Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ford SVT Special Vehicles Team

Field of Dreams was released in 1989, and we can only guess that Bob Rewey, (then) group vice president for Ford marketing and sales, and Neil Ressler, (then) chief technical officer for Ford, were Costner fans, because in 1991, they announced their plans to develop an in-house "skunkworks" street performance division, hoping that if they (Ford) built it, they (the enthusiasts) would come.

The official line from Rewey and Ressler was that a "Special Vehicle Team" (SVT) would "Polish the Ford Oval." In reality, it was a way for Ford to trump Chevrolet, as their redesigned 1993 Camaro Z28 was sure to be a dinger, thanks to a 275-horsepower LT1 motor and a six-speed manual transmission.

Getting approval for the project wasn't going to be easy. Ford had previously attempted to build a limited batch of niche performance vehicles, and the results weren't exactly "home run" material. In 1981, Ford created a specialty performance division called "Special Vehicle Operations," (SVO) and tasked them with building a vehicle that would compete with the hot new compact European cars, like the BMW 318.

The SVO team consisted of 28 employees who were tasked with designing and developing a Mustang that promoted a more European feel; to build a car with a European flare, and to emphasize handling rather than horsepower.

Expensive Koni shocks and struts were fitted to an otherwise stock Fox-bodied Mustang, along with 4-wheel disc brakes (which were practically unheard of in a vehicle from that era), 5-lug 16-inch wheels (the Corvette was the only other American car to offer a 16" wheel at that time), and other improved suspension goodies.

Under the hood, Ford paired their 2.3-liter 4-cylinder motor with an intercooled turbocharger, multi-port fuel injection (again, remember that carburetors were still very much the norm in 1984), a functional hood scoop, and a few other performance pieces. A body kit was also developed, complete with functional scoops, and the result was a Mustang that developed 175 horsepower and delivered an almost European feel.

Ultimately, Americans didn't take to the Euro-stang, and despite adding another 30 horsepower to the steed for 1985 and early 86, Ford ultimately cancelled the project, having sold just 9,844 copies over 2 years. The SVO team was assigned to performance parts duty, and Ford benched the idea of an in-house performance division for a few years.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Ford Europe had its own performance-tuning group, known as "Special Vehicle Engineering" (SVE). SVE was cranking out hot hatches such as the Cosworth Sierra and the Cosworth Escort.

Fast forward a few years and stateside, Ford was enjoying success with their new Taurus and revised Thunderbird, so the Ford execs decided to once again play the hot rod card, and the SHO and Super Coupe were introduced to the American public as options for the 1988 Taurus and Thunderbird, respectively.

Both vehicles would enjoy some success, but ultimately a lack of marketing backing, inadequate dealer training, and a general lack of attention from Ford brass would send the SHO and Super Coupe back to the dugout. Granted, the vehicles were innovative (who could argue with a 24-valve 200+ horsepower 4-door sedan with a 5-speed manual transmission?) and had cult followings, but they didn't deliver all-star sales performances.

When rumor of GM's "Mustang-eating" Camaro hit the Ford campus, Ressler and Rewey sprung into action. They developed a business plan that included staffing and supporting an in-house performance division (later to be known as "Special Vehicle Team", or SVT) with true performance enthusiasts. The performance division would require support from Ford's marketing department and dealer networks, salespeople would have to be trained to address the needs and wants of an SVT buyer. Technicians would have to be trained to properly repair SVT's vehicles. And most of all, SVT would have to be about delivering performance, substance, exclusivity, and value.

Those four requirements would drive the SVT division over the next decade, and the results would speak for themselves. In 1992, less than a year after SVT was reborn, Ford unveiled the 1993 Mustang Cobra at the Chicago Auto Show.

The Cobra was unlike any recent effort from Ford, and even the name bore an interesting story line. Ford officials had wanted to call the SVT Mustang the "GT-40," but decided to use the Cobra name literally in the "bottom of the ninth." It seems there were legal implications with the GT-40 nameplate (as Ford would rediscover a dozen years later), and the Cobra name was in jeopardy of being forfeited due to inactivity. The last Cobra to grace the streets was a 1979 Mustang, and it featured a gaudy neon green Cobra sticker on the hood to prove it.

