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Looking Back On Special Vehicle Team At 20 Years
Ford’s Special Vehicle Team has prospered since 1993
In 1980, Ford started building a new generation of high-performance cars with the creation of Special Vehicle Operations, or SVO. It was the brainchild of Ford's British PR genius, Walter Hayes, who had convinced Henry Ford II that racing was good for the company. SVO was directed by Ford of Germany's racing boss, Michael Kranefuss, and his team created the Euro-flavored turbocharged four-cylinder Mustang SVO.
The three-part SVO mandate--pro racing; race parts; and high-performance, limited-production cars--was a great theory and laid the groundwork for good things to come, although Kranefuss retired in 1993 and things changed thereafter. Despite a seven-year lull between SVO and SVT, the plans were in place to produce the Ford SVT Mustang Cobra and the Ford SVT F-150 Lightning pickup truck, both of which went on sale in early 1993. Ford's retired chief engineer, Neil Ressler, recalls the very beginning.
"There was a girl at Special Vehicle Engineering, Janine Bay. At that time, their job was to engineer small runs of both imported and exported vehicles. We had a Mustang GT that was developing 225 hp. I asked Janine to take a look at the Mustang and see if we could improve its performance. She came back about a month later and said that the Mustang GT was only making about 205 hp, but that her package SVE [developed] made 265 hp and had big tires, wheels, and brakes to go with it. It was a one-off, and we had no plan to do anything with it. We were going to call it the GT40 because of the additional 40 hp."
Ressler says company lawyers told him that Ford was about to lose the rights to the name Cobra unless he came up with something. Janine Bay was sent to marketing to develop a plan to sell such an upgraded Mustang. There she met with enthusiast and marketer John Plant, and the two created the plan for a low-volume, high-performance Mustang Cobra--5,000 units. He says, "This was just a loose confederation of enthusiasts. Everybody was still working in his or her home organizations. There was no budget. I was bootlegging money out of my budget to build these cars. We started calling ourselves the Special Vehicle Team to get these cars out, and about a year later, we formalized the organization with John Plant as the team leader.
"Then we built the  R model with no rear seat, no air conditioning, no radio, and crank windows. I thought the lawyers would never agree to it, but in the end, they did, and we decided to offer a very limited number of the R models. We built 107 of them, and added upgraded brakes to the R package at a cost of $2,000 a car, so I was sure it would stop. Then we built 250 of the white ones ['95]. This was never part of my responsibility. I just did it because I liked it. It was the same kind of stuff I'd been doing since I was a kid, and I was always able to find money in my budget to do them, without having to go through 20 committees to get everything approved."
Ressler says, "Engineers can't sell cars to the public. For that, you need sales and marketing, and (Ford vice-president of sales, marketing, and customer service) Bob Rewey was a great partner in all that. Absent his support, the whole thing would have died." An offshoot of those early Cobra and Cobra R programs was the Cobra convertible in 1994, which in turn led to the Indy 500 Pace Car program and the 1,000 pace car replicas that were sold. As complimentary as Ressler is of Bob Rewey's efforts in building SVT into a respected brand, his admiration for John Coletti is greater still. "The book on John Coletti was that he was impossible to manage, but he had a lot of good ideas. He became available after the '94 Mustang launch.
"I said 'I'll take him! There's an army of people here who are easy to manage, but they don't have any ideas! Ideas are what we need.' All I asked of him at the time was that he not embarrass me, and he never did. When he called for help, I gave him help. He was doing a good job, and he did a good job the whole time he was there." Ressler says there are a few potential SVT products that he remembers fondly, even though they were never built. "We had a turbocharged Escort with all-wheel drive and an engine that made 330 hp. That would have been great fun, but it was going to be expensive. Later, I persuaded them to build a Lightning Expedition. It was all black with cool wheels and big tires, and if it had been up to me, we would have built it. But it didn't do well in highly focused research."
Ressler retired in February 2001, and was called back to Ford by William Clay Ford Jr. after the public saw the Ford GT40 concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2002. Ford asked Ressler to determine whether such a limited-production car could be built, and if so, to see the project through to mass production, so he did. Ressler retired for good in June 2004.
"That one took a little air cover, too. I headed a lot of people off. I had the charter from Bill Ford, and occasionally I had to use it. We kept it away from them until the end, and most of them didn't know what the hell we were doing. A lot of them surfaced right at the end, so we had to do battle. But by that time, the car was finished and was getting good marks, so we won the battle. I was able to pick a lot of racing guys, people who were used to high pressure, gotta-get-it-done, can't-do-it-over. The first car we drove only had a 400hp engine, and after one lap around the handling course, I knew it was going to be a big success."
