The Ford Talladega – Cutting Through the Wind Like a Knife Through Butter
Auto racing in America didn’t start with the first car built. It started with the second one. There’s a good chance that both these cars were Fords. It was slippery, it cut through the wind like a hot knife through butter, it had a very big engine, an engine that would run on the red line all day. And it was made for one purpose: to chase the mighty Dodge and Hemi cars off the high banks of America’s stock car tracks. Ford even gave it a name which conjured up images of unreal speeds. The Talladega.
The Last Words in Ford’s High Performance Development
The Torino Talladega was the last word in Ford motor company’s high performance development during the unlimited horse power wars of the 60s. The Talladega and its cousin, the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II, were capable of running over 200 mph on the high bank stock car tracks. Their aerodynamic front ends and their fast back roof line gave them a clear advantage over their arch rivals, the Dodges and Plymouths. In 1969, with the all new Boss 429 engine under the hoods, the Ford and Mercury teams walked away from the feared Chrysler Hemis.
Tim Wellborn remembers: “Ford came in and they were behind maybe a little bit but they came with an arrow nose on their car. And they went faster so, what happened? Chrysler had to counter so came with the Daytona and the Super Bird and kind of one upped them and pretty soon it got pretty wild. In fact, these cars got too fast too quick.” Ford didn’t build the Talladega because they wanted to see one in every driveway in America. The Talladega was simply a 600 horse power sales tool.
Chances are, if you had gone to your local Ford dealer in the summer of 1969 and asked for a test ride in a Talladega, there wouldn’t have been one on his lot. Instead, your salesman would have offered you a ride in a 1969 Torino GT with a high performance 390 or a Fairlane Cobra with a fearsome 428 jet mill or a half dozen other incredible rides that were sitting in his showroom. Every model except the Talladega. The Talladega was made for the race tracks. The Torino Talladega was the latest in a long line of fast Fords that traced their ancestry back to this car: the 1956 Fairlane. Through the years, the Fairlane had seen duteous Fords’ top of the line duty, an economy car and a mega motored muscle car. In its evolution as the Torino Talladega, it ushered in a new era of aerodynamic performance and it revolutionized stock car racing. The story of the Fairlane and the Talladega is a big chapter in the story of stock car racing.
The History of Ford and Stock Car Racing
In the mid 50s, stock car racing was becoming a high visibility, high dollar sport. There was a connection between winning and selling and Ford understood this connection better than anyone else. About this time, Ford became aware of two gentlemen who would become very important to their racing future: John Holman and Ralph Moody.
Lee Holman remembers how his father, John, first teamed up with Ford to build race cars. “Ford had a racing team in Charlotte but they weren’t very successful and they looked around for a manager and my father was working in California and they offered him the job to come out to the east coast and become the team manager and the cars were instantly successful. They started winning every race they went to.” In 1956, factory Fords won 27 convertible races and another 13 wins in the hard top division with the all new Fairlane. The next year, the Fairlane achieved the most important corporate milestone of all. It outsold the ’57 Chevy by over 150,000 cars. Even an agreement by the major auto makers to curtail their racing activity did little to stop the world from racing. But most people didn’t care if the factories were gone or not. They just wanted to watch fast cars race. They wanted to buy the cars that won the race.
By 1963, everything was going Ford’s way. Despite furious competition from Dodge and Plymouth, Fords took the first five positions in the 1963 Daytona 500. The silver bullet that propelled these cars was the latest and greatest in a long line of Ford super engines: the high riser 427. This bullet proof power plant would be the engine to beat for nearly a decade of stock car racing. Ford needed every ounce of horse power it could get right now: its race cars were starting to get a little beefy. “In the early 60s, Ford had some pretty big cars,” says Lee Holman, “I don’t know if you’ve gone back and seen a ’62 or a ’63 Galaxy, but that’s a fairly big brick to put through the air.” The Galaxy weighed in at 4150 pounds and was about as aerodynamic as a school bus. But it was still the fastest thing on the track, thanks to Ford’s awesome engines. It was becoming clear that unless the cars were on a diet, they were going to run out of horse power. To find that extra speed, the race teams called up an old war horse: the Fairlane.
The Fairlane had been plodding along in Ford’s lineup as an economy car for the past few years. In 1966, Ford gave it new life as a tire burning muscle car. The Nascar boys were delighted to find that this excellent street muscle car was also a very good race car. All through 1967, the search for more speed was keeping Ford’s racers busy. More speed wasn’t going to come from under the hood. It was going to come out of the wind tunnel.
