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."
The current combination is the same, basic '03-'04 Cobra engine with beefed-up rotating parts, stock camshafts and valvetrain, and a Kenne Bell blower, but with a more reasonable 8 psi of boost, for an output of around 550 horsepower. It's still a potent combination.
"The car still makes all kinds of power and it's a blast," says McCombs. "It's better-suited to the track, because the power is easier to apply."
Note that McCombs said "easier," not "easy."
"When the boost hits, it hits hard," he says. "It's probably not ideal for road racing or autocross-type racing, but it's the combination we've got and with the Gateway suspension, the car bites hard and has been very competitive."
Indeed, the Mustang has been competitive enough to draw the interest of the producers of the new hit SPEED show "R U Faster Than a Redneck?" It pits modified American muscle against highfalutin' imports and with Jason Childress behind the wheel, the Mustang has already outgunned a Lamborghini. It's also taken a few runner-up places, which McCombs aims to change.
"We hadn't run the car for a few months when the call came about the show," says McCombs. "We only had about a week to get it ready. All things considered, we've done well, but I tell you, running Second time and again gets annoying."
And in true Hollywood fashion, the Mustang's knockout good looks reinforced its performance to land the part. The simple yet effective aesthetics—rooted in the black hood, R-type lower apron that shows off the enormous heat exchanger for the supercharger system and big, 18-inch Torq-Thrust–style wheels—give it a devastatingly serious appearance. It's clean and contemporary looking, with an unmistakable all-business stance.
McCombs and the Childress brothers are working to refine the Mustang's balance and trim a few pounds from the admittedly nose-heavy combination. Removing the power-assisted steering rack will help shed weight and they've already pushed the engine back a few inches in the chassis to improve the front-to-rear balance. Then again, the car is holding its own against modern sports cars and Pro Touring cars built expressly for competition.
"We've been very competitive in a car that was never envisioned in the first place to be a race car," says McCombs. "It's like a slot car and goes wherever you point it, as long as you can modulate the power."
It's also eminently streetable—a claim some of the more purpose-built Pro Tourers can't make. McCombs often drives to track events, competes and drives home again. And with the high power-to-weight ratio and the low cruising rpm delivered by the Tremec Magnum six-speed, this all-around performer has knocked down about 28 mpg on the highway.
"It's not a trailer queen. You can drive it every day. It's comfortable, streetable and, in fact, it's the most efficient vehicle I own right now," he says. "We've done the best on the track with what we have and it's been fun to be on the leading edge of a trend with these cars."
It's been a long journey from a six-cylinder secretary's car to a race-winning television star, but McCombs and the crew from Gateway have nurtured the career of this pioneering pro-tourer and are working hard to ensure it stays vibrant for the long haul, in the cut-throat world where racing meets entertainment.
To put it another way, think of this Mustang as the Meg Ryan of modified Mustangs, not a crash-and-burn Lindsay Lohan—that is, if they can keep it out of the late-night clubs and off the nitrous.
Ross McCombs's 1966 Mustang coupe
'03 Ford 4.6-liter (281 cid) DOHC V-8
Kellogg forged crankshaft
Ford forged H-beam connected rods
Mahle forged aluminum pistons
Ford '03 Cobra piston rings
8.5:1 compression ratio
Ford '03 Cobra aluminum cylinder heads, stock ports and stock valves
Ford '03 Cobra camshafts, 0.390/0.392 lift (intake/exhaust); 186/194-deg. duration (intake/exhaust)
Ford '03 Cobra valvetrain, stock
Kenne Bell 2.1-liter twin-screw supercharger pushing 8 pounds of boost
Kenne Bell/Accufab monoblade 90mm throttle body
60-lb/hr fuel injectors with Ford Cobra fuel pump
Horsepower: 550 at 6,500 rpm
Torque: 520 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm
Tremec Magnum T-56 six-speed manual
Power Force twin-disc clutch (Ace Manufacturing, Sullivan, MO)
G Force NASCAR "Qualifying" rear axle housing
3.55 ring-and-pinion ratio
Ford Traction-Lok differential
BBK long-tube headers, 15⁄8-inch primary tubes with 21⁄2-inch collectors
21⁄2-inch custom exhaust system
Front: Gateway Performance Suspension Street Performer strut conversion kit; height-adjustable, with JRI struts, Eibach springs and custom spindles
Rear: Gateway Performance Suspension three-link (replaced stock leaf springs); long torque arm and two trailing arms, coilover shocks (JRI shocks)
Gateway Performance Suspension power-assisted rack-and-pinion conversion with KRC steering pump
Stock steering column
Front: Baer disc, 13-inch rotors with six-piston calipers
Rear: Baer disc, 13-inch rotors with four-piston calipers
Front: Vintage Wheel Works V45, 18x9-inch
Rear: Vintage Wheel Works V45, 18x12-inch
Front: BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW, P275/30ZR18
Rear: BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW, P335/30ZR18
Original-style with Pro Car leather-trimmed front seats; JME gauge panel with Auto Meter instruments; no console; black carpet and trim over body-color lower dashboard and door pillars; trunk is mini-tubbed, with fuel cell and relocated battery
Mostly stock with unknown lower exterior color (it was purchased that way), Gateway Classic Mustang-applied upper semi-gloss black accent, fiberglass lower R-style valance, GT-style hood, stock trim and lighting