An idea born in Rhode Island and built in Detroit delivers drag racing championships!
By Charles R. Morris • Photography by Colin Date
The car that would become known as the Thunderbolt was born in 1962 of a vehicle built by the Tasca Ford team in E. Providence, RI. One of the decade’s most outspoken advocates of Ford drag racing, and possessed of a talented high performance team at his dealership, Robert F. Tasca Sr. sanctioned the building of a special drag car based on Ford’s new mid-sized Fairlane model modified to accommodate the top performing Ford engine of the time, the 406 cubic-inch Thunderbird Special V8. The 406 was the latest incarnation of the FE engine series introduced in 1958, which by 1960 had developed its own dedicated performance version. The Tasca Ford ’62 Fairlane was a red two-door sedan, dubbed “Challenger”, prepared and driven by the dealership’s high performance mechanic John Healy. Equipped with an automatic transmission, and even though hampered by the fact that Ford would not produce a decent automatic for five more years, the little car proved a viable concept and opened the door for greater things in the future.
Phil Featherston’s 1964 Fairlane “Thunderbolt”
Ford Motor Company showed just how serious they were about drag racing in 1963 as the company geared up two assembly lines (Norfolk, VA, and Los Angeles, CA) to produce just over two hundred special 1963-1⁄2 Galaxies with lightweight components and the new 427 cubic-inch engine to be sold to racers through select dealerships. With fifteen new lightweight Galaxies on his lot at one point, Tasca would be the most prolific of all the Ford dealers who sold these special cars. Tasca Ford also fielded their own John Healy-prepared 1963-1⁄2 lightweight Galaxie in the Super Stock class during the season and with ace driver Bill Lawton behind the wheel, the big Ford was counted among the top cars in the class. But despite Ford’s many racing successes in 1963, a drag racing championship remained elusive. This was partly due to the fact that the full-sized Ford Galaxie, even with lightweight components fitted, weighed several hundred pounds more than the competition and it soon became apparent at Ford that the big cars could not remain competitive in Super Stock much longer. To this end, the Tasca team collaborated with Ford and high performance sub-contractor Dearborn Steel Tubing Co. in building a one-off 1963 Fairlane that would become the “mule” car for the Thunderbolt program.
The Thunderbolt at the dragstrip in Bakersfield, CA
Constructed from a ’63 Fairlane two-door hardtop, the car’s engine compartment and front suspension were modified to accept the 427 cubic-inch engine, and the front fenders and hood were replaced by fiberglass components (the hood received a noticeable bulge to provide clearance for the two four-barrel carburetors mounted on the new high rise intake manifold). Further weight was shed through the use of Plexi-glass side windows, bringing the car down to just over the NHRA minimum for Super Stock class competition weight of 3,225 pounds. Ford Motor Company even went as far as to assign a DSO (Domestic Special Order) number and a price of $3,300 to this experimental vehicle to give it an air of legitimacy with the sanctioning body. The Fairlane, dubbed “Zimmy 1” in honor of Ford’s Frank Zimmerman, made its competition debut at the 1963 NHRA Nationals where a missed shift by driver Bill Humphrey ended the team’s day early. Before the close of the 1963 season however, the Tasca Fairlane would set the NHRA A/FX class miles per hour record with Bill Lawton driving, and lay the groundwork for the series of cars known collectively as “Thunderbolt” that would wreak havoc on the nation’s dragstrips in 1964.
Ford Motor Company chose the slogan “Total Performance” for their 1964 car line, and announced to their sales regions the availability of “The Super Stock 427 Fairlane two-door sedan”. The car could be obtained only by special order directly through the office of Special Vehicles Manager. Along with a list of special components and specifications for the cars, Ford sales districts were provided with a letter for the customer’s signature acknowledging the fact that there would be no warranty, and the vehicle was not designed for operation on the street. Wholesale prices to the dealer were $3,780 with a 4-speed transmission and $3990 with an automatic. As with the prototype 1963 Fairlane, Dearborn Steel Tubing got the nod from Ford for the modification of a series of 1964 Fairlane 500 two-door sedans into Super Stock drag cars. The Fairlanes used would be those slated for receipt of the high performance 289 engine (engine code designation K) due to the fact that they would already fitted with the heavier nine-inch rear housing.
The first series of eleven cars, built in the fall of 1963, would be Vintage Burgundy in color and were destined for the members of the Ford Drag Council; the factory drag team, with the first car being delivered to team captain Dick Brannan. NHRA rules at the time required that a manufacturer produce a minimum of one hundred vehicles in order to compete in the Super Stock class and as a result, DST was contracted to eventually build the required one hundred cars to be delivered to racers through Ford dealers.
The “production” Thunderbolts were slated to be white in color with Fawn Gold interiors. To get the cars down to the Super Stock class weight minimum, they were fitted with a one-piece fiberglass front bumper and gravel shield, fiberglass fenders and hood. Plexiglass side windows were fitted and the quarter windows were fixed in place, heaters and radios were deleted, and a thin rubber mat covered the floor. The front seats were replaced by Econoline van seats which were lighter in weight, and one wiper arm was even deleted to save precious pounds! A further weight saving came in the form of an aluminum case Borg Warner T-10 4-speed transmission.
