By Charlie Ascher
Photos by Daniel Strohl.
It’s been 50 years since Ford took the drag racing world by storm with its lightweight Thunderbolt, and to celebrate, Dearborn Steel Tubing, the original manufacturer of the Thunderbolt in 1964, has just produced a new Thunderbolt.
The year was 1963 and Dick Brannan was the head of Ford’s Drag Team. Brannan was charged with keeping Ford competitive on the strip, and new NHRA rules for 1964 – which allowed a 427-cu.in. engine with a minimum weight of 3,200 pounds – meant that he would need to seriously update Ford’s entries to stay competitive.
Ford was already running lightened Galaxies with their powerful 425-hp, 427-cu.in. V-8s. The problem with the Galaxies was not their power, but their weight. Ford was only able to get the big Galaxies down to around 3,425 pounds, which was not going to be enough to compete against the new lightweight competitors from Chevy and Mopar. The Blue Oval needed to shed some pounds.
The solution came not from remaking the Galaxie out of construction paper and unobtanium, but by switching car models entirely. Inspired by Bob Tasca, who had started tinkering with putting a low-riser, 427-cu.in. V-8 into a 1963 Fairlane 500 two-door hardtop, the midsized and 700-pounds-lighter Fairlane became the subject of Ford’s drag racing efforts.
Brannan ordered 10 burgundy two-door hardtops and got to work making the Fairlane into a drag monster. The cars arrived at Dearborn Steel Tubing for modification already without their radios, heaters and seam sealer, but these were minor deletions compared to what the cars would undergo in the coming months.
All in the name of shaving weight (and thus, hopefully, time off the quarter-mile,) the Fairlanes had their front bench seat replaced with bucket seats from an Econoline, their rear and rear side windows switched for fixed Plexiglas windows, no sound deadening, no passenger-side windshield wiper or sun visor, and fiberglass front fenders, fiberglass doors and a fiberglass hood. Oh, and that new fiberglass hood just so happened to have a huge teardrop-shaped bulge in the center of it, under which lurked Ford’s powerful new 425-hp, high-riser, 427-cu.in. V-8. Fresh air was supplied directly to the mighty engine through intakes where the high beams used to be in the grille.
After a couple of months, Ford settled on the Thunderbolt name for its new drag racer, which actually weighed less than the 3,200-pound minimum and needed to use extra fuel as a ballast. Ford built 100 Thunderbolts – 49 four-speeds and 51 automatics – to satisfy the NHRA’s homologation requirement. Besides the first 10 cars that Brannan had personally ordered in burgundy, all Thunderbolts came in white.
The Thunderbolts dominated immediately, winning their first event, the 1964 Winternationals. The cars ran roughshod over the competition throughout 1964, with a four-speed Thunderbolt managing an 11.61 second quarter-mile at 124.8 MPH in 1963.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of these legendary drag cars, the Thunderbolt Owners Association, in conjunction with the Fairlane Club of America’s 2014 National Meet, recently hosted a banquet that brought more than 20 original Thunderbolts to Dearborn, Michigan.
It was at the celebrations in Dearborn that Dearborn Steel Tubing – now known as DST Industries – rolled out the 101st Thunderbolt. Commissioned by DST CEO Brenda Lewo in 2013, the new Thunderbolt was constructed by DST’s restoration team using a 1964 Fairlane to which they had given a full rotisserie restoration. While not a perfect clone, the reproduction Thunderbolt stays mostly true to the original, painted in vintage burgundy and powered by a 427 high-riser going through a Borg-Warner four-speed transmission, only receiving a few upgraded components to make it more streetable.
DST’s reproduction Thunderbolt will be auctioned off at Barrett-Jackson Palm Beach in the spring of 2015 and comes signed by Dick Brannan, Brenda Lewo, Edsel Ford II and Mark Fields. Proceeds from the auction will go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in memory of Brenda Lewo’s late husband and former DST industries CEO Joe Lewo.