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


“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. 

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.”

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