Detroit’s factory specials and the battle for brand supremacy
Repeat something enough times, with enough confidence, and before long it’s bound to be taken as fact. Take, for example, the widely held notion that the Pontiac GTO was the original muscle car. There’s no disputing that the 1964 Le Mans, when equipped with the $295.90 GTO option package, was on the front line of the muscle car invasion that overran American streets for the next half-dozen years. But in reality, by the time GTOs started adding their black-stripe signature to the pavement, a bare-knuckles era of Detroit muscle was already coming to a close.
This brief flash of brawn in the first half of the 1960s, predating the arrival of powerhouses like the Chevelle SS 396, Mercury Cyclone and Plymouth Road Runner, was orders of magnitude more serious. Starting as modestly upgraded mainstream sedans, followed by a burst of development work, the cars mutated into a raw, brute-force subspecies of top predators.
The cars — future legends that included the Chevy Impala Z-11, Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt, Pontiac Catalina Super Duty and Hemi-powered Dodge and Plymouth A990 sedans — were built in small numbers, fitted with specialized racing equipment and stripped of creature comforts. They were part of a pitched battle for stoplight supremacy — but they were almost never advertised to the general public. They were intended to deliver their message on asphalt, not in newsprint.
And though they were perfectly road legal — muffler, turn signals and such — they were never intended for daily commutes. A sticker inside the glove compartment of Chrysler’s limited-edition A990 models made that clear: “This model is intended for use in supervised acceleration trials and is not intended for highway or general passenger car use.”
There’s no telling how many of those “acceleration trials” were supervised, but the message was clear. The cars were built for drag racing, best suited to the quarter-mile track, but available in showrooms to those who knew of the automakers’ black-ops. It was a way that America’s car companies could settle intramural squabbles — and make an impression on increasingly performance-minded young drivers.
It is remarkable, really, that any of these cars survived. Engines were worked over for more power, often to the breaking point, and bodies were cut to accept bigger tires.
Where are they now?
Several collections of these limited-production factory-lightweight models, mixtures of time-capsule originals and restored drag race cars, are sprinkled around the U.S. Some collectors are loyal to a single brand, but the selection in Nick Smith’s Stuart, Florida, garage includes examples from Ford (the Smith family’s first dealership), as well as General Motors and Chrysler. Among them are two of the most specialized examples of the genre — a 1964 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt and a 1965 Dodge Coronet A990.
These special Coronet and Plymouth Belvedere A990 sedans were powered by the 426-cubic-inch Hemi engine. Unlike the tamer street Hemi cars that hit showrooms in 1966, they used a racing version of the 426 with aluminum cylinder heads, 12.5:1 compression and twin Holley four-barrels on a magnesium intake manifold.
For Chrysler, fitting the car with a monster engine was mainly a matter of working out motor mounts and fluid connections, and making sure the cooling system and driveline were up to the task. What was needed to gain an edge on the drag strip was a diet, and the racing development group took to the task eagerly. Body panels and bumpers were stamped from thin-gauge steel and the spartan interior was fitted with two lightweight bucket seats. The cars carried VIN plates, but there was little confusion over their intended destinations.
Less certain, perhaps, was how such special-purpose vehicles were able to get through the automaker’s digestive process. With no prospect for turning a profit, how could such programs get funded?
Dave Koffel, a member of the team that developed the racing hardware and a veteran of the push that produced the track-only 1968 Hemi ’Cudas and Darts, notes that there are many gray areas inside a large corporation.
“Nobody ever really knew what it cost,” he says, explaining that funds often came from the car divisions and product planning budgets, making personal relationships crucial. “It’s amazing how much can get done by handing out some T-shirts and coffee cups.”
Meanwhile , on the other side of town
Quarter-mile credibility was no less of a priority at Ford. The 1964 Thunderbolt, like other factory lightweights, was built to fulfill a narrowly defined mission. Under the teardrop hood bulge was a 425-horsepower 427 hi-riser engine fed by ram-air ducting that began where the inner headlights once shone. Weight-loss measures included fiberglass fenders and hood, aluminum bumpers and plexiglass windows.
