What It’s Like To Finally Drive The Ford GT
Petrolicious photos by Aaron Miller // Press photos courtesy of Ford
Rare is the modern car that pays homage to a classic without sacrificing its tastefulness. As a car whose entire birthright is nestled in the famous feud between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari, the 2017 Ford GT has no choice but to embrace the highly romanticized emotional core of its namesake. If it is to have any hope of being similarly timeless, though, it must do so without pandering to those who lust after the legendary GT40.
Having spent time studying, staring at, sitting in, and driving it, not to mention chatting with the people responsible for making it a reality, I’ve reached a conclusion: The Ford GT is tasteful, not because of the physical traits it does and doesn’t share with its forebear, but because the fundamental ethos of this car remains true to the original.
You can’t engineer nostalgia
Time and time again, cars attain that intangible timelessness so cherished by the cognoscenti, only for their descendants to evolve into mere caricatures of the original vision. Exhibit A: When BMW debuted the M3 in the late 1980s, it was a thoroughbred—a homologation special built ostensibly to qualify a race-optimized version of the 3-Series. That the race car went on to dominate the international racing scene only added to its legacy. While subsequent generations are all fine cars with stellar engineering, they all lack that purity of intent that made the original so compelling. To be deficient not in quality, but in ethos, is a subtle difference, but it’s one that no level of quantifiable performance can overcome.
The 2017 Ford GT represents the long-awaited revival of the GT40 ethos. After the GT40 completed its last race, Ford wasn’t exactly a participant in the supercar game until the 2005 Ford GT, which, unsurprisingly, certainly wasn’t lacking for classic GT40-inspired lines. That’s no slight aimed at the car though, because to be certain, it was and remains immensely beautiful. Save for a few privateer efforts though, it never went toe-to-toe in the crucible of motorsport like the car it pays tribute to.
While the development of the GT did result in some new aluminum manufacturing processes, the car was less-than-inspiring in its pushing of technical envelopes. Ultimately, that car proved that the core of the original GT40 isn’t found in the nose’s deeply sculpted cooling vents, or the twin tailpipes espousing menacing V8 thunderclaps at every car left in the low-slung racer’s wake. No, the core of the GT40—the very reason it’s so revered today—is in its win-at-all-costs nature. Thankfully, this attitude has crossed the decades to live on in 2017.
When I first climb into the new GT, I realize something that’s been staring me in the face the entire time: there’s just no real concession to luxury in this car. Padding is virtually non-existent in the doors and dash, and the seats don’t move; you simply adjust everything else to you. For instance, there are two dead pedals, including one that moves with the pedal box so your foot can always be in the right spot. Strapping into Ford’s new poster car feels very much like getting into the original: it’s a legitimate, 200+ MPH race car that just so happens to be street legal. And everyone with eyes is staring. Always.
Driving down public roads only reinforces the notion that this is a car built with a singular focus on performance. Seating is so close to the car’s center that rubbing shoulders with passengers is a foregone conclusion. Cabin noise is dominated by a cacophony of sounds from the exhaust and turbos, interspersed with the occasional knocking of road debris as it’s kicked up into the carbon fiber undertray. It’s an elemental experience that feels perfectly in tune with the car’s mission statement.
To examine detail work on the new GT is to witness a masterclass of form and function working in nearly perfect balance. There’s legitimate innovation in the body, and it’s in that technology that the car visually asserts itself as the rightful heir to the GT40’s legacy. Those iconic nostril vents are retained, of course, but only because they’re absolutely functional. The deeply-sculpted channels beneath the doors evacuate air scooped from the active front splitter, which itself helps keep the handling impeccably balanced at high speed.
The most striking visual difference is the rear of the car, and it’s here that this GT truly lives up to its legacy. Those brand-new flying buttresses aren’t merely a styling cue—they provide structural support, obviously—but they also house the plumbing for the air-to-air intercooler, and they direct the flowing air through those deep channels on either side of the engine, toward the active rear wing. Those channels, incidentally, are only possible because of the choice of engine sitting at the GT’s heart. More on that in a minute.
