Welcome to the Thunderdome
One of the most famous muscle cars ever built, never cruised Main Street on Saturday night. The only cruising it did was on the drag strip. Welcome to the Thunderdome. In the early 60s, the drag strips of America were the scene of some incredibly intense competition. Every kind of car imaginable was blasting down the strip. With 50s style hot rods lined up against full body cars, dragsters against competition coupes, stockers against altereds. It was a smörgåsbord of racing action and more and more fans were flocking to the drags every weekend.
As far the local car dealers were concerned, drag racing was the greatest sales tool anyone had ever devised. Every Sunday the local heroes took their Pontiacs and Dodges and Ford Galaxies right off the showroom floor and showed the hometown crowd how fast they were. Talk about your free advertising. The sales war between the auto makers was white hot right now. Racing success meant sales success and Ford, GM, and Chrysler were doing all they could to help their cars win at the track. Even spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless man hours to develop factory race cars like the Z11 409 Chevy Impala, the 410 Ford Galaxy and the incredible 426 Max Wedge cars from Dodge and Plymouth. These were no hold barred race cars with lightweight bodies and engines that never made it into the regular showroom cars. These cars were never offered for sale to the general public. The factory made maybe 100 copies. Just enough to qualify them as production models with a racing sanctioning body. They were given to the racers, who take them out and fly the company banner.
Tom Shaw talks about the wide appeal of a winning car: “When people saw the 409s and the 427s winning events, the next day they’d be at the dealership, knocking on the salesman’s desk, saying ‘I want one of these. Can you get me one of these? I want one yesterday.’”
The Birth of the Ford Thunderbolt
With all these sales dollars and prestige on the line, everyone was looking for an edge. This may be the ultimate edge. This is the most awesome, brutally fast, wicked handling of all the factory race cars and it had one purpose in life. To dominate every drag racing class in which it competed for Ford motor company. They called it Thunderbolt and it appeared right in the middle of the stock wars to take advantage of a new weight rule in 1964. From the first time the T-Bolt rolled onto the track, it struck fear into the hearts of the competition.
Phil Bonner a Super Stock racer remembers the car’s speed. “This car went very, very fast and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the fastest car any manufacturer has ever put out that you could buy without alternate just to get on the street and run.” Phil Bonner was one of the new stars in this rapidly growing new motor sport Drag racing was about fast cars, young people, and a quarter mile of straight road: a combination irresistible to America’s young car lovers.
Says Shaw: “Drag racing was exploding across the country. Strips were popping up everywhere. Record crowds were attending drag races and it took nothing, really, for the average enthusiast to show up at the track, pay a nominal entry fee. Throw a little shoe polish on the window and run all night.”
One of the most famous drag racing stars of the 60s was Hubert Platt: “The drag strip is so nice now. Back then, Lord have mercy. I was racing one time. I had a Mustang I revved it up and the guard rail fell.” Drag racing champion, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, remembers what drag racing’s early days were like: “Guys on motorcycles and leather jackets and greasy t-shirts and for the most part it was really that way, you know. Let’s be honest. But of course, for the most part, in the early part of racing, in general, stock car racing or Indie car racing, that’s how it started out.”
But by 1964, drag racing had really cleaned up its act, thanks to good organizations and professionals like Don Prudhomme it was starting to become a legitimate auto sport. Explains shaw: “Networks would come and film the internationals or the Indie nationals. There was also a lot more coverage in the magazines, they would cover the existing meets and the created meets of their own.” The more famous racers followed a regular circuit around the country and no one wanted to miss a race. “We could race Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday.” Recalls Platt.
Drag racing offered Detroit some things they desperately wanted by couldn’t get from any other type of racing. Drag racing targeted the youth market, more so than any other form of racing. Phil Bonner goes on to say: “People just seemed to come out of the woodwork so to speak. For their favorite car.” Also, drag racing could create classes of competition which featured the cars the factories wanted to showcase. So the scene was set for a marriage between drag racing and big Detroit auto makers. Now all Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler had to do was win races. And they were willing to do practically anything to get a winning advantage, even build a few ringers. Ford had devoted a tremendous amount of R&D to its full sized Galaxy. This big sedan with the awesome 427 engine was doing quite well in stock car competition. And Ford factory race teams won more races in 1963 and ’64 than any other team.