The 1993 Mustang Cobra was clean, lean, and mean. It boasted a 235 horsepower 5.0-liter V8 that, thanks to a slew of performance bolt-ons from the Ford Motorsport division parts bins, realistically produced somewhere near 270 horsepower. The under hood goodies included such items as: GT-40 cylinder heads, GT-40 upper and lower intake manifolds, larger fuel injectors, a hotter camshaft, roller rocker arms, and a bunch of other internal and external improvements.

Performance-wise, the Mustang Cobra would promise to deliver not only at the drag strip, but at the road course as well. Thanks to massive 17" wheels, improved suspension (tuned with help from legendary racer Jackie Stewart) and brakes, a beefy 5-speed manual transmission, and a stylish body kit complete with Cobra emblems on the fenders and a galloping Mustang in the nose, the 1993 Mustang Cobra handled as well as it accelerated.

When the 1993 Mustang Cobra went on sale to the public, Ford made good on its other two commitments, value and exclusivity. Pricing was right around $21,000 dependent upon options, and production was limited to just 4,993 units. All were snatched up quickly.

Journalists and enthusiasts alike welcomed the Cobra with open arms. Magazine comparison tests were often "split decisions," both Ford's Cobra and GM's Z28 had delivered amazing performances, and the fans were enjoying what would unofficially represent the initiation of the second coming of the "horsepower wars" that were prevalent during the 1960's and early, 70's.

Meanwhile, Ford had also developed and released an unlikely vehicle, the SVT Lightning, a full-size, performance oriented F150 truck. The Lightning was designed to compete with the hot new GMC Syclone and the brutish Chevrolet SS454 pickup truck.

Ford took an interesting approach to the sport-pickup category, choosing to fit a 240 horsepower, 5.8-liter Windsor V8 to the Lightning, and mating it to a 4-speed automatic transmission with 4.10:1 rear end gears. Once again, Ford threw a curve ball at the horsepower ratings, as most people quickly discovered the Lightning possessed closer to 300 horsepower than its rated 240. The horsepower wars were truly back in full swing, complete with the familiar sandbagging and competitive positioning games.

Handling was improved with help from 6 shocks (2 up front, 4 out back), a lowered stance, large 17" wheels (a first for any pickup truck), and improved brakes. An embroidered cloth interior, leather wrapped steering wheel, and body-color tubular bumpers literally rounded out the Lightning's appearance package.

Motor Trend magazine would later heap tons of praise on the Lightning, exclaiming that it was more than capable of surprising both Corvette and Camaro owners if the opportunity presented itself.

The SVT organization included more than 120 staff members, and by the end of 1993, Ford hit another performance grand slam by unveiling an extremely limited production Mustang Cobra R. Designed to compete in SCCA and IMSA events, only 107 copies of the Cobra R were built, most of which were promptly snatched up by collectors.

The $25,217 Cobra R wasn't heavy on creature comforts. Ford intended the car to be a single-purposed road course racer, and as such fit it with a combination of expensive, adjustable Koni struts with Eibach springs, upgraded disc brakes (that cost Ford $2,100 per vehicle), and 450 pounds of weight saving deletions (read: no A/C, no radio, no power options, no sound deadening materials, no sunroof, no back seat, and so on). Special "blackout" 17-inch wheels and the same 235 horsepower 5.0L V8 as delivered with the "plain" Cobra rounded out the Cobra R, which was assembled primarily at Ford's Dearborn Assembly Plant (DAP).

Ford was flying high thanks to the new found success of its SVT organization, and things were only looking better and better. Perhaps best of all, the SVT unit was its own entity within Ford's hierarchy, and technically didn't report to stockholder's wants and wishes. As such, the organization enjoyed the freedom to do as it saw fit, all in the name of providing performance, substance, exclusivity, and value to the "niche marketing experiment."

1994 brought about a redesigned Mustang, and as such, the Cobra Mustang received the appropriate revisions. Large 13" front rotors with upgraded calipers and standard ABS replaced the previous Cobra's 10.84, units. Suspension revisions were implemented to take advantage of the stiffer Fox-4 platform. The 235 horsepower 5-liter V8 received a few minor tweaks to produce 240 horsepower.

