Ford Almost Made a Mid-Engine Ferrari Fighter in the 1980s. Here’s What Happened

Forget the movie and forget Ford’s 2016 Le Mans success. Back in the 1980s, the Blue Oval wanted to take on Ferrari on the road. And very nearly did.

byNeil BriscoeDec 6, 2021 1:53 PM
Ford Almost Made a Mid-Engine Ferrari Fighter in the 1980s. Here’s What Happened
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You think you know the stories. You’ve probably seen the movie, the one where Jason Bourne makes a racing car for Batman, and together the two of them—and a small family firm called Ford—head out to humble the Italian giant, Ferrari, on the world’s race tracks. 

Or, if you’re a little younger and maybe don’t watch anything that’s not on YouTube, you might be aware that, more recently, Ford decided to stop making pickups and family crossovers for five minutes, and created the pavement-scraping GT supercar. In 2016—and absolutely, definitely, no question without any assistance from the rule-makers—the Ford GT went to Le Mans and, on the 50th anniversary of that first 24-hour win, swept all before it in the GTE category of the great French classic.

So you know the story of Ford versus Ferrari, or indeed, both of the stories. What if there was another, though? What if there was an untold tale, a story spoken only in hushed tones and half-truths in the geekiest corners of the internet? A story where Ford—and this would be the mid-1980s Ford—wanted to take on Ferrari, not merely on a French race track for 24 hours, but on the road. In the showroom. In the hearts and wallets of the world’s sports car buyers. 

This is the story of the tragically never-built Ford GN34—a mass-market, mid-engine performance coupe—as detailed in a new book called Secret Fords Volume Two by author Steve Saxty.

The Man With the Details

Saxty is himself ex-Ford—he worked in the company’s European design office in the 1980s before moving on to marketing roles with the likes of Mazda, Jaguar, and Porsche. This is not his first Ford book rodeo—he’s previously authored The Cars You Always Promised Yourself and Secret Fords Volume One. Both books take you behind the scenes of Ford’s European car design and development programs in the 1970s and 1980s, showing you the blind design and engineering alleys which carmakers must travel before arriving at a finished product. 

Pictured: Steve Saxty., Steve Saxty

Now, Saxty has written Secret Fords Volume Two, which covers the development of the likes of the original Focus, the mighty Escort Cosworth, and a stalled project that pretty much no one outside of Ford has heard of before—a car that would have taken on everything from the Pontiac Fiero, original Acura NSX, to even Ferraris.

‘Let’s Completely Screw the Market’

The call came a few years ago when Saxty was still working on Secret Fords Volume Two.

“I was up in Maine, way out in the middle of the New England nowhere,” Saxty tells me, his crisp British accent wrapping its way around American sounds. “We were out getting groceries, and the phone rings while I’m in the parking lot. I pick up and this voice at the other end booms: ‘It’s Ron Muccioli here, and I’ve got Tom Scott with me.’ Ron and Tom had been put on to me by John Coletti…”

Let’s take a moment and pick up on those names. Ron Muccioli was Ford’s program planning manager for 16 years from 1979 to 1995 and had been attached to the legendary Special Vehicle Operations—SVO—team. Tom Scott was a senior planner, working with Muccioli. And John Coletti? Coletti is the nigh-legendary, one-time head of Ford’s Special Vehicle Team—SVT—and would be responsible for the likes of the Focus SVT, the F-150 Lightning (not the electric one), and would be largely in charge of the 2003 revival of the Ford GT. He’s also credited as being the man who saved the Mustang, back in the early ‘80s, at a time when Ford was seriously considering killing off its beloved, but then rather tarnished, pony car. 

“So this is the team that would eventually revive the Mustang,” Saxty continues. “But before that, in 1985, they’re all in their 30s, full of confidence, and their thinking is ‘Let’s take on Ferrari.’ The rest of Ford’s response, in a corporate sense, is just to say, ‘No—go and do a faster Escort, or a faster Thunderbird, or a faster Continental.’ But then this team got the backing of Michael Kranefuss, who’d been head of Ford Motorsports and was very influential.”

More than that, the Ferrari-baiting team had Ford’s planning department onside. As Saxty describes it, you can design and engineer a car all you want, but if it’s not got the backing of the “master puppeteers” (his words, not mine) of the planning department behind it, it’s going nowhere. What the planners found was precisely where all of the sales and profit in the so-called G-segment was. 

Within that G-segment—which encompassed everything from a lowly Toyota MR2 to a wild Lamborghini Countach—was the sweet spot (and, incidentally, remains) in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. At the time, that segment was dominated by two vehicles: the Corvette and the Porsche 944. Today, it’s the same—the Corvette, and the Porsche Boxster and Cayman dominate. 