Thanks to all this, Ford’s factory backed racers everywhere had a wealth of speed parts at their fingertips. Naturally, these parts started showing up at the drag strips. Mighty battles were going on in drag racing stock and super stock classes. Using some of the stock car technology, the 427 Galaxies held their own against the 409 Impalas and the super duty Pontiacs. Drag racing was giving loyal fans of each car and the car makers exactly what they wanted. Racing at its best.
In early 1963, though, GM pulled out of racing, taking with it the fabulous 409. And the rivalry between Ford and Chevy. Suddenly super stock was a horse race. Ford’s Galaxy against the max wedge Mopars. And if that wasn’t enough, here came another complication. In 1964, the national hot rod association announced new minimum weights for the stock classes. Just 7.5 lbs per cubic inch of engine displacement.
Tom Shaw discusses the effect on the Galaxy: “That hit the Galaxy particularly hard. Even the lightweight Galaxies had a lot of trouble meeting that weight. So, Ford realized that the Galaxy did not fit into their future plans here and they were shopping around for another home for their 427.” The Ford and Chrysler racer did some quick math and immediately figured out that a car with a 427 engine would weigh about 3200 pounds. The Mopars could make this weight no problem. They were already 200-300 pounds lighter than the Galaxy. But there was no weight reduction program that would make the Galaxy competitive under those rules. Ford had to find a platform for its world beater 427 or start losing to the lighter cars like Chrysler.
The Evolution of the Fairlane
Ford’s Fairlane had been caught in the middle since the introduction of the up market Galaxy and the compact Falcon. Neither roomy and luxurious nor compact and economical, the mid-size Fairlane was the poor stepchild of Ford’s lineup. Ford had attempted to breathe a little excitement into the car by offering it with a high performance V8 in 1963. But the Fairlane was not a very popular car except with fleet buyers and driver’s ed programs. Says Shaw: “Ford’s slogan in ’63 was ‘total performance’ The Fairlane’s top engine was a 289 hypo but the 427 took total performance to a whole other level”
The Fairlane’s curb weight was about 3100 lbs and the Ford engineers could easily find enough weight savings in this car with fiberglass body panels and Plexiglas windows and just plain cutting away shet metal to more than offset the extra weight of the 427 But putting that big motor in this little car was going to be a tight fit. Tom Shaw: “And to drop the 427 into this Fairlane required a massive overhaul of the engine bay. Dearborn steel and tubing got the job because Ford was not set up to do these little small batch products.”
To make room for the 427, everything needed modification They put away pieces of the spring towers and relocated the A arms and the oil panel and steering linkage were re-designed. As fast as one person cut away the body and frame to make room for the 427, another was welding in braces to handle the extra torque and weight of the new engine. Tom Shaw explains: “The Dearborn steel and tubing had to fabricate steering linkage that snaked around the engine. They had to fabricate these custom headers, very intricate, that took up every vacant space in that engine compartment to snake their way down to the collectors.”
Elsewhere on the Fairlane’s already sparse body, the weight reduction program was in full swing. The stop front seat was replaced with a pair of lightweight buckets. All sound deadening material was removed. And needless to say, the radio and heater were never installed. Even the cranking mechanisms for the rear windows were removed to save weight, which is fine because all windows except the windshield were Plexiglas The biggest weight savings was achieved by replacing the stop front and sheet metal, front fenders, doors, hood, bumper, and valance panels all with fiberglass. Of course when NHRA saw this fake front bumper they said “Nice try” and made Ford replace it with a real bumper. Ford’s response? An aluminum bumper that weighed less than the fiberglass one. By the time the diet plan was completed, the Fairlane was almost too light for its class. The car depended on a 125 lb. battery in the trunk and a full tank of gas to pass the minimum weigh in during tech inspection.
