Backstory: How a Petunia bloomed into the Ford GT

Backstory: How a Petunia bloomed into the Ford GT

Automaker mergers were all the rage in the late 1990s.

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.

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