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Finance, focus, and the fate of Ford's Special Vehicle Team

By Paul Lienert / Special to Autos Insider

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Just as General Motors and the Chrysler Group are ramping up their performance vehicle operations, I get the impression that Ford's own in-house performance group, the vaunted Special Vehicle Team, is in danger of losing its autonomy and focus.

Worse still, replacements for SVT's core products, the Mustang Cobra and the F-150 Lightning, are months behind schedule, leaving a potentially embarrassing gap in Ford's performance-vehicle lineup. Even if everything goes right, the next-generation Lightning probably won't reach dealerships until model year 2006, while the next-generation Cobra may not hit the street until model year 2007--a year later than planned for both products.

And the next-generation SVT Focus? May not even happen, according to the speculation among suppliers.

Chalk up some of the pain to Dearborn's continuing financial crunch. Even SVT's relatively modest $35 million annual budget is coming under the scrutiny of the corporate cost cutters. Why not absorb SVT into the larger Ford Performance Group--which makes truck bedliners, among other products--and let the regular engineering group take over development of the SVT vehicles? goes one internal argument.

Why not indeed?

I'm old enough to remember fiascos like the ill-planned and poorly executed Merkur strategy to give Lincoln-Mercury dealers a "performance import" brand. I also recall more than a few tepid attempts to create "performance niche products" over the past thirty years. Is it just a coincidence that the best and most effective of these models were done when Ford had strong product guys in positions of power--guys like Lee Iacocca and Bob Lutz?

Despite its recent hiccups, including chronic engine problems with the Cobra, SVT deserves credit over the past decade for developing some of the most solid go-fast street hardware in the company's 100-year history. I've driven everything in the current SVT lineup, and it's an impressive range, particularly the SVT Focus hatchbacks, which pack an astonishing amount of power and entertainment into an inexpensive package.

Ford previewed the next SVT Lightning in January at the Detroit show and hinted that it would trail the introduction of the new F-150 by about a year. In the flesh and on paper, it looks pretty terrific. Except that suppliers are now saying that development work has yet to begin in earnest, and the truck could be delayed until late 2004 or early 2005, if not longer.

The next Cobra is in more serious straits. We began hearing rumblings last December that Team Mustang was going through the S197--the DEW98-based replacement for the current Mustang that is scheduled to begin production in fall 2004. Suppliers say the Mustang product planners, in an effort to shave piece costs, began gutting the DEW chassis. The independent rear suspension was the first thing to go, replaced by a solid axle. Then the front end reverted to a strut-type setup. All of a sudden, this new "modern" Mustang was beginning to look an awful lot like the current car, which is based on the aging Fox platform that dates to the Seventies and the old Ford Fairmont.

Problem is, a stripped-down chassis like this is no platform for a Cobra in sophistication, handling capability, ride quality, or the ability to handle 400-plus horsepower. So SVT now faces the gargantuan--and expensive--task of re-engineering a new IRS for the next Cobra.

Likewise, a normally aspirated 5.0-liter version of the 4.6-liter "mod" V-8 that was planned for the new Cobra reportedly has fallen victim to the cost cutters and is likely to be replaced by a supercharged 4.6, which undoubtedly will be heavier and more complex, not to mention just as expensive as the 5.0.

Vendors tell me that very little development work has been done on a replacement for the SVT Focus, even though the successor to the regular Focus is due to reach the market late next year. So even if SVT does manage to find the budget, don't expect the next-generation model to commence production before 2006-07.

I can't help but wonder if SVT would have been better protected if its last patron, Neil Ressler, hadn't taken early retirement. Ressler is still working as a consultant to Ford but is no longer in a position to provide air cover for the good folks at SVT.

In more ways than one, his departure could prove to be not just Ford's loss, but GM's and Chrysler's very real gain.

You can reach Paul Lienert at [email protected]
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