The latest installment of Automobile’s Design of the Year was almost too easy for us
to pick. The Ford GT was the most exciting, most innovative, and most surprising meant-for-production
car to make an appearance in 2015, period. No matter how you consider it—as a front-line competition car or a fabulous high-performance coupe—Ford’s decision to return to serious international sports-car racing 50 years after GT40s first showed up at Le Mans was the biggest performance-car news of the year. The fact Ford sprung the new GT on the world without the series of concepts and multiyear promises of “real soon now” —as heralded the Camaro’s return to market a while back—is all to the credit of the Blue Oval’s upper management, whose silocentric methods were changed radically by former CEO Alan Mulally and carried on by present incumbents.
You do not often see a whole new way of shaping a specific category of automobiles. Most new designs are evolutions or derivations of what came before, with little variations in details, maybe as simple as integrating separate trunks into the body form, as was done in the early 1930s, or adding fins to
enveloping shapes, as was done to the point of absurdity in the ’50s. In grand touring cars, we’ve seen gorgeous road-capable racers like the Ferrari GTO and the Ford GT40 evolve into very exotic supercars like Koenigseggs and Paganis, all still very much in the same mold. Racing “sports cars,” like the incredibly efficient (but also insuperably ugly) Prototype racers that now fight for overall victory at Le Mans, have absolutely no visual linkage to anything any of us would want to be seen driving
on the road. That’s not true for the new Ford GT.
Many of us have seen some shots on the Web wherein the GT is flanked by the very pretty
McLaren 650S, one of McLaren design director Frank Stephenson’s best efforts to date, and the beautiful Ferrari 458 Speciale. All three are great-looking machines. Yet the Ford, which is longer, wider, and taller than its ancestor—from which it is clearly influenced with multiple points of recognition artfully incorporated—also looks fresh. And surprisingly, it manages to look smaller than both the half-century-old GT40, with its tiny, typically British racing 95-inch wheelbase, and Camilo Pardo’s brilliant GT follow-up of a decade ago, with 11.7 inches more wheelbase and nearly 4 inches more height.
Chris Svensson, British-born design leader for the new GT (and all North American Ford
products) , attributes the impression of it being much smaller to the body’s very
narrow central portion, which includes the nearly vertical exterior cabin walls. Amko
Leenarts, Ford’s global director of interior design , insists the cockpit is certainly cozy but
also generous enough in width for two people to be truly comfortable in the car. The two
top designers are genuinely our kind of people. Svensson has been with Ford for 22 years,
having launched his career with the Blue Oval in Cologne in 1992. One of his first big
projects was the Ka, a minicar highly polarizing in its style. We ran a Four Seasons test of
the Ka soon after it appeared, in anticipation of it coming to the U.S. I liked it very much, to the
point of buying the test car and running it happily for a few years. Others hated the look.
Svensson has moved around the Ford world, spending three years in Australia during one stretch. He drives our kinds of cars, too, with a Shelby GT350R on order and a ’65 Mustang fastback in his garage along with a Huffaker Genie mid-engine sports car, the only coupe version ever made. It’s in restoration, with a Ford 289 V-8 for power. He sold his ’57 Porsche 356 much to the distress of his wife, who liked
driving it and wants another.
Asked about how things went in the “secret studio” in the design center’s basement where the Ford GT was created, Svensson says he likes to tour all the studios beginning at 6:30 a.m. to get an idea of what’s happening in his realm. During the GT project he snuck down there as much as he could; he says people went in and out as needed, but about a dozen full-timers were involved. “It was hot, it flooded, it was pretty miserable at times, but people liked it. It was exciting, and they really didn’t want to leave
when the GT was done. They hoped for another project as exciting,” says Svensson.
There is no way around the fact this is a radical design, with what amounts to two square-cornered tunnels punched through the car’s sides on a diagonal, their theoretical forms converging behind the physical portion of the car. Its artful styling lies in finessing the details, radii of disparate elements, and the three principal profile lines: the centerline section and the fender profiles. In fact , the front fender profile diverges on the tunnel diagonal, so it is continuous in side view but doesn’t really have anything to do with the rear fender, except both fenders have harmonious rises over their respective wheels.
We don’t often get to see a true plan view of a car, which is too bad because it is highly instructive. In the accompanying photograph we can see the widest part of the cabin is at the base of the A-pillars, and everything closes toward the rear, describing a low-drag, teardrop-like shape to enclose
the two seats, the engine, and exhaust system. The main radiator in front takes air in low
and expels the heated air from the core on top of the hood, where it is directed outward so it
“washes” the sides and adds heat energy to the air flowing around (and through) the car. The GT’s
airflow pattern is complex and hugely important, but the designers were just as concerned that you’d see the whole as an elegant, flowing shape. “We didn’t want it to look like a science project,” says Svensson. And it doesn’t, even though it is as much of one as Porsche’s 919 Le Mans Prototype.
