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The Ford GT story

As the Ford GT prepares for its historic return to Le Mans, we look back on its design and development.

The new Ford GT along with the 1966 Ford GT40 2005 Ford GT.
Courtesy of the Ford Motor Company Archives

Our definition of the word "supercar" is continually evolving. Visual flair and remarkable speed have always been key for the hottest things on the roads. But last century's supercars sucked down premium fuel like fire-breathing monsters while doing everything they could to spin themselves into the nearest tree.

Today's supercar is a more refined beast. "Economical" is the wrong word to describe this new breed, but "sensible" comes close. McLaren's P1 is a plug-in hybrid capable of driving short distances without burning a drop of fuel. Ferrari's greatest, LaFerrari, pairs another hybrid system with a comprehensive electronics suite to keep ham-fisted drivers out of the ditch.

And then there's Ford's definition of "supercar." It's long, it's low, it's lightweight and, with 600 horsepower on tap from a twin-turbocharged motor, it promises to mix speed with economy. Meet the Ford GT.

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Origin story

Ford's designers examine a full-scale clay mockup of the GT. Ford Motor Company Archives

The Ford GT wasn't designed in some glitzy, high-tech, computerized wonderland where every wall is a touchscreen video monitor and a retinal scanner on the door keeps unsavory types at bay. To get to the car's birthplace you must make a trip to rustic Dearborn, Michigan, and walk through Ford's Product Development Center, a building that probably looked majestic when it was built in 1957. Now it all feels a bit retro.

Wind your way through a series of long hallways, each wide enough to accommodate full-size models of concept cars. Continue past pallets stacked high with the tools for the trade, including carton after carton of sculpting clay imported all the way from Japan.

Turn down a dark, narrow stairwell in what feels like a vast, subterranean complex, and don't be deterred by the red sign that warns "HAZARDOUS MATERIALS," because you're getting close. Scattered about are various piles of body parts (automotive body parts, that is) plus wheels and wings and fins and all sorts of other bits. You could easily spend hours piecing together former flights of designer fancy, but what's more important is what lies beyond the big, sliding door at the end of a long ramp.

A lone padlock hangs from the end of the beaten handle and, even if you possess one of only two keys in existence, access requires something more: muscle to pry open a door warped by years of use.

Drag the door open and you step into a clean, bright, well-lit world. It's the world of the Ford GT design team.

Beauty in design

Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Mark Fields unveil the Ford GT. Ford Motor Company Archives

A typical car, even just a new version of an existing model, takes around four to six years to design. When a new model rolls onto dealer lots, designers elsewhere are already crafting its replacement.

The Ford GT design team didn't have six years, or even half that, to craft Ford's newest supercar. Proper design work started in October 2013 and a "95 percent" finished version of the car rolled onto the stage, under its own power, at the North American International Auto Show in January 2015. Fourteen months to go from a clean sheet of paper to a nearly complete car is impressive. So, too, is how well Ford managed to keep the GT a secret.

Moray Callum is Ford's vice president of design and the lead designer on the Ford GT. He's an affable Scotsman who speaks with pride about his team's achievements.

"We really wanted to keep it secret. There were a lot of [design] chiefs who didn't see the car until we brought it out in Detroit...I think a lot of people knew we had something going on, but we managed to keep it very quiet. I think it really was 25 people in the company." The 25 include roughly 15 designers, plus the Ford bosses who, Callum says, "had to sign the checks."

It was secrecy that helped drive the team to that basement in Dearborn. "This was mainly a storage area for styrofoam blocks that we make these models in. There was a little machine shop; the guys who fix our machines would have a little booth over there," explains Callum, gesturing to a corner of the room, now sparse and well-lit but easy to imagine as dim and smelling of machine oil. "When someone suggested it as a studio I thought, 'You must be crazy,' because it was not a nice place. It's still not perfect."

Crews relocated the machine shop, cleaned the floors and suspended a blinding array of lights from the ceiling. Within a month, the room was ready.

Finding the right characters to fill the room proved a little more complicated. "It was a mixture of young and old," says 57-year-old Callum, before quickly correcting himself. "Young and more experienced, I should say."

Leaders kept the team small by design, says Amko Leenarts, Ford's global interior design director, the dark-haired Dutchman who managed the interior of the GT. "A very tight, small team. For confidentiality, but also because it's a way to get things done quickly." Fewer voices at the table and a focused project helped the project come together. "It was very easy to rally around a common goal. If you design a production car, there are so many different opinions about what is a goal."

That common goal? Performance. Craig Metros, Ford's exterior design director for the Americas and a globe-trotting American, puts it succinctly: "Everyone wants to do a car like this."

A different kind of supercar

The Ford GT cuts a dash unlike any other car on the road. Ford Motor Company Archives

The Ford GT is a 600-horsepower, lightweight, carbon-fiber supercar with a silhouette similar to the original, Ferrari-beating GT40. Take a closer look at the distinctive rear end, however, and you'll see a radically different car than anything else on the road.

The powertrain is the key, a svelte, turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 that's half the size of the raucous V-8 found in the Le Mans-winning GT40 in 1966. "The first thing we did was start to shrink-wrap that motor," says Metros, gesturing with his hands as if he were sculpting the bodywork. "The more we started to shrink-wrap that surface, we realized that was actually giving us better performance in the wind tunnel, to the point where we decided to divorce the fuselage from the rear fender."

