PASADENA, CA — John Coletti acts like a proud papa as he boasts that during its 10-year history the Ford Motor Co.'s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) has built its 100,000th vehicle, a 2002 SVT F-150 Lightning pickup.
It doesn't matter to Coletti, chief engineer and driving force behind SVT, that the Ford Div. alone sells twice that many cars and trucks each month. The SVT badge, he says, proclaims that these vehicles are special: Everyday cars and trucks souped up and engineered as high-performance runners for folks magnetized by superior power, handling and the aura of pushing ahead of the crowd in street-legal machines.
Coletti's latest creation is the 170-hp SVT Focus, under development since mid-1999 and now moving into production at Ford's Hermosillo, Mexico, assembly plant for North American customers and its Saar Louis plant in Germany for the European market.
A stocky, balding 52-year-old engineer and father of four (“Two of each,” he beams) with bright piercing eyes and a demeanor that's both warm and commanding, Coletti leads a small 38-person group, backed by Ford's special vehicles engineering (SVE) group and other parts of the company's empire, with a single mission: To put Ford out front with fast, “halo” vehicles designed to hype interest in its more mundane, conventional cars and trucks.
SVT was launched in February 1992 as a cross-functional group housed together to create low-volume, factory built high-performance cars and trucks.
Its first effort resulted in the 1993 SVT Mustang Cobra, followed by the Cobra R, SVT Contour and Lightning. Coming this fall is the next-generation 2003 Mustang Cobra, SVT's hottest performer, powered by a 4-valve supercharged V-8 spitting out 390 hp and 390 lb.-ft. (529 Nm) of torque and mated to a 6-speed gearbox. First-year production is scheduled at 12,000 units.
An avowed Mustang fanatic, Coletti was a key player in the early 1990s in saving Ford's “pony” car from the cost-cutters' axe. After 30 years, Ford seriously considered killing Mustang. Coletti and his cohorts mounted an internal campaign to upgrade and redesign the car and keep it in production at its home plant at Ford's fabled Rouge assembly plant, visible from its Dearborn World Headquarters.
Then-chairman Alex Trotman, observing that Mustang was the “heart and soul of the Ford Motor Co.,” finally gave the program a green light. The result: The '94 Mustang, which remains as the forerunner of today's version.
“I was a junior at the Edgar A. Guest High School (in suburban Detroit) in Mr. Sutton's civics class in 1964 when I saw Mustang ads saying ‘Coming on April 17,’” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘Ain't that a great-lookin’ car!”
A 30-year Ford veteran, Coletti leads a team that clearly enjoys its assignment. “‘Have fun,’ is in the job description,” says Tom Scarpello, SVT marketing and sales manager. Long a weekend racer, Scarpello joined Ford in the early '90s from a career in aerospace in California.
Perhaps because it's small — or maybe because of Coletti's colorful, but forceful, personality — SVT is largely insulated from the time-consuming, bureaucratic procedures that usually prevail in large companies.
So how does SVT operate? To achieve success, says Coletti, the “program direction must be established, with no churning after it gets started. And you've got to trust your guys implicitly. Once you set the direction, you don't change. If a great idea comes up, we say we'll do it the next time. Big companies are averse to risk, so they typically do double fleets to mitigate risk,” he adds. SVT's modus operandi is to set goals and specifications — and stick to them — avoiding costly and time-consuming backup engineering, he says.
That requires deft handling of Ford regulars in finance, manufacturing and other disciplines with whom SVT interfaces. And, in the case of the SVT Focus program, close coordination with Ford-Europe engineers and other organizations.
SVT's authority even extends to purchasing. “We usually go with mainstream suppliers (for SVT-required components), but we spec out everything — including the suppliers,” he says.
But he's not about to relinquish engineering to “full-service” suppliers. “That doesn't mean suppliers aren't good,” he explains. But if engineering is farmed out “then you get ‘shadow engineering’ (Ford backing up supplier efforts),” which may minimize risk but adds cost and time.
The son of Italian immigrants, Coletti grew up in the Detroit suburb of Roseville, a block from Gratiot Avenue, a favorite teen dragstrip often called the east side equivalent of Woodward Avenue (site of the annual Dream Cruise that attracts millions of car enthusiasts each August). Coletti, who still lives on the east side, describes Gratiot as a “blue collar” strip where youths develop their own rods. Over on Woodward, which slices through several wealthy suburbs, daddy pays the tab, he jokes.
His first brush with the world of screeching tires came when he was 14 and began working on a '64 Plymouth, powered by Chrysler's famous “hemi” engine, which he raced on nearby tracks.
His father was a construction worker and Coletti worked his way through Wayne State University in Detroit in construction jobs and souping up engines in friends' cars. He joined Ford after receiving his B.S. in engineering in 1971, and moved up into a series of increasingly responsible jobs before joining SVT. He earned an MBA from Michigan State University in 1986.
“Times have changed a lot since I went to Wayne,” he says. “I still used a slide rule and an old table-top Wang computer. I bought my first calculator in 1973.”
Now he's an Internet junkie. Recalls a close associate: “John wanted some Cajun shrimp and asked his wife for a recipe. She didn't have one, so he went on the Internet, quickly found 54 recipes, picked one and within five minutes he had it cooking on the stove.”
That could be a metaphor for how Coletti runs SVT.