Special Coverage

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DEARBORN – Ford Motor Co. unveils three new niche vehicles as part of a strategy to “trend towards products that are unique,” a top marketing official says.

“If you back up and look outside the auto industry, there’s a lot more trends out there driving this,” says Barry Engle, general manager-Ford Div. marketing.

“For example, you can go on eBay and buy just about anything. And when people have the opportunity to do that, it starts to influence their buying habits in a lot of different areas,” he says at a preview of the vehicles here.

“People want something really unique that matches there own wants and needs.”

The three limited-edition products, scheduled to be publicly revealed at next week’s New York Auto Show, are the Shelby GT500 KR (King of the Road), the F-150 Foose Edition and the Ford Expedition Funkmaster Flex Edition.

Tempering the enthusiasm for the new products, however, is the revelation Ford expects March sales to decline by double-digits compared with year-ago, U.S. Sales Analyst George Pipas says.

“A double-digit decline is in the cards in March because of continued reduction in daily rental business, as well as what could be a double-digit decline in retail sales,” he says, adding that most of the decline is due to a poor year-over-year comparison with F-Series pickup sales.

“March last year was our biggest retail month of the year and the biggest F-Series month of the year,” Pipas tells Ward’s. “We sold 84,000 F-Series in March last year and the next best month was 76,000.”

Official March sales results will be announced April 3.

Meanwhile, Ford hopes the trio of limited-edition products will help spark some interest in its lineup and fuel its attempt to regain retail market share in North America.

The Shelby Cobra GT500KR will be limited to only 1,000 units, Engle says, adding that exclusivity is essential to the marketing of niche vehicles. Ford currently is developing a strategy as to how to allot the units to its some 4,400 dealers.

The 540-hp Cobra, developed in conjunction with racing legend Carroll Shelby, is patterned after the iconic ‘68 Shelby Cobra GT500KR and slated to hit the market in spring 2008.

Hip-hop artist and car aficionado Funkmaster Flex worked with Ford designers and engineers to create the ’08 Ford Expedition Funkmaster Flex Edition, which will arrive in dealerships this fall.

The special-edition Expedition SUV boasts two-tone paint and a body kit by the Newport Beach, CA-based aftermarket specialist 3d Carbon.

The Expedition is expected to appeal to a young urban market, Funkmaster Flex says.

“I know what’s going down in the street,” he says. “I’m not doing this by choosing my favorite (things). I’m doing research to find out what kids like. I’m taking what’s going on out there and injecting it into vehicles.”

The ’08 Ford F-150 Foose Edition will be the most powerful half-ton truck on the market when it hits the streets later this year, Ford says.

Designed in collaboration with hot-rod specialist and TV personality Chip Foose, the limited-edition F-150 will be powered by a supercharged V-8 delivering 450 hp and 500 lb.-ft. (678 Nm) of torque.

The truck also features a number of body enhancements and 22-in. wheels.

Pricing of all three vehicles will be revealed closer to their respective on-sale dates, Ford says.

Ford’s Special Vehicle Team worked on all three vehicles, although only the GT500KR was developed fully by the in-house performance division.

SVT has undergone changes of late, after Hau Thai-Tang, former director-advanced product creation and SVT, was reassigned to Brazil last month to serve as director-product development for Ford South America Operations.

Now heading up the team is Hermann Salenbauch, formerly of BMW AG.

Salenbauch says he plans to follow the business strategy formulated by his predecessor, which calls for one car and one truck in the SVT lineup.

“I don’t need to reinvent anything,” he tells Ward’s. “It’s already there.”

The car in the lineup is both the GT500KR and the less-powerful Shelby GT500, Ford says, noting they are derivatives of one product.

The SVT truck has yet to be announced, and Salenbauch declines to reveal a timeframe for its arrival or describe what model it will be based on.

As far as the health of the SVT organization, which was founded in 1991, Salenbauch disputes media reports Ford has all but abandoned it due to its ongoing financial woes.

“We are fully funded and have a strongly committed leadership team,” he says, adding that SVT currently has 74 full-time engineers on staff.

Salenbauch believes the Mustang can go head-to-head with all competitors, including the impending Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger muscle cars.

“We know the competition will get stronger and so will interest in the segment with the Challenger and Camaro coming in,” he says. “But we are very confident. We’ve beaten them in the past and look forward to doing that again.”

bpope@wardsauto.com