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The Shelby GR-1 Unveiled: Ford Delivers Awesome, Beautiful Performance Art
By Andrew Gardner; photos by the author
Sep 22, 2004, 04:33 PST
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This is Ford's "Celebration of Performance Art." The title is significant to the idea of the concept car Ford just unveiled, and the realization of that idea behind this car is significant to Ford.


There was a physical line, drawn in cars, which pointed to a black cloth that had been drawn over a sexy coupe. A 289 F.I.A. racing-spec Cobra and a Cobra Daytona Coupe started the line, providing the basis for this chronologically oriented display of high-performance Ford-powered products. Next came the Ford GT40, the repeat Le Mans winner. Those first three cars were racing machines campaigned under the legendary Carroll Shelby's keen eye. Carroll was responsible for giving Ford international racing achievement, which included slapping around Enzo Ferrari on his home turf, back in the 1960's.


The history of Shelby and Ford: Overall Le Mans winning prototype racer GT40 Mk II, 1965 F.I.A. GT World Championship winning Daytona Coupe, and the F.I.A. 289 Roadster


This car line then jumps to modern day, starting with the new Mustang, then the Mustang GT-R show car - which sounds like a wicked Trans Am racer. Then the GT, Ford's modern re-design of the GT40 racecar, and their prized supercar.


Camillo Pardo, leaning against the Ford GT he designed.


And finally we have the Cobra concept, which was built on the Ford GT platform. The Cobra concept was one of the stars of the 2004 Detroit auto show, and a sort of gift to Carroll Shelby.


If Shelby put his name on it, you know this is the real deal.


There exists a trend in that line, a link between old and new, and between Shelby and Ford. This trend, the history, and the hard work of Ford this year, all came together as J Mays, Ford's Group V.P. of Design, stood in front of that covered up concept, saying "This is a gift to Mr. Shelby."


And there it was, a bold and sexy coupe, a piece of modern performance art. It was American, and yet it also seemed very European. It definitely had some of the Cobra Daytona Coupe in it, and the Daytona design had a European feel to it, so this perception is fitting. It was, it is, the Shelby GR-1, a great gift to 'ole Shel.


Carroll Shelby and his wife Cleo, and J Mays, havin a good time, and standing in front of Ford's "performance art" gift to Mr. Shelby


In the mild Pebble Beach evening, under auto show-style lighting, stood a gray car; gray just like the triumvirate of the Ford GT, Mustang, and Cobra concept which made a bold front for Ford's "year of the car" celebration at this year's Detroit auto show. The trio looked, especially in that color, as if they had been milled from the same block of Detroit steel, and so does the GR-1.


Except the GR-1 is better. The GT looks to any uninformed passer-by just like the GT40 Mk II; the lines are new, it is a Camillo Pardo original design, but it looks so much the same under a non-scrutinous glance. The 2005 Mustang is also a largely recycled design. The Cobra concept moved one step further by making a notably more modern design statement based on the original Cobra (there is also European influence in this design; the Cobra bodies and chassis were built in England by AC Cars, then shipped to Shelby for modification). This modern interpretation is not Ford's prettiest work; it seems to need some freshening.



The GR-1 is Ford design done right. Designers took the concept of a high performance GT car, or racecar - as in the Daytona Coupe - and made it modern. It is not a duplicate of anything (Peter Brock, designer of the original coupe, has already done a modernization of the design with kit car manufacturer Superformance), although it certainly pays homage to its Ford/Shelby heritage. As Chris Theodore, Ford's V.P. of Advanced Product Creation said, it is a "wink and a nod at the past." And it is the darn sexiest thing to ever wear a Ford badge.


So how did this car come to be? Well, J Mays and Chris Theodore had talked about wanting to do a GT coupe. Young designer George Saridakis, in Ford's small Irvine, California design studio, had seen the platform for the Cobra concept ?essentially the Ford GT's solid aluminum chassis with a rearward cabin and a monster 6.1-liter V10. He thought, "well, what can I do with this?" 