“I put forty pound in my bag, to make the weight to be sure. And that’s full of gas and everything.” Divulges Platt, while Phil Bonner reveals: “I think showing up with this car originally, people looked at this car and thought it was something else and said it went faster than anything else they had seen go.” Fairlane had been literally rebuilt around Ford’s world beater 427. Now the Max Wedge cars were about to hear some thunder.
Every component in the Thunderbolt’s power train was the most bullet proof heavy duty stuff Ford has. From the engine to the transmission, right on back to the rear axle. Ford’s big block engines were already legendary horsepower makers. The FE engine series dated back to the late 50s. Street legends like the 406 and 410 police interceptor engines were from this family. The most famous of the FE engines were the 390, the 427, and the 428 Cobra jet. And the most famous of these was the mighty 427.
“Those engines were very, very high torque engines that did a lot of power on the street at low RPM. Then they developed the medium riser and high riser heads for these things and lightweight valve systems that made their torque move way up higher so it held a good torque up to about 7000 RPMs.” Bonner details. The 427 was created to be a race engine. By late 1963, Ford had developed three different versions of the 427 and the 427 high riser was the most radical. All the 427 blocks were cast from high strength alloy iron and the bottom end of the 427 was further beefed up with a new forged steel crank shaft and cross bolted main bearing caps. Everything was done to make sure this engine could live under extreme stress. The factory claimed 425 horsepower but actually, the engine was easily capable of over 500. With a compression ratio of 13/1, torque was conservatively rated at 515 foot pounds at 3800 RPM and the motor would wind easily to 7000 PRM. The rear suspension was just as heavy duty as the rest of the package. It utilized Ford’s bullet proof 9″ rear end. Extra box tubing cross members were welded into the frame,e providing a place to mount the rear axle radius arms. The standard rear end ratio was 456. With a Detroit locker differential.
The 427 Fairlane Thunderbolt – “This Was Not a Street Car”
Shaw explains how the Fairlane wasn’t meant to be a street car: “Because the extensive modifications made the suspension, the 427 Thunderbolt Fairlane was intended to go only in a straight line. This was not a street car.” Bonner agrees: “It wasn’t a good car to make good turns on.” And Platt remembers driving it: “When you come up, the towers would flex and when it came back down, you didn’t know which way it was going to go.”
Eleven cars made up the first run of Thunderbolts to roll out Dearborn steel tubing. Bonner recalls the hype: “We knew it was going to be a real hot car because I had already been with Ford a while and my close friend Dick Brannan was an engineer on this car. Our cars were basically the four speed cars and we knew the cars were going to run well. We didn’t expect them to be the hit that they were.”
Jack the Giant Killer
The transformation was complete. Clark Kent into Superman. Quiet, shy, dorky little Fairlane into Jack the Giant Killer. Bonner talks about this Superman vehicle: “They were extremely powerful cars for their day. With street cars it was difficult, at time, because it was light the tires in almost any gear if you were full throttle. As we progressed towards the drag racing end of it, we had to learn to use the power in the tires themselves.” According to Shaw, the Thunderbolts had a hidden purpose: “The purpose of the Thunderbolt was not to sell Thunderbolts, it was to sell the rest of the car line so the wow and the excitement that the Thunderbolt generated would get people into the Ford showrooms where they would be sold other cars.”
