Mustang state-of-the-art: 'Not your grandpa's GT500'
Allen Park — You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But you can teach an old Mustang.
The ferocious 2020 Ford Mustang GT500 is one of the most anticipated products of the year. It was one of the main attractions at January’s Detroit auto show, packing the Ford display with rubberneckers. Only the third evolution of the legendary GT500 badge, the beast boasts the obscene horsepower numbers and muscular stance that owners have come to expect.
But this pony is a 21st-century winged cyborg. It's the product of extensive aerodynamic and thermal development processes alien to its comparatively crude 1967 ancestor.
The latest GT500 was developed using a network of testing facilities: supercomputers, 3-D printers, race simulators, wind tunnels and race tracks.
When it goes on sale this summer, the GT500 will be a ground-hugging, ear-splitting track monster with an electronic, dual-clutch automatic transmission and 440-pound feet of downforce to keep it on the ground.
“This is not your grandpa’s GT500,” says Shelby Mustang marketing chief Jim Owens, who notes that the original ’67 car came to market without the benefit of wind-tunnel testing – much less supercomputers.
“The original Cobra GT500 was a straight-line monster. This new model can do a sub 11-second quarter-mile, but also carve apexes on race tracks. With modern technology like supercomputers, our gifted engineers can develop the car more quickly.”
Engineers like Matt Trantor, vehicle dynamics supervisor for Ford Performance, who oversaw the GT500’s development. Thanks to the latest electronic tools, his team compressed the typical two-year development process to six months.
“That allows us to make the right decisions — we don’t have to wait until we create a tool and part,” says Trantor. “We start in computational fluid dynamics programs to figure out all the cooling and aero requirements of the car. They point us to the directions of the best parts. We use the latest technology to print those parts. We put them on the car and take them to a ... wind tunnel.”
Early aero mockups of the GT500 depended heavily on 3-D printed parts, crafted at Ford's Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, that were fitted to the front end of a standard Mustang GT. It then underwent extensive aerodynamics testing at Ford’s wind tunnel facility in Allen Park, and on the country’s most sophisticated wind tunnel: the Windshear facility built by the Haas Formula One racing team in Concord, North Carolina.
So sophisticated have production vehicles like the GT500 become that they need Windshear’s so-called “moving ground plane” engineering that can simulate ground effects on a moving surface while accelerating the car to 180 mph. The Haas simulator is used by F1, NASCAR and high-end production sports cars.
Aerodynamic engineer Matt Titus races a Spec Mazda Miata when he's not honing the GT500 in wind tunnels. "We did over 300 simulations in the virtual world, then we 3-D printed car parts and took it in the wind tunnel," he says.
The technology is light years beyond the '60s science used on the original Cobra. Aerodynamic terms like “wings” and “splitters” were still in their infancy. On the high bankings of the Daytona International Speedway 50 years ago, Porsche racing prototypes would shift lanes involuntarily as they reached speeds of 190 mph.
Those speeds were alien to a high-performance production car like the 1967 GT500 that was equipped with a 355-horsepower 7-liter engine and a top speed of 150 mph. Today’s production GT500, by contrast, will double the original car’s horsepower while topping out at speeds in excess of 180.
The aerodynamics of the Ford Mustang GT500 are demonstrated in Wind Tunnel 6 at Ford's Allen Park facility The Detroit News
Armed with gigabytes of wind tunnel data, the Ford Performance team then fed their results to North Carolina-based car simulators where race drivers tested the digital car on multiple tracks.
The time for building prototypes had come.
Sculpted by designer Mel Betancourt and his team, the GT500 is new from the A-pillar forward. The front end is engineered to feed the hungry, supercharged 5.2-liter V-8. Where the original Snake counted on a single, oversized radiator to cool its V-8, the 2020 car uses six strategically located heat exchangers across the front clip, including the main radiator.
The prototype began a national track odyssey to be tested on Virginia International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. It would also visit NOLA, Gingerman Raceway in west Michigan, and Ford's Dearborn Proving Grounds.
Test-driver and vehicle-dynamics engineer Steve Thompson and racer Billy Johnson flogged the pony mercilessly to push the limits.
“When we built the first prototypes and took them to the track, I think most of the team was just amazed at how spot-on the car was,” says Trantor. “How good it handled. How good the aero was. How good the sustainable power was.”
The GT500 track edition uses the same high rear-wing off the Mustang GT4 race car that won the 2018 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge championship.
But there is still a little old school in the Mustang parts bin.
“A 20-minute track session generates the same heat rejection as F-250 diesel pulling 35,000 pounds up a grade,” says Trantor. “That’s serious cooling capability in a much smaller front-engine package. To get the flow rates up for the cooling system, they actually share the same dual thermostat.”
Expect the high-tech GT500 to cost north of $70,000 when it goes on sale later this year. The original ’67 car stickered for $4,195.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.