August 18, 2011

After developing its first dedicated performance engine in the form of the 360hp, 352ci engine in 1960, which was enlarged to 390ci and packing 401 hp in 1961, Ford's theory of how winning races on Sunday related directly to sales in dealer showrooms on Monday really began to register in Dearborn. By 1962, Ford had decided to once again get seriously involved in motorsports competition by actively supporting USAC and NASCAR stock car teams, and through the formation of the Drag Council, which consisted of a group of successful Ford drag racers who fielded Ford Galaxies powered by the company's newest performance engine-the 405hp 406.

While the members of the Drag Council saw their fair share of success on the dragstrips during the 1962 season, it soon became apparent that at 4,000 pounds, the fullsize Ford Galaxie was at a significant weight disadvantage when competing against midsize 413 Plymouths and Dodges, as well as GM vehicles fitted with aluminum body panels. In an effort to gain parity, the forces of Dearborn developed a lightweight version of the Galaxie with which to equip the members of the Drag Council. Unfortunately, the program didn't get off the ground until midyear, and just a few lightweight Galaxies were built from the last 10 cars to leave the assembly line at Ford's Wayne, Michigan, plant with an eleventh car being assembled later.

With very little preparation time, the members of the Drag Council arrived at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis where, due to their low production numbers (less than the NHRA-required 100 units), the lightweight Galaxies of Les Ritchey, Tasca Ford, Jerry Alderman, Phil Bonner, Jim Price, and Stark-Hickey Ford found themselves in the A/Factory Experimental class. There they faced factory-built Pontiac Tempests powered by 434ci engines and weighing less than 3,200 pounds. Les Ritchey had the quickest Ford entry at the Nationals by virtue of his 12.73 e.t. at 110.97 mph, but the Fords were totally outclassed on that occasion.

The lightweights of Dick Brannan and Ed Martin Ford were run in the B/FX class. Brannan's-by virtue of its 380ci engine (352 cylinder block with a 406 crank), and Martin's-through added ballast weight along with steel fenders and hood. During time trials, Martin's car proved to be so uncompetitive that the ballast was removed, and lightweight parts replaced to compete in A/FX. A second Martin team entry was an all-steel Galaxie, which ran in SS/S alongside Gas Ronda's lightweight that had been fitted with steel parts. A post race report indicated that Ronda left the starting line first against all competitors, but the car seemed to lack power down track and he lost in eliminations.

The one bright spot for Ford at the 1962 Nationals came from Brannan, who qualified for the Top Stock Eliminator runoff with his all-steel Galaxie. Brannan battled his way through a 40-car field to make it all the way to the final four before bowing out of competition. While Ford's first foray into the ranks of factory-supported drag racing had failed to provide a victory, it laid the groundwork for better things to come.

Ford's plans for 1963 began with a limited number of specially-equipped Galaxies being provided to Drag Council members. But thanks to the foresight and considerable influence that Rhode Island Ford dealer Robert F. Tasca Sr. had with Ford, it was decided there would be an actual production run of lightweight Galaxies for 1963 in order to make the cars available to independent racers through Ford dealers. Ford, however, wanted to base the lightweight cars on the new Galaxie Sports Roof body style, which was scheduled as a half-year model, which meant that the assembly plants slated to build the lightweights (Los Angeles and Norfolk) wouldn't be geared up for production until March 1963.

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Not wanting to begin another racing season behind the curve, the Drag Council decided to mount the '63-1/2 Galaxie Sports Roof body on the already race-prepared '62 Galaxie chassis. The Experimental Vehicles Garage would convert the majority of the cars, while Bill Stroppe Engineering in Long Beach, California, handled those of West Coast team members Ronda and Les Ritchey. Along with the new body, the cars would also receive the newly introduced 425hp, 427ci high-performance engine. This guaranteed that Ford would have drag cars available for competition as the 1963 season unfolded.

Tipping the scales at just under 3,500 pounds, the lightweight Galaxies would still find themselves facing lighter foes. However, after the 1963 NHRA Winternationals, where the Drag Council members were forced into the short-lived Limited/Production class due to still-insufficient production numbers, the cars would be declared legal for competition in the Super Stock class.

