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Ford GT captures the mood of an earlier era

May 23, 2004|By MALCOLM GUNN

It's a blast from the past in more ways than one.

Ford's new GT, which celebrates 100 years of company history, capitalizes on the popularity and success of the GT40, one of the most fabled automobiles of all time from any manufacturer.

As a somewhat stylized, more modern and civilized version of a flat-out race car for the street, the new GT can't just look the part, it has to play the part and play it well. It's the acid test for any vehicle that recalls such a rich and victorious track history.

The original GT40 race car, (the "40" referred to the car's height, in inches) captured the top three positions at the famous 24 hours of Le Mans (France) endurance race in 1966. Back then, Ford poured millions of dollars into the program, hiring the best drivers, engineers and specialty suppliers with the sole purpose of beating arch-rival Ferrari, then the undisputed endurance racing champion. Following three more years, including a trio of Le Mans victories, the company retired the GT40.

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Thirty-five years later, Ford has not only captured the moment, but the mood that prevailed at the time, one of prosperity, success, a desire to win no matter the cost and to unabashedly celebrate that victory. The new GT delivers the goods and is already ranked among the best street sports cars ever built thanks to some amazing technology.

Perhaps more impressive is that although the GT made its press debut in 2002, the car's development group, led by Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT) boss John Coletti, was given just 12 months to produce the first three working examples in time for Ford's anniversary celebrations in June, 2003. In a perhaps coincidental duplication of the '60s process that led to the GT40, Coletti imported some well-known outside advisors, including respected race-car engine builder/NASCAR race team owner Jack Roush and Steve Saleen, creator of the limited-production S7 sports car.

Translating a decades-old hand-fabricated competition vehicle into a modern-day street-driveable sports car with real bumpers, windows, air conditioning and a warranty proved no simple task. Working with the set exterior proportions of the original meant that to comfortably accommodate two passengers and build a modern, aluminum platform, all key measurements such as length, width, height and wheelbase, had to be enlarged.

Computers obviously played a vital role in the quick turnaround while providing answers to some tough design questions. For example, computer modeling determined that the safest place to put the gas tank was in a tunnel between the seats. Computer crash testing, instead of wrecking the expensive prototypes, also saved time and money.

New methods of forming the intricate aluminum body parts were also developed. In fact, the giant rear "clamshell" engine cover is just one piece with light-weight carbon-fiber inner panels attached to add strength.

Another breakthrough was the creation of a capless fuel filler neck, which automatically opens and closes as the gas nozzle is inserted and removed.

As with the auto show prototype, the production GT's powerplant is simplistic by exotic-car standards, but certainly effective. Mounted behind the passenger cabin is a supercharger-and-intercooler-equipped (truck-based) 5.4-liter DOHC V-8 that puts an impressive 500 horsepower and 500 lb.-ft. of torque to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. The powerplant provides roughly the same level of performance as the race-prepped 427-cubic-inch V-8s used in the Le Mans-winning GT40s.

Test cars have produced zero-to-60 m.p.h. times in the low three-second range, besting all but the most exotic sports cars. Ford rates the GT's top speed at 200 mph, all the while providing modern creature comforts with race-car touches. There are leather-bolstered adjustable carbon-fiber bucket seats, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, CD-equipped audio system and power windows and door locks. Aluminum trim is everywhere.

Even with a price tag in the $150,000 range, Ford plans to produce 1,500 GTs in the first 12 months, beginning this spring. And why not? With the car's blend of heritage, high-tech construction, stunning looks and performance that puts it in the company of cars costing much more, an initial-year sellout is a given.

Numerous attempts at building and reliving past automotive glory have been made - many by Ford - however the GT might just prove to be the perfect example of the past meeting the present without clashing.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' automotive history writer.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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