Top 10 Mustang Funny Cars
These phony ponies and silly fillies are 10 reasons why Mustangs ruled ’60s drag racing
The Mustang wasn’t the only revolutionary newborn of early 1964. First came Chrysler’s 426 Hemi, whose shocking Daytona 500 domination inspired Ford’s “90-Day Wonder,” the SOHC 427. A month later, just as ponycar production was getting underway in Dearborn, West Coast drag fans were introduced to a trio of factory-backed ’64 sedans billed as the Dodge Chargers—supercharged forerunners of the highly modified Detroit models that came to be called “funny-lookin’ cars,” then Funny Cars. Last but not least, NASCAR’s never-ending distaste for overhead camshafts sent stockpiles of Cammer engines downstream to loyal, frustrated FoMoCo drag racers outgunned by Chrysler’s elephant.
All of these planets would align in the form of two fastback fleets that Ford ordered from Holman-Moody. The initial ’65 models were converted K-code production Mustangs, intended and campaigned as legal Factory Experimentals—at least until modifications and guaranteed appearance money gradually pushed some into lucrative match racing exclusively. Their super-light ’66 replacements, however, were born as pure race cars; their stretched space frames cloaked all in fiberglass (except for the steel-shell prototype that engineer Dick Brannan secretly assembled to sell Ford execs on purpose-built “match bashers”).
A disproportionate number of these factory fastbacks dominate our 10 all-time favorite Mustang Funny Cars, with good reason. You’ll note that these finalists all carry bolted-down bodies with functional doors, except for Mickey Thompson’s exceptional ’69 fraternal twins, which shouldn’t be overlooked in anybody’s Top 10 Funny Car list. Genuine Ford powerplants were mandatory for Mustang Monthly’s consideration. (Hold that hate mail, John Force fans; those fuel motors that Force and NHRA called “Fords” are all Mopar under the valve covers.) Because the Mustangs that Holman-Moody delivered to Ford Drag Council members or sold as kit cars to privateers evolved so rapidly over these formative seasons, we did not discriminate against any particular wheelbase, intake configuration, or fuel type. Now, as then, the mantra is “run what ya brung.” We do admit to a bias for previously unpublished frames of these wild stallions, retrieved from deep inside the TEN film archive. Nearly half a century after staff photographers froze the antics of pioneer Funny Car teams, we’re seizing an overdue opportunity to run what they brung.
The first 10 factory Mustangs prepared by Holman-Moody started life as production 289/271hp fastbacks, modified within NHRA, AHRA, and NASCAR Factory Experimental rules. During the 1965 season, some gradually morphed into “outlaw” match racers. Shown spoiling the hometown debut of Dick Landy’s Dart at Lions Dragstrip in February 1966 is Ford Drag Council boss Dick Brannan, the factory engineer who conceived and managed the program. His ever-evolving Mustangs probably made more passes and won more races in 1965-66 than any other fast Ford, all the while testing prototype chassis, suspension, and safety products for his teammates. Dick’s feared “Broncos” also survived two scary crashes (plus a third with substitute Paul Rossi driving) that compelled FoMoCo management to restrict Brannan to testing and occasional match racing.
Door-slammer Mustangs remained competitive into the 1967 season, when Ford teams began embracing the one-piece “flopper” concept pioneered by Mercury a year earlier. Hubert Platt finally got both a factory ride and a Cammer after Dick Brannan turned over the winningest long-nose fastback to Larry Coleman, who hired Hubert. He’s pictured at the 1967 NHRA Winternationals.
Al Joniec’s assigned territory was the Southeast, where his Holman-Moody ’65 won major meets, including Bristol’s 1966 Springnationals, NHRA’s first event offering un-blown match-race (i.e., class-illegal) stockers their own classes. Burning gasoline, Al’s 8.80s ruled the C/Experimental Stock class, and then took him into the Street Eliminator final (won by Mike Schmitt’s SOHC Galaxie B/FXer). “Batcar” also set both ends of NASCAR’s Unlimited Stock-1 record at 10.52/134.32 and was in constant demand from younger fans at the height of TV’s Batman craze. A memorable published photo depicted its bat-wing-shaped taillights protruding from trees beyond New York National Speedway’s shutdown area during the second Super Stock Magazine Nationals.
