called together a small team of engineers.

They had been handpicked for a dream assignment: building the new Ford GT, a supercar that would be able to dust the Dodge Viper and hold its own with the best of Ferrari and Porsche.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "It's the reason we got in the car business."

The room bristled with excitement. Gearheads within Ford had tried and failed many times to convince company honchos to build a retail version of the GT-40 race car that conquered Le Mans in the late 1960s. It was finally happening.

Then came the catch. The first Ford GT had to be ready for CEO William Clay Ford Jr. to wheel on stage June 16, 2003, to mark Ford's 100th anniversary.

The historic date left a short 13 months to build a world-class supercar, a highly technical and wickedly unpredictable endeavor.

Now halfway to that deadline, the Ford GT project is hurtling forward at breakneck speed one moment, spinning its wheels the next. It's a race against the clock and all involved know the stakes.

If the Ford GT achieves its promise, the automaker will have a sleek showpiece to kick off its second century and just may regain a little of its lost swagger. Anything less could tarnish Ford and its greatest racing legend.

In early 1999, as a Gulfstream jet passed through the clouds -- beginning a transatlantic flight from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Detroit -- three senior Ford executives began dreaming out loud. While Ford's pending acquisition of Sweden's Volvo Cars was the talk of the industry, Theodore, design chief J Mays and product development boss Richard Parry-Jones were waxing on about the Ford GT.

"We have got to do it," Theodore recalled telling his cohorts. Mays and Parry-Jones agreed.

Soon afterward, a small team was assigned to study the feasibility of building a Ford GT. The early news wasn't encouraging. While Ford engineers brimmed with enthusiasm about the project, consumers were blase about the idea. The market research, while not quite a nonstarter, didn't seem to warrant anything beyond a concept car.

Mays tapped 39-year-old Camilo Pardo to lead the design of the GT concept. "As far as we knew, we were building the show car and that's it," Pardo said.

Regardless, Pardo and the other denizens of Ford's "Living Legends" design studio attacked the project with missionary zeal. For inspiration, they popped in the Steve McQueen movie "Le Mans" and played it on a virtual loop. Dozens of modern-looking GTs with rounded surfaces were penned, but Pardo kept returning to the sharp-edged, predatory look of the original Le Mans endurance racers.

"The minute we started cleaning up the car too much, we walked away from the GT-40," Pardo said. "We had to be crude and a little rude."

Pardo and the design team went through a small mountain of clay while sculpting the life size GTs. After honing the design, the final test came down to a side-by-side comparison during the summer of 2001. The GT show car was hauled outside and placed between a GT-40 race car from the 1960s and the current Ferrari 360 Modena.

"It more than held its own," Pardo said. "We knew we had it."

Top secret
Engineers and designers slaved over the concept car in the bowels of Ford's product development center. The project's secrecy requirements took on cloak-and-dagger overtones, down to its understated code name: Petunia.

It was a labor of love because few believed it would become a living, breathing production car. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had waylaid the auto industry. Jacques Nasser, the man who green-lighted the concept car, was fired in October by Bill Ford Jr. after a protracted power struggle. And Ford was losing billions of dollars.

"Some people just didn't think it was the time to celebrate with a supercar," Pardo said. "I thought it was just what we needed."

On Jan. 6, Ford handed out earplugs to thousands of journalists and employees streaming into Cobo Arena for the world debut of the show car. The growl of the fierce-looking yellow and black Ford GT concept was deafening as Bill Ford drove onto the stage.

"We've faced tough times before, and we've come out stronger than ever each time. We're going to do it again," Bill Ford said.

Ford employees shot to their feet and cheered. A few wiped tears from their eyes. Despite the response, many within Ford harbored deep reservations about the GT. It seemed no time to be building an expensive and risky exotic sports car.

Over the next 45 days, Theodore, Mays and John Coletti, Ford's high-performance engineering chief, intensely lobbied Bill Ford and chief operating officer Nick Scheele to approve production of the Ford GT.

Sensing Scheele needed a little push, Mays arranged for the Ford GT concept to be moved to the COO's parking spot at Ford's world headquarters in Dearborn.

"Nick, I have to show you something," Mays said to Scheele, leading him out to the parking lot. When Scheele spied the familiar low-slung profile of the GT, he laughed and said, "OK, you got me."

A few days later, on Feb. 19, Ford announced plans to build the GT.

Placing the GT team a little further out on the ledge, Coletti, Ford's brash high-performance boss, promised the media the GT would reduce the Dodge Viper "to a status somewhere between earthworm and garter snake."

Team had $100M budget

The Ford GT team was given a budget of a little more than $100 million. The automaker's goal was to break even.

Over the next two months, Theodore and Coletti quietly assembled their team, poaching talent from all corners of the company. Engineers and designers begged to join a project that promised 18-hour days and working weekends.

Coletti posted five engineering jobs on the Ford internal Web site and was swamped with 265 applications.

Neil Ressler, 63, Ford's former vice president in charge of advanced engineering, left retirement to become the project's senior technical adviser. The legendary car designer and tuner Carroll Shelby, 79, agreed to consult.

Neil Hannemann, a soft-spoken performance car whiz who had been working at Saleen Industries, signed on as chief engineer. Hannemann, an accomplished driver on the stock car and other racing circuits, played a key role in creating the first Dodge Viper in 1994.

