Jim McCraw
October 16, 2012
Photos By: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

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."

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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 [1993] 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.

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"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."

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