“Basically those cars represent 60 percent of the volume and 80 percent of the profit in that market,” Saxty says. “You can forget all your fancy, fluffy supercars, and all your MR2s because there’s no profit in either. So the team at Ford decided that they would not do a Corvette; they’d do something better. They’d do a Ferrari at Ford money, a Porsche 911 but for a 944 price. ‘Let’s completely screw the market’ was the plan.”

According to Saxty, and the story Muccioli and Scott told him, this new Ford would be a mid-engined two-seater that would have the Ferrari 328 as its benchmark, yet would be sold at a price that mere mortals could actually afford. If you’re thinking that the mainstream badge with supercar performance sounds rather like a Honda NSX, then you’d be right. Although this was back in 1985, Ford was hearing whispers through the trade and the press that Honda was working on the NSX, and so project GN34 was born. 

The Acura NSX Prototype makes its world debut at a Chicago press conference in February of 1989., Honda

And here’s where things started to get really complicated.

The Hunt for a Partner

First off, the plan was to work with Lotus—the two companies had some previous history, after all—but the state of Lotus in the mid-1980s was too much for even Ford to take on, so that idea got dropped. Then the idea was to exploit Ford’s connections with Mazda and take the front-engined, rear-drive platform of the RX-7 coupe and “up-gun” it to the appropriate performance levels. But that wasn’t going to work either, as there just wasn’t enough development headroom in the RX-7. So the plan came back around to making a bespoke, mid-engined chassis within Ford—which is exactly what the GN34 team had wanted to do all along anyway. 

Ford was throwing more and more corporate wrenches in the way, though. What about rebody-ing the European Sierra Cosworth? The GN34 team stalled, saying that plan hadn’t worked out with the Merkur XR4Ti so well. Besides, that sounded more like taking on BMW, not Ferrari. OK, tried the Ford suits, what about taking the Sierra platform—“the only decent-handling Ford of the ‘80s,” according to Saxty—and putting the Yamaha SHO V6 engine in it? Again, that seemed more like a BMW M-car rival than something that was going to entice all those cash-rich Ferrari buyers, but it does at least introduce one of the big players in the GN34 story: the SHO.

“That Yamaha SHO engine, the quad-cam V6, is a properly legendary engine,” Saxty says. “The rumors that are out there say that the SHO engine was designed for this car, the GN34. That is not true. It was never commissioned for this car, but the team working on the car figured that it would be fantastic in the car.”

The SHO V6 would, of course, go on to power the inimitable Taurus SHO, and become a running gag for Conan O’Brien along the way. In the meantime, though, the GN34 team was trying to find both a design for the car and a way that it could be actually built.

“They went to Italdesign when the Lotus idea didn’t pan out,” Saxty says. “Italdesign, funnily enough, said ‘Sure, we have this new mid-engined concept ready to go, which was supposed to be a Lotus Esprit replacement, but if you pay us $120,000, it’s yours.’ That car was called the Maya, and Italdesign basically tweaked it by about 20 percent and sold it to Ford.”

Why Italdesign, though? Why go outside Detroit at all when creating a Ford-badged Ferrari challenger? Perception, apparently. Ford was worried that if it launched a mid-engined sports car, most would dismiss it as a Corvette rival. By designing and building the car in Europe, the thinking was that a little bit of European sophistication would rub off on the project, add a touch of luster.

“So Italdesign has put together a mule, a running car with the basic bits and pieces, and that’s the car that I have the photo of Jackie Stewart testing, so it’s a car that had gone fairly high up the food chain at that point,” Saxty says. Roush Engineering also worked with Ford to help produce some prototype mules, including one which used a DeTomaso Pantera as a base. GN34 was one of the first road-car projects that the two companies worked on together—hence why the mule is now in Roush’s museum. 

“Italdesign had then done a second design proposal, a sort of Son of Maya, which is the overhead shot of the red car,” Saxty explains. “So there are now effectively three cars—the Maya show car, the engineering mule, and the second styling car. At which point Ford politics take over and the Advanced Design studio steps in and says, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to have a bunch of Italians designing our flagship supercar.’ And so they call in Ghia to do the styling work.”

Ghia, you’ll doubtlessly have ironically noted, is also an Italian design studio. But unlike Italdesign, it was entirely owned by Ford and would take orders rather than doing its own thing and sending Ford the bill afterward. 

“The Ghia design was very, very lean,” says Saxty. “It’s an extraordinary-looking car. But Ghia wasn’t in a position to actually build it, and so SVO started looking in France. It looked at Heuliez, which had made things like the Renault 5 Turbo and the Peugeot 205 T16 rally cars, but there was also Chausson, which was jointly owned by Renault and Peugeot, and it had done some work for Porsche, too. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Ford suddenly remembered that some of the best chassis engineering was being done in Britain, so it called in this small firm, Canewdon Consulting, to do some work on the chassis side. So now you’ve got this car, designed by Ghia in Italy, with a chassis designed in the UK, a Yamaha engine, and it’s going to be built in France. Oh, and it’s got a transaxle gearbox built by ZF in Germany. So it’s a pretty exotic car at this point.”

