Ford’s Secret GN34 Supercar Was Supposed to Kick Ferrari’s Ass

Ford’s Secret GN34 Supercar Was Supposed to Kick Ferrari’s Ass

It’s true: In the ’80s, Ford aimed to make a sultry-looking supercar with better grip

It’s true: In the ’80s, Ford aimed to make a sultry-looking supercar with better grip and handling than anything else on the road, including the Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach, along with best-in-class ride quality and easy-to-live-with practicality. And the best part is would all come at same price as a Chevrolet Corvette or Porsche 944. And it came close to reality … before being dropped in favor of an SUV. This is the story of that car, the GN34.

Starting in 1983, a skunkworks team of Ford Special Vehicle Operations engineers conceived a car called they called GN34. It would use the best resources Ford had available internationally—Italian styling, British chassis design, U.S. SVO (Special Vehicle Operations) engineering, quad-cam Japanese V-6 power, state-of-the-art European assembly, and boast inbuilt Ford durability.

Over the years, rumors and snippets about the GN34 have sprinkled out but the facts have been confidential until recently. Freshly uncovered information, specifications, and photographs show how serious Ford was and what an impact GN34 could have had.

The full details about the hush-hush project and pictures of the car as it would have been made were unearthed by author Steve Saxty while he was researching his new book Secret Fords Volume Two. A former Ford designer, Saxty was given unprecedented access to the company’s archives for this book and its predecessor, Secret Fords Volume One. Bit by bit, as he traced and talked to the GN34’s creators, the car’s story emerged. Engineers proffered photographs they’d kept private for decades; a Ford archivist in Detroit discovered a cache of GN34 material there; and Steve uncovered more in the archive of Ghia, the Ford-owned Italian studio where the car was designed.

The project was triggered after Ford analysts predicted in the early ’80s that sales in the so-called G-segment—dedicated sports cars—would jump from 88,000 to 120,000 a year by 1990 in the U.S. alone. Sector entrants ran from the $15,000 Toyota MR2 (about $40,000 today) to the $70,000 Ferrari Testarossa (about $190,000 today), but the biggest volume and profit was around the $30,000 mark ($80,000 today) dominated by the Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 944. Time for Ford to play, too.

In October ’83, Ford Special Vehicle Operations, led by ace motorsport manager Mike Kranefuss, started thinking what a G-segment Ford could be, and set its sights high. Ronald Muccioli, SVO’s planning/program manager, who took lead, told Saxty: “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity: Build something to tackle Ferrari and sell it at a Corvette/Porsche 944 price.”

SVO posited that a $170 million investment could be returned four times over. Bigwigs listened and by early ’84 the project had an initial budget, a codename—GN34—and a target to have prototypes running in ’86 for production in late ’88 as an ’89 model.

The SVO engineers insisted the car should be mid-engined. The 944 and Corvette were front-engined, but rivals with the more premium cachet and sleeker profile that SVO wanted had their engines in the middle. It seemed a no-brainer, but before GN34 development got the green light, Muccioli’s team had to repulse two front-engined coupe counter proposals based on the European Sierra (which Americans know as the Merkur XR4Ti) that would have cost less.

Body design kicked off early in 1984 when Ron and three colleagues flew to Turin, Italy, to see Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign. Guess what: The revered design and engineering outfit was already constructing a concept called Maya that matched Ford’s desires. Contracts were swiftly signed, SVO sent over a 3.0-liter V-6 Taurus powertrain, and when the Maya appeared at the Turin show in November ’84 it was a Ford-powered runner.

But the Maya looked too much like the Lotus Etna that Italdesign had pitched to Lotus as an Esprit replacement. Ford asked Giugiaro to both make it look different and viable for production. Italdesign responded with two cars: styling model Maya II ES (above) and Maya II EM, a mechanical prototype for evaluation and development.

However, Ford’s own designers were hardly going to allow themselves to be trumped by an outside supplier on such a prestigious project. The Ford International Studio in Detroit as well as Ghia in Turin raced to submit their designs. In August 1985, the three rival models, all painted red, were arrayed in a beauty parade in Detroit. Maya II was sidelined and the Ford International and Ghia models—one tougher-looking but fussier than the Italdesign car, the other with leaner surfaces, better outward visibility, and a targa roof—went to a California research clinic to be scrutinized by potential buyers. Lined up against a Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 944 and 928, Corvette, and Ferrari 308, the Ghia GN34 won. Even when told it was a Ford, clinic guests still preferred it to the Ferrari. They valued it at $38,000 (roughly $100,000 today) against Ford’s intended price of $26,500.

