Eric English
September 13, 2016

Even if you’re not a racer, it’s likely you appreciate the contribution that competition Mustangs have brought to our favorite pony car’s heritage. From NHRA to NASCAR, SCCA to FIA, Mustangs have gone head-to-head in most forms of auto racing known to man, and brought a toughness and reputation to the breed that wouldn’t have existed had the car been viewed simply as a cute pony car. Not only did a “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” mantra stoke Mustang sales at dealer showrooms, the lessons learned while racing have often had a trickledown effect on the cars we drive on a day-to-day basis.

Racing has been a part of Mustang DNA from the start, but of all the genres and series that Mustangs have appeared in over five decades, perhaps none has the reputation or popularity of the original Trans-Am series. Hard as it may be to believe, 2016 marks the 50-year anniversary of the inception of the Trans-Am, and true to form, Mustang was there from the start. In honor of that milestone, we offer a brief overview of those early and glorious years.

Some of the Mustangs that ran in the early years of Trans-Am were built from ordinary street cars, but others were specially built Group II coupes from Shelby American. Just 16 were built in 1966, and 26 for 1967, with many of the tricks that were used on the G.T. 350 R-models. All began life as K-code 289 Hi-Po cars.

1966

On March 25, 1966, The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) kicked off a new professional racing series for domestic and foreign sedans (as opposed to sports cars), calling it the Trans-American Sedan Series. Understandably, the new series didn’t garner much media attention or corporate sponsorship that first year, as it was an untested concept. Trans-Am was divided into two classes, an over-2-liter (O-2), and an under-2-liter class (U-2), of which American sedans fell into the former. Displacement in the O-2 class was limited to 5.0 liters (305ci), an engine size that Mustang enthusiasts have grown to know and love.

Chrysler and Ford cars were the predominant competitors in Trans-Am’s O-2 class in 1966, with Darts, Barracudas, Mustangs, and the occasional Falcon, going door-handle-to-door-handle. Bob Tullius and his Dart team did get some support from Chrysler, and started off by winning the first event of the series at Sebring. Going into the final race of the season, both Chrysler and Ford were in a position to come away with the manufacturer’s championship. With this prize at stake, Ford corporate jumped into the fray by footing the bill for a Shelby Group II Mustang coupe with factory driver Jerry Titus at the wheel. Titus won the race, and thus, Ford won the 1966 championship. But the season belonged to the many privateer racers who had made Mustang and Ford a winner and ensured the Trans-Am would be a success.

The engine in Gary Underwood’s 1967 Group II coupe is typical of the configuration found in 1967 TA factory team cars. It’s essentially an R-model-spec 289 fitted with GT40 heads and dual-quad Holleys.

1967

The second year of the series was the beginning of something big. While Chrysler inexplicably pulled their corporate support, despite nearly winning the 1966 championship, Ford, Mercury, and Chevrolet all jumped on the bandwagon with factory-supported teams. In the Blue Oval camp, the new Bud Moore Mercury Cougar team garnered the most cubic dollars, while the Mustang team run by Shelby American played second fiddle. Nevertheless, the two-car Mustang team with drivers Jerry Titus, Dick Thompson, and Ronnie Bucknum were neck-and-neck with the Cougars throughout the season.

Both of the Ford teams were running similar engines to the Mustangs of the prior year, meaning Hi-Po 289-based mills. Cylinder heads came from Ford’s GT40 program, and while better than any other Windsor head in the arsenal, the airflow wasn’t on par with the Chevrolets. Dual-quad Holleys were standard fare on the factory-team engines and the 289s had proven reasonably powerful and certainly reliable, but the handwriting was on the wall—Ford needed more cylinder head to stay atop the heap.

Again, the manufacturer’s championship would come down to the last race of the season. While Mark Donohue took the win in a Camaro, Bucknum’s Mustang finished second, immediately in front of a hard-charging Dan Gurney in the third-place Cougar. It was enough for Ford to squeeze out a two-point win over Mercury for the championship, though ominously, the Penske Camaro team had won the final two races of the season. It was a sign of things to come.