You can almost hear the cost-cutters sharpening their inevitable scissors, can’t you? Even given the extreme unlikeliness of such an expensive, complex project ever actually coming to fruition, Ford pressed on. And what happened next showed that it just might have worked.

Time to Present

“The car went to a styling meeting in California,” Saxty goes on. “Ford brought in some Ferrari and Porsche owners and put the GN34 styling models—one from Italdesign, one from Ghia, and another proposal from the Ford studio in Dearborn—in with some Ferrari and Porsche products. The Dearborn car just doesn’t hack it. The Italdesign one does OK, but the Ghia design? That one rings up as high in every metric as the Ferrari, the class leader. When these people, these Ferrari and Porsche owners, were told that it was a Ford, they said they wouldn’t pay as much as a Ferrari for it, but they absolutely would buy it. They said that it was stunning, and looked as expensive as a Ferrari.”

Can you think of another Ford, prior to the current GT, about which you could say that? No, me neither. The images of the Ghia design show a car with unmistakable Ferrari overtones, especially around the shovelnose with the pop-up headlights. The rear is arguably more complex and more “aero” than the contemporary Ferrari 328, even than the 348 that would replace it. You could easily imagine Thomas Magnum driving one, and praise comes no higher. 

The Plug, Pulled

Of course, you know where this is going. You know, because we’re looking back from 2021 on this story, that it ultimately goes nowhere. But you might be surprised at who, exactly, fired the torpedo that finally sank project GN34. 

“So there’s a big meeting,” says Saxty. “Ford’s in-house design team has refined the design of the Ghia car with a second styling model, and it’s more attractive in pretty much every dimension. It’s almost imperceptible, but it’s a tad longer, and a tad leaner again. So that car, and the original Ghia model, are in the big design showroom along with a Ferrari Testarossa—now, that’s not a competitor car, clearly, but it’s there as the benchmark for appearance. It’s like a cathedral, this room, and it’s scarier still because now there’s a Ferrari in there to go up against. And there’s the drama of all the execs coming in to sign off this car, this car that’s going to go up against Ferrari. And Bob Lutz is there—”

Lutz would later become famed as one of the executives who turned the ailing Chrysler around, who fathered the mighty Viper, who signed off the dramatic swoop-roofed 1992 Chrysler Concorde, and who gained a reputation as one of Detroit’s true “car guys.” Not on that day, though. On that day, in the cathedral of design, with a Ford on stage that looked as good as a Ferrari, Lutz had the trigger for the torpedo in his hand.

“Bob Lutz is there because he’s got an idea that he’s going to make a four-door version of the Bronco,” says Saxty. “This thing that’s going to be called an SUV. So they’ve got to think about the funding. The funding is about the same, whether you’re going to make this four-door thing that could be called a Sports Utility Vehicle, or you make the GN34. And so they make the presentations, and the decision is made: They’re going to make the four-door Bronco because that’s the car that’s going to sell more, there’s going to be more profit in it, and it’s an easier sell to Ford’s existing customers. And that car was the first Ford Explorer.”

It’s at this point that the heads of car nuts all over the world droop just a little. As I said, we know how this turned out, but just like you always rewatch Friday Night Lights, hoping that Periman will actually win this time, you still look back and wish for the days when Ford could actually, seriously, really think about making its own Ferrari. 

And it probably wouldn’t have been alone, either. Saxty’s research has turned up some other photos that are often assumed to be part of the GN34 design process, but they’re not. They’re of a smaller, rounder, more avant-garde proposal wearing Cobra license plates. 

“I was told that this car was called Cobra, just because it’s a cool name and one that people at Ford love,” says Saxty. “That Cobra-plated car is not a GN34 proposal, it’s purely a show car, an exercise by the design team. I wonder whether it was a bit of a ‘rebel alliance’ thing by the design team because it’s a smaller car, and to put it in today’s money, that’s bang in the middle of the Boxster market.”

A Ford rival for the Ferrari 328 and a smaller, mid-engined sports car that would have been a Boxster about a decade before the fact? Surely that would have been a dream world for car nuts? Sadly, yes. A dream world was exactly what it was. The Ford Explorer did wonders for Ford’s bottom line—it still does—but after learning all of this, we can’t help but wonder how things would have looked if Ford had chased enthusiasts instead of profits.

Secret Fords Volume Two is available to order from www.stevesaxty.com. Got a tip? Email tips@thedrive.com.