Think 'Ford' and Focus, Mondeo and Escort come to mind. Jason Barlow is forced to think again by the new GT

Stare at the GT's nose long enough -- trust me, you won't be able to tear your eyes away from it -- and an unusual thing happens. In the midst of all the scoops, air ducts and the biggest, baddest white stripe this side of Starsky's Gran Torino, you'll spot a familiar blue oval. It's the Ford badge, as iconic as the Coca Cola swirl or the Nike swoosh, but currently as embattled as a ship on a storm-tossed sea. And it looks perfect.

Stare at the GT's nose long enough -- trust me, you won't be able to tear your eyes away from it -- and an unusual thing happens. In the midst of all the scoops, air ducts and the biggest, baddest white stripe this side of Starsky's Gran Torino, you'll spot a familiar blue oval. It's the Ford badge, as iconic as the Coca Cola swirl or the Nike swoosh, but currently as embattled as a ship on a storm-tossed sea. And it looks perfect.

This is Ford's conundrum: The problem is that the nature of desire has changed dramatically. A generation ago, a Cortina with vinyl on its roof and wood appliqué on the dash represented the apogee of middle-class aspiration. Now everyone's a design expert, knows their Arne Jacobsen from their Arnie Schwarzenegger, and wants a car that reflects their personal brand values. Where does Ford fit into that little lot? Who knows.

Oddly enough, brand psychology isn't something that crosses your mind all that often when you're driving the 550bhp, £120,000 GT. Even in an ocean of Focuses, Mondeos, hell even if you find yourself surrounded by a gang of geriatric oxidised Escorts, the GT wears its badge with epic pride. And no wonder. All things considered, this could well be the best and most ballsy Ford the company has ever made.

It's certainly the best-looking. Even here, though, there's controversy. Something about the uncertain times we live in has sent us all scurrying into the past for comfort, but embrace retro too vigorously and you lay yourself open to charges of creative bankruptcy. It's an accusation J Mays, Ford's vice-president for design, is used to dealing with. Lately he's been busy orchestrating something called the "Living Legends" programme, which has seen a number of heritage American Ford products dusted down and given a post-modern remix. With varying degrees of success, it has to be said. But not in the GT's case, and not with the GT40, one of the great sports cars of all time, as the template. This is an absolute triumph.

"Designing a modern interpretation of a classic is more difficult than designing from a clean sheet of paper," Mays says. "We've had to strike a delicate balance in creating a slightly updated Ford GT that features new technology."

He needn't worry. The design fascists in their funny spectacles can sit around their ridiculous chromed espresso machines all day long if they want - the GT is the sort of car that has people walking into lamp-posts in an effort to get a better look. Now that's my definition of good design.

There simply isn't a duff detail anywhere. Longer, wider and taller than the original Sixties car, the GT still marries a sublimely graceful form with the functional brutalism characteristic of most mid-engined supercars. In fact, it's almost cartoonish, all malevolent bug-eyed stare, huge tyres, and swollen hips. Even the doors -- and supercars are legally obliged to turn the act of simply getting in and out into pure theatre -- generate enough drama to gather a small crowd. They eat so far into the roof that there isn't much roof left, and require the occupants to duck as they're pulled shut. The sense of occasion is appropriately cranked up.

Though with a 550bhp, 5.4-litre supercharged V8 nestling just behind your head, that's hardly something you'd say was missing. Nor is the remainder of the GT technologically destitute. Apart from the glassfibre bonnet, this car is fashioned exclusively from lightweight aluminium, and the panels are hung off an aluminium spaceframe chassis. The suspension features forged aluminium double wishbones. And inside there are several acres of, you guessed it, aluminium. The transmission tunnel, though, is magnesium and houses the fuel tank, with obvious weight distribution and safety benefits. Frankly, it's about as retro as a weekend for two on Mars.

Inside, well, given that a lot of overweight Americans are destined to sit in here, the range of adjustment and comfort on offer is remarkable for a car that has every right to be obnoxious. The seats -- carbon fibre backed, leather trimmed and with eye-catching race-car perforations -- are terrific, and the chunky steering wheel is perfectly angled. There's a bank of old-school dials, with a rev counter sited right in front of you at one end and the speedo at the other, closer to the passenger but tipped towards the driver.

There are quality glitches: the dash under-tray is flimsy, the window switches and column stalks are barely fit for an ancient Mondeo mini-cab. But what remains is less a car, more a full-blown event. That's hardly a surprise. What is mildly shocking is just how easy this big, extravagantly low Ford is to drive. Rear vision is largely hopeless, and the door mirrors aren't even big enough to be all that helpful either. But its twin-plate clutch has a wonderfully progressive take-up, and none of the expected petulant abruptness.

Better even than that is the astonishingly precise way in which the six-speed manual gearbox swaps cogs. And the transmission is mated to a powertrain that wallows in a vast reservoir of torque. Let me put it another way -- instead of keening down the road like a highly-strung terrier, the Ford lopes effortlessly along like some vast shaggy sheep dog. Nor does it shriek anything like as savagely as the Ferrari 360 Modena. In fact, supercharger whine apart, it's almost too civilised. Which isn't to say it's disappointing. Just different. In sixth, for example, it'll pull with no grumbles from under 1,000rpm. Mind you, bury your foot in first, second or third gear and the GT accelerates with such abandon that it's all planet Earth can do to contain it.

This is one of those cars for which the word fast suddenly seems redundant. It takes off in true muscle-car style, and you need handfuls of opposite lock just to get it onto trajectory -- there's no electronic traction control, and not even those vast rear tyres can funnel all that horsepower cleanly onto tarmac. But once you're away, there's plenty of grip and the sensory overload kicks in.

The GT streaks along with all the unstoppable momentum of a comet, piles on speed in a way that's barely believable. It's a faintly daft boast, but Ford is proud of the fact that the GT will top 205mph. Subtle aerodynamic modifications ensure that the stability the original car so lacked is firmly in place on its 21st century reincarnation. Its brakes are stupendous too.

It wasn't all that long ago that Ford looked like a company that was being gradually run into the ground by a bunch of car-hating bean counters. All manner of atrocities were being committed in the name of the blue oval. The GT, though, is a work of crazed genius, an utterly irrational, genuinely soulful, 550bhp piece of arrant nonsense that has no need to be in this day and age.

I absolutely loved it.

One they made earlier

The car industry is full of brinkmanship, but the GT40 tale really takes the biscuit. Henry Ford II, grandson of the company's founder, desperately wanted to win the Le Mans 24-hour endurance classic, and figured that buying Ferrari would be the easiest way to achieve it. But he didn't reckon on Enzo Ferrari's legendary stubbornness.

When the Old Man refused to sell, the Americans, in a fit of pique, set about creating their own world-beating sports car. Taking over a race-car project begun by small British engineering concern Lola, the Anglo-American GT40 began to hit its stride in 1966 when the car scored a resounding 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans. It was the start of a formidable winning streak; success came again in 1967, 1968 and 1969, the latter two victories racked up by John Wyer's Gulf-sponsored team.

Sixties' road-going GT40 spin-offs were based on the visually compromised MkIII version of the car, but the new GT wisely looks to the original, jaw-dropping MkI for its inspiration. A wonderfully executed homage to one of the most celebrated cars of all time, only 28 Ford GTs will be imported to the UK, with deliveries not due to begin until Spring 2005. Needless to say, demand has outstripped supply.

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