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

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."

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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."

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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.