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1968 Ford Mustang Autocross Champ with a Half Century of Chasing Apexes
John Fendel has owned and autocrossed his 1968 fastback since new, and after nearly five decades and 200,000 miles he has no plans of slowing down
John Fendel has been autocrossing his 1968 Mustang Fastback since he bought it brand new; we’ll save you the math, that’s nearly 50 years of sliding through the cones, cutting apexes, and hanging the rear out. In fact, he was into carving cones long before it was popular or remotely supported by the aftermarket.
“In the early days there weren’t suspension kits or soft-compound tires for autocrossing, we had to run heavy-duty suspension from big-block cars, and we had to make our own slicks,” John explained. Back then, the only way to build a corner carver was with patience and plenty of ingenuity–but more on that later. “In 1969 I autocrossed for the first time and it was a hoot; it was challenging without the high-speed crashes like on the road course, and I learned a lot about car control without having to spend a ton of money on safety equipment—just a tank of gas and some tires,” Fendel explained.
Like so many of us, John became a ponycar fan the moment a family member bought one; in his case, a 1967 hardtop his folks purchased new. His father was nice enough to let John drive it several times while he was in college and, as a result, a year later he was at the dealer ordering the Mustang of his dreams. “It had to be a fastback and I really liked the Highland Green from the car in the movie, Bullitt, but I didn’t want a big-block because of the excessive weight over the nose or the added insurance costs, and the Hi-Po small-block wasn’t available that year, so I went for the next best thing, a 302 with a four-barrel, a four-speed, and positraction, along with manual brakes and steering,” he explains.
He might have learned the basics of car control in the winding hills surrounding the Bay Area, but when he joined the National Counsel of Mustang Clubs by way of the local Ford dealer in Berkeley, California, the many club-sponsored rallies and autocross events turned John into a full-fledged gearhead. “Between having to use it as my daily driver and on my tight budget, I could only add incremental improvements to stay competitive,” he explains. This would be his M.O. for over 40 years, as John is still adding “incremental improvements” to what we already consider a highly honed fastback—as they say project cars are never truly finished. These improvements started with thicker 1-inch antisway bars and heavier springs from factory big-block cars, along with venerable Gabriel shocks and other early autocross equipment.
“After Shelby stopped Trans Am racing in 1973 or 1974 and the fuel crises set in, it was really hard to buy performance parts for an autocross car; all of a sudden performance was a bad word,” he explained. Hard times fell on more than just the manufacturers, as the National Counsel of Mustang Clubs dissolved along with the local SoCal autocross scene. John left Los Angeles shortly thereafter as he headed north to San Luis Obispo, California, for an Engineering Degree from Cal Poly where he continued to autocross with the Cal Poly Sports Car Club. After graduation, he headed to the Bay Area, where he joined the SCCA, a decision that only strengthened his commitment to autocrossing.
“By then I was still driving it daily, but it had become increasingly more suited to autocross with Delrin and urethane bushings wherever I could add them, even heavier springs, a Detroit Locker, a 9-inch rearend along with custom Egghead Bore single-cast wheels and our homegrown competition tires that used polyglass reinforced sidewalls for stiffness and Bruce cheater slick caps for traction along with two grooves to keep them legal—it was the poor man’s slick.”
As the years passed by, John became more serious with autocrossing, and when he relocated back to SoCal for a job he was delighted to find that the local autocross scene had gloriously emerged from the fuel crisis. As fate would have it, the Southern California Council of Sports Car Clubs was approached by the SCCA to join forces for autocross events at the infamous El Toro naval base. “By the late ’70s I’d had subframe connectors made for the car, added rear disc brakes, and custom 15x8 wheels that utilized Ansen Sprint Car centers with drag car rear barrels from Compton Wheel. Boy did the owner of Compton Wheel look at me weird when I wanted wide wheels on all four corners instead of just the rears,” he explained. Such wide meats of course necessitated cavernous fenders, so John enlisted the help of PruKop Auto Body in Huntington Beach, California, to not only fab some wider fenders, but also blanket the car in bright red. “After all those years of it in green, I decided I wanted to brighten it up, and shortly after the wide fenders I realized I could stuff a 10-inch-wide wheel under the wells, so I then had some 16x10s made before later purchasing the existing 17x10 front and 17x11 rear Bogart wheels it wears today,” he said.
