The inside story of the new Ford GT supercar

The reborn Ford GT is the hottest car of the 2015 NAIAS in Detroit. We spoke with its designer, Moray Callum, to learn about how it went from sketch to concept car in just 14 months.

Ford Motor Co.
Ford Motor Co.

DETROIT -- In Las Vegas last week, at the International CES, I heard plenty about advances in autonomous driving, from cars that would park themselves at the touch of a smart watch, to infotainment systems that made it safer to text while driving. Promising and worthwhile stuff for sure, but as a car enthusiast -- a driving enthusiast -- it's a little hard to get excited about any of it.

While I was out there I had dinner with Ford's new CEO Mark Fields. Fields himself would go on to dedicate much of his CES keynote to Ford's Mobility Challenge, finding solutions for parking woes, for traffic congestion, even discussing an app to help avoid monsoons in Mumbai.

Given all that, I really only had one question for him. Is there anything for me, an enthusiast, to get excited about when it comes to future automotive innovation? Fields smiled and simply said "I think you'll like what you see from us next week." That next week is here, and with it has come the Ford GT, the new Ford GT, the latest entry in a short but storied line of supercars from the Blue Oval.

Its designer is Moray Callum, Ford Vice President of Design, who was very proud to speak about the GT immediately after its debut here in Detroit. "A lot of people talk about technology and there's so much talk about autonomous cars and hybrid cars and maybe cars that are not for enthusiasts. We wanted to bring some of that back, to say that innovation can be about traditional car guys... Performance is still a great platform to develop technology and innovation."

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Moray Callum, Ford's Vice President of Design Ford Motor Company

Moray Callum is brother of Jaguar Design Director Ian Callum, the man responsible for much of Aston Martin's modern design language, and for all the recent lovely Jaguars like the F-Type. Both Ian and Moray spent large portions of their early careers at Ford before moving elsewhere. Moray went on to re-invent the look of Mazda, moving that brand from tired and predictable to aggressive and sporty.

He returned to Ford in 2006, and it's safe to say there have been plenty of design successes since then. The Ford GT is only the latest. Given the importance of the car and its positive response, I was amazed to learn that Callum and his team only started work on the thing in October of 2013. That's just 14 months to go from a blank sheet of paper to a functional concept car "95 percent" ready for production. "We know that things like the mirrors will probably have to change a little bit for legal reasons, but it's the peripheral things like that. The overall car, that's it."

To pull this off so quickly, and to keep it from leaking out, Ford took things underground. "We opened up a small studio in the basement, literally in the bowels of the building, refurbished an old room." The company brought designers and engineers together, working closely to pull the car together with little interference.

The team started by creating scale models by hand, then scanning the results to create 3-D versions. "All of the aero work has been done digitally," said Callum, "All the CFD work." That means saving time by not visiting an actual wind tunnel. However, the team did have a full-sized model milled out of foam, just to ensure the dimensions looked great at scale.

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Of all the design details of the car, the rear is by far the most distinctive. From a distance, the profile looks familiar. But look from the right angle, and you realize that the back of the car is more open than enclosed.

"We wanted to emphasize the fact that it's got a small engine. We really wanted to get this fuselage thing, which helps aero anyway, but actually accentuating that. Getting the frontal aero down... The V-6 EcoBoost really facilitated that."

It's a big departure by design from the original car, the GT40. "The [2005] GT was very much a heritage car, an homage to the first car... We wanted to do it in a much more futuristic way." The overall shape of the car, the "nostrils" in the front hood and the headlight shape and position, are all things Callum says were directly influenced by the original. "The rear view, the round lamps, the round exhausts, that's there, too. But that's where it stops."

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The iconic shape of the original Ford GT40. Tim Stevens/CNET

Callum calls the outer structures pontoons. They hold the wheels and intercoolers for the turbochargers and are supported by a pair of buttresses that slope dramatically upward to the central fuselage of the car. It's an amazing visual treat -- and an engineering challenge. "That car could only be made in carbon fiber. We wouldn't have been able to build that car 60 years ago. Even 20 years ago."

That tight packaging may raise some concerns about reliability, especially given the history of the 2005 car. That model became somewhat notorious after Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson quite vocally experienced a series of issues with his personal GT. Callum doesn't shy away from the question. "Quite a few of the guys involved in this program were involved in the GT program, so they're very cognizant of some of the mistakes in terms of serviceability." He promises the new GT will be better.

The lessons being learned through the engineering of the Ford GT will pay off elsewhere. Here in Detroit, CEO Mark Fields announced a partnership between Ford, DowAksa and the U.S. Department of Energy to research "low-cost, high-volume carbon fiber." If the GT is a sign of things to come, they'll be needing a lot of the stuff.

Josh Miller/CNET

However, when it comes to the drivetrain, the GT is almost traditional. I asked Callum why the company didn't follow the trends being set by Porsche, Ferrari, McLaren, Acura and more, mixing hybrid power in with their supercars. It was discussed, he said, but they opted for a more traditional route, to show off an extreme example of what their current production engines can do. "We call it democracy of the powertrain."

Still, don't expect a car for the masses. The 2005 version of the Ford GT started at $140,000, but often sold for much, much more at dealerships. "It's going to be more exclusive than the last one," says Callum of the new GT. "Less numbers and more expensive."

Better start saving, then, as the new GT could be in production as early as next year.

Read all of CNET's coverage of the Detroit auto show here.

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