The Ford Mustang aka “The Boss”
By the end of the muscle era, the Mustang wasn’t just a great car, it was the boss. Ford Motor Company was not a follower of trends, they created them. Way before the muscle car made its appearance back in 1962, Ford had been working on an idea aimed directly at this youth market. Instead of raw muscle, this car offered the era’s most important main ingredient: image. Tom Shaw says: “When the Mustang was on display outside the Ford rotunda at the world’s fair in 1964, they had it on a big rotisserie and they used that set up to film a commercial called Dream Your Own Mustang. You could outfit a Mustang any want you wanted.” America, young and old, loved the Mustang. And with these good looks and a sticker price just a shade over $2000, what was not to love? Even though its most potent power plant was a 260 cubic inch V8, people still gobbled up Mustangs to the tune of over a million cars in its first two years.
But muscle cars were 800 pound gorillas, and out on the street even a million seller like the Mustang had to buff up just to stay in the game. Tom Shaw goes on: “If you had a small block you were at one level but the big guys had the 396s and the 390s and the big cube engines and that was all a badge of honor on the street.” Thanks to a decade of racing, Ford had a roomful of high horsepower engines. And most of these would wind up inside the Mustang eventually. But even with more horsepower, the Mustang’s reputation was still more sporty car than muscle car. So in 1969, Ford created two Mustangs that took things to a whole new level. They called them Boss and they were the product of one of the most performance minded people in the auto industry: Bunkie Knudsen.
The Boss 429 Mustang
The Boss Mustang served widely different purposes. The Boss 429 Mustang was built purely to provide a home for Ford’s all world racing engine called the Boss 429. This engine was made to give Ford’s Nascar racers an edge over Chrysler’s mighty 426 Hemi. Thanks to Bunkie Knudsen, the lucky platform chosen for this duty was the 1969 Mustang. Stuffing the Boss 429 in the Mustang started out as an end run around Nascar. But the car that resulted from this slight of hand, was a textbook case of muscle car era overkill. The other Boss Mustang was a little more balanced but just as potent in a very different way. The Boss 402 was purpose built for Trans Am racing. Its mission was to blow away Camaros and any other pony car that dared line up against it on the track on the street.
Tom Shaw explains: “The point of the Boss program was twofold, really. Trans Am racing had become an extremely popular sport and Ford had to have something that was going to win all the marbles. So, on one hand they wanted to create a package that would win on the racetrack. They also wanted to create a parallel package that would win on the showroom.” With one swing of the bat, the Boss could hit a triple. It could qualify the shotgun motor for Nascar, take back Trans Am from Chevy, and revamp Mustang’s street image from cute car to mean machine.
But to hit all these bases, Ford had to do more than just pump up the power. They needed to create a whole new look for the boss. For that book, Bunkie called in is styling whiz kid from GM, Larry Shinoda, to reshape the Boss to fit their new image as the baddest Mustangs of all time. For 1969, Ford’s designers had given the Mustang a more muscular look with a full packet of scoops, spoilers, rally stripes, wide wheels and tires and all the standard muscle car stuff. Everyone loved the look except Larry Shinoda. Among American automobile designers, Shinoda was at the top of the list.
When Bunkie Knudsen left GM in 1968 to be the president of Ford he brought Shinoda with him to be his point man for special design projects. Shinoda liked the Mustang but he detested styling gimmicks like the ones on the ’69 Mustang. Says Tom Shaw: “He cleaned up the car, made the hood scoop functional, put the slats on the back, expanded the tire width to seven inches. He deserves credit for making the Boss Mustang great.”
Shinoda’s Mustang was cleaner and without all the cute stuff it looked even racier. As a final touch, he christened it with the same nickname everyone called Bunkie Knudsen, the Boss. While all this body work was going on, Ford’s performance engine group was hard at work developing an engine to go into this new car. This motor was worthy of the name Boss.
The Boss 302
The Boss 302 was built on a high strength four bolt main block with a 4″ bore and a 3″ stroke. Its cross drilled steel crank was the best small block crank shaft Ford ever made and would handle regular trips into the 8000 RPM range. Special longer Boss rods made it to 10.6 to 1 pistons and a 290 degree solid lifter cam completed the short block. What made the Boss 302 into a monster were its Cleveland cylinder heads, their huge 2.33″ intake and 1.7″ exhaust valves were laid out in a great design with 1.73 ratio rocker arms for increased lift. With excellent port design, these heads woke up the little 302 and with a Holley 780 carburetor on a high rise aluminum intake manifold, the factory’s rating of 290 horsepower was, in a word, sand bagging.
The 302 shifted gears with Ford’s bullet proof top loader four speed and pulled through the equally strong nine” rear end. This package pulled rev so easily that Ford ever installed the 6100 rev limiter to keep things together. Knudsen had one more goal for this car. It was to be the best handling car ever to roll of Ford’s assembly line. Says Dave Houston: “Well, the car itself was built to race. It had the staggered rear shocks, had the sway bars front and rear, had the reinforced shock towers, which kept the car stable. Had spoilers in the front, optional spoiler on the rear. Of course, the louvers were an appearance piece but they kept the back cool during the summer months when the sun hit the back. But, basically, overall, the car was built for road racing and was also a good rag race car.”