Intriguing as the exterior design is, the interior fascinates us even more. The car’s base structure is a monolithic carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic molding incorporating the seats and the cross-pillar transverse member as structure. Apart from the adjustable pedal box and steering column, everything in the cockpit is fixed firmly to the structure. The digital read-out instrument cluster in front of the
driver on the left (we don’t know yet if there will be RHD versions) contains all driving information, while the screen on the right is housed in a non-structural section containing ducting, wiring, and the passenger airbag. That touchscreen is related to the infotainment system and will respond to gloved hands, unlike some fussier screens in home-use devices.
Leenarts chose to make the second-level housing a different color than the mostly black cockpit and to carry the light color across to the seat backrest cushions but not the headrests. The only other touch of color is rather subtle: The inner portion of the air-conditioning outlets is beryllium-colored, though
obviously not made from the actual metal, which is incredibly toxic. Those outlets, two to a side, are affixed to the doors, which pivot up and out when open, so ingress is enhanced but not necessarily easy.
When the doors open they carry away much of the lower bodywork, but that doesn’t mean you just slide your feet in to the floor. There is still the sill to surmount, and the seats are lower than it is. Getting in is an exercise, because unlike previous Ford GTs, there is no cutout in the roof. In the 2005-’06 car, you really needed three parking places to be able to fully open both doors. That goes away with this car in the interest of better structure and practicality, but ease of entry and egress was clearly not a major part of the program.
What was part of the program was making the car look like a Ford—headlamp clusters, hood outlets, and round taillights do that very well—and be worthy of what is now a long and honorable racing tradition that began with Henry Ford himself and flowered with Henry Ford II. The choice of a turbocharged V-6 with a reported 600 hp instead of a traditional V-8, and carbon fiber instead of steel or
aluminum, came to the stylist-designers from engineering. We think this GT is basically Ford’s head of
global product development Raj Nair’s car, conforming to a vision he sold to management and that the mechanical engineering and styling teams were able to execute.
They did so incredibly well, ultimately producing Automobile‘s Design of
1. Seen with the finned “cans” behind the lenses, the taillights look like something out of a 1930s Flash Gordon comic.
2. The “mustache” form in the rear is quite a bit more refined looking than the front one and integrates well into what is a very complex rear fascia.
3. The inside surface of the front fenders flows into a horizontal shelf on which the mirrors mount. The
hard line continues into the tunnel where it fades to nothing.
4. This apparently hanging panel recalls the original BMW i8 concept car … and some Formula 1 cars
as well. It directs cooling air toward the front wheels and brakes and rests on the black under-nose
extension as it wraps around the sides.
5. In June, I said, “This black band is the least attractive aspect of the overall design … a little thick and less refined than the rest of the car.” I still think so.
6. The grille texture is coarse, and the whole opening seems very big. But who knows? It could be necessary to provide sufficient cooling to the turbocharged engine.
7. In direct rear view, it is apparent that more than half the cross-sectional area is devoted to
extracting air and heat from within the form. Including exhaust outlets, there are 10 separate
outlets apart from the diagonal air tunnels. The empty spaces, the negative areas
of the tunnels, which are largely open-top trenches, lend a dramatic aspect to what is a
cohesive single form visually—a selection of disparate shapes tied together by blades.
8. The front part of the body is almost a perfect half-circle, but a tiny little “knee” establishes a “corner”
and links the front to previous Ford GTs. Subtle and clever.
9. Although the headlamp clusters are far from identical than those on past models,
they evoke the GT40 and the last GT, as do the radiator air outlets, similar in appearance
to the many variants used on different racing GT40s.
10. In this top view, it’s easy to see how abrupt and straight the through-body tunnels are.
11. Engine- and gearbox-cooling air is ingested at the leading edge of the rear fenders and passes into the wake through the taillights.
12. You can just see the taillights’ red rings peeking out of the body’s rear corners.
13. This relatively short-span wing rises up and forward when needed.
14. Proof of the designer’s artistry is seen in this side profile loop, which retains a graceful curve whether you look at it from straight above, from the side, or any combination of angles. This is really
hard to accomplish, and it was done perfectly.
15. The beryllium color inside the A/C duct throats is repeated on the right-hand infotainment
and airbag panel. Swinging up out of the way on the doors is a great idea.
16. The tachometer is a horizontal bar code, running from the blue light at idle to the red one at 7,000 rpm.
17. The triple zero on the right is the digital speedometer, which might very well be shut off in Track mode.
18. The touchscreen panel responds to gloved hands.
19. The light-colored nonstructural cover shields ducting and wiring. A cross-car structural beam sits at
20. Hole-filled gear-change paddles are purposefully oversized and turn with the wheel, so a driver can execute racing-style gear changes even when applying steering lock.
21. This is the only visible part of the structural transverse beam. The glare shield above is an
22. It might not be as full of knobs, buttons, and warning lamps as an F1 steering wheel,
but there’s a lot of information available, and there’s no need to take your hands away
from the wheel when you’re driving hard.
23. As in its immediate predecessor, the new GT’s door window has its highest point at
the intersection of the A-pillar and roof.
24. Even in true side view, the side loop retains an unbroken flowing line of great
25. Notice how rising lines on two separate surfaces complement and complete each other, providing sharp visual thrust to the profile.