How the Ford GT Was Almost Never Built
The original Ford GT40 is and remains to be the only American car to win at Le Mans. Dominating four years in a row, it is a feat that Audi may have eclipsed, but at the time a feat like this had never been seen. It was American, and it crushed the brands that had been synonymous with LeMans. There was nothing like this before in racing. As a result, plenty of people that say the GT40’s four-year run was the most impressive American racing achievement to date. No American team has rivaled that achievement in world-class racing. That is what made the return of the Ford GT40’s return, in the Form of the Ford GT, so special. By the metric of feasibility, the modern Ford GT is a car that should never have happened, which makes it all that more special. Karl Brauer is the former editor in chief of Edmunds.com and is the Sr. Director of Analysts at Kelley Blue Book. He is the proud owner of a modern Ford GT, and we have previously discussed the story of how, against all odds, he became the first journalist to actually own a Ford GT. In the process he has become something of a historian on the Ford GT, and was kind enough to share the details of how the GT came to be:
“The unfortunate part of the original Ford GT40 that they never made production version– REALLY. They made less than 100 that allowed the GT40 to get homologated.” (Side note: Homologated means to build a certain amount of road going versions so that a racing series sanctioning body can claim that the cars are legitimate road cars. GTO stands for Gran Turismo Omoligoto. Ferrari fans were NOT pumped when Pontiac coupe “GTO,” considering it never competed in a race that required homologation.)
The few street models that did exist have fetched big money. Even the DeTomaso Pantera was a reaction to GT40 fans asking where they could buy a road-going model, but it was not quite the pure-American supercar, as the body was Italian.
“When the yellow and black Ford GT40 Concept showed up as a concept at 2008 NAIAS,” explained Karl, “we thought they would never make it. They have been talking about one for years. And there was the GT90, but that didn’t do the GT40 justice.
According to Karl, Ford did smart thing: “From a design standpoint, you either properly pay homage, and make it look just like the original, or don’t do anything at all.” Certain resurrected muscle cars have gone with the reinvention approach, with mixed results. The Dodge Challenger, on the other hand looks just like the original, and is better for it.
PHOTOS: See more of the Ford GT
Ford elected to make the GT40 concept look as close to the original as they could. When the car first rolled onto the stage in 2008, you couldn’t tell the old from the new at first glance.
The car looked great, but was an absolute long shot from a financial stance. “Whenever they do a concept they use SOME current parts,” explained Karl, “The percentage of a actual current shared parts available is called the feasibility percentage.” One in 20 parts were currently available in Ford’s production universe. The GT40 was only 5% production feasible.
The reason so few parts were used was because the design team approached the GT40 in reverse. Typically, the car is designed from the inside out. In the case of this concept, the body was penned, and the mechanicals had to be engineered to fit within that shell.
If that were not enough, there were other, more feasible cars on the docket for Ford brass. One car was the Ford 49 Concept. “It was meant to have classic looks on a modern platform,” said Karl, “sort of like a large PT Cruiser.”
According to Karl, “Bill Ford said, ‘wait, I’ll do the GT, but have three production ones ready for centennial celebration.’ He said that in March of ‘02, by June of ‘03 he wanted three production versions.”
With such engineering hurdles and such a short time frame, the car really was a moon shot, just like the original. As cool as the Ford GT is, the logistics are almost more incredible than the car itself.
In the midst of this, full production was still up in the air. A bunch of prototypes were running around for press test drives. You saw cars on the cover of AutoWeek but it was nowhere near final. The GT wasn’t even approved for production when it was making the press rounds. These cars had the mechanicals sorted out, but the body panels barely fit, and some were only shod in primer. They didn’t look pretty.
Ford was trying to figure out what car to build. “It was rumored that top brass was leaning towards the Ford 49,” explained Karl, “the GT guys on their own secretly took pieces home at night, to paint them in one of the engineers' garage.” All of the pieces were taken home in secret, and out of their own pocket, bought orange and powder blue paint, and painted one Ford GT in Gulf Racing livery.
They went with the 49, and the GT guys were livid. They took the car into the headquarters, and secretly took the keys to Ford COO Nick Scheele's car, moved it, placed the Gulf GT in his spot. Nick came down, and all the guys were hiding, and let Nick walk around it for a bit. Came out of the shadows, and said “do you really want to make the 49?”
“Ford came so close to something so crappy.” Exclaimed Karl, “Shelia, who is a Brit – knew deep down that the GT was the car that should have been green lit.”
What made the GT even more of a long shot was the financial position of Ford at the time. In 2002 they were in no position to green light such a lofty project, but went ahead anyways.
If anyone has read Car Guys vs Bean Counters, You’d know Bob Lutz’s stance on the issue, that it is good to have bean counters, but the final person to make a decision should be a car guy.
“One of the things that make the GT so amazing,” said Karl “is a car that should not have happened, or one that was built on such long odds."
If a car is more than the sum of its parts, than the Ford GT is a car apart from the rest, forged at a time when it should never have been built, and stands to rest as the best decision Ford has made since 1963, when Ford resolved to take on the world with the original GT40.
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