John Coletti was named the first head of Special Vehicle Engineering in January 1994, and started the most intensive product program in the young team's history. Coletti credits Bob Rewey with a great deal of help from above. "Rewey understood that you have to have an image creator, and once you have the customer's attention, the volume will sell. He also understood that the image product has to be real, not just bigger tires and badges." Coletti's engineering team, about two dozen people initially, branched out and away from the Mustang in order to engineer the SVT F-150 Lightning, the Euro-influenced SVT Contour V-6, and the four-cylinder SVT Focus (Coletti was also in charge of the British and German Ford SVE teams after 1996).
Marketer/enthusiast Tim Boyd, now a director at Ford Design, took over the SVT team leader's job when John Plant retired. He shepherded the program for four years, from 1994 to 1998. Tim says the media gave him too much credit as team leader, when there were so many talented people involved. He also credits the entire organization--from the men and women who built the cars, up to the vice-presidents in powertrain, manufacturing, and engineering--for their complete and enthusiastic support of SVT. Tim's personal favorite at that time was the SVT Contour, because no one was expecting a front-drive performance sedan, and it was so much fun to drive after all the SVT tweaks had been done to the car. He says the SVT mantra--performance, value, and exclusivity--that was developed then still goes today, and he's proud of that.
Tom Scarpello, a 10-year Ford marketing rep, came to SVT from Ford de Mexico in September 1998. Scarpello had been following the exploits of the team from afar. He says, "It was such a small organization, specialized, and not so easy to get into. Tim had been there quite some time, and when I heard that he was moving on, I made some phone calls. When I got there, I was in awe of the whole operation. I was working with guys like Coletti, who had resurrected the (SN-95) Mustang, and he was already legendary. The guys who worked on that team were the top of the top."
Scarpello was there for the launch of the F-150 Lightning pickup and the third-generation Cobra R, but there were problems. The intake manifolds on some 8,000 '99 Cobras were not manufactured properly, and the engines were not making the right power numbers. "The only solution--to maintain and preserve the integrity of the SVT organization, and the SVT brand--was to fix them. So that's what we did."
The group had new manifolds made, contacted every owner, sent the parts to the SVT dealers, plus some other minor fixes, and sent a special SVT jacket to every owner as a thank-you gift, along with a full tank of high-test gasoline. As a result of having to fix all the aforementioned Cobras, there was no '00 model. Scarpello says, "That whole experience taught us a lesson--when you're developing niche products, it makes a lot more sense to have a dedicated team working on that project from start to finish." After that, SVE became SVT Engineering, and John Coletti became the de facto head of SVT.
The plan was to make gradual, continuous improvements on the Cobra for three consecutive years, but after an engineering test ride in Death Valley in the '02 prototype, Coletti bought a six-pack of dog food, threw it into the car, and told his team to feed the new car because it was a dog. Later, he said, "This is no Cobra. It's barely a garter snake!" And it was so deep into the game that it effectively killed the '02 Cobra. Coletti wouldn't release the car. After some wrangling with Ford Powertrain, SVT decided to build the Terminator 4.6-liter supercharged V-8 engine for the Cobra, as he says, "to put an end to the Camaro."
While the car made enough power to be a 12-second car, it was also, by about a tenth of a mile per gallon, rated as a gas-guzzler, incurring a federal tax, a situation the team remedied for the '04 models. Coletti's engine team built and blew up nine test engines, all with broken connecting rods. Coletti decided to go to the aftermarket, where they bought very expensive forged rods--priced at $400 a set--for the new engine. It worked, but it pushed the program back a whole year and the new car came out as an early '03 model in 2002.
The '03 Cobra became the best-selling SVT product ever, with more than 13,000 cars sold even though it cost 20-percent more than the previous version. Coletti says 2002 sticks in his memory: "We were launching four new programs (the ST 170 in Europe, the SVT Focus, the '03 Cobra, and the Lightning) and three new engines around the world, and it was only a team of fewer than 40 people. I thought to myself 'I'd like to see anybody match that!' It was the best of times!" That year also marked the beginning of the program called Petunia, which became the Ford GT supercar. Coletti says, "If you have gasoline in your blood and you work at a car company, the one thing you always want to build is a clean-sheet-of-paper sports car."
The background to that program goes back through four generations of concept cars. In 1993, Coletti had conspired with Rewey to build a two-seater concept car called the Mach 3, using the SN-95 platform, to blunt the introduction of the new Camaro at the Detroit auto show. Two cars were built at MascoTech--one for Detroit, and one for the L.A. Auto Show, which took place at the same time.