The Jerry Titus/Ronnie Bucknum Shelby coupe won the Trans-Am class and finished fourth overall at the 1968 24 Hours of Daytona, arguably the single biggest win for Ford’s 302 Tunnel Port engine. Photo courtesy Dave Friedman/Austin Craig

1968

Trans-Am was hitting its stride in year three. Though Mercury pulled its support, American Motors came on board with their new factory Javelins, contributing to a wide variety of competition. The season looked promising for Ford’s single factory team, the Shelby American Mustangs. For one, with Mercury gone, there was no in-house competition. Two, Ford had a new engine that on paper, looked to be vastly superior to the Hi-Po 289 from years prior. The new engine was the Tunnel Port 302, with four-bolt mains, a forged steel crank, and radical cylinder heads that took their design cues from Ford’s successful NASCAR 427 Tunnel Port engine.

The year got off to a great start when Mustang won the first event—the 24 Hours of Daytona. After that, the proverbial wheels pretty much fell off. The Tunnel Port suffered innumerable engine failures, while at the same time, the Penske Camaros proved virtually unstoppable. Chevrolet won the championship handily, while Ford managed second place just ahead of AMC.

An up close view of a traditional Windsor head (left, ported 351W) and a 302 Tunnel Port head (right) shows the radically different architecture Ford believed would lead to 1968 Trans-Am dominance. Photo by JBA Engines

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Shelby had built their own engines during the 1967 season with excellent results, so a notable change with the Tunnel Port program was that for most races Ford built the exotic 302s at their in-house facilities in Dearborn. It’s interesting to compare the 1968 race record when Ford built the engines (one win in nine tries), versus the few times in which Shelby was allowed to build the engines (two wins in four tries). We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion regarding what might have happened had Shelby been allowed to build engines all season, but it would’ve no doubt been interesting.

Another interesting observation about the 1968 effort was SCCA’s homologation rules requiring Trans-Am engines to be based on those available in production cars—think Boss 302 and Z/28. Somehow the 302 Tunnel Port slipped through the cracks. Automotive magazines of the day had several features on the soon to come mid-year introductions of the 428 Cobra Jet and 302 Tunnel Port street engines, indicating that plans for a production Tunnel Port were in full swing. One might surmise in the face of early season failures, Ford decided to scrap a street car and take their chances with the SCCA, who in the end applied no penalty. Prevailing wisdom is that it would have been a different story if Ford had still been in the running for the championship by mid-season. In that scenario, a 302 Tunnel Port street car would’ve surely been built in order to comply with SCCA regulations.

NASCAR guru Bud Moore ran one of the two factory Ford teams during the 1969 Trans-Am series, with drivers George Follmer and Parnelli Jones. The tri-color paint scheme was one of the most distinctive of the era.

1969

“One and done” may as well have been the mantra for the Tunnel Port, as Ford wasted no time developing their next Trans-Am racing engine, the Boss 302. Essentially using the Tunnel Port’s beefy bottom end, the Boss was fitted with new canted valve Cleveland heads, and Ford went full bore on the homologation effort, creating a whole new Mustang model around the engine. Amazingly, it was ready to run by the time the first race of the season occurred at Michigan International Speedway.

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This Ford photo shows George Follmer leading Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue at the ill-fated St. Jovite race on August 3, 1969. This had to be early in the race since Jones DNFd on lap nine due to shifting troubles. Follmer also DNFd early with a blown motor, whose oil slick inadvertently caused an eight-car wreck that heavily damaged the two Shelby team cars.