While contemporary estimates of the successes, or lack there of, on the part of the Ford lightweights during 1963 seems to be based almost entirely on the outcome of the Super Stock class at the two NHRA national events held that year, a more careful examination of the record book reveals that week after week during 1963, Ford Galaxies were taking home Super Stock class and Top Stock Eliminator titles on dragstrips from coast to coast.

A seldom reported fact is that Drag Council team captain Dick Brannan won more than 65 events and set 22 track records with his lightweight Galaxie during the season, along with setting the NHRA class record for Super Stock on July 13, 1963.

A change in class rules for Super Stock competition, and advances in Chrysler's racing program through the release of the 426 Hemi engine, made it apparent that the Ford Galaxie would no longer be competitive in 1964. Taking a page from the play book of its Mopar adversaries, Ford went the big engine, small car route by calling up the midsize Fairlane model for duty as a race car. Specially modified and fitted with the improved High Riser version of the 427 engine, the Fairlane fit the Super Stock class requirements perfectly (427ci limit, 3,200-pound minimum).

Working directly with Dearborn Steel Tubing Co., Brannan and Vern Tinsler developed a drag-race-ready version of the Fairlane 500 two-door sedan, of which 100 would eventually be built at Dearborn Steel and sold to racers through participating Ford dealers. The first 11 Thunderbolts, as they would later come to be known, were painted vintage burgundy, and delivered to the members of the Drag Council. The remainder of the cars would be painted white.

The initial run of cars was fitted with one-piece fiberglass front bumpers and gravel shields, but objections from NHRA resulted in the cars being retrofitted with an aluminum bumper and OE gravel shield. Ford was also forced to replace the huge trunk-mounted truck battery with a more conventional style. Fiberglass parts would replace the fenders and hood, along with the deletion of the radio, heater, carpets, and more. One sun visor and one wiper blade also got tossed. Plexiglas replaced the side glass, and rear quarter-windows were fixed in place. Bostrum seats designed for the Econoline van replaced the standard bench in the front.

As it had in 1963, the aluminum case Borg-Warner T-10 got the call for four-speed-equipped versions of the Thunderbolt. Ford experimented with an automatic transmission in the Thunderbolt with 59 being built utilizing a heavy-duty Lincoln transmission adapted to the 427 engine. The automatic version didn't prove competitive, and in most cases, the cars were converted to four-speeds in very short order. The Thunderbolt would prove to be the class of the field at Super Stock events across the country in 1964, with the cars of Drag Council members Gas Ronda winning the NHRA Winternationals, and Butch Leal at the Nationals. Ronda's T-bolt would also give Ford it's first NHRA World Championship as well as the manufacturer's title.

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With all the accolades won by the Thunderbolts in 1964, it's sometimes overlooked that Ford also offered a lightweight version of the Galaxie that year as well. By that time, the NHRA had dropped its production requirement from 100 to 50 unitsùa total of 50 lightweight Galaxies (25 four-speeds, and 25 automatics) were built for competition in the A/Stock class.

Like their '63-1/2 predecessors, '64 lightweight Galaxies were special assembly-line-built cars, and not products of Dearborn Steel or Holman-Moody as sometimes reported. Actual lightweight parts for the '64 Galaxies were limited to the chassis, sound deadener and creature comfort deletes, and Bostrum seats. The only fiberglass part was the hood which now sported a bubble scoop of the type used on the Thunderbolt in order to clear the 427 High Riser's induction system. Mike Schmidt, driving his Desert Motors AA/SA '64 lightweight Galaxie won the NHRA Little Stock Eliminator World Championship for the year while contributing to Ford winning the manufacturer's title.

