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Deja vu at 200 mph

“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” -- Henry Ford

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Clearly, somebody at Ford didn’t get the memo.

The 2005 Ford GT is the most history-obsessed automobile in automotive history. It is, as Ford Motor Co. vice president of design J Mays put it, a “reissue” of the Le Mans-winning race car of nearly 40 years ago, the car that trounced Ferrari at the Great Race from 1966 to 1969. To say the GT is faithful to the decades-old GT40 is to damn with faint praise. The GT design has the kind of mimetic accuracy one associates with Flemish paintings of hinds and hounds.

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Mays is famous in the automotive world for his “retro-futurism” styling that digitally remasters iconic designs from the company’s magical past. The current Thunderbird and the 2005 Mustang are examples. But the GT is on an altogether different scale of imitation. This car is less necromancy than necrophilia.

Why has Ford gone to the trouble of reinventing this particular wheel? More on that later.

The GT -- a 3,300-pound mid-engine exotic powered by 550 supercharged horses -- is ferociously, cosmically, I-see-God fast. The car recently hit 205 miles per hour at Italy’s Nardo test track. It is also, by a fair stretch, the quickest street car I’ve ever driven. In January, Car and Driver magazine -- whose test procedures are the best in the business -- recorded a 0-60 mph time of 3.3 seconds, more than a half-second quicker than the Italian bottle rockets Ferrari 360 Modena or a Lamborghini Gallardo. The GT turns an 11.6-second quarter-mile.

The launch sequence goes like this: Raise the revs to about 4,000 rpm, slot the shifter into first gear and slip your left foot off the clutch pedal. The foot-wide rear tires squall briefly and then hook up. The carbon-fiber seat mule kicks you in the backside. The supercharger trills like a teakettle. One second or so later, the landscape goes all spin-art and you start looking like Keir Dullea at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

Because of the way the car is geared, you will cross the 60-mph threshold well before you need to shift to second. By the time you start stretching in fourth gear (about 150 mph), the car’s aerodynamic underbody is producing several hundred pounds of ground-hugging down-force that actually causes the car to settle an inch-and-a-half on its suspension. The old race cars -- which were the first to exceed 200 mph at Le Mans -- didn’t have ground effects devices and were legendarily unstable on the Mulsannes straight. The new GT tracks like a Japanese bullet train.

Please keep your hands and feet inside the ride.

Under the GT’s clamshell-style engine bonnet is a 5.4-liter overhead-cam V8 stroker breathing pressurized air courtesy of an Eaton twin-screw supercharger. Eighty percent of the engine’s 500 pound-feet of torque (that’s 400 pound-feet for those counting on fingers) is available above 2,000 rpm. The gearbox is a purpose-built Ricardo six-speed manual transaxle, with limited-slip differential and a twin-disc clutch.

For a street car with bumpers, air conditioning, wipers and stereo system, the GT serves up fuse-blowing performance that, unless you spend your weekends in a helmet and Nomex fire suit, is rather hard to imagine. Think of it this way: If the Corvette is whiskey, the GT is a turkey baster full of heroin with a rubber-hammer chaser.

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The only cars that run in this class are the Ferrari Enzo ($650,000), the Saleen S7 ($400,000) and the Porsche Carrera GT ($450,000). In an intensely weird, parallel-universe sort of way, the Ford GT ($142,000 MSRP) is value priced. That part, at least, Henry Ford could relate to.

I haven’t driven the Enzo or Carrera GT, but after logging more than 400 miles in the Ford GT last week, I would be very surprised if either car approaches the kind of effortless, daily drivability of the Ford GT. Drivability? I know. Hard to believe, isn’t it? The car is a 200-mph, ton-and-a-half pussycat. The clutch pedal is as light as the pedal of a Focus SVT. The milled aluminum gear-shift lever slides through the six-speed gates as if it were lubricated with hot bacon fat. The front-end geometry provides excellent self-centering feel, giving the car straight-line stability at speeds exceeding civilian aviation. Perfect is not too strong a word.

This list of unlikely attributes goes on for a while. Despite the GT’s mid-engine design -- with only a plate of safety glass between you and the super-charged V8 -- the cabin is unusually quiet. Ford Special Vehicle Team director John Coletti explained that most engine noise comes from the induction system as air is sucked noisily through the throttle bodies. In the GT, the throttle bodies face rearward. The voids and crevasses inside the all-alloy chassis are stuffed with precious pounds of sound-deadening material.

