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Story and photography by Jack Baruth

What if you built a five-hundred-horsepower ponycar… and nobody noticed? Worse yet, what if you built a five-hundred-and-forty-horsepower limited-edition ponycar that is really closer to a six-hundred-horsepower limited-edition ponycar… and nobody gave you any credit? Well, today we’re going to give credit where credit was due. Three months ago, we had the pleasure of meeting some of the people behind Ford’s SVT division, learning about some of the cars which have figured prominently in the recent history of fast Fords, and experiencing a GT500KR development mule around a top-secret test track. Due to technical difficulties (in other words, the race-related breakage of our crummy old DV camera) it’s taken a while to bring you this stuff, but we’re hoping it will be worth your wait.


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“This can’t be the place.” On my third trip through the anonymous Detroit-area office park indicated by our navigation system, I started to wonder if I’d been set up. It seemed unlikely that SVT personnel would really be willing to meet with us the day before a holiday weekend, and even more unlikely that we’d find them in a place that looked more like vision of exurbian hell. Block after block of identical-looking drab brick buildings, each less promising that the last…

…and then we rounded a corner and saw them. Three cars that would cause any fast-car fan in the world to tap his brakes for a better look. A Mustang Cobra R racer-for-the-road, a “Heritage”-themed Ford GT, and a blood-red GT500 King of the Road. We wouldn’t be the last people to stop dead in the middle of the access road to look at them; during our interviews with SVT honchos later in the day, we’d periodically have to stop thanks to cars “buzzing” the lot.

Everybody knows how the SVT story started, from the original five-liter Cobra and Lightning pickup through the beloved SVT Focus and “Terminator” Cobra, but as of late Ford’s skunkworks has found itself working behind the scenes and letting others take the credit. The Ford GT supercar that shocked the world, humbled the Ferrari 360 Modena, and found fans as diverse as Jay Leno to Jeremy Clarkson? Straight from the pens and computer screens of SVT engineers. The “Shelby” GT500 Mustang that stole our hearts in the Imaginary Internet Millionaire Test? Ol’ Shel may have applied the snake oil, but the hard work was done at SVT. Fancy yourself a bit of Steve McQueen retro action with a Mustang Bullitt? The suspension tuning is courtesy of SVT… which means that the new “Track Pack” 2010 Mustang will also have some of that SVT magic. How about the “Shelby-tuned” GT500KR super-Stang that’s twisting dynos to the tune of 510 rear-wheel horsepower? Yup, SVT again.


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The arrival of the SVT “Raptor” off-road truck means that the men from Detroit’s most anonymous brick building are once again on the world stage, but make no mistake: SVT never stopped engineering fast Fords. We interviewed three of SVT’s finest: Chief Nameplate Engineer Jamal Hameedi, Chief Vehicle Engineer Kerry Baldori, and Errol Flynn lookalike Eric Zinkovsky, famous in Ford circles for designing the 1999 Cobra’s bolt-in independent rear suspension. The video of our interview with Mr. Hameedi is below: the aforementioned technical difficulties prevented us from bringing you the others, so take our word for it that we were all promised free GT500KRs.


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We started our odyssey through SVT history with the 5.4-liter Cobra R, which is still capable of providing a visual shock today. Few production cars have looked as race-ready as the second Cobra R — the first one was a Fox-platform ‘Stang appearing right at the end of that platform’s production life — and the car’s performance made good on the promise of the looks. The “Rough Rider” – derived heads combined with a taller block and longer stroke to deliver 385 naturally-aspirated horsepower. While the Cobra R was a limited-production vehicle with a price that made it more of a curiosity for the average Mustang fan, the aggressive look and top-shelf equipment served as a preview of the supercharged “Terminator” Cobra to come.