Meanwhile, over at Lincoln-Mercury, the Mercury division had climbed onto the performance bandwagon in 1962 by offering two versions of the 406 engine in its fullsize cars, and by 1963, Mercury was supporting several USAC and NASCAR teams alongside its Ford counterparts. L-M also contracted with Dearborn Steel Tubing Co. for its drag cars as did Ford, and in order to avoid direct competition with Ford's Thunderbolt, which ran in the Super Stock class, Mercury set its sights on the Factory Experimental ranks. The Lincoln-Mercury team and Dearborn Steel built 21 '64 Comet Caliente coupes and one station wagon for competition in the A/FX class. That's right, a station wagon.

Delivered into the hands of top drag racer "Dyno Don" Nicholson, Mercury was testing the theory that the wagon's additional rear wheel overhang would aid traction off the starting line and provide an advantage in competition. The Comets were put on a diet and received modifications similar to the Thunderbolts, and since they would compete in the A/FX class, the one-piece fiberglass bumper/gravel shield combination was allowed. Fiberglass fenders, hood, and doors, along with T-bolt-style seats got the cars down to their fighting weight. Power for the Mercury effort also came in the form of the 427 High Riser.

At the 1964 NHRA Winternationals, the Comets quickly made their marks, winning both the A/FX class title and the Mr. Stock Eliminator crown. Complaints from Chrysler teams to NHRA would eventually result in Nicholson turning over the reigns of the station wagon to his protege Ed Schartman for match race duty when Nicholson received a more conventional coupe. But as the late "Dyno Don" explained to this author in a conversation some years back, "The Chrysler guys should have quit while they were ahead, because I no sooner got the coupe when I set both ends of the A/FX class record." Nicholson would go on to win 63 of 65 match races run with the Comet coupe during the 1964 season, while Schartman also rolled up an impressive win-loss average with the wagon.

Dearborn Steel also built a limited number of small-block-powered Comets for the B/FX class. These cars were built from the group of cars used for the 100,000-mile durability run at Daytona Speedway. One of those who received a B/FX Comet in 1964 was young Doug Nash, who set and reset the NHRA class National record during the season.

After a stellar 1964 season, things dawned brightly for both the Ford and Mercury teams in 1965. Lincoln-Mercury had Bill Stroppe Engineering build a series of lightweight Comet Cyclones to do battle in the A/FX and B/FX classes, while Ford concentrated on A/FX competition with its new fastback Mustang.

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Ford had an A/FX Mustang "mule car" built by Dearborn Steel, which after testing, was followed by 10 more of it's kind built at Holman-Moody for members of the Drag Council. Power for both the Ford and Mercury A/FX cars was slated to come from the most powerful and sophisticated FE Ford engine ever, the SOHC 427 "Cammer." Mercury also fielded lightweight Comets powered by modified 289ci engines for B/FX competition, while Ford attacked the class with Jerry Harvey's Quiet One, a '65 Galaxie powered by an SOHC 427.

Following an all-Ford romp in the A/FX and Mr. Factory Stock Eliminator at the 1965 Winternationals, Chrysler responded by radically altering the wheelbases on its race cars and before the middle of the season, things had escalated so dramatically that Ford was forced to reach out to Holman-Moody for an ever lighter, altered-wheelbase version of the Mustang (referred to as a Match Bash car) to keep pace. The finished product, dubbed Bronco, was fielded by Drag Council captain Brannan and was so successful that Chrysler responded by adding fuel injection and exotic fuels to its cars.

The horsepower war was spiraling dangerously out of control and by 1966, the true spirit of a lightweight race car that was no more than a modified version of a showroom model had pretty much disappeared. Ford's lightweight effort for 1966 came in the form of radically altered Mustangs with fiberglass bodies, and Mercury trumped everyone when it introduced what were essentially dragster chassis with one-piece, lift-up fiberglass bodies that resembled the 1966 Comet. Things got worse by 1967, when the quest for dominance led to even more exotic supercharged, fuel-burning engines. It appeared that the spirit of lightweight drag cars had been turned into something that it was never intended to be and it seemed there was no turning back.