Pounds were added of course, in the form of the 427 FE series High Riser engine, massive traction bars, and a heavy duty Galaxie radiator. A giant truck battery was mounted in the trunk over the right real wheel to aid weight transfer and thus traction. The engine retained a rating of 425 horsepower, while in actuality making closer to 500, gulped fresh air via huge flexible ducts that took the place of the inboard headlights and connected to an aluminum air box atop twin Holley four barrel carburetors. Elaborate tubular steel headers expelled spent gasses, and Ford even went as far as to mount an unconnected single exhaust system beneath the cars in order to comply with NHRA rules. As delivered, the cars were race ready right down to seven inch wide cheater slicks mounted on the back (S/S class rules restricted tire width to seven inches and this made the lightweight Fairlane with 500 horsepower an interesting ride).
With an eye toward unseating those all mighty Chrysler products from the S/Stock Automatic class, fifty-nine Thunderbolts were equipped with a Lincoln automatic transmission which was adapted to the FE engine via a specially fabricated bell housing. But the lack of a high stall speed torque converter limited the automatic equipped T-Bolts in competition and most were converted to the four-speed configuration in short order.
Dominance at the Drag Strip
When unleashed upon the competition at the opening of the 1964 drag racing season, the Thunderbolts left no doubt that Ford was now a force to be reckoned with on the quarter-mile. While General Motors claimed not to be supporting racing, Chrysler Corporation however was not hiding and the battle was soon joined. When the dust settled, several things were abundantly apparent. First, in the Thunderbolt, Ford had found the performance superiority on the dragstrip that it previously lacked, second, the automatic transmission-equipped Thunderbolts were not a match for their Torqueflite touting competition (the 4-speeds were the way to go). But probably most important of all was the NHRA World Championship garnered by Ford great Gas Ronda at the wheel of the Russ Davis Ford T-Bolt, and the AHRA gold claimed by Len Richter with the Bob Ford entry. Couple this with countless week to week S/S class and Top Stock Eliminator wins delivered by independent dealer-supported racers at tracks across the nation, and the S/S class win at the coveted NHRA Nationals by Californian Butch Leal, and one could say it was a very good year for Ford at the drags.
As the horsepower war being waged by the factories accelerated into 1965, the T-Bolts were relegated to second string duty as match racers and modified class competitors. Being race cars, a great many of them fell victim to the hazards of competition. By the late 1960s, most of the once feared factory racers known as Thunderbolt had faded into obscurity.
Fast forward thirty years, and thankfully interest in the Thunderbolt, for both racing and restoration purposes, returned. Many of the historic cars were recovered and their gutted shells returned to former glory, thus preserving a history that the parent company had pretty much forgotten as they were “Racing into the future”.
One of the cars that survived, the 53rd car built, and one of the automatic transmission-equipped T-Bolts, had originally been delivered to Turner Ford in Wichita, KS in March 1964. After being converted to a four-speed transmission early in its life, the Turner Ford T-Bolt went on to claim a share of the glory that the Ford racers basked in during 1964, but it too eventually became just another old car. But luckily the old racer was purchased by Phil Featherston of Stockton, CA in 1988, and by 1990 it had been restored and returned to the dragstrip. Featherston’s car is currently powered by an original 427 High Riser engine prepared by Panella Motorsports and is still backed by an automatic transmission (although now it is a lighter and highly modified C4, not the Lincoln unit). And with modern technology applied in the form of higher compression, more radical cam profile, and wider, stickier tires, the old racer, while maintaining a very stock appearance, now covers the quarter-mile in the high nine second range at over 130 miles per hour! In its heyday, the best the T-Bolt could muster would be mid-11 second elapsed times and then only after being converted from automatic to four-speed. In the capable hands of Phil, this legendary Ford is still doing what it was designed to do all those years ago- terrorizing the competition on the dragstrip. Appearing at several events held in 2004 to honor the 40th anniversary of these unique cars and subsequently at select nostalgia drag races, Featherston’s Thunderbolt never fails to draw a crowd.
427 High Riser
Featherston’s engine was machined and assembled by Panella Motorsports. The 427 has a 4″ stroke and a 4.250 bore. 13:1 compression ratio, Comp Cams camshaft: 715 lift .276 duration @.050, T&D rockers 1.8 ratio. Heads are stock cast iron (reworked by Steve Beletto at Panella Motorsports) with 2.25 intake and 1.78 exhaust valves. Manley triple springs: 340lbs at 2″. Intake is stock 2×4 C4AE9424D, carburetion comes from 2 Holley 660s with jet plate. Distributor is stock 360 Ford electronic with advance locked out, timing usually set at 35 deg. MSD7AL2 MSD Pro Power coil, Moroso wires and Autolite BF12 plugs. Headers are Crites 2″ with Hooker collectors. Transmission and converter by Len Schneider Performance, 8″ 5000 converter trans is a C4 with reverse manual valve body, no brake. 711 horsepower peaks at 6300 rpm.
It didn’t take long for the politics of drag racing to affect the Thunderbolts. The Chrysler camp complained that the one-piece fiberglass front bumper/splash shield and the huge truck battery over the rear wheels gave the Fords an unfair advantage on the track. As a result, Ford retrofitted many of the early production T-Bolts with an aluminum front bumper and standard splash shield and downsized the battery to quell the controversy. In retrospect, it did the Mopar camp little good anyway, as race results reveal.
Phil would like to thank the following people for their endless time, efforts, and support of his Thunderbolt and racing participation: Bob Panella, Len Schnieder, Bo McMillan, Bill Hill, Vern Santos, Steve Whitemore, Rick Hamilton, Ken Dondero, his wife Jan Featherston and his entire family.
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