Roy Lunn has died at his home in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 92, . Headlines will remember him as "the godfather of the Ford GT40." That's one hell of an epitaph. It's also a frightfully insufficient summary of Lunn's career.
Born in England in 1925, Lunn was trained in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. After serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, he joined AC Cars as a designer in 1946. Just one year later, he was hired by Aston Martin, where he oversaw the DB2 program and prepared the factory team's entries at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Lunn joined Ford of England in 1953, where he oversaw the design and production of the 105-E Anglia, produced from 1959 to 1968 with record-setting popularity.
Lunn came to the United States in 1958, joining the team at Ford's Advanced Vehicle Center. There, he worked on high-tech projects including the European market 1966-1970 Taunus, Ford's first front-wheel-drive production car.
That's a lifetime of accomplishments for a typical auto engineer, but for Lunn, it was just the beginning. In 1962, his team created the first Ford Mustang in just 100 days. In nearly every way, it was the opposite of the car Ford introduced in 1964: A two-seat, mid-engine sports car with a four-cylinder engine and no roof. It was a preview of what would be Lunn's greatest motorsports accomplishment.
In 1963, Lunn was selected to head up Ford's effort to beat Ferrari at the greatest sports car race in the world: The 24 Hours of Le Mans. As Preston Lerner explains it in , Lunn codified the GT40 concept in a June 1963 memo: "A high-performance two-seater sports car prototype that, if produced in low volume, would neutralize the Corvette image by substantially better performance and by surpassing it in style and feature appeal."
Lunn got approval from Ford CEO Henry Ford II, and began engineering a world-beating American sports car. Using the Lola Mk6 as a very rough starting point, Lunn and his team turned out the first Ford GT40 in 1964. The rest, of course, is legend: A 1-2-3 podium sweep at Le Mans in 1966, followed by an all-American victory in 1967, and trophies again in 1968 and 1969. By then, Lunn has pivoted from working in-house at Ford to working full-time at Kar Kraft, the Dearborn-based Ford skunkworks where he birthed the Boss 429 Mustang.
In 1971, Lunn left for AMC, where he was hired as Jeep's chief engineer. Lunn's accomplishments at AMC helped pave the way for the cars that dominate America's roads today. He pioneered the XJ-generation Cherokee, the world's first unibody 4x4 and the vehicle that kicked off the SUV and crossover trends that sway the automotive market to this day. By the time North American XJ production ended in 2001, more than 3 million units had been built. And he created the AMC Eagle, the first viable mainstream all-wheel drive family car.
Lunn retired from AMC in 1985, but his work didn't stop there. Immediately, he took a position as vice president of engineering at AM General, where he oversaw the finalization of the Humvee and its acceptance and deployment to the US Army. Finally, he retired in 1987 and moved to Florida.
"Retired" is perhaps an overstatement. After leaving AMC, Lunn wrote three books: 2004's ; 2008's ; and 2009's , a book that traces the global economic recession of 2008 back to the oil troubles of the 1970s. In July 2016, , marking the 50th anniversary of his GT40's first victory at Le Mans. The tribute montage that accompanied his induction serves as a poignant summary of his accomplishments:
Lunn closed his acceptance speech, , by saying "I'm going to continue to work on future vehicles in the hopes that I can get programs towards sustainability moving in the industry. My career, I hope, isn't over yet." He was 91 years old at the time.
You read through Lunn's achievements, listed in chronological order, and you find yourself saying "wow," over and over. It's hard to think of a category of automobiles where he didn't have influence: race cars, performance street cars, all-wheel-drive crossovers, SUVs. After moving to Santa Barbara in 2015, Lunn kept working. Last year, he was designing the next "people's car," an affordable, sustainable vehicle built with today's energy concerns in mind.
"What I am doing is at least 60 years away, and what it involves is being made of materials that are reproducible, including the fuels they run on. There is no metal. It has to come from nature's cycles—air, wind and sun—or grown as a recyclable crop," he told Automotive News.
Lunn was involved with the University of California, Santa Barbara, until the very end, mentoring mechanical engineering students and working on 3D modeling of his latest automotive ideas. can be made to the UCSB Foundation, and will go to support the Department of Mechanical Engineering.