This is a homologation special, born from rejection
Prior to the GT, Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president for Product Development and Chief Technical Officer, saw his pitch to build a world-beating, Le Mans-optimized homologation-special Mustang rejected for being too far off-base from what a Mustang stands for. Out of the smoldering ashes of that project, the motivation struck him to covertly recruit and lead a team of 12 design and engineering superstars on a personal mission to win Le Mans, and thus the aptly-named “Project Phoenix” began in strict secrecy. That the resulting GT’s very conception was a personal labor of love for a group that worked almost exclusively during off-hours is about as close as you can get to the personal quests for vengeance waged by Henry Ford II, Carroll Shelby, Eric Broadly, et al, against Enzo Ferrari in the 1960s.
Of course, to compete at Le Mans in the GTE category, a car must be production based. For the same reason any of the legendary Group B cars of the 1980s had road-going versions, so too must Ford produce the car with which it wishes to win Le Mans. The rulebook states that the cars in its class can be up to 4,800 mm long and 2,050 mm wide. The GT’s dimensions? 4,763 mm by 2,004 mm. This car benefits from a clean sheet design as a purpose-built race car in the same way that the original did and the 2005 GT simply didn’t.
The list of features on the road car that exist purely for homologation purposes includes virtually every structural component. It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the most extreme homologation specials ever constructed, right up there with the likes of the Porsche 959 and the Ferrari 288 GTO. The use of carbon fiber for the tub allowed engineers to make the A-pillars extremely thin. So much so in fact that they were able to build an FIA-legal roll cage into the street car without compromising the interior.
By not having to add a full cage for the race car after the fact, the whole cockpit can be smaller, with the cars exterior skin effectively shrink-wrapped around the cage. The difference that makes might not sound like a big deal, but the reduced frontal area that results is rather important if, say, you’re pushing through air at over 200 mph down the Mulsanne straight with a Ferrari on your tail. The road car’s top speed? 216 mph.
Turn the dial on the steering wheel to engage track mode, and the car’s purposeful ideology is readily apparent: the springs are compressed, both dropping the car by 50 mm and leaving nothing but a torsion bar and state of the art, F1-derived dampers to keep the car planted. Put simply, more than any other car on the road, it transforms from a road car to a bonafide race car, and you must drive it accordingly.
That’s not to say this car is remotely difficult to handle though; quite the opposite, in fact. Around the race track formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park, the entire vehicle functions as an extension of my own body. Not once does the car do anything but exactly what my hands and feet request of it. Mid-corner, there’s no lean to speak of, and the balance is pristine. There’s virtually no movement in the suspension at all, let alone any secondary motions. When you turn into a corner, it takes a set almost before your brain can process that it’s done so. It manages to reward skill without punishing you for being less than perfect. With the correct nut behind the wheel, though, very seldom seen is the car that’s more capable than the Ford GT.
It all comes down to the engine
Now, back to the power plant. It’s at the engine compartment that the new GT’s harshest criticism has been directed since the day Ford unveiled it to a surprised public. “Should’ve had a V8,” goes the argument. The original GT40 had a V8, so the new one must as well or it’s not true to the original.
The GT40s weren’t successful purely because of their engines. Each of the wildly differing GT40s was an aerodynamic tour de force. On the latest in the GT line, if, somewhere along the development process, someone within Ford’s skunkworks operation caved to the public’s love of V8s, the aforementioned aerodynamic channels would be vastly compromised; the car’s balance would be thrown off, both in terms of weight distribution and downforce. The very purity of the car’s win-at-all-costs ethos would have been lost. In a similar way that a Shelby Cobra made for a better race car with a 289 instead of a 427, the GT is a better race car with an EcoBoost V6 than it could be with the “Voodoo” V8 from the GT350. In keeping with the interior, there is simply no compromise in the engine compartment, and that’s to be lauded.
Conclusion: it’s the rare instant classic
No one’s buying a Ford GT with the expectation of driving it to the office every day, unless that person happens to clock in each day at a race track. Aside from a need to convey its passionate background, it simply doesn’t matter how this car behaves from stoplight to stoplight. It’s a homologation special in the grandest sense of the word. In purpose even more than looks, this is a throwback to the original GT40, with its near-identical twin already a Le Mans winner, and its technologies destined to trickle down into the rest of Ford’s lineup. It has every ingredient required to be timeless, and it drives with more than enough purity to be considered tasteful.