As I’m sure you recognize by now, John is a resourceful fellow with an addiction to performance, so when speed parts weren’t available, he simply made his own. “When the Camaro came out with the center-mount traction bar in the early ’80s, it was brilliant, so I had to add one to my Mustang,” he said. After a visit to Pro Chassis in Hacienda Heights, California, Fendel and the shop created a custom torque arm and Watts link for his fastback that was not only far ahead of its time, but greatly increased rear grip. “It hooked up so much better with the torque arm and Watts link, but then of course I wanted to dial the front end in with maximum negative camber, but nobody made caster/camber plates with a wide enough adjustment range,” he explained. You can guess what he did; he modified the off-the-shelf pieces to his liking and in the process created exactly what he wanted—maximum negative camber.
“In the ’90s the SCCA made fuel injection updates legal so I made the swap to an Extrude Honed 1995 Cobra intake manifold and injection system that made drivability a ton better,” he said. This injection upgrade came after 150,000 hard miles finally claimed the stock engine. Rather than build something rowdy but unreliable, John was after a tried-and-true combo that struck a balance between power and longevity that still fit within the SCCA class rules. His solution came in the form of an 0.030-inch over 1968 302 block that was balanced, blueprinted, and assembled by Kaufmann Products to SCCA Solo II specs with the stock heads and valvetrain. “The car makes 282 hp and 313 lb-ft at the wheels on a Dynojet and is not only dead reliable but oh-so consistent no matter the temperatures,” he explained. John also credits his consistency to the cooling system that utilizes an Edelbrock water pump, a big-block radiator with three-row race core, and a 16-inch electric fan.
A winning combination on the autocross circuit isn’t just about keeping cool; it’s about sticking to the pavement. In addition to the aforementioned custom torque arm and Panhard bar by Mike Ruth of Pro Chassis, the rest of the combo is finely tuned to a balance of his needs and maximizing performance within the strict SCCA Solo II rules. The rest of the rear suspension setup consists of 250 lb/in leaf springs, Koni double-adjustable shocks and an adjustable Stambar 3/4-inch adjustable antisway bar.
“The front uses 890 lb/in springs with Koni double-adjustable Trans-Am shocks along with a 1¼-inch hollow antisway bar, an aggressive alignment, and the shock towers are stiffened with custom tower-to-firewall and tower-to-tower braces. I also used Energy Suspension urethane bushings wherever possible,” he explains. Other crucial components include a Ford power steering unit with cooler, a rear-mounted 1970 Ford truck battery kit along with a McLeod aluminum flywheel, clutch and pressure plate, a close-ratio four-speed Top Loader with a modified Hurst Competition Plus shifter, and 3.89 gears with a Detroit Truetrac differential. “I added 1967 power four-piston calipers back in 1968 and have used them so much that I’ve rebuilt them four times over the course of 48 years of hard driving; they’ve been great along with the Baer rear power discs and the Carbotech pads,” he explained.
John not only autocrosses the car at least once a month, but he also regularly cruises it on the street. With so much time in the cockpit, it’s also been tweaked to his liking with a Grant steering wheel, a Sun Super Tach, a plethora of Auto Meter gauges, stock seats that have been re-upholstered by Sproule Services, and a ChaseCam DIVA HD camera that records high-quality video and measures and displays acceleration, braking, and lateral performance so John knows he’s getting the most out of his ponycar.
Speaking of getting the most out of your Mustang, we doubt anyone comes close to John Fendel and his 1968 Fastback. To date he’s clocked over 200,000 miles, won a half-dozen regional SCCA championships, and even held fastest time of the day at the Cambria Time Trials. But winning isn’t everything, it’s also about the experience. And if you ask us, there’s nothing better than spending the majority of your life under WOT with an ear-to-ear grin on your face—and John has done just that. If that’s not motivation for the rest of us, I don’t know what is.