What to look for when buying the brutish Ford Torino GT
In the pantheon of classic muscle cars, once you get past the Mustang, the Blue Oval is often sorely under-represented. Perhaps there’s no better example of an overlooked fire-breathing Ford than the Torino GT, a mid-size option that debuted at the end of the 1960s and which would eventually spawn several high performance models capable of holding their own against the best of what Mopar and GM had to offer.
The 1968-1971 Torino GT was developed from the Fairlane; the name change happened because Ford planners wanted a more aggressive option for drivers who’d outgrown the smaller pony car in the showroom. The two-door Torino GT would initially slide in to replace the top two trim levels of the Fairlane. Thanks to a price drop the re-positioned, redesigned car became a strong seller, with the GT coupe joined by a fastback (or ‘SportsRoof’) and a convertible.
The Torino has been largely lost in the shuffle as enthusiasts and collectors alike have focused on Ford’s competition instead. A concours-quality, first-model-year Torino GT with the base V8 is still under $30,000 according to the Hagerty Valuation Tool, while early large-displacement cars barely crack $60k—a notable difference from the more common big block Chevy. What’s more, driver-grade cars are comfortably in the $15k to $40k zone.
This is one very affordable Ford that can easily show its tail lights to a long list of contemporaneous rivals. We spoke to Torino specialists and Ford restorers to gather the advice you’ll need to pick the right GT for you—so you can enjoy the exclusivity that comes with driving something different.
Many To Choose From
There are lots of 1968-1971 Ford Torinos out there, To snag a GT you’ll need to stay away from the wagons and sedans and focus on the two-door variety. That means coupes (notch and fastback), convertibles, and…pickups?
Yes that’s right—starting in ’68 the Ranchero moved to the Torino nomenclature, but it was offered in both Ranchero 500 and Ranchero GT trims. The latter is far less common with 15,223 built versus tens of thousands of the 500 (and later Squire) models.
In descending order of rarity, you then have the convertible (13,414 built), hardtop (41,891 examples), and the SportsRoof fastback (a whopping 280,728 produced). The hardtop GT was only offered for 1968-1969, which in part explains its low numbers. In total, just under 350,000 Ford Torino GTs left the factory during its four-year run.
There are a few special edition Torinos that fit under the scope of this guide. The first is the venerable Torino Cobra, of which 25,614 SportsRoof models were built from 1969 to 1971, with an additional 90 ‘Twister’ versions of this car (heavy-duty suspension and drag package, shaker hood, power disc brakes up font, locking differentials). Harder to find is the Torino Type N/W, a vehicle that took the two-door hardtop body style you couldn’t get as a GT in 1970 and gave it a range of V8 options to go with its unique graphics—including the big block Cobra. 395 Type N/W cars (short for the Northwest Ford Dealers Association that conceived of the car) were produced.
Finally, there’s the famous Ford Torino Talladega, an aero-oriented edition of the SportsRoof car of which roughly 754 examples were built to homologate for NASCAR competition. Cobra Jet powered and unique in appearance thanks to their flush grille, wind tunnel-friendly nose and rear bumper, and unique rockers, the Talladega is considered the holy grail of Torino collecting. Like the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Daytona, NASCAR would institute rule changes to ‘ban’ the Talladega shortly after it was introduced in 1969.
Cracking The Code(s)
Identifying whether the Torino you’re looking at is an actual GT can be done by decoding its VIN. You’re looking for an 11-character vehicle identification number that can be found on the driver’s side door jamb on the car’s data plate, as well as on the bottom of the front left dashboard, visible through the windshield. It can also be found on the engine, transmission, and the inside of the fenders.
The information provided is fairly basic: the first number represents the model year (8 for ’68, 9 for ’69, 0 for ’70, 1 for ’71), followed by a letter to denote its assembly plant. There are 17 possibilities, but for the 1968-1969 Torino in general you will find A (Atlanta), H (Lorain), G (Chicago), or K (Kansas City). Next is a two-digit body serial code, with the Torino GT listed as 42 (fastback), 43 (convertible), 44 (hardtop), or 49 (Ranchero), and for ’69 you can add 45 (Cobra hardtop) and 46 (Cobra fastback). The final signifier before the 6-digit sequence number is the engine code, which for the initial run of V8-powered Torino GTs is either a C (289 2-barrel), F (302 2-barrel), H (351 2-barrel), M (351 4-barrel), Y (390 2-barrel), S (390 4-barrel), R (428 Cobra Jet 4-barrel), or Q (428 Cobra Jet 4 barrel).
A note on engine codes: No ’68 GT was built with engine codes M or H, and while the R code 428 typically refers to ‘Ram Air,’ it was actually the standard version of the Cobra Jet that year. For 1969, the R code would once again denote a Ram Air motor, and the C option would disappear, while the Y code would be changed to refer to a two-barrel version of the 390.
For 1970, things are a little different. Body style codes are new, with both 34 and 35 denoting the fastback, 37 the convertible, 48 the Ranchero GT, and 38 the Cobra model. Engine codes have been streamlined as well—F, H, and M all carry over, while additions include N (429 4-barrel Thunder Jet), C (429 4-barrel Cobra Jet) and J (429 4-barrel Cobra Jet Ram Air). In 1971, the fastback was represented by code 35 exclusively, while the N code engine was replaced by the Q code 351 4-barrel Cobra Jet.
