Backstory: How a Petunia bloomed into the Ford GT

Ford GT CP-1 will be offered up for bidding at Barrett-Jackson's Connecticut auction | Barrett-Jackson photos
Ford GT CP-1 will be offered up for bidding at Barrett-Jackson’s Connecticut auction | Barrett-Jackson photos

Automaker mergers were all the rage in the late 1990s. Daimler-Benz absorbed Chrysler in 1998 and a few months later, Ford acquired Volvo. Believe it or not, one result was the Ford GT, the supercar that celebrated Ford’s centennial and whch has become an increasingly valuable collector car.

One of the most important of those GTs — Confirmation Prototype 1 — will cross the block later this month at Barrett-Jackson’s inaugural New England auction. You can read the Countdown to Barrett-Jackson story today for details; in this story, I’ll share the backstory of the GT program and CP1, as based on research for my book, Ford GT: The Legend Comes to Life (published in 2004 by Motorbooks).

While Daimler taking control of Chrysler might seem to have nothing to do with the Ford GT, the fact is that one result of that takeover was Chris Theodore’s return to Ford. Theodore had begun his automotive engineering career at Ford, but then went to Detroit Diesel and from there moved to American Motors, which is how he ended up at Chrysler, where he helped develop the Dodge Viper (and where he was secretly doing sketches of a sports car with its engine behind, not in front of the driver).

Theodore left Chrysler soon after its takeover and returned to Ford, where he quickly became vice president for advanced product creation for North America. Thus early in 1999 he was on a corporate flight to Sweden with Richard Parry-Jones, Ford’s global product development chief and J Mays, head of Ford design. With the airplane to themselves, they could talk freely. At some point, the subject of their conversation was the potential for a world-class, mid-engine sports car.

Parry-Jones liked the idea. He was a teenager in his native England and was “glued to the radio” when Ford first took its GT40 to Le Mans in 1964. He was listening again two years later when Ford beat Ferrari to win the 24 Hour race.

“For me this is very engrained, and very important history,” Parry-Jones told me when I was working on the book. “Events from the early years in your life influence things you do later in life.”

Things such as creating an exotic sports car.

CP-1 still carries  special engineering controls and instructions
CP-1 still carries special engineering controls and instructions

“So by this time (as the airplane flies toward Sweden) I’ve got my feet under the table as the head of product development,” Parry-Jones said, “and I’ve got an itch that won’t go away and the itch is that we really do have to do something to pay homage to the honor and to celebrate the GT40, so I began to think about when would we want to do that and wouldn’t it be nice to have it around to celebrate the centennial.”

Both Mays and Theodore were sketching as the trio talked. Other key Ford folks were brought into the project and clay models were being sculpted not long after the airplane had returned to Dearborn.

To keep such work secret during its design and development stages, automakers often assign a codename to the project.

“What are you working on, Charlie?” a friend or even a co-worker might ask.

The answer might be a series of letters and numbers or, as in the case of the Ford GT, it was the name of a flower: “Petunia.” The name came from Neil Ressler, who was in addition to being a nuclear physicist and Ford’s chief technical officer, a master gardener.

Petunia, perhaps as common a flower as there is. Certainly nothing special about a project called Petunia.

Fred Goodnow, who would serve as chief engineer for the Ford GT, remembered other Ford staffers assuming that Petunia “was some little (compact) car for South America or something like that.”

However, he added, “We had our own secret little (design and engineering) studio for two years. Nobody found out. It was fantastic!”

So was the car they created.

3 thoughts on “Backstory: How a Petunia bloomed into the Ford GT”

  1. I owned the car built from the tub of the original Lola gt. i bought it from Serenissima’s storehouse overseen by Nello Ugolini in the early ’70s. Alf Francis got it as a gift from Broadley’s back garden. It had the last remaining engine before Alf’s (I think) design; there were 2 crated engines that Ugolini wouldn’t sell, although I never offered him a price–I didn’t know how to do that in those days. It had a gearbox that Alf said Jimmy Clark had at Indy as a spare. The rear bodywork was never completed. We built a plenum manifold and bolted a Carter 4-barrel on it and it ran fine. I made the mistake of selling it to Alf instead of a lifetime $1 lease and within a year he’d lost it along with the alloy-bodied Pegaso spider I sold him at the same time

  2. The project wasn’t all flowers and gardens. One day in mid-2001, Camilo Pardo (Ford GT Chief Designer) called me to ask for my ’66 Ford GT. I learned from Camilo that through several styling iterations his team so far lost its way in styling that he had no way back to the spirit of the GT40, which Mays had tasked him to capture. Mays, so discouraged with the results to date, laid down the gauntlet to Camilo, “…fix this mess in 30 days or else!” Hence, Camilo’s request of use of my GT. Once in the design studio in Dearborn, my GT provided the physical template that allowed the team to get back on track and ultimately create what became the 2004 – 2006 Ford GT. Once the 30 days passed, my car was returned. You might say, “but what of the powder blue GT40 that appears in several period promotional/press photos?” That was one of the GT40s (along with mine) that participated in the Ford 100 Years of Racing celebration at Greenfield Village in October 2001. Camilo met the owner, the owner accepted Camilo’s offer to store the car in Dearborn over the winter, and the owner allowed Ford to use it as they saw fit. The press photography process didn’t start until much after my GT40 had been returned and the Greenfiled Vilage event had passed, so all you’ll ever see in the press and promo photos in reference to the original GT40 is the powder blue car. Had it not been for my GT40 sitting in the design studio one day while Camilo and his team were milling about behind it scratching their heads over where to go next with the clay, they would not have discovered the singular design element of the original car that was the very key to solving their puzzle, the puzzle piece that led to the ultimate styling of the 2004-2006 Ford GT!

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