A New Word in the Lexicon – Fastback
There was a new word in the racing lexicon in 1968: fastback. If you weren’t racing one, you lost. Fastback roof lines flowed gently from the windshield to the rear deck. Smooth air flow over this part of the car was critical for handling and speed.
The 1968 Fairlane Torino was a textbook fastback. In this new aerodynamic world, more speed depended on your ability to punch a smaller hole in the wind. With one look at this car, the race car builders knew they could make it run over 180 mph on the high bank tracks. Nascar legend Ralph Moody has been an innovator in race car building for over 50 years. His work with fastback roof lines gave Ford a push in the right direction: “We had guys down there good with sheet metal and all that stuff. I was talking about the fastback car. In the stock world they had a notch back and they thought that would run the fastest. For some reason they thought that and I said, ‘That ain’t gonna be the way it is. It’s going to be the fastback that runs.’ I drove the first one and that’s what started the aerodynamic stuff in the Torino and the Talladega.”
The Torino had a distinct aero advantage over the ’68 Plymouth Road Runner and the Dodge Charger. David Pearson captured his third Nascar championship in a ’68 Torino. And for the blue oval team, stock car racing was fun again. “I always tried to take care of the equipment. I always used them light and turned them tight.” In May of 1968, Nascar broke ground for a new super speedway. It would be 2.66 miles long with 41 degree bank turns. The track was located in a little Alabama town called Talladega. At about the same time, taking shape in Holman and Moody’s race shop was a Torino that might just run 200 mph on this new super speedway.
Talladega sounded like a pretty good name for this new car. Lee Holman recalls: “We developed the long nosed Talladega front end just to aerodynamically get the car through the wind quicker. The back half of the Talladega is pretty much a standard car. But the front half was highly modified just for dynamics.” The Torino Talladega had “Race me” stamped all over it. Every aerodynamic trick in the book was built into the car from the flat rear glass to the longer front fenders and flesh grill. What they didn’t have they created on the spot. Ford also decided that the Talladega was their new platform for their new Boss 429 semi Hemi engine. Before they could race this car, though, Ford had to convince Nascar that the Torino Talladega and the Boss 429 engine were standard production items. Somehow, Ford’s handful of hand built Talladegas satisfied Nascar. But certifying the Boss 429 engine required a little creativity. 500 1969 Mustangs were stuck with the Boss 429 engine and these were paraded before the Nascar brass as proof that the boss was an over the counter piece. It was then, but hey! This was stock car racing.
Meanwhile, out on the street, the muscle car crowd was feeling the effects of all this racing R&D. Out on the street, the muscle car wars were in full swing. Ford’s racing had resulted in some pretty incredible street cars that looked like, more importantly, performed like their stock car heroes. One of America’s most popular muscle cars was the Fairlane GT. It had been maintaining the blue oval reputation for bad boy street cars. It was gorgeous. It had all the neat muscle car amenities. And it was fairly quick with a 390 high performance engine. But when they needed a little more, Ford reached back and grabbed a lot more: the legendary 427. Lee Holman tells all: “The 427 was a nice engine. It’s a nice, mild drivable engine with so much torque you can just twist the axles off of a car.”
Muscle Cars – the Kings of Cool
Muscle cars were fun but racing dictated what was cool on the street. By 1969, the fast back Torino was extremely cool. Muscle car fans were finding out that big horse power and sexy styling didn’t have to come at the expense of comfort and roominess. Jim Kohli, a muscle car owner, explains his purchase: “Well, I wanted the big block. It was nice to get a big block car, feeling the low end torque in that. The body style is nice. It’s big enough but it’s not too big and it has a decent ride for cars of that era because of the wheel base.”
The Fairlane and its upmarket brother the Torino sold over 200,000 units in 1969. And somewhere in that total were a few truckloads of street Talladegas. Maybe your Daddy was a Ford dealer. Maybe you lived down the street from Mr. Holman or Mr. Moody. Or maybe you were just lucky. Those were about the only ways you were even going to get a look at the Talladega, much less get your hands on one. The street Talladegas came equipped with Ford’s most fearsome street motor: the 335 horse power Cobra Jet 428. This engine used a super strong 427 block and had a bore of 4.13 inches and a stroke of 3.98 inches and a forged crankshaft, police interceptor rods, forged pistons and a 481 lift hydraulic cam shaft. The CJ made its horse power with a 10.71 to 1 compression ratio and a Holley 735 carburetor on a cast iron intake manifold.