The data plate on the door jamb also reveals a number of salient facts about the car you are looking at. In addition to displaying the VIN, it provides six additional identifiers: body, color, trim, transmission, axle, date, and DSO code.
The body code should match that found in the vehicle’s VIN, but while the types should be identical, the numbers won’t be. 63D (fastback), 63E (fastback Cobra), 65D (hardtop), 66D and 66C (Ranchero GT), and 76D (convertible) apply from 1968 to 1969, while 63F (fastback), 63H (Cobra fastback), 66A (Ranchero GT) and 76F (convertible) are found on 1970 to 1971 models.
Color codes are numerous (there are roughly two dozen different shades of Torino GT out there, and while the code is usually a single-character letter you may also see a number, or even a double-character code like Z9 for ‘Grabber Green’), although don’t assume that the same code will match the same color on a different year car. Trim is even more voluminous in terms of options, and is represented by a two-character code.
Transmission codes are a little simpler, with 1 representing a 3-speed manual, 5 either of the 4-speed Toploader manuals offered with both small-block and big block motors, W the 3-speed C4 automatic (small block), and U the C6 3-speed auto (big block). The Cobra got its own ‘special’ C6 code in 1969 (Z), while the 351 also received a unique FMX automatic (X code) and the close and wide ratio versions of the 4-speed received their own codes (5 and 6, respectively). These changes would carry over through 1970 and 1971.
Axle ratio codes are far too numerous to delve into in detail, but suffice it to say that every GT rear end could be ordered either with or without Traction Lok—with the exception of the 3.91:1 and 4.30:1, which came exclusively with the limited-slip. Differentials came in 8-inch and 9-inch flavors, with the latter showing a hump that differentiates them from the smaller diff’s smoother housing, as seen under the car.
There are nearly 40 district sales office (DSO) codes associated with the Torino, but the production date code is simple to parse: the leading number is the day and the letter is the month, in sequence. 2B, for example, would be February 2nd.
The Ford Torino Talladega represents an interesting exception to the above VIN and data plate conventions. The VIN shows a 46 (Cobra SportsRoof), but the data plate lists a 63B (2-door 500). Color codes are limited to M (white), B (maroon), and X (blue), while interior trims are all 1A (cloth and vinyl, in black, with a bench seat). Every Talladega was, quite appropriately, built in Georgia (A for the plant code), and they were all built between the 21st of January and the 28th of February, 1969, which can be verified via the date codes. Finally, the Talladega is unique in that it has a six-digit DSO, ending in 2500, instead of the two-digit one associated with all other Torino GT models.
As you might have guessed from the extensive line-up of V8 engines offered with the Ford Torino GT, you won’t be lacking for power. The first-year 302 was rated at 210 horsepower, while the 289 put out 195 (all figures in the gross output rating of the day). The two-barrel 390 was good for 265 horsepower, the four-barrel stepped up to 325, and the Cobra Jet 428 provided just ten additional horses but a fair torque boost to go with it.
In ’69 the 351 was good for either 250 or 290 horsepower, depending on its carburetor configuration, while the four-barrel 390 dropped somewhat to 320. The standard Cobra Jet was joined by a Super Cobra Jet (which included the Drag Pack and available Ram Air) delivering 375 horses, although many consider that figure underrated.
If you stuck with a non-Ram Air car, the Cobra package also introduced a few other goodies, including additional engine cooling, a dual exhaust, and an upgraded charging system. The Super Cobra Jet added a hood scoop designed to suck in as much oxygen as possible into its Holley carb, and it also came with cast pistons, an upgraded crankshaft and connecting rods, and an oil cooler.
1970-1971 Torino GTs weren’t much different, with the 351 4-barrel and 301 two-barrel each enjoying a boost of 10 ponies, and the three different 429 options—4 barrel, CJ, and Super Cobra Jet—posting 360, 370, and 375 horsepower, respectively. The latter benefits from an aluminum intake, a Holley carburetor, and solid lifters, as compared to the cast iron intake, AutoLite carb, and hydraulic lifters found on the regular Cobra Jet.
“One thing about Ford, their drivetrains were almost bullet-proof,” says Tony Accarizzi of Restoration Parts Source, which deals heavily in Torinos. “The 4-speeds and the 9-inch rear ends, especially, are indestructible.”
“There aren’t any particular problem areas on the Torino GT’s mechanicals that wouldn’t apply to almost any car of a similar vintage,” confirms Wilson Auto Repair‘s Barry Wilson, whose shop frequently restores classic Fords. “You’ll want to inspect the gas tank, fuel line, and carburetor for rust and other gunk that could be clogging it up. Corrosion should also be checked for on the brake system and brake lines. On Fords, we see distributors wearing out quite a bit so we replace those with an MSD unit and go to a high-energy setup.”