Two factory-sponsored Mustang teams for 1969 showed that Ford was fully committed to winning the championship. Shelby American continued with a two-car team, while Bud Moore was back with another pairing. Mustang drivers were some of the best, including George Follmer, Parnelli Jones, Peter Revson, and Horst Kwech. The season got off with a bang for Ford when Boss 302s won the first two races of the season, and four of the first five. Then the Penske Camaros staged a huge comeback, and won the final seven races of the season—six by Mark Donohue.

From an admittedly biased Ford perspective, there were a couple of mitigating factors in losing the manufacturer’s championship to Chevrolet for a second straight year. One was a horrific wreck during the seventh race of the 12-race season at St. Jovite, Quebec, Canada, which all but destroyed both of the Shelby team cars. Though pieced together for the final races, it’s said that the cars wouldn’t hold their chassis settings after the accident, significantly affecting performance. A second issue was the Firestone tires that the Bud Moore team was under contract to run. They were fast when new, and Moore’s Mustangs led many races early, but the tires apparently went away much quicker than the competition’s Goodyears. But legitimate excuses aside, there’s no doubt Mark Donohue and the Penske Camaros were a formidable combination, scoring their victories the hard way by earning them!

Parnelli Jones and his #15 Boss 302 won convincingly at Laguna Seca in 1970, the first race of the season. It was a sign of great things to come. Photo by Dave Friedman.

1970

Big changes marked what many feel was the pinnacle year of Trans-Am’s early era. Chrysler was back with both Dodge and Plymouth factory teams for 1970, the Penske-Donahue show moved to AMC Javelins, Jim Hall ran the Chevrolet Camaro effort, Pontiac had entered the mix a year earlier, and Bud Moore was the lone Ford factory team, flying new school bus yellow colors on their Boss 302s.

The second year of Bud Moore’s Boss 302 effort found the team syncing up in all areas. The cars were fast and reliable, the drivers were top notch and familiar with their equipment, and Follmer and Jones combined for six wins out of 11 races, and five second-place finishes. Twice during the season, the Moore team even finished one-two.

An interesting note, the dual-quad carburetors, which the team cars typically ran in prior years of Trans-Am, were banned and a single four was mandated. Ford got creative and debuted a trick inline Autolite four-barrel that was quickly deemed illegal by the SCCA before it ever saw a race. From that point forward, the Boss 302 induction of choice was a big Holley atop a Bud Moore-designed mini-plenum intake. Ford went on to regain the coveted manufacturer’s championship, followed by AMC in second place. Nobody knew it at the time, but it was the end of the big-factory sponsorship era, which turned out to be short and sweet.

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1971

The era of multiple manufacturer sponsorships lasted only four years for Trans-Am, with Ford, Chrysler, and Chevrolet all pulling out prior to the 1971 season. AMC was the only factory still in the game, providing the Penske Javelins with a distinct advantage over the rest of their competitors. By the end of the season, Javelins had won eight of the 10 races, and AMC had their first manufacturer’s championship. Bud Moore ran much of the season essentially as a privateer effort, with impressive results considering the circumstances. Parnelli Jones’ only appearance was in the season opener at Lime Rock, but George Follmer won two races in his Boss 302 and finished second on five different occasions—all behind race-winner Donohue.

Going Forward

For the most part, 1971 proved the last hurrah for Mustang during Trans-Am’s early years, but it wasn’t the end of Mustangs in Trans-Am. In 1989, Roush Racing Mustangs won the manufacturers championship for Ford, with ace driver Dorsey Schroeder taking the checkered flag in seven of the 14 races. And just a few years later, Tommy Kendall was the class of the Trans-Am series in more Roush Mustangs, winning a trifecta of championships in 1995, 1996, and 1997.

You might be surprised to learn that the Trans-Am series is alive and well in 2016, with plenty of Mustangs in the competitive mix. Multiple classes include everything from tube frame and composite bodied pure racers to production-based cars that seem the spiritual successor to the 1966-1971 Trans-Am Mustangs we so revere. Check out the current state of affairs at www.gotransam.com, as well as the vintage scene at www.historictransam.com.

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