For the 1966 season, Ford’s Special Vehicle Activities group secretly ordered 10 tube-frame, all-fiberglass, stretched-nose replicars. The radical fleet of fuel and gas fastbacks debuted at the AHRA’s season-opening Winter National Championships in Irwindale (pictured), where Cammer Mustangs enjoyed a clean sweep of upper “Stock” classes. Bill Lawton’s gas-burning Mystery 9 achieved its stated 9-second aspirations and then some, clocking 9.73 at 140.40 to upset local hero Gas Ronda in the all-Mustang Unlimited Stock Eliminator showdown. Later that year, Tasca Ford’s flagship won A/Experimental Stock at the first Indy Nationals featuring distinct “funny car” classes and also lowered the e.t. record in NASCAR’s elite S/US-1 class to 9.83 seconds.
This first of two Gas Ronda cars to make our list was the prototype for the second batch of 10 Holman-Moody Mustangs. Ford, which assigned specific factory cars to all eight geographical regions, tabbed the sharp-dressing former dance instructor and successful 406 Galaxie racer to represent the media-heavy West Coast. In March 1966 at Bakersfield, the original fiberglass fastback won Exhibition Eliminator and became the first un-blown, full-bodied car to crack the eight-second barrier (8.96). Appropriately for an event then titled the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships, Gas was burning the good stuff: a 25/75 percent nitro/alky mix. Later lengthened further, this car ultimately ran mid-8s at 170-plus prior to its mid-1967 replacement (by Ronda’s other Top 10 entry). Gas sold it to crew chief Cliff Brien, who passed it down to bracket racer Betty “Lady Bug” Ryan. Today, it’s a rare survivor among Holman-Moody’s long-nose ’66s.
Altered-roadster veterans Ralph Snodgrass, Pat Mahnken, and Larry Barker took a unique approach to phony ponies. Rather than abandon their trusty combination of Low-Riser 427, direct drive, and 1963-vintage tube chassis, the low-buck teammates adapted a stock steel body to their 98-inch wheelbase. What might be the second supercharged, all-Ford Funny Car ever built (after Darrell Droke’s factory fueler) was certainly the longest-running example, seeing regular West Coast action from 1966 through 1968, match racing on both gas and fuel. Its biggest win came in Super Eliminator at the ’67 HRM Championships. Hardcore-Ford guys Snodgrass and Mahnken both worked as line mechanics at Tom Sherlock Ford, the same dealership where Gas Ronda sold cars.
Though this overpowered pony was the least-successful ’66 factory funny, it proved invaluable as a guinea pig for the rest of Ford’s Special Activities fleet. An exclusive combination of supercharged SOHC 427, automatic transmission, and nitromethane produced top-end speeds so fast and scary that owner-driver Darrell Droke rarely made a full pass under power. The back end of this 2,200-pound, 113-inch package invariably got airborne approaching 180 mph. The car did bump NHRA’s Unlimited Stock-3 record to 175.75 before being recalled and crushed by Ford. Its ill-handling inspired Drag Council chief Dick Brannan to send his similar car into Ford’s wind tunnel, revealing a need for the front and rear spoilers that sprouted from other factory cars shortly thereafter.
Tommy Grove’s startling defection from Chrysler’s dominating ’65 altered-wheelbase fleet paid off with a historic win at the second Bristol Springnationals, the first NHRA meet separating “match-bash” stockers from traditional dragsters and altereds. Five new Experimental Stock classes were devoted to un-blown combinations. The big guns on fuel fought it ought in A/ES, where Grove’s nitro-fed SOHC 427 produced jaw-dropping 8.70s en route to victory. Tommy earns extra credit from MM for sticking with Cammer power longer than any other competitive racer, winning match races and continuing SOHC development as late as 1976. During one two-year period, Grove swears he never pulled a head.
This scrappy independent gets our vote for doing the most with the least. Unlike the factory favorites handed stretched, SOHC-equipped Holman-Moody Mustangs, Platt kept competitive with a conventional 427 High-Riser set way back in a super-light, full-tube frame from dragster-builder Frank Huzsar (Race Car Specialties). Lions Drag Strip fans who witnessed this car’s unreal 1966 wheelstand are still talking about it out west. Near the end of that season, Platt’s independent efforts were rewarded with the 10th ranking in Drag Racing magazine’s prestigious Top 10 Stockers-East list and a Cammer ride, finally, when Dick Brannan vacated his state-of-the-art “Bronco.”