The Boss 302 looked and behaved like the meanest Mustang in captivity. And on April 18, 1969, when Mustang lovers saw it for the first time, they knew they were looking at the Boss. Says Dean Cole: “The ’69 Boss 302 was the first factory based race car that they put in the showroom. You could literally buy the car, strip a few parts off of it, take to the race track, throw a gumball on it and race. A few safety modifications and you were there. The cars, they just ran.”
While Ford had been developing the showroom version of this little hot rod, its race teams had been tooling up a few of these cars, too. Now in its fourth year of wheel to wheel excitement, racing fans had discovered the Trans Am series and so had the auto makers. The Camaro Z28 with Mark Donahue driving had wrestled the Trans Am title away from Ford in 1968 and it hadn’t been pretty for the blue oval guys. But for 1969, Ford was coming back strong with two Boss Mustang teams. One with Carroll Shelby at the helm and the other headed up by stock car racing legend Bud Moore. Moore didn’t just want to beat the Camaros, he wanted to beat everybody, including his fellow Ford racers on the Shelby team: “We got there and all the guys said, ‘Well, you got your work cut out this week. You’re not going to outrun us this week.’ You never heard the like. They’d been testing all that week. And they had a track record of 113 thing. They were running in the low 12s. So Jones, he sort of laughed and got in the car and said, ‘I’m gonna warm up faster than that’ and they all laughed at him. He came around the first lap at a 111. And when all was said and done, we sat on the pole at 109.”
Ford leaped out to a huge lead, winning the first five races of the season. 1969 developed into a battle royale with Ford and Chevrolet blazing away at each other every week. The competition between Mustang and Camaro and sometimes Mustang against Mustang produced some of the most exciting racing anyone had ever seen. At the end of the ’69 season, when the points were tallied, Camaro had won again by just 14 points. While all this sporty stuff was happening, halfway across the country another type of racing was going on and Ford was in it big time.
The Ford vs. Chrysler Horse Power War
By the mid 60s, Ford was in a horsepower war with Chrysler’s #1 racing power plant, the 426 Hemi. And they were losing. Ford fired back with a ringer of their own: a single overhead cam version of the 427. Lee Holman says: “This engine had a monstrous big hemispherical head with a single overhead cam on each cylinder head and a massive 8 foot long chain that wraps around all the gears and all the drives. But we ran it at Ford and it made it to a couple of races before Nascar said don’t bring it back.” After a couple of years of rulebook squabbling, Ford finally got tired of the game of horsepowermanship decided to throw down the ultimate weapon: the Boss 429.
With the Boss 429 in Ford’s new fastback Talladega, the blue oval racers finally had enough horsepower to go toe to toe with the Hemi. There was something wrong with this picture. Nascar rules said that before you could put a car on the track there had to be at least 500 of them in the marketplace. But there weren’t any Boss 429 Torinos. In fact, the Boss 429 wasn’t’ available on any car. Once again, Bunkie Knudsen saw this, not as a problem, but an opportunity. Says Tom Shaw: “Ford engineering had developed this magnificent Boss 429 engine. Now the question was what body were they going to put the motor in? It would have been a breeze just to bolt the engine into the Galaxy but Bunkie Knudsen insisted that it go in his pony car, the Mustang.”
If making 500 Boss 429 Mustangs would satisfy Nascar’s rulebook it would be a stretch. Almost as big a stretch as making this engine fit in the Mustang. Stock car racing had always been a game of bigger is better. It was also a game of seeing how much you could get away with. With a Boss 429, Ford was really stretching the rulebook. A decade of racing experience had gone into the Boss 429 and this time Ford got it all right. This engine was built to run wide open all day.
Lee Holman explains: “The Boss 429 was the first real race engine that Ford built for Nascar as such. It wasn’t a modification of another thing. That Hemi head, the combustion chamber, everything was done the way we wanted it, the way the Ford engineers wanted it and it was the best race motor Ford built. It was wonderful.” The Nascar version of the Boss 429 was heavy duty everywhere. The block was a special high strength unit based on the 385 block. With a 4.36″ bore and a 3.59″ stroke, it carried a forged steel crank and special Nascar forged rods. To make 13 by 1 compression, two types of pistons were used. One for shorter tracks and a domed heady style piston for higher RPM racing on the super speedways. The Boss heads were cast aluminum. The hollow stainless steel valves were immense. 2.37″ for the intakes and 1.9″ on the exhaust side. The Boss 429 Talladegas were nearly unbeatable in 1969 with Holman Moody’s ace David Pierson winning the championship that year. But the Boss 429 would have never seen the race track unless a minor miracle had taken place. Finding room for this massive motor inside the Mustang’s engine compartment.
Unlike the Boss 302, the 429 wasn’t expected to set any sales records. Their production target was just 500 cars. So this project was farmed out to a company called Car Craft, in nearby Brighton, Michigan. The Boss’ slick body already existed and the heavier suspension was already in place thanks to the work done for the Boss 302. So by widening the engine compartments slightly, moving the battery to the trunk and installing heavier front springs to compensate for the 429′s extra weight, the Boss 429 was a done deal. All that remained was to install a nasty looking hood scoop and add some subtle Boss 429 ID.
