Camilo Pardo and the Reimagining of the GT40

Some of the most legendary cars throughout history have been Fords. None more notable than the 1966 Ford GT40—a mid-engine monster that changed the image of the company itself. Ever since its historic victories at Le Mans, Ford has been trying to recapture the magic of that icon. 

The 2005 Ford GT got its start when Neil Ressler, chief engineer of small car design at Ford Motor Company, was about to retire. Before he left, he wanted to work on one last project, a modern-day GT40. 

Every ten years Ford addresses the mid-engine cars, says Camilo Pardo, Chief Designer of the 2005 Ford GT Program. In 1985, Ford made a mid-engine sports car codenamed the GN34, and in 1995, Ford debuted a hoped-for GT40 successor, the forward looking GT90. “GT90, because it was in the ‘90s, and that car was based on a Jaguar XJ220;” however, it was too far removed from the original, “I think it was more of a spaceship to most people that saw it,” states Camilo, “it was probably too advanced, [and] went over their head.” A worthy descendant to the ‘66 race car, remained elusive. 

Camilo’s family moved to Detroit when he was ten years old. He says that cars were always around him, “In those years the muscle cars were all on the streets—they were all new, Mustang fastbacks, Corvettes, Cobras, Daytonas, Challengers, and Barracudas, Javelins—I knew them all… they didn’t get past me without me noticing them, they were bright colors and really amazing shapes”. Cars and racing inspired him to become a car designer, he enrolled in the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Upon graduation, he worked at Ford, designing in the Advanced Design Studios and Productions Studios.

The many prototypes of the ford gt

Having been at Ford for over 15 years, he had worked on the previous mid-engine programs, and in 1999 he was told by his director Tom Scott, “You’re going to be on the GT40 program.” Elated with the prospect of reimagining the Ford great, there was only one ironclad decree that came down from management: It had to look like a GT40. 

Camilo and the other Ford designers started sketching the car in 1999. It first started with a “bunch of ideas” that migrated to 3D computer models, that were then milled into full size representations, recalls Camilo. “It was a rat race of different clay models,” who describes that they worked in a hidden location under a secret code name to not arouse suspicion, “we did it in a satellite studio which was… outside of the design center, so nobody really went there… It was a confidential program” that was named Petunia.

The original GT40 evolved from the 1963 Lola MK6 GT, which was the “little tadpole,” he describes, “but then it turned into a mad shark.” The first GT40s were very modest, but as engineers added vents and scoops for cooling, it grew to look “like a jet fighter—[it] started with a normal plane and then [the engineers] started adding more intakes—whatever it would take to get the monster to breathe”. 

Although the original is regarded as being incredibly beautiful, it did not follow any contemporary design philosophy because “nothing is really in the foundation and basics of design of flow, rhythm, and harmony,” says Camilo who explains “[It] was a complicated, it was a mess of stuff. If we would’ve done a car like that in college, you would’ve gotten a ‘D’ because you have nothing consistent… I think you would’ve gotten in trouble [even] at a contemporary design studio.” He likens studying the old car’s design to archeology, looking past all of the added additions, to discover the original body lines that were buried underneath. 

Despite breaking all of the rules, it was still a beautiful car, so much so that Camilo says “it was almost an oxymoron of what not to do, what is not consistent that would destroy a car, but it worked on this for some reason.” 

The team worked with 8×10 photographs that they wrote notes on. Overtime, the concept model evolved. 

Inside the studio’s court yard was an original ‘66 GT40 that sat beside a rented Ferrari F360 Modena. The team of designers used both cars as benchmarks, aiming to sample from the Le Mans racer, while comparing their creation to its direct competition. 

Camilo pardo stands next to his creation in a ford press photo.

The resulting body of the new GT40 had almost no crowns, and engineers warned that it would oil can (deform) at speed, if they didn’t make it rounder. The top cars at the time “were all round,” recalls Camilo, “they were bullet shaped, and our car was definitely not bullet”. They fought to keep their mostly flat panels because it makes the car appear lighter. “We took it to that limit,” he says, as they got away with as little crown as they could.