Saridakis came to Mays around September with this design, and Mays said, "this is it. Don't fix it, let's go straight to clay"


J was very happy. He said "we have 1400 designers worldwide, but a design like this comes along once every ten years." Or more. This is really not a car anybody would have seen coming from Ford; performance art is not a title many people would associate with the Ford brand - but I hope this is something Ford sees going into production. This car can compete, not only in performance but also in visual-based desirability, with Europe's best high performance automobiles.  



It is sexy and European. Mr. Mays says this might be because of the European blood and culture coursing through the veins and minds of its designers. J himself, though American, spent a lot of time in Europe before coming to work for Ford in America. Henrik Fisker, who runs the Irvine design studio where this car was created, is Danish. And the designer (Saridakis) is half Greek and half Scottish. Those three do, however, prefer to describe this car as sensuous.



When given the opinion that the GR-1 was tough, as if carved from a solid block of steel, J Mays said, "I'm glad you said that. I couldn't have said it better myself." The nose of the car is bold; the hood line meets the fender in a sharp crease, and the headlights look like narrowed eyes. Flat surfaces on the doors, which meet with a sharp intersection, appear sheared from a solid metal piece.



More of this demeanor was created as a result of lowering the hood. As Saridakis recalls, "we wanted the Daytona look," which required a low bonnet line. This low hood conflicted with their desire to use that monstrous V10 from the Cobra concept. So Saridakis put bulges in the hood to accommodate the V10's intake plenum. Those bulges ruin the smoothness of the hood, but they make the car look much better and tougher, they speak of great power, of an engine more powerful than this car can handle, but that was stuffed in anyway. The bulges look like the flared nostrils of a bull.


J Mays explained that the GR-1's design can be summed up in three lines; but Henrik Fisker showed me. Mr. Fisker seems a very reserved gentleman, in manner and in dress, but he really comes alive when he starts talking about design. His enthusiasm was apparent as he walked me around the car with steps, with words, and with sweeping motions of his hands. Mr. Fisker took the pad and pen from my hands, and drew what you see below:


From the pen of Henrik Fisker


The topmost line is the roofline, which flows smoothly to the rear, where it is chopped off into a Kamm tail. This roofline Saridakis drew last year is one of the key design cues drawn from the Daytona Coupe, and was made partly, as he said, "out of aerodynamic necessity." Mr. Saridakis may be taken seriously on aerodynamic matters, as he received an aeronautical engineering degree from Glasgow University before moving on to the Royal College of Art in London to obtain his masters in design.


The profile highlights the GR-1's Cobra Daytona Coupe heritage: low hood, teardrop shape in the rear, and abrupt Kamm tail


Henrik says that roofline gives the GR-1 a sexy teardrop shape at the rear - almost sounds like a Talbot Lago. And the Kamm tail -an aerodynamic design in which a smooth roofline is suddenly sheered off to reduce drag - was studied decades ago by Pete Brock and incorporated into his design, the Cobra Daytona Coupe, the GR-1's main source of heritage.



The next line Mr. Fisker drew on my pad is the fender line, which starts at the nose, and continues through the headlamps to the front of the rear fender. He led my eyes along this line with his left hand, and the fender line seemed to become more accentuated. The fenders, front and rear, make this car hot. They are quite well done.


Finally, there was the centerline, or the "bone line" as Henrik called it. This line separated the tougher under side from the more sensuous upper.



Henrik said that getting the lines, getting the proportions correct, was like "putting the sex into the car. I want people to walk up to this car and say "I gotta have this, it's so sexy." And that goes for everyone. Henrik, in overseeing Saradakis' design, wanted to ensure that even those who are not into cars could appreciate the car; the design just had to flat out work.


Mmmmmm, gotta love those curvy hips


In addition to the car's lines, Henrik discussed the sculpture of the automobile, fitting for a celebration of performance art. He stated: "a sketch is like a proposal for a dream." The sculpture, the clay model, then, is how you make the dream take the form of reality. Mr. Fisker was pleased to say that the sketch was clearly visible in the car - the dream had been realized.