It was less exotic than the racing Boss 429. But on the street, it was the perfect muscle car power plant. The street Talladega was an off the rack car. You had your choice of three colors: royal maroon, presidential blue, or Wimbledon white. Only one transmission was available: the C6 automatic. In the classic Ford style, you had your choice of interior colors as long as it was black. You got all this for $3685. About what you pay for a totally decked out Torino GT. But Ford never intended to sell many Talladegas. Not that they had that many to sell anyway. In fact, the fewer Talladegas Ford sold, the more they had to send to the racing teams, which incidentally were doing quite well with them out on the track.
The Mopar Fires Back
1969 was going to be a good racing year for Ford. How good a year? Even Richard Petty, Plymouth’s shining star, was driving a Talladega this year. Ford opened the season by winning at Riverside in Daytona. But midway through ’69, Mopar fired back. Out of their wind tunnel rolled a new shape that would stop everyone, especially the Ford contingent, right in their tracks. Dodge called it Daytona. And it was their 200 mph trump card. Outrageous didn’t begin to describe it.
With the Talladega’s nose drooping, the Daytona’s pointed. And the Talladega had a little spoiler on the rear deck. This car had an entire wing stuck way up in the air stream. Up and down Pitt row, the Ford drivers watched and hoped Dodge’s gimmick wouldn’t work. David Pearson, who was driving a Talladega again that year, was one of the skeptics. “We felt like the little wing wouldn’t do much good but we were wrong. It really did! And it held the car down.”
The Dodge Daytona worked fine on the high banks and Mopar was back on the hunt for the Nascar championship. All through the ’69 season, the Hemi power Dodges, and the 429 Fords swapped the lead. But when the points were tallied, David Pearson had won his third driving championship. Ford finished the 1969 season with 26 wins to Dodge’s 22 and privately, some of Nascar wondered how much higher these speeds could get. The answer was, not much higher.
Going into 1970, there were a lot of weired shapes in the Nascar garages. The battle lines were drawn for the fastest season in Nascar history. When the Talladega, the Daytona, and the new Plymouth Super Bird started lapping the big, bad tracks at over 200 mph, the tire companies, the drivers and Nascar agreed that things might be getting out of hand. So, with a decision based on driver safety, Nascar applied the brakes. With one move, they slowed the cars down and leveled the playing field at the same time with a device which governs racing competition to this day: the carburetor restrictor plate. Bud Moore describes the decision: “We put the restrictor plates on them to slow ‘em done and the whole idea was to get them out of the 210 range. To get them back onto the 190 mph bracket. And I think it was a very wise idea.” The plate not only lowered big track speeds, it signaled the death of the ultra exotic race engines like the Hemi and the Boss 429. At the same time, the rules changed imposed huge weight penalties on the Talladega and the other arrow cars. After 1970, there would be no more pointy noses, wings, or special race engines. Nascar would race into its next era in lighter cars with smaller engines. The 1970 season was the final chapter in stock car racing’s golden age. The world was changing in 1971 and high performance cars were under attack from all sides. Big public corporations spending millions of dollars on racing was about as politically incorrect as you could get. Lee Holman tells: “Ford had won everything it could win. It had won Daytona so many times. It won Darlington and Charlotte and all that and basically owned the racing world. Henry Ford was called to Congress and the senator he was in front of said, ‘Well, you’re spending millions of dollars in racing. Maybe if you took some of that money and put it towards economy, you would have a better thing.’ So, Henry Ford said, ‘We no longer race.’” Delorean adds: “We were in California testing at the time and a Ford man said, ‘Ford just pulled out of racing.’ Of course they just stopped the test right then, loaded up, and came back home.”
The End of 25 Year of High Performance R&D
When Ford pulled the plug on its factory racing efforts in 1971, it ended 25 years of the most intense high performance research and development ever undertaken by an auto manufacturer. Ford’s pull out also ended work on this car: the King Cobra, which was to be the next step beyond the Talladega. Only three of these cars were ever made and two survive today. Thanks to the restorers, a handful of these factory race cars still exist to bring back memories of stock car racing’s first golden age. Today’s stock cars are running almost 200 mph on safer tracks with better tires, driven by people too young to remember the big Boss 429 Fords. But race fans everywhere owe a lot to the Talladega: those who built them and those who drove them. They did a lot to make stock car racing the biggest afternoon of entertainment in the world. Bud Moore opines: “When you put these cars out on the race track running right at 200 mph now that is a show!”