The Thunderbolts were Ford's response to the more potent entries being built by Dodge and Plymouth for ’64. Nick Smith was an early adopter.
“On the street, we had to be faster than the next guy,” Smith says, recalling the days before his competitive urges graduated to the drag strip. A sound beating of his ’57 Ford by a ’57 Chevy with the new 270-horsepower 283 V-8 spurred him to action. ”I ordered a ’60 Starliner with the 360-horsepower 352-inch engine.”
Dearborn followed up with 390- and 406-cid V-8s and by 1963 was solidly in the lightweight race with a run of some 200 Galaxie fastbacks with fiberglass doors, hoods and trunk lids. A dual-quad 427, the low-riser version, was intended for the quarter-mile, while a single-four-barrel carburetor setup for NASCAR use was rated at 410 horses.
Similarly, the A990 stood on the shoulders of giants. Dodge and Plymouth offered drag-focused options early in the ’60s and by 1963 had a full package of aluminum front body panels for the Max Wedge cars. It stepped up in 1964 with the switch to the Hemi engine in lightweight Dodges (330 model) and Plymouths (Savoy). According to Darrell Davis, a retired racer and Chrysler executive who maintains detailed registries, slightly more than 200 of the A990 Coronets and Belvederes were built for 1965, when Chrysler sat out the beginning of the NASCAR season because of a ban on the Hemi.
Though Ford and Chrysler may have built the most extreme factory-authorized drag cars, they weren’t the only games in Motown. General Motors came to the party, and even underdog American Motors had a late entry.
The ’63 Z-11 Chevy Impala is the GM model most steeped in mythology. The weight loss program was typical — aluminum hood and fenders, sound deadening and insulation deleted — but the engine, a 427-cid version of the popular 409 rated at 430 horsepower, was unique to the program. Its success on the track was in no small part a reflection of the driving skill of Dave Strickler and the tuning acumen of “Grumpy” Bill Jenkins.
As Bill Tower, a retired GM engineer and collector of important Chevy race cars, points out, the Z-11 was created under murky corporate circumstances. There was a no-racing policy among members of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, and though broadly ignored, it still necessitated some subterfuge within Vince Piggins’ product promotion group. There were benefits to this sub rosa operation, though.
“The work was not in front of everybody,” Tower says of the special parts and options developed by the group. “And by the time it was released, it was too late for anyone to do anything.”
But if there was a single instigator — one maker that forced the others to raise their game — it was Pontiac. Eager to boost its performance, Pontiac doubled down on its Super Duty program. Aluminum bumpers and front ends were available for the Catalina in ’62, and the engine was a special version of the 421 rated at 405 horsepower. The program got more serious in ’63, with plexiglass windows and improved cylinder heads. Some 15 Super Dutys were further lightened — holes drilled in their frames — creating the “Swiss Cheese” cars. That year also saw the emergence of the boldest of all the factory lightweights: the Super Duty Tempest compact.
And then, by the end of 1965, it was all over: All of the efforts to attract customers’ attention by racing cars that looked like assembly-line models, available in showrooms, were history. There was no single reason, but the engineering demands of Clean Air Act compliance loomed large.
GM cracked down, enforcing a corporate ban on racing (which, of course, continued, buried just out of view). Ford’s priorities shifted, and drag racing slid from a spot just under NASCAR to a notch below the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 hours of Le Mans. Chrysler and Ford both grabbed at the glamour of the less restrictive Factory Experimental classes, where altered wheelbases, steel-tube chassis and liberal engine modifications evolved into the spectacular showmanship of the Funny Cars.
For Nick Smith, who likes to take some of his cars down the quarter-mile and would like to have a racing series for them, the draw remains incredibly powerful. Although long a Ford man, his collection represents all of the major competitors of the era.
“Once I got the Thunderbolt I thought it would be cool to have a sampling from all the manufacturers,” he says, adding that the attraction goes beyond the hardware. “The most gratifying part is getting into the individual history of the cars and the people who owned them.”