Getting close enough to taste that curvy hip/fender.


The sculpting of the clay is key to actually seeing what the car will look like as a 3 dimensional object, not just as lines on paper. The designers spent much time laboring in clay to perfect the GR-1, and the time put in certainly shows. This is a fabulous product with great detail and athletic curviness I have not seen in a Ford product since the original GT40s (I am not counting the GT just for its lack of originality in design as compared to the GR-1), certainly not in anything intended to be a consumer street car. Henrik highlighted the volume of the side section and the bulbous rear fenders as particularly successful results of the clay work. Those rear fenders especially carry a lot of sex appeal: big, curvy, smooth metal sections draped over the wheels in proportions that seem simultaneously taught and generous. The rear view is fantastically attractive, as he noted, a pinnacle of Ford's performance art creation. This car is all sexy muscle; you'd better have your libido in check if you plan to walk closely by.


Henrik Fisker, head of Ford's Irvine, CA design studio, said "I want people to walk up to this car and say I gotta have this, its so sexy.?>


Henrik made this all rather quite clear quickly during his reserved yet passionate discussion of the GR-1; my few minutes with him Thursday night was perhaps my favorite event of this whole car-crazed weekend on the Monterey Peninsula.


Standing quite quietly in the crowd, often next to other people yet noticeably by himself, was a short young man with a gentle demeanor, a soft voice and a shaven head. This was Mr. Saridakis, whose gifted hand was responsible for penning this car.


George emphasized that he saw this car as "an exercise in minimal form. It is an execution of the surface over the chassis." Again, the bulges in the hood where the V10 could not be contained come to mind.



Young Mr. Saridakis continued to say he labored to perfect "the wheel to body relation; getting the right cabin position, getting the form language right on this car; verything works around the wheel arches." And everything simply works.


Another look at on of those sexy fenders


As for the European influences in the car's design, George said  "I have a great affinity for Italian cars. I love a [Ferrari] 250 Short Wheelbase, or a front engine Aston Martin." Those long-hooded, curvy proportions are evident in the GR-1. And there you have it, Italian and English influences, from the mouth of the Scottish-Greek pen who drew the car.



Interestingly, to discuss possible Aston Martin influences, the outline of the rear, where the fenders and roofline meet the tail, looks decidedly Aston Martin. When questioned about this feature, Mr. Fisker reasoned it was just a coincidence, the result of the form of those fenders and the roofline all coming together. So much for a great discovery in hidden design cues. What matters is that it looks great, and does add sophistication to this Ford design.


And Mr. Saridakis never offered that this car should look anything but Ford. He said the GR-1 was supposed to be a "bad ass American."



So Ford built an awesome Cobra concept: a rip-roaring engine dropped onto a great chassis. But the design was not up to the caliber of the under workings. It was too heavily reflective of the original Cobra, and yet it was much less sexy - too harsh, too tough.


Now they have the right idea - the same platform, including the transaxle, but much sexier, and a far more original design. This is really significant for Ford; I honestly do not remember a better original design, or a better design period, from the blue oval. The duality between pure, raw American power and sophisticated, voluminous, curvy sexiness normally attributed to European cars is stunning. The concentrated sensuousness and the toughness separated by that bone line meet to make one awesome design. Those hood bulges, better design cues than a more traditional American hot-rodder style scoop, and those make-you-weak-in-the-knees sexy rear fenders combine for one excellent display of performance art. This is the silver ticket.


We ought to expect, out of two concepts based on the same platform within one year (the development periods even overlapped somewhat), that Ford will build one of them. J Mays speculated that with the Ford GT at $120,000, and the next Mustang Cobra probably coming in at $45,000, a well-powered Shelby GR-1 would fit in nicely between the two, perhaps at around $80,000, Porsche 911 territory. And with the power to run circles around anything in that price range.


Is there any question as to the proper course of action here? BUILD THE COUPE, BOYS.


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