And the scariest Mustang of all time was born! The two street versions of the Boss 429 labeled 820S and 820T weren’t much different from the Nascar motor. The S motor featured a hydraulic cam and the T version offered a hydraulic cam at first, but soon switched to the solid lifter cam from the 429 Super Cobra jet. These engines had smaller intake valves and 10.5 to 1 compression. With a Holley 735 CFM carb actually smaller than the Boss 302′s Holley 780 this engine was rated at 375 horsepower. More Boss Mustang sandbagging. Larry McNally describes driving a Boss: “Driving down the road with the Boss with the stripes and the sound and the looks they’re just great. I’ve owned Camaros, I’ve owned Dodges, a little bit of everything and I keep getting stuck to the Mustangs. They drive me crazy.” Racing into 1970, the Boss Mustangs had a few more months on top of the muscle car world: on the street and the race track. This was just enough time to settle some unfinished business in Trans Am racing.
Mustangs Meet the 70s
The 1970 Mustangs didn’t change much from their 1969 shape. There were minor nose and tail style changes including a return to the two headlight layout and some new reflective stripes for the Boss 302. You could now get the popular shaker hood scoop which let in a shot of cold air at full throttle, which is precisely where Boss 302 spent most of their time, especially the ones from Bud Moore. Ford had consolidated its Trans Am effort into a two car team. And with Bud Moore’s Mustangs under them, the team were both heat seeking missiles. Bud Moore explains: “Parnell was a race driver. He knew how to run. He knew how to get around a course.” When the smoke had cleared from the 1970 season, the Mustangs had reclaimed the championship and pony car fans had seen the most exciting season of Trans Am racing ever. While the Boss 302s were cleaning up at Trans Am, its big brother Boss 429 continued its roll as the summer home of the 429 shotgun motor.
After making 852 of these cars in 1969, production slowed to just 505 units in 1970. But these kinds of numbers meant your chances of running across a Boss 429 on the street were pretty slim. But thanks to a special program sponsored by Ford Motor Company and others, tens of thousands of young Americans got to experience the Boss 429 in a very unique way. Al Eckstrand was a corporate lawyer and a champion super stock drag racer. He was also a man with a mission: “We were losing significant numbers of returning servicemen from Vietnam in accidents with cars that they weren’t capable of driving. They’d get mustered out of the service with $3500 which put you behind the wheel of a 425 horsepower car and they were piling into embankments along motorways. And instead of being sympathized or given help these guys were criticized. The whole thing seemed out of whack to me.” Eckstrand and a group of his friends formed the US Performance Team and sold Ford on the idea of touring Vietnam with a convoy of high performance cars to promote safe driving to military personnel.
Remembers Al Eckstrand: “What we ought to do is build a car, get some reasonable safety techniques developed and a way of presenting them to troops that they’d buy and with the credibility that drag racing had brought me and using that credibility, maybe they’d listen to what I had to say.” The Marine car picked up on Al’s idea and before long, Eckstrand and his hand picked race team were in country. Al Eckstrand says: “The ground rules for the program were that the government would pay nothing for this. My sponsors were to foot the bill. We needed a car that was built that would stand all the rigors of what we wanted to do with it. When I wanted a car I wanted them to be very, very unique that people would look at. That’s why the Boss 429 came to mind.” Al’s Boss ran 8 second quarter miles, blasting down everything from air strips to helicopter landing pads. Five other Mustangs in the troop were cars for the GIs to drive in safety demonstrations.
Al Eckstrand goes on: “We ran it in various places: airfields, aircraft carriers. It was a real attention getter and then when we got the message about racing, they’d listen to what we had to say about safety!” After being away from the states for a few months, a chance to get close to a good old American muscle car was good medicine for some servicemen. Al Eckstrand explains: “Another hospital we were staying at, they brought a car to a window outside and it was an amputee ward. Guys started to come out in crutches. They got out of their beds and started looking at the car. And I thought, ‘My God, how nobody realizes how powerful the automobile is to American youth.’” For three years, Eckstrand’s US Performance Team toured bases all over Asia from the largest and best equipped to the smallest and most remote. This trip never failed to put on a great show and bring home a little a closer for muscle car fans in uniform. Al Eckstrand continues to race one of those two original Boss 429s today. The other was destroyed in transit overseas. And once in a while, he meets someone who remembers the car from his tour in Vietnam. “What made the companionship with the guys was the genuine credibility that Mustang presented to the group. We never had trouble with it. It never gave us any difficulties and that’s the same car today.” It takes a pretty special car to make that kind of impression but the Boss Mustangs were cars that made an impression then and now.
In the two years Ford made the Boss 302 and 429, they grabbed all the headlines in Trans Am racing, combined the Mustang’s sporty essence with the raw power of the muscle car era and thanks to Al Eckstrand and his team of racers, the Boss made the dream of going home and buying a muscle car a little more real for thousands of American servicemen. It’s a pretty good resume for a car that was only around for a couple of years.