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Ford's classified gear is cool, but give us the GT40

The Ford GT40 sports-racing car was introduced in 1965 and, from 1966-1969, it proceeded to win four consecutive LeMans 24-hour endurance races, with drivers like Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt at the wheel. The amazing success of the Ford GT40 remains...

The Ford GT40 sports-racing car was introduced in 1965 and, from 1966-1969, it proceeded to win four consecutive LeMans 24-hour endurance races, with drivers like Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt at the wheel. The amazing success of the Ford GT40 remains the stuff of motorsports legends, and it will be the showpiece of Ford's centennial year of 2003 when it is reintroduced as a specialty production vehicle.

Ford has put together a dream team of design engineers and performance-car experts to put the program together, and the new GT40 is sure to be the brightest star in Ford's galaxy -- you should pardon the expression -- of all the products Ford is introducing or upgrading for 2003, the year Ford celebrates 100 years of automobile building.

Ford, in fact, has some substantial vehicles coming out, with the new Expedition and Lincoln-Mercury Navigator already out. So is the Mercury Marauder. Soon to come are the Lincoln Aviator SUV, the Ford Mustang Mach 1, a new Lincoln LS and a 390-horsepower SVT Mustang, and the best-selling Ford F150 full-sized pickup trucks are also slated for full revisions this fall.

General Motors recently introduced all its 2003 models, with a distinct emphasis on bigger engines with more power and more performance, strutting all sorts of muscular advancements that seemed to push a couple of environmental and ecological advances to the background.

Ironically, Ford put special emphasis on its environmentally sound, higher-mileage and lower-emission products, and yet without being emphasized, a high-performance vehicle stole the show.

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Not only is the GT40 impossible to overlook, but also Ford is going to expand the popular Focus and its high-performance SVT model by offering an SVT Focus in the five-door model. When automotive journalists were zipped from module to module rapidly -- too rapidly, actually -- while learning everything Ford Motor Company has planned for 2003, and beyond, during the two full days in Dearborn this past week, it was the GT40 and SVT Focus five-door that kept popping up front and center.

After getting to drive and check out the latest traction and stability devices, thrashing off-road, and speeding around race courses at the Milford, Mich., Proving Grounds, we ended up in the futuristic showroom at the company's Dearborn design center as the climax to learning, examining and experiencing Ford's corporate mindset, as well as its products. Now came the treat of getting to view some of the vehicles Ford intends to bring to market as far off as 2005.

J Mays, a fellow who uses neither a first name nor a period after his first initial, is Ford's vice president in charge of design. He was at the microphone for the final display of the future products, but he proclaimed to all the assembled motoring journalists that all information from that session was "embargoed forever." That meant we couldn't use any of it, and we either promised to obey or we should leave the facility immediately. Nobody left.

So let's paraphrase what Mays had to say, and what he had to show off under the tarps around the big room. After reading off the impressive list of already introduced vehicles from new Ford subsidiaries such as Land Rover, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Volvo and Mazda, Mays turned his attention to the home-based products.

"Over there we have the Mercury (classified), which will replace the Villager minivan for 2003," Mays said. "We also have the (classified), a small sport-utility vehicle. And at Lincoln, we have the entirely new (classified), which will redefine midsize premium utilities."

After describing Ford's Australian affiliate, which will bring out a new (classified) SUV in 2004, and Ford of Europe, which has the new (classified), a small "urban activities vehicle" coming, Mays turned his focus (you should pardon the expression) on Ford of the United States, pointing out freshening projects on the Taurus and the Windstar van. Then he put on display the new 500, which is still classified but was described on last winter's auto show circuit.

"The 500 will come out in 2004, and will have all new architecture," said Mays, as the cover came off a big sedan, whose description must remain classified. We promised. "And then over at our Outfitters, we have the new Escape Hybrid, and the Crosstrainer."

All we can say is that, in spite of its name, the Crosstrainer will not be designed to look like a shoe, with a swoosh on the side. We can, presumably, talk about the Escape Hybrid, because it is an Escape SUV armed with a hybrid powerplant that combines a small gasoline engine and an electric motor, and will make Ford the first U.S. company to jump into the environmentally sound battle already being waged by Honda and Toyota.

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Before showing off a stunning new 2005 Mustang (classified), and the new Ford trucks, Mays put the spotlight on what surely will be Ford's most stunning image car in decades. The GT40 may have been classified inside that room, but it has been displayed all year in auto shows.

The GT40, which began life in 1963, when Henry Ford II announced Ford would produce a new race car to compete in the world's endurance races, such as LeMans. It was a low, sleek and absolutely dazzling vehicle introduced in the summer of 1964, similar to the slickest Porsches or anything else in the exotic race classes. Carroll Shelby was brought in that fall to oversee the race program. In February 1965, Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby codrove a GT40 to its first victory, at the Daytona 1,000 kilometer race. In June of 1966, GT40s finished 1-2 at LeMans, shocking the world. In 1967, Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt codrove another GT40 to victory at LeMans, and the car also won LeMans in 1968 and 1969.

Chris Theodore, Ford's boss of product development, hand-picked a group of elite high-performance standouts, including John Coletti, the director of Ford's SVT (Special Vehicle Team) operation; Neil Hannemann, chief engineer of Saleen and formerly manager of the Dodge Viper GTS-R program; Tom Reichenbach, who has worked on Formula 1, CART and NASCAR race teams; and Carroll Shelby, who came up with the original Cobra and later high-performance cars for Ford, Dodge, and even Oldsmobile; plus Jack Roush and Steve Saleen.

The concept car came out under Mays' design last summer and made its debut at this year's auto show circuit. Naturally, a lot of the details are, as they say, "classified," but it will have a mid-engine V8 with over 500 horsepower.

Ford executives acknowledge that lowering costs and regaining a position of profit are foremost objectives. Ford CEO Bill Ford, referring to oblique ridicule from General Motors in recent weeks, said: "We wanted to dispel the rumor that our product pipeline is empty. Our revitalization plan is centered on products. Great products made us what we are, and they will take us where we're going in the future. I feel quite good about where we are in our plans."

Richard Parry-Jones, who is a group vice president in charge of global product development, discussed the introductions of all the worldwide Ford products, including 20 North American vehicles. "Business conditions remain a challenge," he said, "but we believe we can build no-tradeoff vehicles that are exciting and can allow our commitment to make cars that are 'cleaner, safer, sooner.' That means we intend to reduce the impact of our vehicles on the environment; we will continue to make improvements in safety, and we will take these actions as soon as possible."

Parry-Jones pointed to the Focus with a new experimental and clean-burning diesel engine, and the soon-to-be-introduced Escape hybrid as low-polluting, high-efficiency vehicles, and he claims Ford intends to improve fuel economy of its SUVs by 25 percent. "But what we mean by 'no-tradeoff' vehicles, is we are not degrading performance while we make these advances, so that they will perform the same as what customers expect from gasoline-burning cars," he added.

The introductions of new vehicles, new technology, new safety measures including a four-point seat harness, and new fuel-cell technology were impressive. But, try as they might to stress those technical, everyday advances that will help our economy, ecology and environment, there remained one inescapable fact: Give us that GT40!

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