Defying the trend to one-piece, lift-off shells pioneered by Mercury’s team the previous season, Gas Ronda shared Ford Division’s belief that only a mounted body with functional doors properly preserved the street identification that converted Sunday’s spectators into Monday’s new-car shoppers. That’s not to say that his unique ’68 fastback wasn’t plenty trick for its time. All-fiberglass Cal Automotive panels and a 118.5-inch, chromoly Exhibition Engineering chassis trimmed racing weight down to 1,800 pounds. Hot Rod magazine treated the Poppy Red beauty to a cover and a full-color inside spread, cleverly titled “Gas and His Fueler” (Nov. ’67). Ed Pink’s potent SOHC power fed a C6 transmission. Note the aero aids built into the slickest, trickest door-slammer of its time—also the last of a breed.
Last but not least, behold the sister ships that revolutionized Funny Car design and performance in 1969. Built entirely in-house and wholly financed by M/T Enterprises (explaining the absence of FoMoCo signage), these fraternal twins enabled designer-builder Pat Foster (seated, with fabricator Joe Anahory) to test two sets of ideas simultaneously. Slingshot veteran Danny Ongais got dual center supports behind his rollcage—the same basic design still seen in modern floppers—whereas Foster’s sister ship received a foot-longer nose on a 5-inch-longer chassis incorporating a dragster-style, single-upright tail. Fiberglass Trends molded three bodies from the plug that M/T’s own team pulled from a body-in-white Mach I. Both roofs were lowered 2 inches. Another famous employee, ex-Surfers partner Tom Jobe, bent tin for both bodies and shot the only photo we’ve ever seen of the in-progress cars together.
“Mickey’s shop was full of dragster guys,” Foster said in an unpublished interview from 2007, the year before he died. “The only thing they knew about Funny Cars is that they didn’t like ’em, because they weren’t ‘real’ race cars. We could all see the handwriting on the wall, though: Funny Cars were what people wanted to see. They were getting the match races, grabbing the sponsors.”
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In fact, Mickey originally envisioned a slingshot fueler to make use of about two dozen complete Cammers and 20 employees—including veteran nitro tuners Amos Satterlee and John Kranenburg—suddenly idled by Ford’s refusal to extend M/T’s Bonneville-streamliner program after 1968’s unsuccessful land speed record attempt. Foster and Ongais were equally anxious to apply Top Fuel Dragster technology to this primitive new breed. According to Pat, only after each man quit, separately, did Mickey agree to back two Funny Cars.
This pair’s influence is still being felt, 46 years later. Dragster-inspired innovations ranged from the low, center-steer cockpits with rollcages to upswept, downforce-producing headers. “We built the basic chassis deep for strength, safety, and weight transfer,” Pat explains. “I didn’t want another ‘Model A frame’ made out of square tubing, like Logghe’s cars.” Dual water tanks out front of the Cammer equalized temperatures that previously varied as much as 50 degrees between cylinder banks and wreaked havoc upon ignition timing. A third tank carried six surplus quarts of ATF to cool C-6 automatics prone to overheating and exploding behind 1,500 hp. Less-obvious tricks included rear shock mounts designed to accept either the coilovers that Mickey demanded, initially, or the solid struts that Foster rightly predicted would prove the benefits of solidly mounting the rearend housing, dragster-style.
Starting with a one-two finish at 1969’s season-opening Las Vegas event, these revolutionary concepts proved themselves instantly. Alas, Foster’s year ended prematurely at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas, where he lost control and collided with Gerry Schwartz, who suffered fatal injuries in a conventional chassis with minimal pilot protection. Ongais went on to win that meet and the U.S. Nationals (7.47/195.65), along with nearly every round of countless match races. After Mickey used up his Cammer stash, he attempted multiple comebacks with Boss 429 engines and various drivers, but his Mustang magic was gone. Never again would a genuine Ford-powered Funny Car approach the domination of the revolutionary Mustang known and feared nationwide as, simply, “The Blue Car.”