Henry Ford III, the great-great-grandson of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, gazed out over five brand-new $400,000-plus Ford GT supercars parked in formation on the pit lane of the Utah Motorsports race track, about a half an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City.
The well-spoken 36-year-old who runs marketing for Ford Performance, the automaker’s enthusiast-and-racing division, had donned sunglasses to beat back the almost preposterously bright late-April sun. In the distance, the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains that define Salt Lake City’s valley wore a healthy layer of shimmering white snow, thanks to some unexpected weather that had blown through the day before.
It was as stunning a backdrop as one could hope for to roll out the production version of the GT. In the background, the sound of the supercar’s 647-horsepower EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 sliced through the cool air. In the cockpit was Joey Hand, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team driver who, with teammate Dirk Müller, won the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France, recreating history. In 1966, Ford finished 1-2-3 at Le Mans, triumphing over Ferrari and making the original Ford GT40 an automotive icon.
As it turned out, the GT40 that finished second in ’66 had been brought over from its home in Colorado to join both the new Ford GT race car and the production machine. Henry III stood for an epic photo alongside both generations of the vehicle later in the day.
As Hand clocked ferocious hot laps on one of Utah Motorsport’s two tracks, Henry III discussed what Ford learned from the intense development of the GT racer and road car, a process which had to be compressed into a year.
Ford’s laboratory of innovation
Ford’s high-performance lineup consists of the mighty GT, two versions of the Shelby GT 350 Mustang, the Raptor pickup truck, the Focus RS and ST, and the Fiesta ST. But Henry III’s attention was concentrated on the GT, a low-slung, mid-engine creation that’s defined by a pair of aerodynamic flying buttresses that extend from the roofline to the rear wheels.
“We’ve learned a lot about lightweighting and engine development from the GT,” he said.
The supercar is largely crafted from carbon fiber, and its engine is derived from the 3.5-liter EcoBoost that Ford uses in the Raptor — and prior to the GT racer’s rookie season had been dropped into a prototype-class race car that Ganassi Racing used to win the Rolex 24 in 2015 (Ganassi at the time didn’t know that the same motor was destined for the GTs he would be running in 2016 — that’s how top-secret the GT project was at Ford).
“Carbon fiber is incredibly light and strong,” Henry III said. “But it’s hard to manufacture, and it’s expensive.”
Nonetheless, he looked forward to the day when more of the exotic material could find its way into Ford vehicles lower down the line.
Using lighter materials has been a priority at Ford for several years. The all-important F-150 pickup was redesigned in 2015 to make use of more aluminum in its construction — a huge risk for the carmaker with the longtime number-one-selling vehicle in the US. In 2016, Ford would do the same with its Super Duty pickup.
EcoBoost has also begun to appear throughout the Ford portfolio. Turbocharging — a system that uses exhaust gases to spin air compressors, adding power to smaller engines — enjoyed its previous heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when European manufacturers such as Saab, Volvo, and Porsche brought the technology to the US.
But the option faded in the face of traditional V6 and V8 engines in the 1990s. Confronted with more stringent fuel-economy standards in the 21st century, Ford and other carmakers returned to turbos. And they did so with no lack of confidence.
As Ford CEO Mark Fields told me at Le Mans in 2016, Ford could have dropped a big V8 in the GT race car. But the company thought it would be cooler to go for history with a turbo V6 — albeit one cranking out over 600 horsepower.
“Those are the two big ones from the GT,” Henry said. “Lightweighting and EcoBoost.”
Carbon fiber could take some time to hit the streets in a big way (although the auto industry has been talking about the arrival of composites for over a decade). While the GT may use plenty of it, the rest of the Ford Performance lineup is made mostly from aluminum and steel.
As for turbocharging, Henry III oversees it in the GT, Raptor, Focus, and Fiesta, but the Shelby Mustangs continue to barely contain good-old 526-horsepower V8s under the hood.
But you can get a Mustang that does EcoBoost — there’s a 310-horsepower powerplant available on a 2.3-liter four cylinder option.
Yep, a four-cylinder Mustang. But if things continue the way they have with Ford Performance, you can expect to see more of that type of unexpected innovation from Ford.
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