To celebrate the new Mustang platform, the Cobra Convertible (the first of its kind) was selected to pace the 1994 Indianapolis 500 race, and to commemorate the event Ford produced 1,000 Rio Red Mustang Cobra Convertibles, promptly selling every one of them to hungry buyers. Ford would sell another 5,009 Cobra coupes in 1994 for a total of 6,009 Cobras, yet the fans still wanted more. The Lightning sold 4,007 units, slightly down from the 5,276 sold in 1993.

Speaking of wanting more, racers were dying to get their hands on a Cobra R, after having nearly every one of the 107 1993 Cobra R's sell to collectors. To appease the racing crowd, Ford built and delivered 250 copies of the 1995 Cobra R, which featured a 300 horsepower version of Ford's marine 351 cubic-inch Windsor motor. The monster motor was coupled to a heavy duty Tremec 3550 5-speed, capable of handling the 365 lb-ft of torque from the 5.8L V8.

In a feeble attempt to deliver the Cobra R to "legitimate" racers, Ford required potential buyers to present either an IMSA or SCCA license prior to placing their order. It seemed as though collectors were quite resourceful, because despite the license requirement, many of the Cobra R's wound-up in the garages of collectors.

A larger fiberglass hood was fitted to the 1995 Cobra R to facilitate the taller motor, while special 17" 5-spoke wheels helped deliver additional performance. True to the first Cobra R, many creature comforts were deleted in the interest of saving weight, including the standard fuel tank, which was replaced with an IMSA- and SCCA-approved 20-gallon fuel cell. The $35,000 Cobra R was once again built at DAP, with some final assembly taking place at MasoTech, a company responsible for fitting the fuel cells and larger cooling systems.

Mustang enthusiasts were quickly attracted to the Cobra R's tall hood, sexy wheels, stout motor, and other performance bits, and as such, spawned a demand for SVT-style performance parts. SVT was growing more and more profitable while remaining true to its original intent of delivering performance, substance, exclusivity, and value.

Changes to the standard Cobra and Lightning were few for 1995, and in fact, the first generation Lightning was nearing the end of its production run, as Ford was getting ready to introduce a redesigned F150 for 1996.

1996 would mark the beginning of yet another new era in the Cobra's short, yet celebrated history. The veteran cast iron 5.0L V8 with its pushrods and single camshaft was retired in favor of Ford's rising star and relatively young "modular" V8. The Cobra's version of the 4.6L all aluminum V8 would further benefit from the addition of double overhead cams, 32 valves, and more than 100 new parts crafted specifically for the Cobra. The end result was a high revving yet torquey V8 that produced 305 naturally aspirated horsepower.

And thanks to the new motor, the Cobra received a revised K-member that allowed for lower placement of the motor in the chassis. This modification, along with subtle suspension refinements helped to improve the Cobra's already superb handling characteristics. 10,002 of the screaming Cobras were delivered in 1996.

A unique color-shifting paint identified as "Mystic" was offered as an option on the 1996 Cobra, and with just 1,999 copies sold, made it one of the most rare Cobras ever produced. The expensive BASF-sourced paint was specially applied and serviced, dealers weren't allowed to keep the paint on hand. Paint was an area in which all SVT vehicles benefited, as they generally received higher quality paint than their standard production brethren, and received more of it. Special attention was paid to areas such as underneath the decklid and hood, wheel wells, and underbody.

1997 included two milestones,  Ford had produced more than 50,000 SVT vehicles to date, and the SVT Contour was introduced as a 1998 model.

The SVT Contour was based largely on a successful version of the European Mondeo, and in the early stages of development saw several different powertrain options. Ford had considered fitting a turbocharged 1.8L 4-cylinder, which would have been sourced from Europe, and produced as much power as other larger engines being considered for the project.

Ford even considered using a 3.0L V6 from the Taurus, but ultimately decided against both the 1.8T and 3.0-V6 after cost-benefit analysis proved unattractive, thanks to the need for new emissions and crash test certifications. In an effort to resolve the powertrain issue, John Coletti, director of the Ford SVT division asked bluntly, "What would a hot-rodder do?"

And thus the decision to modify the existing 2.5-liter Duratec V6 was cemented. Ford tweaked the double-overhead cammed motor to produce 195 horsepower, which was good enough to best the likes of the Acura Integra GS-R, the Audi A4 1.8T, the VW Jetta GLX, and the turbocharged Saab 900S. Not bad for a 4-door sedan that cost $22,900.

