"We pushed it as far as we could." – Dave Pericak, Ford Performance director
The GT racecar re-established Ford as a force at Le Mans. With its first-, third-, and fourth-place finishes in the GTE class last year, the company woke up the echoes of its historic victory at the 1966 race and reminded the racing world of its power and reach. But the GT wasn't Plan A.
Several years ago as Ford plotted its return to Le Mans, the Mustang was actually the top choice. Working under the name "Project Silver" after the Lone Ranger's horse, Ford set about fortifying its pony car for hardcore endurance duty. After roughing out what it would take – extensive aerodynamic modifications and then waivers from race organizers for certain technical elements – Ford decided the Mustang wouldn't work.
"We pushed it as far as we could," says Dave Pericak Ford Performance director.
Put simply: it was no longer a Mustang, and Pericak says Project Silver was rejected "right at the top of the house."
Going back to the drawing board with its self-imposed deadline of 2016, 50 years after it's '66 triumph, the company's gearheads bunkered down in secret. In a padlocked studio in the basement of Ford's Product Development Center in Dearborn, MI, a new venture, codenamed "Phoenix," was born. It was "rising from the ashes of all those times before we said we should do a Ford GT," Pericak says.
The Le Mans racecar and the street-legal version were developed concurrently, and the projects moved forward at all hours – none of them normal. "We were told when we started this project that this is not to bite into your day job," says Chris Svensson, Ford design director.
That meant 8 p.m. to midnight meetings were the norm. When the car had to be to viewed in sunlight to see how the design was progressing, windows would be blacked-out and covered so the GT could move undetected to a private area. "It was a top-secret project," Svensson says.
But eventually it wasn't. Someone had to go back to "the top of the house" and explain what was going on in the basement. Raj Nair, group vice president of product development, had the task of laying out the case for the GT to CEO Mark Fields and the rest of the Ford brass. Convinced, they signed off on the landmark car. Executive chairman Bill Ford and Fields, in fact, took delivery of the first 2017 GTs late last year.
"It's not about building 250 cars a year, Pericak says of the GT's annual production, which will have a total four-year run of 1,000. "That doesn't change the bottom line of the company."
Instead, it was about coming up with a fitting halo car for the growing Ford Performance division, which includes everything from racing efforts to the Ford F-150 Raptor, with things like the Focus RS mixed in between. Ultimately, that's how Phoenix succeeded and why Project Silver failed.