Tuesday 20 February 2018

How 'Old reliables' won the day as Tomorrow's World of technological promise took back seat

A rear shot of Ford GT in Dayborn.
A rear shot of Ford GT in Dayborn.
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

On the promise of Ford telling us, and showing us, great things for the future we flew from the razzmatazz of Detroit Motor show to San Francisco.

It was to be a mixed medley of enthusiastic, bright and highly motivated people beating the drum loudly about the advances they were making on the digital future fusion of car and computers.

But there was no tangible evidence of anything significant. Indeed much of it was, in the techno-pop world of connectivity and mobility, more a reprise than a surprise.

We were shown how they are developing systems :

To let you turn on the home lights from your car as you begin your return commute.

How they are tracking 4x4s and motorcycles in Africa.

How they are monitoring bicycles in San Francisco.

And how they are running a virtual autonomous driving car.

Unless I missed something enormous, there was nothing much new or of breakthrough note there, I'm afraid.

Indeed there had been far more interesting stuff from them at Detroit where, for example, they disclosed they are testing autonomous driving in the snow for the first time.

That's real-life and relevant because snow is a major challenge as it clogs up and undermines sensors and cameras etc.

I can only assume that behind the scenes at Ford's Research and Innovation Centre in the tomorrow's world of Silicon Valley great things are being cooked up and that revealing them at this stage would have handed unwanted advantage to competitors.

I thought it ironic therefore that the buzz of anticipation and satisfaction from my journeys (and I hope of some interest for you) came from the present not the future.

It came from driving a few 'American' cars on their home ground.

All futuristic talk at Detroit and Palo Alto paled when confronted with the opportunity to drive the first of the new Mustangs to roll off the production line.

My 5-litre V8 GT (435hp) had been a victim of the Top Gear shower who pounded it around America. For me this is one of today's great, affordable cars and I loved my drive from Monterey to Big Sur and back.

Not because the Mustang is technically gifted - it isn't. Or because it has flawless handling - it hasn't. I love it for its looks, yes, but also its faults and the appeal that it just wants to be driven (by a human not a computer). Second gear felt the worse for wear and there was a rattle or two.

Who cares? Floor that pedal and feel the seatback attempt to invade your lungs with the accelerative punch from that powerhouse engine.

Straight-line speed has, and always will be, the attraction of this American idol; the roads are dotted with old and new.

The European version, a first, goes on sale here in a couple of weeks. But it was good just to get the feel of it 'at home'

Definitely not coming to Ireland but very much part of the US present and future were the F-250 truck - a giant of a pick-up with a 6.2-litre V8 petrol (385hp) and easily the worst suspension I've experienced in a car. Doesn't matter; it's a mega seller.

The Explorer is a large, large SUV (3.5-litre EcoBoost V6, 365hp) and it's an example of how and what Ford do so well. They make cars their customers want.

And right now, judging by the massive presence of such vehicles on the US roads they are doing a good job meeting current needs.

I came away with the distinct impression that drivers aren't that concerned about autonomous driving - though the abysmal steering and floppiness of the F-250 was almost that because it had a mind of its own.

Maybe they'd be interested in having a car that can remotely turn on the lights and heating at home. And maybe they'd be interested to find out how Ranger 4x4 pickups are doing in tough African terrain.

But they primarily want big, roomy (gas-guzzling) trucks that feed their need to be independent of thought and deed.

And that, for now, includes them driving their own trucks.

Birth of a super car - the Ford GT

Deep in the bowels of Ford's Product Development Centre (PDC) in Dearborn Michigan at the end of a long, scuffed drab corridor there are many innocuous looking doors.

Until relatively recently only 12 people knew what went on behind one of them.

Even now, with the secret out, we were still asked not to take pictures. The aura of intrigue still hovers.

This is where the Ford GT super car was conceived and delivered.

This is where core players worked long and hard to come up with what is an extraordinary looking car.

How it drives and handles we must wait to see - probably later this year - but there is promise in what we know.

There's a mid-engine twin-turbo 600hp+ V-6, carbon-fibre construction, rear-wheel-drive, 7spd dual clutch and active aerodynamics. Fewer than 1,000 will be made this year.

The GT will start racing at the end of this month at Daytona and at the WEC in Silverstone in April. There will be a road-going car by the end of the year, but really we're talking 2017 for most European markets.

It is a fabulous looking machine, as you'd expect, the teardrop look and low, squat stance proclaiming it's a supercar capable of extraordinary power and speed.

Yet it started out as a clean sheet of design paper.

Strangely, they decided on the fixed seating position straight-away and then built the car around it.

For those of you thinking of buying one let me tell you the cabin is small; there's room for two reasonably sized adults but the designers admitted I'd find it a 'challenge'.

And it will cost at least €500,000.

To create a car from scratch in 15 months is a major achievement but it is obvious from talking to the designer, engineer and interior chiefs that the core people pulled together, tried things, re-tried things, and pushed on.

Yes that's a lot of people pulling together but as staff told us: "Targets were so extreme it pushed everyone to the limit."

Some extraordinary revelations from the key people there included:

Aerodynamics ruled the roost - even above the drive train.

They decided on the V6 EcoBoost engine rather than a more conventional V8.

They hired and borrowed Ferraris and McLarens to compare and contrast performance.

The rear light clusters have air blowing around them - it's part of the cooling and downforce air that circulates from the giant front intakes.

The brief was not to have luggage or creature comforts. It is an extreme performer. But to meet minimal legal requirements there is a tiny allocation of space for luggage - "but we didn't over deliver."

They had to make everything fit in a tight spot in the cabin; the long-reach steering column adjustment compensates for only a 10pc incline on seat backs. I like the way the rear lights and central twin exhausts line up.

When it was unveiled last year there was a collective intake of breath from most observers - including most Ford people who hadn't even been aware of its existence until then.

Now the world waits for the first big racing drive.

And it all started in such humble surroundings.

As the song goes: no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

Indo Motoring

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