That separation led to a pair of outrigger wheels supported by aerodynamic flying buttresses, sweeping down dramatically from the trailing edge of the car's roof to the leading edge of the rear fenders, fenders that also contain air inlets to cool that motor.

"As we worked through the aerodynamics," Metros continues, "we learned that the smaller the cockpit, the better the aero, so we just kept on shrinking." An incredibly refined cockpit was crafted. There's no room to mount the seat on rails, for example, so it's bolted to the floor. Instead, the wheel and pedals move back to meet the driver.

Leenarts gestures to an early concept sketch for the interior. "You can see here, we still thought we had space for vents and stuff. We weren't aware of how severe the package was going to be." Ultimately the team pushed the vents out to the doors and carved the dashboard down to expose structural elements of the car. Leenarts calls this aggressive trimming, "celebrating the negative space, really taking out as much as possible." It's a stark contrast to the massive, imposing interior of 2005's Ford GT.

The exterior, too, looks far more sculpted and sophisticated than 2005's GT, partly thanks to a conscious decision to respect the original GT40 but not emulate it. It's also thanks to the high-strength, lightweight carbon-fiber construction, which allowed the team to craft the radical shapes of the GT.

Digital meets analogue

Every detail of the Ford GT's interior was created with intent. Ford Motor Company Archives

Of course, all those shapes needed to work aerodynamically. Sitting in the GT's subterranean space is a row of full-size models showing a gradual evolution through the design process. "Aero is still a bit of a black art. You think you know what's going to happen, but you always need to test it," says Callum. But digital simulations and wind tunnels aren't everything. Sometimes, aesthetics take priority. "There's quite a faceted look to some of the models, but we actually wanted to get a bit more 'sex' back in the car, a softer form."

Much of that aerodynamic testing happens within computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations, but the designers insist on physical models, carved in foam and clay, then wheeled outside in secret, often on weekends, so that Callum, Metros and Leenarts could see how the thing looked in daylight. (A process somewhat complicated by the Michigan weather. Recalls Callum: "We always want to take our cars outside, but it's not so easy with 4 feet of snow on the ground.")

But why do they insist on clay imported from Japan? "It used to be American clay," Callum says, "but the Japanese bought it!" This particular sculpting clay, more of a wax, is sulphur-free -- but not for health reasons. Says Callum: "The sulphur was actually destroying the computers; all the electrodes were suffering. So, to save the computers, not the designers, they changed the clay!"

History of the GT


The 2005 Ford GT launched with a heavily retro feel.

© Car Culture/Corbis

The Ford GT isn't expected to go into production until 2016. That's perfect timing: the 50th anniversary of Ford becoming the first American manufacturer to take an overall victory at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In the early '60s, Enzo Ferrari, founder of the iconic, eponymous motor company, was interested in selling his company to Ford so that he could focus on racing. Or, at least, that's what he claimed. Henry Ford II agreed to terms, but when it was time to sign the papers, Ferrari refused. The deal was off.

Ferrari's exact motivation is unknown, but the net result is: Henry Ford II was incensed. He launched a program to beat the Italian's red cars at their own game.

This was the original Ford GT, which debuted in 1964 and was soon dubbed "GT40" because its roof is just 40 inches above the ground. Ford entered three cars into the 24-hour race that year, and all failed to finish. In 1965, it was much of the same.

The 1965 Ford GT40 earning its first victory at Daytona Beach, Florida. Ford Motor Company Archives

In 1966, Ford dumped even more budget into the program, and the investment paid off. The GT40 came in first, second and third -- a clean sweep of the podium, with the highest-place Ferrari coming in eighth.

The GT40 was first reborn in 2005, as the $140,000 Ford GT. It sold for just two years before being discontinued.

The next step? Why, a return to Le Mans. Ford has announced that a racing version of the Ford GT car will compete in the 2016 race, against, yes, Ferrari, along with the likes of Corvette, Aston Martin, Audi and Porsche.

But why not call it GT40? Sadly, Ford sold the rights to the name in the '80s and wasn't able to secure its return. So that car, and this latest one, are simply called "Ford GT."

Future design

Even the taillights on the Ford GT are works of art. Ford Motor Company Archives

Just upstairs from the Ford GT's secret, underground lair is a fancy, high-tech, jet-black room outfitted with positional sensors and dozens of cameras. Step inside, don a virtual reality (VR) headset, and you can walk around and even sit inside a virtual Ford GT that's exactly the same size as the real one.

It's a compelling experience, and you can picture designers of the future using VR to consider the dimensions, the proportions and the overall look of a car. However, Metros, the exterior designer, says that VR won't replace their physical models anytime soon. "There's something about walking outside on a bright, sunny day. There's something about walking up to a car. It's different than walking into a black room. It's dark. There's a strange thing on your head."

Callum agrees: "Like any great car, it's [about] walking away and looking back at it." With a laugh, Metros recounts trying to do this in a VR lab: "I walked into the wall!"

So, it's an analogue design for the present generation of supercars, a car that uses lightweight construction for both better performance and economy, paired with a motor that's half the size of the original yet offers considerably more power.

But what will the next generation of drivers want from their ultimate driving machines? "The supercar will still be creating an experience," Callum muses, "but it may not be the driving experience that we lust after."

This story appears in the fall edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.