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Everyone loves a secret, and Ford’s never-seen Ferrari challenger of the late ’80s acquired almost mythical status online after a single photo surfaced.
The story remained untold, until now.
The Blue Oval’s supercar started out on its doomed journey to oblivion in 1984, the same year that the Pininfarina-designed Honda NPX mid-engined show car began morphing into the NSX.
The first true Japanese supercar might have bested the Ferrari in road testers’ hands, but it was made in tiny numbers, just over 1000 units per year, with sales forever throttled by its Ferrari-like cost.
The sweet spot was – and still is – in the Porsche 944/Boxster and Chevrolet Corvette price point, where there is far higher volume and profit. This was an opportunity, and Ford’s product planners were the best in the business.
There was real money to be made in taking on Porsche, Corvette and Ferrari, instead of a Honda-like vanity project sold in penny numbers.
All Ford could muster was the Mustang, the original pony car that was limping along on just four cylinders, and those planners needed to aim far higher.
They reached out to Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations group (SVO), the US equivalent of the British Special Vehicle Engineering outfit that created the Capri 2.8 Injection and Sierra RS Cosworth.
SVO consisted of a 30-strong team of Detroit engineers, planners and marketeers led by Mike Kranefuss, Ford’s competitions manager, who had successfully campaigned the Cologne Capris against the BMW ‘Batmobiles’ a few years before moving Stateside.
He was a racer, unused to making road cars, but after his young engineers created the highly regarded Mustang SVO, it was clear they could move far faster than Ford’s huge, but lumbering, engineering team.
SVO was perfect for the job, a maverick group familiar with the external resources necessary to assemble a Ferrari rival to be sold at a Porsche 944/Chevy Corvette price.
Kranefuss’ team, aided by 46-year-old chief engineer Glen Lyall and abetted by 36-year-old planning/program manager Ronald Muccioli, leapt at the chance.
“For us it was more than a job and another product, it was our dream,” says Muccioli.
SVO took on the project, by then dubbed GN34, but to meet the brief and create something greater than just a Ford Corvette demanded styling and mid-engined engineering sophistication able to mix it with the Italians.
Muccioli and product planner Tom Smart identified the two longest-lead items needed to get the fastest Ford since the GT40 moving: a slinky body and a high-performance motor.
Engine choices were limited. SVO visited Lotus to examine teaming up on the next Esprit, but, to nobody’s surprise, Hethel had no defined plans.
Within Ford there was the Sierra RS Cosworth engine, but it was expensive and the harsh four-cylinder turbo would never be a Ferrari-slayer.
Ford’s nascent modular V8 was promising but too far off, and externally sourced units such as Porsche’s V8 were ruled out on cost grounds.
The standout option was Ford’s upcoming Super High Output quad-cam V6, then being designed with Yamaha for the high-performance Taurus SHO model.
Its 3-litre capacity could be expanded as needed, and it had a high-tech appeal beyond a V8. SVO lucked out: GN34 would use the Yamaha-Ford unit.
In spring 1984, Muccioli and Smart turned their attentions to the car’s styling.
None of Ford’s factories was geared up to make 20,000 specialist mid-engined cars per year, so they packed their bags and headed to Europe – the home of supercar suppliers and specialist manufacturers.
Heuliez in France was keen and even offered some speculative sketches, but once the SVO boys landed in Turin and visited Italdesign, it was clear that they had found a potential partner.
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s firm could not only style the vehicle, but also handle the body engineering necessary to facilitate production by a third party such as Heuliez or, the favoured option, Chausson.
It was perfect timing. The Italians were starting work on an Esprit-like show vehicle called Maya – no doubt hoping to win a Lotus contract to design its next flagship.
In March ’84, Italdesign cannily suggested that perhaps SVO might like to donate a V6 – for a six-figure sum – to power the Maya show car.
It was a genius move for both parties. The Ford-powered Maya jump-started the GN34 project with the credibility of one of the world’s best designers, who also got himself a new client and hopefully a large contract.
GN34 was moving so well, so fast, that it was inevitable things would swerve off the road. In July ’84, SVO presented its initial proposals to Ford CEO Don Petersen and other senior execs.
The mavericks at SVO had done their sums and calculated a significant profit, but had not been prepared for the reaction of Stuart Frey, then vice president of car product development.
He had been with Ford his entire career and knew the dangers of engineering a vehicle using external suppliers, especially one targeted at millionaires.
He set out his concerns: warranties, quality, safety and cost – in his opinion GN34 was too big a risk.
“Ultimately it was Stuart’s responsibility,” Muccioli recalls, “and he just did not believe that a handful of car nuts could pull it off when he had an army of engineers.”
To their horror, the SVO engineers were asked to examine alternative, cheaper options.
The Sierra was the right size, it handled well and was already being sold – with modest success – as the XR4Ti in North America.
SVO needed to think fast if it was to protect GN34 from being diluted into a rebodied family car. Italdesign, keen to keep SVO’s business, hurriedly built a full-sized foam model using Sierra hard points.