Ford contracted suppliers Saleen Inc., Roush Industries, Lear Corp. and Mayflower Inc. to develop significant portions of the car.

The Ford GT team grew to just 120 people, including 30 Ford employees.

"This is a big stretch, but it's doable," Theodore said during his pep talk in May. "You will all be tired at the end."

The race against time

Facing the crushing time pressures, Coletti asked his engineers and designers to assume the mentality of a race crew readying a car for the track.

"If your car is ready the day after the Indy 500, you've lost," Coletti said. "If we get this car to Bill Ford on June 17, a day late, then guess what? We've lost."

The Ford GT legend only added to the hectic atmosphere. The original race cars were born after Henry Ford II attempted to buy the Italian automaker Ferrari. When the deal fell through, Hank the Deuce and Lee Iacocca, general manager of the Ford division, decided to hit Ferrari where it would hurt most -- the Le Mans, France, endurance races.

Ford spent several years and tens of millions of dollars developing the Ford GT racers. In 1967, after a few miscues, Ford GTs -- dubbed GT-40s -- swept the first three spots at Le Mans. It was the same story in 1967, when the faster, lighter GT-40 Mark IV dominated the 24-hour race. After wins in 1968 and 1969, Ford shelved the GT-40 race program. Ford felt it had proven its point and drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney had made their names.

Ford has Ferrari in its cross hairs again. Early this year, Coletti went to company controller Don Leclair to get special dispensation to purchase a red $150,000 Ferrari 360 Modena to use for comparisons. The Ford GT team wasted no time nicknaming the curvacious sports car "The Victim" and plastering it with a "I'd rather be driving a Ford GT" bumper sticker.

Rival claimed GT-40 name

Given the reverence at Ford toward the GT-40, it came as a surprise that the automaker failed to obtain legal rights to the GT-40 name. It would become the first hiccup in the quest to reincarnate the car.

A company called Safir GT-40 Spares Ltd. in Cincinnati started building replica GTs in the early 1980s and in 1985 registered the trademark for the GT-40 name.

Safir wanted $40 million to hand over the name. Ford offered $1 million, in addition to three new Ford GTs, according to a company official. No deal, Safir said. Ford opted instead to name it simply Ford GT.

Prototype due in 5 months

Theodore and Coletti set a five-month deadline to complete the first running prototype. The engineers were flabbergasted. No way it could be done, many said.

"You don't even know how many people told me I was crazy," Coletti said. "I said, 'I may well be crazy, but we are getting this car done on time.' "

Engineers used powerful computer programs to map out the Ford GT's design and solve any engineering puzzles. Every few days, the team huddled in an Allen Park conference room and pored over three dimensional computer images of the GT. The mission: squeeze every drop of performance out of the car.

"This has to be the ultimate aspirational car," Coletti said. "And that means you have to post the big numbers. Big acceleration, big handling and big braking."

The production GT must go zero-to-60 in less than 4 seconds and out-handle the Ferrari 360 Modena, while retaining the muscular curves and lines of the original race car and the show car.

The challenges seemed endless. The show car didn't have windows that could be rolled down. Engineers spent dozens of hours finding a solution that wouldn't disfigure the car's slab-sided doors.

Tougher still was the issue of aerodynamics. When Ford engineers put a 1965 Mark I GT-40 race car in the wind tunnel, they were stunned by the results.

"The original car had the aerodynamics of a brick," Theodore said.

At high speeds the front of the race car was dangerously unstable.

"At 215 mph the front of the GT-40 was lifting," engineer Kent Harrison said. "I am not going to say at 218 mph it would have flown, but we were very, very surprised."

Because Ford couldn't radically change the look of the car, it sealed the underbody and added a bulky rear diffuser to solve the problem.

Despite the obstacles, the first prototype was coming along well. Coletti's five-month deadline now seemed possible.

In the final hectic weeks, engineer Kip Ewing just couldn't bear seeing the first GT prototype painted flat black, the traditional color for most test cars.

So night after night, Kip and his wife, Emily, a graphics designer on the GT team, took parts home at the end of a long day and spent their evenings painting in the garage.

"We painted it, striped, polished it and snuck it back into the shop," Ewing said.

Prototype gets roadtest

On Nov. 12, word spread that the first GT prototype -- or "workhorse" -- would be driven for the first time. A crowd gathered outside the Roush garage in Allen Park where the prototypes were being assembled.

Hannemann stepped outside. "Ladies and gentlemen and anyone else with gas in your veins," he said, "I present to you the Ford GT."

Sliding under a tarp, a candy apple red GT with white racing stripes emerged -- a Hot Wheels racer come to life. As Theodore drove the car around the block, jubilant engineers snapped pictures and exchanged high fives.

A few days later, Coletti walked into the office of Jim Padilla, head of Ford's North American operations, to seek final approval for the program.

Padilla could kill the program if he didn't like what he saw. Aware of what was at stake, Coletti earlier that day had shrewdly invited the no-nonsense executive to take a spin around the Ford test track in the GT prototype.

It worked like a charm.

The crucial program approval meeting lasted only a few minutes -- usually those meetings drag for hours. Padilla would later say he's never signed off on a vehicle program so quickly.

For the Ford GT team, it was a brief moment of relief. Then it was back to work. The race is far from over.


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