The team kept refining the shape against the ‘66 and the Ferrari. “[By] the time that we tuned ours, it was like a well-tuned blade—like a sword, it was perfect. The original car now looks old. It looks lumpy,” he states. The concept made the original “look like an old war plane, and ours looks like a contemporary missile—very clean, sleek, and with beautiful lines that flow all the way around”. It also made the Ferrari look fat, with its round surfaces that made it appear chubby.

The old ‘66 had pomp and circumstance—it was a race car, and it did everything dramatic, even starting it was an event as Camilo recalls, “you hit the fuel switch, put the key in, turned it, and pushed the start [button], so it was a three-action process to start the car. It was cool… it wasn’t like getting into a Focus, it was like you were getting into this machine—click—click—BOOM! And then it starts.” The designers wanted this same type of character. So, they mimicked the startup procedure, minus the fuel switch. 

“Powered By Ford” made it onto the engine’s cam covers after Camilo saw the phrase on an old picture of Jimmy Clark’s race car. “It hit me,” he says, “Why not grab that and throw it on the car.” 

Sampling from the past became a feature, “We’re bringing back all of the cool little items and details and personalities of the vehicles that had been lost in time … I went there plucking and introducing them as something new and contemporary.” 

There was hardly any discussion of what the transmission should be, an H-pattern shifter was selected because “the only people who were using paddle shift, was Ferrari”.

The concept car was revealed to the public at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It was an instant star, remembers Camilo, who says that the concept “communicated and connected with everybody—It was emotional, they really loved the car.”

Bringing it to Life

The reimagined Ford GT40 was displayed in the design studio, but as Ford’s Centennial neared, Bill Ford, Ford Motor Company’s Chairman, stood in front of it. Looking for something that could be the feature car for the 100-year celebration in 2003. The timing of the concept was perfect, he asked the engineers, “Can you guys build this?” Camilo recalls. The engineers responded in the affirmative. The new GT40 was approved for production, but it was a tight timeframe, they only had 15 months. That was a tall order because, “Now, we’ve got to do aerodynamics, engineering—everything—all in 15 months, and have a car that you can give the keys to everyone: the media, journalist, Gurney, Jackie Stewart—anybody, including Leno” Camilo explains. 

The concept car was just that, a conceptualized idea. There were no aerodynamic studies or advanced engineering, and although it had driven up onto the Auto show’s stage, it was a “court yard driver” that was governed to 30mph—it had very little engineering asserts Camilo, “there was no budget for it—it was just up to us to make the car look great.” Since the concept resembled the ’66 race car, they decided to put the old car in the wind tunnel to get a baseline. 

The results confirmed that, “the GT40 was unstable as far as aerodynamics” were concerned. “I can remember talking to Gurney, he was like that thing was a floated down the back straight in Le Mans at the Mulsanne straight.” 

“The engineers grabbed the car,” tested it the concept’s design in CFD (computational fluid dynamics program), and then they contained most of the aerodynamic aids on its belly. They used NACA ducts to control how the air entered and exited the wheel openings. A front splitter negated the effects of the frontal high-pressure area. Side splitters stabilized the air as it ran along the flanks of the car, and a venturi helped to merge the air at the rear. After the engineers finished implementing the aerodynamic aids, the car’s dimensions had grown by only 17mm, which relieved Camilo as the body proportions remained unchanged.

John Coletti, Ford’s Chief Engineer and head of Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT), and Carroll Shelby, who was responsible for the original GT40’s historic racing successes, both wanted a hulking V10 to power the new car; however, that would take too much time. The decision was “to take the best engine that Ford had, reproduce it in aluminum, and put performance crank, pistons and heads… and then put a supercharger on it,” adds Camilo. A supercharged 5.4L modular V8 making 550hp was selected as the car’s powerplant.

Even though the engine team were their own sovereign department, the design department was involved in the engine bay’s layout. “The engine, and all components … were going to be visible through the back window when the clamshell opened. It was important that I worked with the engineers and we found the best opportunities to make that engine compartment look beautiful” (Camilo).

His design team had to sign off on all of the components. Inspired by a Lola T70 race car that he sat in, with its all-aluminum tub, Camilo wanted everything to be aluminum—all the bulkheads, but because aluminum would oxidize overtime, they had to be painted with E-coat and then silver. “I think it was the first time ever, that they had a designer in there signing off on extrusions on the basic frame of the vehicle,” he claims. 

