We’ve all heard the decades-old reason why automakers sponsor factory racing teams: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It all comes down to marketing, and 1960s auto manufacturers took that motto seriously.
Along with NASCAR, drag racing was the preferred sport for companies to exhibit their manufacturing capabilities. GM, Ford, and Mopar all participated, and it turned into an arms race at the track. GM pulled out of factory racing in 1963, leaving Ford and Mopar to duke it out in the succeeding years.
Ford’s entrance to Super Stock racing came with the massive Galaxie. Shortly after its introduction, it was clear to Ford that despite substantial lightening, the Galaxie was not going to be competitive against the Z-11 Impalas, Super Duty Catalinas, and Max Wedge Mopars. The obvious solution was to go even lighter. Since the Galaxie was about as stripped down as it could be, a completely new platform was needed.
This is where the Thunderbolt comes in. Lessons learned in creating the lightweight Galaxies were applied to the smaller Fairlane 500—to stunning effect. To save as much weight as possible, the cars rolled off the line lacking heaters, radio, sound-deadening material, and seam sealer. Steel panels were replaced with lighter fiberglass fenders, hood, and decklid, while the steel bumpers were swapped out for aluminum ones.
The Fairlane was never designed to use the gigantic 427 used in the Galaxies, so a massive rework was needed under the hood. This is where the Dearborn Steel Tubing company comes in. Cars ordered to 289 Hi-Po spec were delivered to DST for the Thunderbolt conversion. The 289 Hi-Po part is important—selecting the more powerful engine meant the cars would come with the bulletproof 9-inch axle.
The engines were immediately ripped out, and work began on the conversion. Space constraints meant that the tubular headers had to be snaked around the suspension components to have any prayer of fitting. The 427’s high rise intake meant that the now-iconic teardrop-shaped hood bulge was needed. Air was delivered through two massive snorkels fashioned through the high beam headlights. Arguably, they were as effective in delivering air as they were intimidating. The whole package was rated at 425 horsepower, but real-world estimates put it well into the 500-hp range. Transmission choices ranged from an aluminum-cased top-loader four-speed or a beefed-up Lincoln Cruise-O-Matic. Further weight savings were achieved by replacing the factory glass with plexiglass and by ripping out the factory seats for a set of Econoline van buckets. The total package came in at just over 3200 pounds, which was the NHRA minimum to compete in the Super Stock class.
Ford was able to quickly turn out the 50 minimum cars to homologate the Thunderbolt for 1964 competition before the February 1964 Winternationals. Ford ultimately took the class with Gaspar “Gas” Ronda, at the wheel of a Thunderbolt, laying down an ET of 11.78 at 123.4 mph. The very same car would later take the NHRA Top Stock Crown. The Thunderbolts also secured the 1964 NHRA Manufacturer’s Cup. Ultimately, 100 cars are reported to have been built and raced with varying degrees of success.
Today, coming across a Thunderbolt is an occasion to be celebrated. While it has been nearly two years since the last time one was up for public sale, in January 2018, Barrett-Jackson will be offering a Thunderbolt at its 2020 Scottsdale auction. The car was purchased in December 1963 and delivered with the Cruise-O-Matic, which eventually was swapped out for a top-loader four-speed. In 2015, the car was purchased and completely restored, and two years later it was awarded the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Automotive Heritage award, as well as concours class wins.
If you’re a drag racing enthusiast and plan to attend Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale January 11-19, this is a car that shouldn’t be missed.