But once again, Tasca Sr. would come to the forefront with his idea for what is arguably the best all-around street and performance Ford engine of the 1960s-the 428 Cobra Jet. Tasca was an adherent to the spirit of racing what you sell, and he could see that Funny Car victories weren't bringing the youth of America into his showroom. His marriage of a '67 Mustang coupe, a standard 428ci FE passenger car engine, and a combination of carefully selected off-the-shelf Ford performance parts resulted in a car that was not only fast, but tractable to a fault. A car that could be easily manufactured and sold at any Ford dealer. What better way for Ford to introduce its new 428 Cobra Jet-powered Mustang than to have the Drag Council members unleash them on the competition at the 1968 NHRA Winternationals?

The cars to be raced there were prepared at Holman-Moody-Stroppe in Long Beach, California, and underwent approximately one week of testing before the event. When the smoke had cleared at Pomona, the Cobra Jet Mustang had left an indelible impression upon the competition, as Al Joniec won both the SS/E class over teammate Hubert Platt's Mustang, and the Super Stock Eliminator title over Dave Wren's Hemi Plymouth.

From that day forward, Ford would have no trouble selling anything powered by a 428 Cobra Jet, and the engines were eventually offered as options in the Ford Torino, as well as Mercury Cougars and Cyclones. To avoid any disappointment on the part of serious independent racers over the performance capabilities of the Cobra Jet Mustang, Ford built 50 lightweight versions of the car, which featured deletes not needed in competition.

There were no factory-built lightweight cars from Ford or Mercury in 1969-1970, and by 1971, the company had bowed to pressure from the government and insurance industry-factory support of racing was soon a thing of the past. However, the accomplishments of the specially prepared lightweight drag cars of Ford and Lincoln-Mercury are burned indelibly into the record books and memories of the thousands of us who cheered them on to victory. Now, what were once just old race cars have become highly sought after by restorers and collectors of historic vehicles.

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Special Lightweight Performance Vehicle

The '63-1/2 lightweight Galaxie was described in a Ford Motor Company memorandum as follows:

These units are to be sold only to enthusiasts as a part of the company's current efforts to promote the sale of cars through the publicity obtained from participation in performance events. This lightweight package will be merchandised via the DSO system and be installed on a basic vehicle which is based on a white Galaxie 500 Sport Special Tudor Hardtop (model 63B) equipped with a 289 CID engine, standard transmission only, and all red vinyl trim (Trim code 95). The lightweight conversion package option number is AS-225-39D, which includes the special operating and lightweight components shown on the attachment. No other special equipment will be production installed on these vehicles. The Norfolk and Los Angeles assembly plants will build these units. The earliest production availability for the lightweight vehicle will be early March. The price for the conversion package as covered on DSO No. AS-225-39D has been established at $999.00 wholesale to dealer plus $100.00 for D&D.

Specially modified and fitted with the improved High Riser version of the 427 engine, the Fairlane fit the Super Stock class requirements perfectly

'64 lightweight Galaxies were special assembly-line-built cars, and not products of Dearborn Steel or Holman-Moody as sometimes reported

Super Stock 427 Fairlane Tudor Sedan

On February 21, 1964, a memo went out to all Ford District Sales Offices titled "Availability of Ford products for 1964 drag events."

Super Stock 427 Fairlane Tudor Sedan: This unit is available on special order only, directly from the office of the Special Vehicles manager. Orders may be submitted by letter or wire and should specify whether the 4-speed or automatic transmission is required.

From this point the memo goes on to describe deleted and special performance items and follows with:

Upon delivery of these vehicles, the customer must sign an acknowledgement of his understanding of the vehicle he has purchased, and an agreement attesting to his understanding of the lack of warranty on the car. These cars are all-out vehicles, not for operation on streets, and capable of running in the low eleven-second bracket. As supplied from the factory, the cars are ready for the strip. Dealers should be cautioned that these fine cars should only be sold to the knowing, capable enthusiast. This Super Stock car, as furnished, is capable of running the quarter mile in less than 12 seconds, the present world's record. Price wholesale to dealer with 4-speed transmission $3,780.00 plus Detroit D&D, with automatic transmission $3,980.00 plus Detroit D&D.

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