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Remembering the Retro Fords

Ford looked to the past for inspiration when they reimagined the classics in the late '90s and early 2000s.
The Ford GT-40 and GT are effectively street-legal race cars that captured the motor world’s attention and helped spawned dozens of competitors.

The Ford GT-40 and GT are effectively street-legal race cars that captured the motor world’s attention and helped spawned dozens of competitors.

Perhaps no other car maker in the world has the “family feel” of Ford. After all, it is the largest and oldest company on the planet in which members of the founding family are still involved with the direction of the company. Today, the Ford family is represented on Ford Motor Co.’s board of directors by Henry Ford III, great-great grandson of company founder Henry Ford.

Heritage has long been keen to Ford Motor Co. and Ford family members, as exemplified by several landmark Ford vehicles that were revived as retro-styled prototypes in the 1990s — some of which became production vehicles.

The legacy of the Ford Thunderbird saw the light of day with the last generation produced 2002-2005.

The legacy of the Ford Thunderbird saw the light of day with the last generation produced 2002-2005.

Design Chief Jack Telnack created a retro-concept Thunderbird that was unveiled at the 1999 North American Auto Show. Under his successor, J Mays, the design would be adapted into a production car built from 2002 to 2005. Today, examples from the last generation of Thunderbird are sought-after collector cars.

Mays called on Camilo Pardo and appointed him as the chief designer of the production-ready Ford GT.

Mays called on Camilo Pardo and appointed him as the chief designer of the production-ready Ford GT.

Mays also reached back to Ford’s 1960s “Total Performance” era by overseeing construction of the prototype GT-90, described as the “spiritual successor to the GT-40.” Calling on the talents of Camilo Pardo, Mays appointed him as the chief designer of the subsequent, production-ready Ford GT. Pardo’s Ford GT design was a blend of the original GT-40 and the GT-90 prototype, each a car with excellent proportions for mid-engine sports coupes. The Ford GT-40 and GT are effectively street-legal race cars that captured the motor world’s attention and helped spawned dozens of competitors.

With the retro-craze taking hold in the industry, J Mays went to his design staff with another idea: to reach back to the car that some consider the best Ford design of all time, the 1949 Ford. Interest in the “shoebox” era of Fords was at an all-time high in the 1990s. When the “shoebox” Ford was introduced in June 1948, Ford touted its “dream-car silhouette” as revolutionary, promoting its “long, low graceful lines that invite envious glances” and its “mid-ship” ride. Not only was the slab-sided sheet metal a trend-setting advancement in automotive design, Ford was the only car in the “low-price” field to offer a choice of an inline six or a power V-8 engine for 1949. Combined with a better ride due to independent front suspension, greater driver and passenger visibility, plus attractive use of chrome trim, Ford saw its market share dramatically increase with the 1949 Ford. And, for the first time in many years, black ink replaced red ink in Ford’s profit column.

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The retro-inspired Forty-Niner tapped into the design talents of a young Chip Foose.

The retro-inspired Forty-Niner tapped into the design talents of a young Chip Foose.

J Mays named the retro-styled project the “Forty Niner” and reached outside the company walls to design it, bringing on Chip Foose, a rising star among a new breed of stylists. As a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., Foose’s thesis project had directly led to the creation of the Plymouth Prowler. Brought in as a consultant, Foose went to work to soften and smooth the original “shoebox” design. Foose drew on the original’s long, low appearance provided by the slab-sided design. Presenting a “hyper-smooth” look, a minimum of chrome was used, which resulted in the elimination of the 1949 Ford’s trademark bullet front grille. Thin-line, wrap-around taillamps alluded to the original design, with sensuously delightful curves capturing the essence of the original design. Vintage-type round headlamps mounted in peaked fenders also recalled the 1949 Ford in Foose’s modern transformation.

Created to be displayed as both a chopped-top coupe and convertible, the Forty Niner was powered by a 245-hp, 3.9-liter V-8 engine backed with a five-speed automatic transmission, the same basic powertrain that would motivate the retro-Thunderbird. It is interesting to note that the engine in the Forty Niner had about the same displacement as the 1949’s flathead V-8.

Unveiled during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit during January 2001, it won rave reviews and spawned rumors that it might be headed to production. These rumors were fueled a bit by Ford’s then-CFO, Martin Inglis, who stated, “It is quite feasible to do it, if we so desire.”

After the Forty Niner was retired from the show circuit, the coupe was offered for sale at auction in Monterey, Calif., in August 2010, where it was hammered sold at $61,000 and joined the Wayne Davis collection. It was later offered at auction in Kissimmee, Fla., in January 2019, after which it came to current owner Dan Drummond, of Indiana.

It is one show car that might have had limited success as a production car, but one that makes a stand-out centerpiece to any collection. Today, it is kept in a beautiful climate-controlled arcade filled with this dedicated collector’s vast collection.

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