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Trans Am Ford Mustangs - Coupe De Grace
Nick De Vitis Relives The Mustang's Trans-Am Glory Days In The Former Dean Gregson '68 Hardtop
Despite this magazine's focus on restorations and mild modifieds, we'd be remiss if we didn't occasionally throw in a car like this. After all, is there anything more visceral, awe inspiring, or just plain exhilarating than a race-prepared Mustang in action? Listen to the wail of the rev-happy small-block, smell the fumes of high-octane fuel, and see man and machine tear it up on a racetrack. Such are the tangible sensations that make this vintage road-racer larger than life.
Bathed in gorgeous bright red, Nick De Vitis' coupe is no replica race car; rather, it's a veteran participant of SCCA events during the late '60s. One of just a handful of '68-spec Trans-Am Mustangs currently active on the vintage circuit, such cars were developed hot on the heels of the Mustang's '67 Trans-Am championship, and were built with every intention of continuing the winning tradition. To that end, the '68 season marked the first year in which Mustang fenderwells were noticeably flared for growing tire footprints, and marked the factory team debut of the 302 Tunnel Port engine-which looked like a real powerhouse in the early going.
Rather than an officially sponsored entry, this particular racer was an independent effort from Dean Gregson, Performance sales manager at the renowned Tasca Ford. Gregson was a major speed catalyst at the Rhode Island dealership during the heyday of Detroit iron, and a look at almost any period magazine article in which Tasca was featured will likely find Gregson front and center. Tasca's main motorsports emphasis was drag racing, and perhaps for this reason, the road-racing coupe was built without direct dealer sponsorship, though it clearly benefited from the high-profile connections.
The Gregson car started life as a 390-powered '67, and was in barely used form when the buildup began in a Sunoco service station across the street from the Tasca lot. Dealer mechanic Joe Slocum and fabricator Hank Fornier were the main wrenches for the project, while a nearly unlimited stream of parts flowed directly from Ford. Raced competitively in SCCA A-Sedan competition during the '68 season, Gregson and crew took aim at Trans-Am by year's end, readying the car for the first event of 1969. Trans-Am success was elusive; however, after running the opener at Michigan International Speedway, missing the second race at Lime Rock, then wrecking at Thompson Speedway, Gregson's efforts changed course. Rather than rebuild the '68 coupe, he acquired a '69 SportsRoof body-in-white and continued his Trans-Am quest in Boss 302 form until Ford backed out of the game in 1971. The coupe was subsequently sold, without engine, for the paltry sum of $500.
As the years went by, at least two separate owners made little progress getting this competitor back on its feet. But in 1996, Larry Pond stepped up to the plate. After buying the coupe from a Lincoln-Mercury dealer in New Hampshire, Pond took it out West for an intensive restoration. When the pink slip found its way into Nick's hands a couple of years ago, the former Trans-Am Mustang was honed to competitive condition by Dralle Engineering, including era-correct hardware to satisfy the rules of most vintage sanctioning bodies. Barely contained by the flares are 15x8-inch PSE wheels shod with Goodyear Blue Streak skins. Behind the alloy castings are a conventional front disc/rear drum configuration, with period-correct Lincoln four-piston front calipers and vented rotors, along with 2.5-inch-wide drums at the rear, with aggressive racing linings, of course. The suspension employs 720- and 210-pound springs front and rear, Koni shocks, a beefy adjustable front sway bar, a Panhard bar, and a competition rollcage.
Under the hood, we see both similarities and differences from the coupe's '68-'69 race prep. Currently sporting a conventional Windsor small-block built by Dave Dralle, it's based on the SVO A4 block and filled with all the high-strength components required for road racing: a Moldex steel crank, Carrillo rods, and more. Vintage-race regulations limit the cylinder head to factory cast-iron 351W units, yet power is just north of 500 horses at the flywheel with a single 750-cfm Holley instead of the former dual quads.
Of particular interest, former crewman Fornier supplied Nick with reams of vintage race photos, which show the car not only equipped with a dual-quad 289, but also with a max-effort Boss 302. The latter surprised us, as we expected to see the '68-only Tunnel Port 302, but that ill-fated engine never ran between the fenders of the Gregson car, according to Nick and Fornier. Instead, original Ford paperwork indicates the Boss 302 engine was part of the factory development work, which would pay off in the near future.
Despite being an impressive piece even when on static display, the thrill for Nick is driving this rolling piece of Ford racing history. As such, he takes in several vintage events each year, where the competition includes the big-name cars of the era: factory Z28s, Boss Mustangs, AMC Javelins, and a Challenger T/A. Historically overshadowed by the '69-'70 Boss 302s, '68-spec cars such as this are an interesting snapshot in what was a rapidly evolving road-race scene. And while current drivers don't take the risks the fender-crunching drivers of yesteryear did, the speed and exciting action brings crowds to their feet every time.
It's vintage Mustang race cars as they were meant to be seen; who could ask for anything more?