Bonner explains race car marketing: “We won nearly all the races and that sold a lot of cars on Monday. So we raced cars on Sunday and sold cars on Monday.” Thunderbolt’s impact extended all the way from the showroom to the starting line. When the Chrysler racers lined up against the Thunderbolt their world was rocked. Phil Bonner: “Nobody had a lock on the market for any given time. Things changed. Rapidly.” Very soon the Mopar guys started finding a few speed secret of their own. “Ram chargers were noted, especially for putting watered up slicks in the trunk. But yes, everybody had their own little things they did to engines and so forth but nothing radical. It was just, we called it ‘Getting your best hold.’” The Thunderbolt’s mission as to blow away in super stock. That meant it had to blow away this car: the 426 Max wedge Dodge
Ford wasn’t the only car maker who coveted super stock classes. Since GM’s pullout, the max wedge Dodges and Plymouths had literally owned the class and their factory race car used every trick in the book Chrysler’s factory race teams field some f the sport’s most famous cars. These teams were fan favorites and most of their technology came directly from Chrysler’s high performance R&D labs. The Mopar factory drag cars, pushed the class rules to the limit. Starting with the mid-sized Dodge Coronet and Plymouth Belvedere, all he steel body parts forward of the fire wall were replaced with aluminum and fiber glass. Under the hood, the 426 Max Wedge engine produced more than 500 horsepower using cast iron headers and a cross ram intake manifold with two Carter four barrels. So dominant where the Mopars, that all through 1963 at drag strips all over America, the finals saw two Chryslers fighting it out for top honor.
The Thunderbolt – The World’s Noisiest Party Crasher
The Thunderbolt showed up in the midst of all this like the world’s noisiest party crasher. In the hands of Ford’s best drivers like Dick Brannan and Gas Rhonda, there wasn’t any time for test driving, and if there was any of that to be done, these guys would do it on the track. “We knew we had to do better. We had to take what we had and we had to improve on it. Everybody has to improve on it. You can’t sit still in this business. Not even for a week. You have to learn things. You ave to learn the cars. You have to learn fuel mixtures. Carburetor timing. Everything about it. And then the next week, all over again.” Remembers Bonner, of his racing days.
The Thunderbolt’s power to weight and its radical suspension made it a real handful to drive. It took a lot of talent to handle the car. Hubert Platt had a special technique to keep from ending up on the guard rail. “I drove with one hand. I always braced my elbow and I held the wheel and when I shifted gears I didn’t snatch the wheel. Some people, the way they drove it, they try to drive with their hand up here and when they go to change gears they pulled the steering wheels. And them cars, you pull the steering wheel a little bit and no telling where it went. But I always had the steering wheel straight and I could do it and never move the steering wheel, just like it was locked going straight.” If you could hold it straight, the Thunderbolt was a world beater right from the start. The California Flash turned in a shake down run of 11.97 at 120 mph. And by the end of the day’s tuning, go the car down to 11.61 at almost 125 mph. The word went out to all the other super stock teams that there was a new bad boy on the block.
“Super stock was very competitive in ’64 and it was won that year by, none other, than Gas Bar Rhonda in the ’64 Thunderbolt. Gas went around to a lot of the meets and really racked up the points. What did he win for his efforts? A ’64 Barracuda.” Remembers Shaw.
There’s been a lot of special machinery to come off the Detroit manufacturing lines through the years. Everything from Cobras to Superbirds. But what Ford pulled off with the Thunderbolt was something really extraordinary Ford set its sights on owning the super stock eliminator in 1964 and they did everything in their power to succeed. And succeed they did. Perhaps better than even they thought they could. Bonner takes a trip down memory lane: “I enjoyed that whole era of time. You have to realize that in those days, every car was different. Everything you did was unique. Every person’s way of doing it was different as well as cars. Nowadays, its a tremendous amount of fun, a lot safer, but everything is sort of generic. It has to be, as fast as they go and what they do.” The people who raced the
Drive a Legend
Thunderbolt are legends today, just as the Thunderbolt is a legendary automobile. Only 100 of these magnificent race cars were every built and only a handful survive Restored T-Bolts have sold for almost a half million dollars today. And for that, you could have bought all 100 of them when they were new. And Platt, like Bonner, was a real showman: “And at the racetrack, all we had to do was put on a show. If a car wouldn’t run, I’d stand it up. You know what I mean? Make the people happy. They call me the showman of the south.” Thanks to racers like Hubert Platt and Phil Bonner, the story of the Thunderbolt is as exciting as watching run back in ’64 and thanks to the restorers there are still a few Thunderbolts around for us to appreciate.
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