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The Ford GT proved the truth of the saying that “Success has many fathers”, with everyone from line workers to Steve Saleen claiming to be the driving force behind the mid-engined supercharged supercar, but much of the heavy lifting was done by SVT personnel. SVT’s current Chief Nameplate Engineer, Jamal Hameedi, was the “bean counter” behind the Ford GT project and he detailed for us the effort required to build a car that would be rarer, faster, and cheaper than a Ferrari 360 Modena.


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For the GT, SVT took the existing 5.4-liter modular V8 and supercharged it to five hundred and fifty horsepower, then placed it in a state-of-the-art chassis with comfort and handling to shame the Lola-based original. A brief ride in the “Heritage” GT was noticeable for just how normal the car seems. The A/C works, the stereo is good, the switchgear is exotic-looking but still put together with the care of a regular production car.


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Last but far from least was a pair of GT500KRs: the “Red Dragon” production car that ripped around the Ford test track in our SVT Preview, and a production GT500KR to examine up close and personal. It’s difficult not to feel skeptical about the KR, and plenty of journalists have yielded to the temptation to write it off as an eighty-thousand-dollar fleecing of Ford’s most sheep-like customers. What could possibly make a Mustang worth as much as a Z06 Corvette?

Our test-track thrash provided some of the potential answers to that question. To begin with, the KR is very, very powerful. Independent dyno tests have confirmed that most of the cars are developing nearly six hundred horsepower at the crank — more than the Ford GT and more than any Corvette besides the ZR1. It’s also very stout, accepting eighty-mile-per-hour launches into the air at Ford’s track time and time again without so much as a whimper. But this is more than a tuner special: SVT spent countless development hours perfecting the KR’s suspension balance and component choice. A complex carbon-fiber hood tops off the big-money Shelby, while bespoke Alcoa wheels and unique-compound Goodyear F1 Supercar tires are an effective way to reduce lap times still further.


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It’s difficult not to feel a bit of frustration at the way Ford has chosen to market their fastest Mustangs. The SVT brand has tremendous resonance with younger Blue Oval enthusiasts, but the GT500 and GT500KR are sold first and foremost as Shelby products. One wonders if it wouldn’t be a better idea to let SVT claim these fantastic ponycars as their own; it would certainly be a defiant statement that Ford values the next generation of Mustang enthusiasts as much as the previous one. A supercharged, track-focused Mustang with the non-retro visual menace of the 2003 SVT Cobra would be a welcome departure from the current tape-and-stripe business. At the very least, it should be possible to buy a car more or less mechanically identical to the GT500 but with the visual design of the Bullitt.


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Our day concluded with a teaser trip to see some covered-up prototypes and a brief discussion about the future of SVT. In addition to the Raptor, there’s going to be another “Shelby” performance Mustang based on the 2010 model. A “two-model” strategy means that we probably won’t see any SVT Foci or Ecoboost Fusion six-speeds (“and tell whoever started that rumor to stop” was the gruff but winking comment from an SVT engineer) in the near future. Nor will there be a normally-aspirated SVT Mustang for the affordable-performance crowd, at least not officially. SVT will continue with their policy of only providing the top-performing model in each vehicle line, so in other words, as long as there’s a Shelby supercharged Mustang, there won’t be an SVT normally-aspirated car. Still, when you take a look under a Bullitt, and then examine the specs of the 2010 “Track Pack” Mustang, it’s clear that somebody’s let a little bit of SVT engineering slip out from under the snake-oil car cover.


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We’re hoping to drive the 2010 GT500 successor as soon as it’s ready. In the meantime, SVT fans are invited to watch our long and detailed interview with Jamal Hameedi below. The best news yet from SVT isn’t necessarily the Raptor truck; it’s Ford’s clear commitment to keeping the best and brightest engineers working on exciting prospects despite the many challenges facing the domestic auto industry at the moment. Here’s hoping there are plenty of SVT cars and trucks to come!


Our on-air talent, NASA HPDE driver and actual “Fast and Furious” extra Mark Mitias, talks to Jamal Hameedi about the Cobra R, the Heritage GT, and the GT500KR.

            

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Jack Baruth

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