THE MAN FROM THE FUTURE Roy Lunn
1925 - 2017
THE MAN FROM THE FUTURE Roy Lunn
1925 - 2017
Mercedes-Benz may have invented the automobile and set the template for the next 100 years, but it was the creator of the Ford GT40 that set forth the template for future automobiles.
words by BOBBY ANG
Mercedes-Benz claims to have invented the automobile, and they have more than a solitary claim to the matter. Karl Benz’s creation of the Patent Motorwagen is well documented, whilst the Mercedes 35HP produced later by Daimler Motors Corporation laid the template that influences the configuration of the present day three-box sedan.
Mention the word car to an average person, and likelihood is that the mental image of the standard three-box sedan is conjured. Mercedes-Benz didn’t just invent the car, they went on to influence its form factor for a good one hundred years, but not likely for much longer.
Today, average person’s mindset is in the process of shifting the default form factor of a car will shift from the traditional three-box sedan to the SUV. As car makers successfully eliminated the major weaknesses of the SUV, namely wobbly handling and unrefined road manners, consumers were quickly won over by the SUV’s superior practicality.
It is pointless to resist this change because, rumour has it, even Ferrari is thinking of making one.
The SUV’s ascendancy has been happening for some time, but the breakthrough moment can be traced back to 1984 when American Motors Corporation (AMC) launched the second-generation Jeep Cherokee.
Engineered by the great Roy Lunn, the second-gen Cherokee was the first SUV to eschew body-on-frame construction in favour of a unibody - a move that ensured that it retained the practical SUV shape whilst being much lighter and more refined than the competition.
Additionally, without having to accommodate the bulk of a ladder-frame underside, the Cherokee has a much lower hip point whilst maintaining the SUV’s high ground clearance and ride height.
The Cherokee was properly robust too; Lunn threw it into the proverbial deep end of the pool by registering two units to compete in the Paris-Dakar Rally. There was no victory to boast, but the programme’s objective was met – the Cherokee proved its toughness by finishing the rally without having to worry about anything other than worn shock absorbers.
While this may seem commonplace today, the Cherokee broke further new ground by offering the option of four doors at a time when two was the norm for SUVs – it further added to the Cherokee’s viability as a family hold-all.
It says much about the product’s substance as a product that following the Chrysler buy out of AMC in 1987, production and sale of the Cherokee XJ, albeit constantly refreshed with new features and powertrains, continued until 2001 when it was finally succeeded by the all-new Cherokee KJ.
Alongside the Cherokee XJ, Lunn also notably spearheaded development of the AMC Eagle – a raised height all-wheel driven family vehicle that can be legitimately regarded as the forefather of today’s generation of crossovers.
Prior to his employment by AMC, Lunn had spent 17 years in Ford Motor Company at which his most celebrated achievement took place – the Ford GT40 a.k.a. Hank the Deuce’s middle finger to Enzo Ferrari.
Earlier, Ford was in talks to acquire Ferrari. Discussions hit a dead end because of Enzo’s insistence to retain full control of the company’s racing activities – a troublesome point, since Ford’s motivation in these talks was to expand its motorsports presence. Negotiations eventually collapsed, following which a seething Henry Ford II ordered the development of a car to end Ferrari’s dominance at Le Mans, and Lunn stepped up to answer the call.
Using the Lola Mk6 GT as starting point, Lunn helped satisfy his boss’ grudge by producing a car that broke Ferrari’s dominance at Le Mans with four successive wins from 1966 to 1969, snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak that lasted from 1960 to 1965. The 1966 victory was particularly noteworthy for Ford’s clean sweep of the podium places with a 1-2-3 finish.
Lunn’s other notable achievement in his Ford stint was the successful construction of the 1962 Mustang I prototype. The iconic Mustang that eventually made it to production had little resemblance to the prototype Lunn built, however.
Lunn passed away on 5 August 2017 aged 92 having lived a lifetime of accomplishment. One of his former employers, Ford took notable effort to commemorate the achievements of this ex-employee.
“His legacy as the godfather of the original Ford GT40 was well known throughout the company, and he helped bring Ford a performance car that is just as legendary today as it was in the 1960s. The team that put together the Ford GT of today was inspired by the work of Roy and his team and we will be forever grateful for the work they started. We like to think that his GT40, and our GT of today, are both cars that showcased the best of what Ford Motor Company can do," said Raj Nair, Executive vice president and president of North America, Ford Motor Company.
Whilst the GT40 is his crowning glory, his work at AMC with the Cherokee and Eagle was perhaps his biggest legacy. Undoubtedly, the GT40 was an icon for Ford that existed in a realm higher than even the likes of the Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge Viper could ever dream of; heck, we are talking about a car that spanked Ferrari at Le Mans, how much greater can one get from there?
Judging from its sleek low-slung design, the GT40 would have seemed like a car from the future when it was launched. Such was the GT40’s advantage over the Ferrari, it might have been the one occasion in history when things just seemed so unfair to the Prancing Horse. Yet, from the heights of this achievement, Lunn managed to push on and made an even more significant contribution by very quickly plucking another car from the future – the SUV.
You see, before the Mercedes 35HP, cars used to be like what SUVs are today – tall. The Mercedes 35 sat lower to the ground because it was a period when most cars were built to race, requiring a lower centre of gravity for better stability.
Lunn’s ingenuity in welding a ladder frame to create a unibody to underpin the Eagle paved the way for car makers to solve past handling and refinement issues that blighted the SUV’s appeal in the past. It was the watershed moment that paved the way for SUVs to become the no compromise default car of the future.
Perhaps Roy Lunn didn’t actually leave us, he just went back to where he belonged, where his two greatest creations originated from – the future.
Rest in peace, Roy.