A deep pocket looking for the ultimate thrill ride
Comparable models in this class:
Aston Martin DB7, Ferrari 360 Modena, Porsche 911 GT2
SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. - Four Ford GTs were a visual feast as they sat on the Gingerman racetrack while the rising sun slowly burned its way through an autumn haze. The sight was a car enthusiast's dream. These modern-day reincarnations of Ford's famous GT40 race car from the 1960s were gathered at an obscure track in western Michigan so a handful of automotive writers could finally get behind the wheel for a brief spin.
Few cars elicit such a visceral reaction as the 2005 Ford GT. It has been the buzz of the automotive world since a concept made its debut at the Detroit auto show last January. It goes on sale this summer at a price somewhat less than $150,000. Roughly 1,500 will be built the first year, and approximately 4,500 will be built in total. Expect prices to soar well beyond the sticker.
The original GT40 was Henry Ford's challenge to Ferrari after Ford's offer to buy the company was rebuffed in the 1960s. In1966 a GT40 Mark II defeated Ferrari and took the top three places at the legendary 24 Hours of LeMans. GT40s, in varying forms, won again in 1967, 1968 and 1969. No car captures the soul of American racing like this one, and coming up with a production version is brilliant.
Rarely has there been a car with the magnetism of the original GT40, a car that was undoubtedly one of the "most significant racing cars of all time," said Chris Theodore, Ford vice president of advanced vehicle creation.
Theodore said the idea to build a new version of the GT40 surfaced while Theodore, J Mays and Richard Parry-Jones were on a flight to Sweden in 1999. The project was code-named Petunia to ensure a low profile within the company.
Taking Petunia from concept to production was an accomplishment of Herculean proportions. Three cars were completed in time for Ford's centennial celebration last summer and 15 have been built to verify production. Theodore said the project went from team formation to production in just 24 months. Ford couldn't build a small-volume car like this without help from a number of suppliers. The GT is assembled by Saleen. The frame is a combination of extruded, pressed and cast aluminum pieces. Mayflower is responsible for the body, Roush the engine and Lear the interior.
At 44 inches tall and 182 inches long, the new car is 4 inches taller and 18 inches longer than the race car after which it was patterned. It has been stretched and raised to provide a roomier cabin and to comply with numerous federal regulations.
The styling is still drop-dead gorgeous. Camilo Pardo is the chief designer, and he said that "staying true to the original themes in a clean, modern design made this the most difficult project I've ever been associated with." Swoops and curves are punctuated with gills and scoops. The doors still open into the roof. While the aerodynamics of the 1960s were beautiful to look at, they weren't very efficient at keeping the car stable at high speeds. Ford engineers put small, black aerodynamic pieces around the bottom of the car for wind management and carved tunnels into the floor so air passing under the car sucks it down to the ground.
The cars we drove were in various stages of development. The shift linkage, height of the steering wheel, placement of the outside mirrors and various bits of engine programming are still in a state of flux. The production cars will be better than the ones we drove.
Slithering down into the seat is like sitting on a chaise lounge. The tiny steering wheel is a bit too high, but it will be lowered on production cars. The windshield pillar is fair wide and that hinders the view when entering a left-hand corner. The pillar will be slimmed considerably before actual production gets underway. The seat lacks height adjustment, and that, too, may be changed.
The engine is started with a red button in the center of the instrument panel. The tachometer is located in front of the driver. Gauges march across the panel, as does a row of toggle switches. The speedometer is at the very center of the car.
The all-aluminum, 5.4-liter V-8 cranks out a whopping 500 horsepower, thanks to a supercharger that nestles atop the engine under the back window of the car. The transmission is a six-speed manual, and the linkage is heavy and businesslike.
Accompanied by an engineer, I took a few laps around the track. The low seating position, high wheel and wide windshield pillars took some time to get used to, but the GT's drivability is first-rate. The twin-disc clutch takes up easily and the engine is docile at low speeds. Squeezing the throttle on the exit of a turn is like lighting the afterburner of a jet fighter. The rush of power is constant, steady and addictive. Superchargers do that. This car leaps from turn to turn in a gush of sound, feeling as if a giant rubber band snaps the car from one turn to the next. Massive Brembo brakes erase speed with reassuring efficiency.
The Ford GT is a wonderful way to celebrate the company's centennial and to mark a renewed focus on cars. It just goes to show that the road to the future almost always starts in the past.