Value and substance played important roles in the development of the SVT Contour, as evidenced by the packaging. Instead of fitting the Contour with a spoiler, Coletti and his crew put the money into improving the Contour's rear brakes. Ford was obviously more concerned with delivering performance and substance than it was styling and frill, and the enthusiasts never complained. But who could argue with statistics that included a 7.1 0-60 time and 0.90 g's on the skidpad?

The SVT Contour would enjoy a three-year run, but ultimately wouldn't sell many copies. 6,535 units were delivered in 1998, 2,760 in 1999, and just 2,150 in 2000. Despite the attractive price and world-class handling, the SVT Contour didn't catch on as well as the Mustang and Lightning had.

1999 included yet another set of significant changes to the SVT roster, as the Lightning was reintroduced to the batting line-up, and was swinging one heckuva bat. The story behind the second-generation Lightning is quite interesting, as it almost "didn't come to be."

Rather than stuff a 5.8L V8 into the new F150 chassis, Coletti and company stepped back and asked, "What hasn't been done?" Two ideas immediately surfaced - a V8-powered Ranger, and a supercharged F150.

The 1999 SVT truck prototype line-up included a Ranger that was powered by a 5.0L Cobra motor, and featured a 5-speed manual transmission, 17-inch Cobra wheels, four wheel disc brakes and bucket seats. Batting clean-up on the prototype roster was a supercharged SOHC 5.4L V8 F150 Lightning, with a slammed stance, massive brakes, and tons of attitude. Ford stakeholders and focus groups were presented with both the hopped-up Ranger and the new Lightning. Both were well received, but the full-sized Lightning overwhelmingly won the popular vote.

It was easy to like the Lightning, thanks to its 360 horsepower motor, large side-exit exhausts, improved suspension, and its first-ever-for-SVT 18-inch wheels. The step-side styling prefaced a menacing disposition, thanks in part to a lowered stance, revised bodywork, and that menacing growl that belched HP from under its hood.

Ford delivered 360 horses and 440 lb-ft of torque by way of an Eaton M-112 roots-type supercharger, which forced its intercooled air into a 5.4L version of the aluminum-headed modular motor. The internals were treated to a healthy dose of fortification, and were, for all intents and purposes, bulletproof.

The 1999 Lightning's suspension was more than up to the task of handling all of that power, as the SVT team carefully chose the appropriate bits and pieces for the Lightning's underpinnings. Special gas charged shocks and unique coil springs worked with a larger front sway bar to plant the front end. Leaf springs in the rear were combined with staggered shocks while a 23mm sway bar kept the rear end in check. And when combined with the large, 295/45/ZR18 Goodyear tires, the 1999 Lightning felt less like a 5000-pound truck and more like a finely honed sports car.

Fear not, the Cobra also underwent significant revisions for 1999, the most notable of which included an independent rear suspension. The unit, sourced from the Lincoln Mark VIII, was carefully fitted to the Mustang's chassis, and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Even the most hard-to-impress journalists were swooning over the new set-up, stating that the rear end stayed planted and tractable under all conditions, while providing a ride that didn't beat-up its passengers.

While the ride was smooth and compliant, the revised 32-valve DOHC 4.6L V8 promised to deliver punishing performance, thanks to a claimed 320 horsepower output rating. The naturally aspirated motor won accolades from the press, who recorded impressive 0-60 times and quarter mile performance.

Owners, on the other hand, complained that production versions of their Cobras felt limp-wristed, and their assumptions proved true. Thanks to flaws in the intake manifold casting process, and the last minute decision to fit a more restrictive exhaust system, power figures fell short of SVT's advertised torque and horsepower figures. Ford SVT stood by its product and forewent a year of production (there was no 2000 model year Cobra) to work with owners to correct their power woes. Vehicles were retrofitted with proper parts and serviced, and all 8,095 owners of the 1999 Cobra were left, for the most part, happy and satisfied.

The production downtime in 2000 allowed SVT to build yet another Cobra R, and this one was really quite the humdinger. If the 1995 Cobra R was a grand slam, the 2000 Cobra R was a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in the final game of the World Series, where 4 runs were needed for the win.

