It takes a bit of confidence to attend to "enthusiast" buyers - they're hard-core, educated perfectionists who know what they want from a vehicle and aren't likely to put up with any foolishness from dealership personnel who aren't of a similar mind.

That's why few manufacturers go much further than simply advertising their "performance" entries. Targeting vehicles specifically at the enthusiast customer is tricky business: BMW AG, with its Motorsports division and the corresponding performance-tuned "M" products it produces, is the lone automaker to have charted these waters with palpable - and consistent success.

Ford Motor Co. reckons there are tangible benefits to be derived from cozying up to enthusiasts, so it concocted the Special Vehicles Team (SVT) to create and market a small lineup (currently only two vehicles) of high-performance vehicles for those seeking vehicles with real driver's appeal.

SVT extends beyond the product, however. Ford has "licensed" just 720 dealers, from its 4,200-odd nationwide, to sell and maintain SVT vehicles. Those dealerships - and their personnel - are expected to make a commitment to the higher level of service and product knowledge SVT says enthusiasts demand.

"We have to be able to speak (to potential SVT vehicle purchasers) as believers, understanders and enthusiasts," says SVT's John Plant.

Ford knows enthusiasts are a tough sell. "More often than not, these people know more about the product than we do ourselves," says one Ford SVT dealer from Tennessee.

"We have to earn this customer's business," asserts another SVT dealer from Illinois. "If we don't seem like we know the product, they'll go to another dealer that does."

That's the carrot at the end of the stick: enthusiasts are a tough sell, but if they're satisfied with their "driver's" car (and the dealership that's hip enough to sell and service it), chances are they'll become loyal customers. In short, Ford believes learning how to treat the SVT owner fight has - you guessed it - a halo" effect.

Ford's SVT dealers seem convinced. To qualify to sell SVT vehicles, each of the 720 had to have high QCP scores, pay "hard money" to Ford and present a proven track record for selling paranormal numbers of SVT-like vehicles - Taurus SHOs, Thunderbird Supercoupes, Mustang GTS.

SVT does no national advertising; its only external public affairs exercises are conducted through the press. SVT conducts numerous product introductions throughout the country - and those SVTers in charge of overseeing the events claim they travel to them only by car, all the better to keep in tune with the romance of the automobile."

Currently, SVT markets only the 240-hp Mustang Cobra (and Cobra R, a 300 -hp club-racing version) and Lightning, a fattired, 240-hp pickup based on the F- 150. More of Ford's model line will doubtless get the SVT treatment - for now they'll only fess up to studying a SVT Thunderbird.