But politics were coming into play – surely Ford’s in-house Advanced Design group should design its flagship supercar? SVO couldn’t fight this particular battle, but it could be canny about winning the war.
Muccioli and Smart asked the Advanced Design studio to offer a submission based on a highly modified Sierra platform that sat the SHO V6 low in the chassis, as a third option to the mid-engined Maya and Italdesign’s Sierra-derived foam model.
SVO spent five months assembling the three concepts, which Smart labelled ‘Alternative 1’, ‘Alternative 2’ and ‘Alternative 3’, and comparing their relative appeal to: a sporty BMW (1); a Porsche 944 (2); and a Ferrari (3).
The trio of GN34s – two Sierra-based and the Maya show car – were lined up in December ’84.
SVO won the day and was granted its wish to proceed with a mid-engined car to take on the Ferrari 308/328.
It was given just 10 months to come back to the board with a finished design for Program Approval – the all- important point in Ford’s process when cheques start being written for tooling.
The programme was back on track, but SVO had its work cut out during 1985 if GN34 was to reach buyers by 1989. Italdesign had been contracted to do more than just style the car.
Now the programme was once more proceeding down the mid-engined route, the Italians built a prototype named Maya EM (M for muletto, or mule) with a simplified Maya body over more thoroughly engineered mechanicals to give an approximation of how the car would perform in the hands of no lesser a test driver than former F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart.
The mechanical layout was well under way, but a bigger battle loomed: what was it to look like?
Italdesign built another full-sized model, the Maya II ES (S for styling) that was far more refined than the earlier, Lotus-like show car.
This superb-looking machine featured sheer-sided, Germanic purity of line with the profile of an Italian exotic. But now it had competition, because the rest of Ford was well aware of the GN34 project.
Ford Design VP Don Kopka instructed the Detroit-based Advanced Design team to offer a submission, and another came from Ford’s Ghia studio in Turin.
Now there were four GN34s: the muletto and, by August 1985, the three alternative styling proposals from Italdesign, Ghia and Advanced Design.
The full-sized models, near-indistinguishable from a real car, were lined up in Ford’s massive design showroom, from which two survivors were selected for market-research testing.
Italdesign’s Maya II ES was the one to fall, leaving the Lamborghini-like Detroit proposal to face off against Ghia’s submission, which had all the glamour of a Ferrari 308.
These two remaining proposals were shown to a selection of Ferrari, Corvette and Porsche owners in Los Angeles in late ’85.
They adored Ghia’s slinky design, estimating that it would cost the same as a Ferrari. Even when it was revealed as a Ford, they still assumed it would be priced above the planned 944/Corvette level.
Things were looking good, and the project was approved.
Ghia’s design was tweaked and polished, just before hundreds of engineers were about to be deployed on GN34 during 1986.
More prototypes were made: an SHO V6-powered, Escort-based mule, plus two modified De Tomaso Panteras built by Jack Roush Engineering using the production-spec chassis designed by Canewdon Consultants in Essex – one with a SHO V6 and the other with a tuned V8 driving through a ZF transaxle.
This most international supercar of all – American-inspired, Italian-styled, assembled in France, with a British chassis and Japanese engine technology powering through a German gearbox – was on the brink of production.
But in July 1986 the axe fell dramatically.
The American dollar had been devalued by 20% against the French franc that year and the car’s profitability was suddenly marginal. A decision had to be made.
Ford’s execs needed to choose between a supercar sold in the tens of thousands, or funding another project that would sell in the millions.
Bob Lutz, heading up the Ford Truck Division in North America, was proposing a four-door Bronco – something his team termed a Sport Utility Vehicle.
The numbers won and SVO lost. The dream of fighting Ferrari was dashed, and Ford’s Explorer helped the firm ride a wave of profitability through the 1990s.
Ford’s brain said the Explorer was the way to go, but the pony-car maker’s heart still pounded for a tussle with the Prancing Horse.
Ford took another shot in the early 2000s with a reprise of the GT40 in modern form, but, unlike GN34, it cost three times as much as a Boxster or ’Vette.
The bullseye – Ferrari appeal at a Corvette price – remains as elusive today as it ever was.
Mules slip from Blue Oval’s grasp
Remarkably, the two Pantera-based mules built by Jack Roush Engineering survive not in Ford’s museum, but in the Roush Collection in Livonia, Michigan.
The black car (below) is close to the final Ghia design and features a tuned Windsor small-block V8 to simulate the power of the upcoming 4.6-litre, dohc modular unit.
In contrast, the red car (above) is powered by the 3-litre ‘Super High Output’ V6 that was intended for launch. The Yamaha-designed, Ford-assembled unit originally made 227bhp, but as GN34 put on weight a 3.6-litre, 280bhp version was developed.
Images: Ford Archive
The GN34 features in Steve Saxty’s Secret Fords Volume Two. C&SC readers can get a 15% discount by using the code C&SC15, or get free UK shipping on the two-volume compendium. Find out more at www.stevesaxty.com.
Back to the future with Ford’s Probe concepts