On the heels of the '93 Cobra, Coletti and his new group built the one-off Mustang Boss 429 for the 30th anniversary celebration of the Mustang, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on April 17, 1994. The car was created with permission from legendary designer Larry Shinoda to use the SN-95 Shinoda stripe and body kit on the car, and an original Boss 429 engine borrowed from Jack Roush's original mint Boss 429. That engine was pulled out after the Charlotte event in favor of an Alan Root 604-inch Boss 429. Coletti says, "That was one badass car!"
The successor to that car was the Ford GT90 in 1995, a concept car built on a Jaguar XJ 220 mid-engine chassis with a quad-turbocharged, 90-degree, 6.0-liter V-12 engine made up from three modular V-8 engines. On the production front, SVT put together the '95 Cobra R for road racing, this time with a 351 V-8 instead of the 302 and a big fuel cell instead of a small fuel tank, to be more competitive for road racing against the Camaro. Coletti made a deal with the Windsor engine plant manager, Sy Ducharme, to build all the engines over a single shift on next to no notice from parts kits stored in a warehouse down the street, and have them delivered across the border to the Dearborn Mustang plant for installation in the cars.
Likewise, with a wink and a nod from the assistant plant manager, the entire run of 250 white Cobra Rs was built during a week while the plant manager was on vacation in Puerto Rico. The plant manager is said to have remarked, "Ok, I built them, now get them the hell out of here before (plant manager) Callaway comes back!" They were whisked away to MascoTech for final assembly (a fiberglass hood), inspection and delivery. The first 250 racers who faxed in copies of their racing licenses got the cars.
Then Ford executive Dave Velliky conspired with Coletti to do an all-carbon-fiber, rear-engined concept car called Indigo, a topless rear-engine roadster designed by Ford of Europe designer Claude Lobo, with a Reynard chassis, a V-12 engine based on the American 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 engine, and a six-speed transaxle. While the concept received rave reviews, the engine went on to power Aston Martin road cars. For the New York International Auto Show in 1997, Coletti and his team dreamed up the Mustang Super Stallion, with a Lysholm- supercharged 5.4-liter DOHC four-valve engine designed to run on either alcohol or gasoline, with a variable-boost feature making 400 hp on gasoline or 500 hp on alcohol. It was that engine that led directly to the 550hp engine used for the Petunia project--the Ford GT.
A little-known fact about the Ford GT program is that, early on, a 6.3-liter four-valve naturally aspirated V-10 engine capable of 600 hp and 8,000 rpm was considered, because there was some doubt about the long-term health of the aluminum B-8 block under the duress of supercharging. A Mustang V-10 prototype was built, but in the end, the engine was 50mm too long to fit in the rear engine bay and work with the transaxle and axles. Another one that got away in 1997 was the SVT Thunderbird, the five-seat coupe prototype powered by a 4.6 four-valve, supercharged engine. There was only one prototype built, and Coletti drove it on the Hot Rod Power Tour to stir up interest, but the Thunderbird coupe had come to the end of its life. The SVT Ranger supercharged V-8 compact pickup prototype didn't survive beyond the Power Tour, either.
For the third-generation Cobra R in 2000, the naturally-aspirated 5.4-liter engine--rated at 385 hp using "the most expensive intake manifold in the history of the planet," a huge plenum with ram tubes on the inside--was introduced, with Recaro seats, a front splitter, rear wing, IRS, and so on, resulting in a potential purchase price over $54,000, substantially more than the previous R versions. Lockheed wind tunnel testing confirmed the need for a big rear wing for high-speed stability. Ford designer Darrell Behmer, who would go on to become the Mustang's chief designer, was drafted by Coletti to do a complete car design, and came up with the final design over a single weekend, a process that normally takes six months. Coletti says, "There was science behind the spoiler and the rear wing, which we needed for a 185-mph car, but it had to look good, too." When Bob Rewey was asked what to take off the car to reduce the price, he said, "Nothing!" So SVT built 300 very expensive 185-mph Cobra Rs.
SVT and Carroll Shelby started discussions in 1997 about future cooperation, and in '01, Ford, under CEO Jacque Nasser, tried to buy Shelby American Automobile Company outright. That didn't happen, but the groundwork had been laid for working with Shelby on future high-performance Mustangs, and that led to the new Shelby GT500, which replaced the SVT Cobra. In 2001, the Petunia program became official as the fastest, most complex, most expensive Ford product ever built--with an all-aluminum chassis, aluminum engine and transaxle, and aluminum body. The target car for performance was the Ferrari 360 Modena. Coletti says, "I put a purchase order in for a Ferrari 360 Modena at a time when Ford was losing $1.8 billion a year. So I got a call from the CFO, and after I explained what we were doing and that we could sell the car for what we paid for it, he said okay. We beat the s--t out of that car."