Also, the GT’s super-computer optimized shape slips quietly through the wind. At 80 mph, I put the car in neutral and coasted. All I could hear was the dull roar of the tires. Except for a high-speed whistle that my pre-production test car developed around one of the complex door seals, it was free of twitters, rattles, burrs or creaks.

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And the ride quality is outstanding. In the interests of styling (the old cars had big fat tires on them), the car’s cast-aluminum wheels are wrapped in Goodyears with relatively tall sidewalls (235/45ZR18s in front, 315/40ZR19s in the rear). Typically, cars like this come with super-low-profile tires, which ride hard. The GT’s extra sidewall rubber helped null much of the high-frequency road hash we encountered on our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. Meanwhile, the double-wishbone, coil-over suspension is actually quite limber. As compared to the harsh, drumhead ride quality of, say, a Porsche GT3, the Ford GT ride is positively plush.

Ordinarily, a softer suspension tends to work against dynamic performance; the more suspension travel, the more body movement (body roll, pitch and yaw) and the higher the car’s center of gravity. But in a street car, a little extra suspension travel can be a good thing, since most roads are not as smooth as racetracks and cars snubbed down too tightly tend to skip, skitter and trammel over rough pavement. In terms of race setup, the GT is tuned more for the 12 hours of Sebring than the 24 hours of Le Mans.

It all makes the GT so benign and easy to drive at the limit that it just makes you want to giggle. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is light and reactive; the brakes are huge and perfectly calibrated. Plunging into one of those blind PCH right-handers at steady throttle, the car turns effortlessly as the big outside tire bites into the pavement. The chassis hunkers down. Here come the lateral Gs; there goes every loose item in the cabin out the window. The car carves the corner radius as if it were being swung by a steel cable. Naturally neutral while cornering, the GT has so much torque on tap that a little squeeze of the throttle can pivot the car into a tail-out posture. Squeeze harder and you can provoke a long, lurid, looking-out-the-side-window power slide.

The things I do for you people.

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Though Ford used the Ferrari Modena as its developmental benchmark, the car the GT most reminds me of is the Acura NSX. Like the NSX, the GT is docile, even servile, in around-town traffic. You can stick it in first gear and just let it mosey along with the engine at idle -- try that in a Dodge Viper and the driveline snatch will put you in a cervical collar.

So, yes, the GT is an amazing car, but is it great? It has its shortcomings. The interior appointments aren’t as rich and elegant as those of the Ferrari Modena, with its boot-stiff leather and Italian cool. The material refinement isn’t equal to the Italian hypercars. Our test car’s optional 300-watt McIntosh sound system crackled with FM static. (A Rockford Fosgate stereo system is standard equipment.) And the luggage compartment in the car’s nose cone is the size of a domestic shorthair.

These are trifles. The car’s greatest strength may also be its greatest liability.

The Ford GT concept car was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in 2002. Those were dark days for Ford, in the midst of the Firestone/Explorer crisis and real uncertainty about the future. And so the company -- relying on the collective judgment of its top executives led by William Clay Ford -- turned to the past.

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As far as I know, the GT program is unique in the history of industrial design. I can think of no highly technical product -- apart from novelty brass phones you might buy at Sharper Image -- that applies current technology so slavishly to what is an old design. It would be as if Northrop Grumman reissued a Grumman Wildcat, or IBM one of the mechanical tabulators.

The GT is an exceptional piece of engineering, but the GT team’s biggest challenge -- as they themselves will tell you -- was building a modern supercar inside this template of 1960s vintage. It was science in the service of sentimentality.

The fact is, if the GT project had started with a clean screen and not a scrapbook full of memories, the GT might have been an even better car. It’s hard to begrudge Ford’s attachment to the past -- harder still to fault the result -- but such an attachment comes at a cost of the kind of innovation that made the first GT such a landmark car. The converse of Santayana’s maxim is also true: Those who repeat the lessons of the past are doomed to forget them.

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2005 Ford GT

Wheelbase: 106.7 inches

Length: 182.8 inches

Curb weight: 3,350 pounds*

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Powertrain: 5.4-liter DOHC V8, alloy block and heads, Eaton screw-type supercharger, manual six-speed Ricardo transmission (transaxle) with helical limited-slip differential and twin-disc clutch.

Horsepower: 550 horsepower at 6,500

Torque: 550 pound-feet at 3,750 rpm

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds

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EPA rating: 13 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway

Price, base: $139,995 MSRP

Price, as tested: $157,095, including $1,250 destination charge, $2,200 gas-guzzler tax.

Competitor: Saleen S7

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Final thoughts: Don’t look back.

*Curb weight, with fluids and full tank of gas

Sources: Ford Motor Co., Car and Driver

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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