All 300 copies of the 2000 Cobra R benefited from a 5.4-liter, double overhead cam V8 that featured Roush Racing developed cylinder heads that delivered 25% more flow over stock units, Carillo connecting rods, forged pistons, a heavy duty crankshaft, and a one-off, custom fabricated upper intake manifold. The result was some 385 naturally aspirated horsepower, which flowed through a Tremec T56 6-speed transmission, and wound-up motivating 18-inch wheels.

Huge 4-piston Brembo brakes slowed the Cobra R from its 170 mph top speed; custom Recaro seats kept driver and passenger firmly in place while Bilstein struts and Eibach springs glued the Cobra R to the tarmac. True to the history of past Cobra R's, the 2000 R featured many deleted options including the backseat and traditional fuel tank. Instead, owners were treated to a slab of carpeting, a 21-gallon fuel cell, and a roll bar.

Functional spoilers, air splitters, and twin-side exhausts gave the $54,995 Cobra R a "we mean business" appearance. 12.5-second quarter mile performance times and record-setting road-course lap times backed-up the Cobra's mean looks and astounding price tag.

Back on the production line, the Cobra bounced back in 2001 stronger than ever, and thanks to minor tweaks to the engine and drivetrain, delivered its best performance figures to date. Quarter mile times, on stock tires, landed in the 13.3-second range with speeds in excess of 104 miles per hour. 7,251 units were sold in 2001. The Cobra remained largely unchanged for 2002.

The Lightning, however, continued to undergo subtle refinements and improvements, and from 2001 through 2004, made 380 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. With a 3.73:1 rear gear ratio, the Lightning would sprint to sixty in well under six seconds, and finished the quarter mile in less than 14-seconds. Again, we feel compelled to remind you that this was a truck that weighed nearly 5,000 pounds and cost less than $35,000. And despite the wicked straight-line bravado, the Lightning continued to handle with the best of them, and now wore 12.1, front disc brakes and 13.0, rear discs.

Sometime around 2002, Ford recognized the growing import and "hot-hatch" craze, and realizing that it too needed to capture a portion of the younger demographic, decided to offer an SVT version of its fun new Focus. Swinging a 2.0-liter version of the Cosworth 4-cylinder from Europe's Focus ST170, America's Zetec 2.0L Focus delivered 170 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm. Best of all, more than 85% of its torque was available from 2,200 rpm, making the SVT Focus feel more responsive and "grunty" than its overseas competition.

A Getrag-sourced 6-speed manual transaxle handled gear-changing duties, while suspension that was 10% stiffer up front and 20% stiffer out back provided improved handling and response characteristics. 17-inch wheels rounded out the handling package, while a smartly trimmed leather interior with cloth inserts promoted a much more upscale feel than the sub-$18,000 price let on.

The SVT Focus placed an emphasis on handling, much like the SVT Contour did, and 4,788 lucky people took ownership of the 2002 Ford SVT Focus. The 2003 model year included a limited edition European package option that included several upgrades, including optional high intensity discharge lighting, traction control, and heated leather seats.

But despite all of the performance enhancers, upscale treatments, and accolades from the press (the SVT Focus won a spot on Car and Driver's 10 Best list, an Automobile's All-Star Award, and one of Sport Compact Car's 8 Great Rides awards) the Focus wasn't well received by the masses, and was subsequently dropped at the end of the 2004 model year.

Ford built it, and unfortunately few came for it. Perhaps the SVT Focus suffered from a lack of horsepower, or struck out to a predominant market shift toward more high-strung cars like the turbocharged Volkswagens and Audis, or the decidedly more European offerings like the MINI Cooper. Or perhaps it was due to a lack of internal focus on Ford's part,  SVT had been tasked with the nearly impossible job of building the all-new Ford GT (previously known as the GT-40) with less than a year's worth of notice.

Ford brass insisted that the GT be available for Ford's 100th anniversary celebration in 2003, and required that three of the new GTs lead-off the celebration by pacing the Ford Centennial parade. SVT was up to the task, and delivered three GTs just in time for the June 2003 event. Unfortunately for the SVT group, involvement with the GT project also meant it would no longer enjoy the same amount of freedom it once had.

