In show business, some seek the spotlight while others have celebrity thrust upon them. This is a story about the latter. In fact, it starts off a lot like those clichéd tales of the small-town girl working as a waitress when a big Hollywood producer whisks her off to be a star. In this case, it's a 1966 Mustang coupe and instead of Tinsel Town, the setting is Bourbon, Missouri—about an hour southwest of St. Louis. It all started about five years ago.
It was there and then that one of the enthusiast employees at the recently minted Gateway Classic Mustang (gatewayclassicmustang.com) was driving the clean, yet plain 'Stang. It was a six-cylinder/three-speed car serving daily driving duty when shop founders Lonny and Jason Childress—who cut their performance teeth in the world of monster trucks, including Lonny's stint behind the wheel of Bigfoot—needed a car to demonstrate their modern suspension technology. They took the car to the Mid-America Mustang Meet, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and let J. Bittle himself run the Hallett 1.8-mile, 10-turn road course with the car in stock condition and after a complete suspension, steering, and brakes transformation—but not before the car received a quick 289-cubic-inch heart transplant and four-speed upgrade.
"The idea was to demonstrate the relative ease of which our front strut conversion, three-link rear suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, and brake conversion kits could be swapped over," says Lonny Childress. "J. Bittle drove the unmodified car around the track a few times and then we swapped everything over in a few hours in front of anyone who wanted to watch. The next day—after it had rained hard and the temperature dropped about 15 degrees— J. Bittle drove it again and whacked a full 10 seconds off of the lap time with the stock suspension. It was a perfect demonstration of effectiveness of our then-new products."
The Gateway crew returned to Missouri encouraged, and with a bona fide buzz building about its bolt-on suspension components. That's when folks from Dearborn called. They were looking for some buzz themselves about the viability of swapping modular engines into vintage Mustangs, so they sent over an '04 Mustang Cobra engine and essentially told the guys to have at it.
Without a doubt, they absolutely, totally intended to have at it, but customer projects took precedence and the swap project simmered on the back burner. That's when Ross McCombs entered the picture. The man behind QuickTime bellhousings offered to take the Mustang and mod motor back to his Iowa shop, rub some butter on the shock towers, and slide the wide engine into place. A Tremec TKO five-speed was also on the docket, and later upgraded to the company's stronger Magnum T-56 six-speed.
"I told them I'd do it, but I wanted the car when it was all done—and they could still use it for testing new products," says McCombs. "It worked out well that way, because we all got what we needed from the car."
McCombs, who admits to being a mechanical guy, but not really strong on the wiring end of things, indeed installed the engine and sent it back to Gateway to make it run.
"At the time, nobody had stand-alone harnesses for these swaps and I knew I wouldn't be any good at trying it, but Lonny and Jason would," he says. "I'm more like the rough-in carpenter and they're the finish guys. Works out well that way."
With its modern powertrain in place, the Terminator-powered '66 continued to serve as a rolling testbed and demonstrator for Gateway's suspension products and other innovations, such as notched shock-tower inserts that make the swap easier and ultimately safer than using the common Mustang II conversion.
"Unless you're running a tube chassis or something like that, doing the Mustang II suspension conversion isn't a great idea," says Childress. "The structure of these cars isn't designed for it, especially when you remove the tower braces that tie into the firewall. It compromises safety. Our notch kit and front strut conversion makes room for the mod motors—even the big 5.4-liter—without sacrificing structural integrity."
So, with a suitably robust structure and a supercharged modular engine under the hood—wearing a Kenne Bell screw-type compressor in place of the original Eaton blower—McCombs took the car to driving events: track days, Goodguys events, Optima Challenge-type stuff and the other events that make Pro Touring-style cars much more fun than simply staring at them while they hold down the pavement at a car show. The higher-output supercharger, along with some internal engine reinforcements, helped the engine put out about 800 horsepower in a car that weighed only about 3,200 pounds. It made for a helluva power-to-weight ratio.
"It was a handful, to say the least," says McCombs, who has countless dirt-track wins and a couple of championships under his belt. "The power came on so hard and fast that it was hard to modulate." Turns out the Kenne Bell supercharger was running a smaller pulley than it should have, spiking the boost much higher than necessary for the track, along with helping to spike the engine.
"We popped a couple of head gaskets before figuring out the boost was around 20 pounds or more," says McCombs. "It was way too much and we weren't tuned for it. It was an expensive lesson to learn, but a fun one when you were along for the ride."