“And as we got more and more in production, they forced me to lose more and more aluminum appearance.”

The doors were a serious point of contention. They could not open fully in a car park, but they were essential, like the clamshell. They were an important aspect that “really landed the GT40 personality, and it was a signature of the vehicle.”

“We felt very strong about keeping the door,” he says, and “it also made one of the largest door stampings that Ford had ever produced… it was really pushing fabrication to its maximum”

For the gauges, Ford tapped Autometer after deciding that a digital cluster was not appropriate. “We didn’t want to go digital, we wanted to have an analog instrument that echoes the original car, but we wanted it to be contemporary. Autometer had good size gauges … and they gave us the liberty of changing all the faces and putting in our own font,” he recalls.

The 2005 Ford GT was the first production Ford that utilized carbon fiber. The inside of the clamshell, and the seats that were made by Sparco in Italy were composites.   

Ford never considered badging the car as anything other than a Ford. They didn’t need to, states Camilo, because back in ‘66, the company “went and built a Ford—from ground up, that was designed to go out there and beat [Ferrari] at their own tracks, so you can’t change that pattern.” Despite the original being a race car, there was never any intention to take the new version racing, but he was happy to battle Ferrari on the streets.

The name was adapted to Ford GT when an agreement to license the GT40 name, from the company that purchased it, could not be reached.

The production GT ran for two years, 2005 and 2006. It became an iconic car that recaptured the majesty of the original while still being modern and contemporary. They have appreciated in price, selling twice of what they were sold for when new. 

the rich colors and dramatic paintings adorn every corner of camilo pardo’s Los Angeles art studio.

Inspiration and Paintings

While the new GT40 awed the automotive community, Camilo was also making headlines in the artworld. 

From a family of architects, he had been taught to paint at a young age, “Mom set me up with my own canvases and oil paints.” The young Camilo became “familiar with the museum of modern art… Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Picasso were all normal things around the house,” he says. His childhood influenced how he designed cars, “When I went into college for industrial design, my whole portfolio were really drawings and paintings that were really fine art.”

Inspired by the technique of his high school teacher who used “giant brushes and lots of really rich, thick paint—[with] heavy application,” he developed a style that became emblematic of his automotive design that was aggressive and dramatic. 

an f1 fan, camilo enjoys painting ferraris, including the great nikki lauda.

Every night, after work, he would sit in his studio painting, “I could just pick the cars I want: Ayrton Senna, Nikki Lauda—usually Marlboro—I loved the McLarens,” says Camilo. After he had amassed fifteen art pieces, he decided to get them framed and put on a show. 

That got him noticed, and shortly after, he was invited to display at the Middlebrook Concours alongside artist from the Automotive Fine Art Society.

“All the ford GT people became aware of my paintings.” 

Jacque Nasser, Ford CEO at the time, commissioned an 11-foot by 5-foot canvas of Ayrton Senna’s F1 car, that he hung in his office, and Steve Saleen, the executive in charge of the Ford GT Assembly facility in Troy, Michigan facility “bought twelve paintings and did the whole lobby at his office,” Camilo claims. 

Most notably, his artwork caught the eye of the brash Texan. “Carroll Shelby saw them and that really brought us together even more. “He’s’ like, ‘Camillo, I want one of those, and one of those’… He wanted a lot of my art, and when I went to see him at his place in Vegas, to talk to him about a Cobra program that we were doing, I walked into his living room and my art was all the way around the room­—it was amazing!”

Even Ford Motor Company bought his artwork. They commissioned 150 prints that they sent to early Ford GT owners when they wanted to replace the a-arms with billet versions on the concern that they cast units may have an issue. He was able to buy his first Ford GT with the profits.

Today his art hangs in private collections around the world. 

It’s been a long journey, no longer at Ford, today Camilo consults on automotive and aerospace designs. He still paints, hosting shows and working on special commissions. As he looks back through his work on the 2005 Ford GT, he thinks about how that car helped to redefine the image of an icon for a new generation, and he looks at how it made it possible for the new 2017 to exist: “It was important to have the Segway. 

With the success of the 2005 and now 2017 Ford GT, the icon will continue to be reimagined throughout the future—the modern-day spirit of the ‘66 racer lives on. 

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