Demanding more SVT resources was the 2003 Cobra, complete with a special limited edition 10th anniversary model, of which just 2,003 copies were produced, and another limited edition run of 1,010 Mystichrome Cobras that featured not only color shifting paint but color shifting leather inserts as well.

2003 model year Cobras would also be the most powerful Mustangs to ever leave the assembly line, and benefited from revised heads, camshafts, fuel injectors, and other internals designed to accommodate the newly fitted Eaton M-112 supercharger.

The blower, when combined with the other engine improvements (that included a beefier cast iron block rather than an aluminum one), helped deliver 390 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. When combined with a 6-speed manual transmission and the independently suspended rear end, the 2003 Cobra ran the quarter-mile in just 12.67 seconds at more than 110 mph.

Bilstein suspension pieces were sourced specifically for coupe and convertible models, while Brembo brakes provided the stopping power necessary for such a venomous beast. Ford built and sold more than 13,000 Cobras in 2003, and by doing so, had sold more than 145,000 SVT vehicles since reemerging in 1993.

In 2004, the Mustang proved its staying power by outlasting its primary competition. Chevrolet ceased production of its Camaro, and Ford enjoyed the distinction of offering the only front-engined V8, rear wheel driven, "pony car" configuration.

But here's where the story takes a twist. The Mustang was due for a complete redesign in 2005, the F150 had undergone a redesign in 2004, and Ford hadn't announced any definitive plans for future SVT models. Ford had shown a 390-horsepower Sport Trak Adrenaline at automotive shows in 2004, but where were the SVT Mustangs? Had the GT stolen all of the SVT thunder?

Even more disconcerting was the somewhat unanticipated reorganization of the SVT and Advanced Product Creation groups. Chris Theodore, vice president of Advanced Product Creation tendered his resignation effective December 1, 2004. John Coletti submitted his resignation effective at the end of 2004, and by doing so, ended his 33-year tenure at Ford, 11 of which were dedicated to SVT. Coletti was literally the man behind the Cobra R projects, the 2nd generation Lightning, the SVT Contour, the SVT Focus, the 2003 Cobra, and the Ford GT. His contributions to the SVT organization were nothing short of legendary, and his sudden departure was somewhat disconcerting.

Coletti tried to reassure the public by saying the SVT group was in good shape as he left the organization. "You have a cycle plan. You [put a] very special product on the street, and Ford is backing it." Coletti was referring, of course to the Ford GT, which is slated for production through 2006. Coletti finished by saying, "How can you top this? The GT, to me, is just the crowning achievement in my life."

But Coletti wouldn't rule out his options of working for another car company, provided he's given the opportunity to work on a car better than the GT. In the mean time, Hau Thai-Tang, chief engineer for the 2005 Mustang project, was appointed as director for the Advanced Product Creation and Special Vehicle Team. He'll report directly to Phil Martens; Coletti was supposed to report to Thai-Tang.

So where does all of this leave Ford and its SVT program? According to Ford insiders, the program is alive and stronger than "ever" SVT is simply on a brief sabbatical, as it reorganizes itself and revitalizes its focus.

The 2007 Shelby Mustang Cobra GT500, with its 450+ horsepower was unveiled at the 2005 New York Auto Show, and has already drawn huge accolades from critics. The SVT Sport Trac Adrenaline was also shown at the 2005 New York Auto Show, and if built, promises to take over where the Lightning left off.

In most recent news, Ford announced that it's once again reconsidering the Focus for SVT treatment, and that it has set a five-vehicle limit for SVT production. This has left enthusiasts and insiders to speculate on the remaining vehicles. Will Ford build a SVT FiveHundred? Or a SVT Fusion? At this point, it's hard to tell.

One thing that isn't hard to define is the positive impact that Ford's SVT program has had on the marketplace. Daimler-Chrysler spun its own performance division, SRT, and has enjoyed success with the SRT-4 Neon, the SRT/10 pickup truck, the SRT-8 300C, and the recently released SRT Charger.

SVT paved the way for the likes of the Subaru WRX STi and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, two legendary street performers that pack more punch than both Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire.

The future will soon show us what Ford has in mind for SVT, but until we see those first glimpses of life emerge from the "cornfield," we'll be left to wonder, "Will they build it? And if they do, will the enthusiasts still come?"

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