Ford Design in Detroit then refined the Ghia GN34’s surfaces (below), and made it leaner, longer and more practical. Now its larger targa roof could stow above the engine, and briefcases would fit behind the seats. The shape—”clean and functional, rather than trendy, to embody the timelessness of the Porsche 911 and Ferrari” according to an internal description—was ready for sign-off.

The same project summary from the GN34 Program Office in July 1986 said the interior packaging and ergonomics would be best-in-class for a mid-engine car, with exceptional functionality and refinement. Build quality would be ensured by a state-of-the-art assembly system being planned at French contractor Chausson.

Meanwhile, Maya II hadn’t disappeared. In September ’85, Italdesign shipped over the Maya II EM mule, built to approximate how GN34 would drive. The Yamaha V-6 that Ford had commissioned for the 1989 Taurus SHO wasn’t ready so the mule used a twin-turbo Ford V-6 and ZF five-speed gearbox.

For what would have been the production engine, the extra weight from the design changes forced Yamaha to enlarge the high-revving V-6 from 3.0 liters to 3.6 and lift its power from 227 horsepower to 280. It would mate with a close-ratio five-speed transaxle. At the GN34’s mid-cycle refresh, SVO planned to add Ford’s new 4.6-liter modular DOHC V-8 and all-wheel drive. The engineers didn’t want to launch with a Ford V-8 because it was “too Corvette” for buyers used to Porsche and Ferrari engines.

The SVO GN34 team—now swelled from 30 to 100—worked to an eight-point plan covering the reasons buyers bought sports cars. “Fun to drive” topped the list. When SVO measured rivals’ lateral acceleration they found the Corvette, at 0.89 g, was grippiest, followed by the Countach at 0.87, the Testarossa at 0.86, and the 944 Turbo and RX-7 Turbo at 0.85; the Ferrari 328 pulled 0.84. So SVO set the GN34’s target at 0.95 to 1.00 g. Through Ford’s slalom, the RX-7 was fastest, followed by the 944 Turbo, Countach, Turbo Esprit, 911, ‘Vette, and Supra, with the Testarossa and newly arrived 328 eighth. Again, they decreed that GN34 had to outhandle the lot.

To do that, the chassis design engineers Ford chose—Canewdon Consultants in Essex, England—gave the GN34 an unrivaled spec for the time: forged aluminum unequal length upper and lower control arms up front and a multilink rear with twin lower arms and a tension strut from SVO’s race cars. Cockpit-adjustable hydraulics varied the ride from “very low-frequency plush to a firmer highly damped Corvette-like setting,” according to a document Saxty found.

The power-assisted variable ratio rack and pinion steering’s feel adjusted with the changes in cabin-dialed damper settings. Disc brakes with ABS and four-piston aluminum calipers sat behind 17-inch wheels with 40-aspect-ratio tires. Noise, vibration, and harshness targets would be class-best.

As seen in the above image, Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart first drove the Maya II mule in autumn 1985 and confirmed the car’s potential to Mike Kranefuss. Ron Muccioli told Saxty that even at that stage, “the mule had a flat and measured ride and took the handling track’s corners as well as any competitor. We all felt we could meet or exceed all the best-in-class targets.” Ford built another mule, and high-performance contractor Roush Engineering, where Muccioli would later work, made two more, one with a V-6 and one with a Windsor V-8, using GN34 chassis beneath modified De Tomaso Pantera bodies. (Both survive in Roush’s museum.) All told, there were four running mules and four fiberglass or clay body models.

So, with all its potential, why wasn’t GN34 launched? Ironically, it was killed by a very different vehicle proposed by Bob Lutz, one of the Ford executive team’s biggest car enthusiasts. After heading Ford of Europe in the early ’80s, Lutz ran Ford’s truck division in Detroit. And in a program review meeting on July 16, 1986, Lutz pitched a new sport utility vehicle. The board had to choose: Would it invest in a mainstream-focused type of 4×4 that might appeal to hundreds of thousands of buyers? Or a halo supercar for just 20,000? At the same time, a shift the wrong way in currency exchange rates had suddenly bumped up the cost of Europe-sourced parts by 17 percent and the projected cost for GN34 was running 40 percent higher than planned.

The SUV got the nod—ultimately becoming the Ford Explorer that went on sale in 1990—and on August 27, 1986 the GN34 program was canceled. All work stopped immediately and the files locked away until unearthed by Saxty and those who helped him. The data and photos in his remarkable book tell a fascinating story of a car that Ronald Muccioli, who subsequently bought several vehicles wearing Italian prancing horses, still believes would have been better than the V-8-powered Ferrari of the time.