Roush did the engine development. Romeo Engine built the engines. The cars were partially assembled by Saleen in Troy, Michigan, and finished at the Carlite glass warehouse behind the Lincoln/Thunderbird plant in Wixom by union workers. From program approval to first customer, delivery took only 26 months, a record for any Ford product program. Coletti had his team build up three cars for the Ford centennial celebrations--one red, one white, and one blue--a full year ahead of schedule.
Without question, the Ford GT introduced in 2005 was and remains the crowning achievement of the original group known as SVT. Scarpello says, "By that time, SVT had developed a lot of credibility. We had taken the business from break-even to a small but profitable solid business, making cars and trucks that people were really enthusiastic about it. By then, even the most jaded bean-counter could see that SVT was really good for the company, but this program was so big and so high-profile. At the time, John Coletti and I didn't have the kind of freedom that we had on SVT products. But Neil Ressler and Bob Rewey provided air cover for us, protecting us from all those that were trying to kill the program."
Coletti retired in December 2004 after 11 years on the job, because, he says, there was no way he could top the Ford GT. "I was afraid that one day I would reach down into the top hat and there wouldn't be a rabbit, so I left the company." Even though the chairman, Bill Ford, had asked him to stay on, Coletti says there was nothing left for him to do. Hau Thai-Tang, chief engineer on the '05 Mustang, took over SVT and advanced product creation, and is now vice-president of global product development engineering.
Jamal Hameedi has been with SVT since he was the Ford GT program manager in 2002, and as chief engineer and later director of SVT, he has brought the organization into the present. He says, "At the end of 2004, when we decided we weren't going to do a continuation of the Ford GT--a Mark Two, if you will--the team split up. "Some of the team went to the GT plant, some went back into the mainstream, and some stayed on to finish up the work on the '07 Shelby GT500. I was the SVT program manager, and Ellen Collins was in charge of that program. The Shelby GTs were built at Shelby in Las Vegas using a lot of parts from Ford Racing." He says of Carroll Shelby, "I worked with him for 10 years, starting with the Ford GT. I could take any kind of a car program proposal, and I could tell you what Carroll would think about it. He's gone, but he will always be with us in spirit." Hameedi says the progress of power development at SVT was very steady.
"The GT500 had a 5.4-liter supercharged engine in it, with an iron-block for durability and cost reasons, and it made 500 hp. In 2010 we went to 540 hp, and then in 2011 we did the aluminum block with the plasma-spray bore and went to 550 hp. We set targets for the '13 GT500 program at 650 hp, 600 ft-lb of torque, and 200 miles an hour. We were able to take the engine from 5.4L to 5.8L with the plasma-spray bore technology." SVT was also working on what it considered a third-generation F-150 Lightning pickup, but the new truck was so heavy that the 500hp 5.4-liter engine and six-speed automatic didn't perform better than the previous Lightning. It was Ford's product development boss, Derrick Kuzak, who suggested an off-road high-performance truck, and the X-Zero program that became the Raptor was started.
"Everyone thought we were crazy for doing it. We had an uncamouflaged maroon F-150 4x4 prototype full of aftermarket parts, and we disguised it by using the aftermarket decals and hiding the manufacturer license plate. That truck was all about the chassis, not the engine. When it was introduced in 2009, everyone was shocked!" The supertruck has since been upgraded several times, and now uses a 6.2L V-8 making 411 hp, 4.10 gears, and a Torsen front differential.
SVT was also developing the GT500KR program with Shelby American, the '10 GT500, and when the Boss 302 program came along, SVT was so busy that it deferred to the Mustang group to do that one. Hameedi says the Boss 302 had turned out so well that the GT500 had to be better--a lot better. SVT has now been merged with Team RS from Ford of Europe to form a global performance group, with new products like the 250hp Focus ST, which will be sold in 40 markets; a global Focus race car for sedan racing; and the Fiesta ST.
Hameedi says, "We're always looking for ideas on how to make cars faster. When we celebrated out 20th anniversary, we kind of looked back and said 'There is no other performance group in the world that has done the diversity of products that we've done--front-wheel-drive coupes, front-wheel-drive sedans, muscle cars, an aluminum mid-engined supercar, an on-road performance pickup truck, and an off-road performance pickup truck. No on else even comes close to having that kind of breadth in their history." Happy 20th birthday, SVT!