It’s getting harder to locate FE engine components (for the 390 and the 428), so keep that in mind when considering one of these cars. It can also be cost-prohibitive to stay ‘original’ in terms of equipment for the less-common Cobra Jet cars, with things like multiple carburetor options making it difficult to track down reasonably-priced OEM replacements.
Wilson also explains that the charging system on these cars is often in need of an upgrade.
“We convert to a single-wire alternator, up to 135 amps, so that it keeps the battery charged enough to deal with cranking on the very hot days we have down here in Texas. The charging system is third on our list of things to take care of for sure.”
If you get stuck, remember that many of the Torino’s oily bits can be interchanged with those of a same-model-year Mustang.
Two Distinct Choices
As with most classic muscle cars, there were running styling changes made throughout the Torino GT’s lifespan. You can visually identify the GT from the Fairlane of the same year by the C-pillar crest and lower body moldings. Moving from 1968 to 1969 it’s possible to spot a wider center bar on the front grille as well as different tail lights for hardtops and convertibles. The GT emblem shifts to the bottom left corner of the grille, striping no longer follows the contours of the body, and a ‘fake’ scoop is now included on non-Ram Air cars. Bucket and bench seats were available with the Torino GT, although a 1968 UAW work action against Ford muddied the waters to the point where some option codes don’t match what’s actually in the car.
Springs are stiffer on the GT as compared to a standard Torino, and the shocks are also less accommodating, but the difference isn’t exactly night-and-day—although the standard front roll bar definitely helps control body motion. Of course the Cobra benefited from the most aggressive chassis of all Torino models, but front disc brakes were optional across the board, 11.25 inches in diameter, to replace the 10-inch drums typically found at all four corners. 14 inch wheels were standard regardless of which Torino GT or Cobra model was ordered.
The bigger change came in 1970, which can be considered a ‘sub-generation’ of the car due to the extensive designs updates and a reconfiguration of the Ford family to move the ‘Fairlane’ badge underneath ‘Torino’ in the branding hierarchy. The reinterpretation of the Torino was fairly dramatic: gone was the straight-across grille and in its place a pointed, arrow-like front fascia perched at the end of a longer hood, with available louvered ‘Hide-Away’ headlights.
SportsRoof changes were more pronounced. The hard top was banished entirely. Molded chrome bumpers rode the front and the rear of the car, with rear lighting also completely different. Underneath, the 1970-71 cars were also riding on a longer version of the previous Torino GT’s chassis, which added weight to the vehicle to go with its wider track. Combined with its lower ride height, it gave the GT a more menacing appearance that was appropriate at a time when cars like the Challenger and the ‘Cuda were hitting the market. From a restoration perspective, there were two different hoods, and two different grilles fitted to the GT across both years, depending on engine crossmember and headlight choice.
In 1971, there was a change made to the front suspension design—specifically the upper and lower control arms—which means you won’t be able to port over earlier Torino GT components without playing around with fitment. It’s also worth noting that in 1970 15 inch wheels became an option on the Cobra, along with power steering.
Rust typically hits these cars around the cowl vents, under vinyl tops, in the trunk, the rear quarters behind the wheels, and the driver’s side floorboards.
“Water tends to sit on the bottom back window corners and then, when that rots out, it seeps into the trunk and rusts out there as well,” says Accarizzi. “I also have a lot of calls from customers who can’t find clean trunk lids—the back rots out, and most of the secondhand replacements you’ll see suffer from the same problem.”
Tony goes on to say that Auto Metal Direct has begun manufacturing replacement parts for the Torino, Galaxie, and Fairlane, which will be a boon to restorers having difficulty dealing with the lack of original sheet metal left in scrap yards.
“They’re trying to open up a market that wasn’t there before. Previously, you had to cut everything out of donor cars, but they announced a full line-up of parts earlier in 2018, and they’ve started to trickle out over the course of the last few months—items like bumpers and patch panels,” he reports.
“We sell a lot of carpet, weather-stripping, trim molding, and floor pans,” says Whitney Mitchell at Dearborn Classics. “Interior upholstery and seats are also popular for the Torino.”
Both Accarizzi and Wilson stress the importance of a full inspection prior to purchase of any Torino GT, no matter how good it might look in person.
“We see a lot of cars come in with lipstick, stuff that’s been given a quick paint job, vehicles that’s worn out but looks good,” says Wilson. “We’ve had cases where we put a piece of tape on the car and the paint comes off when we pull the tape—that’s not uncommon at all. You really need to watch, because most of the high end cars have already been sold and are locked away in garages. What you’re seeing more of now are bad-news bargains.”
“My first advice is always to inspect anything you’re going to buy, preferably with a professional right there beside you,” affirms Accarizzi. “Make sure it wasn’t a car that lived outside in the rust belt and was driven all winter long through snow and salt. And always, always try to buy a car that’s as complete as you can. Some of the Cobra Jet Ram Air models, for example, have unique intake equipment unique that can cost you something like $3,000 for an air cleaner if it’s missing. It can be a big shock to clients to hear that.”
“Bottom line? Don’t let the adrenaline of a potential purchase overwhelm your common sense,” says Wilson. “Always ‘buy up.’ Don’t look for bargains—look for documentation like receipts, photos, and invoices that prove the restoration and repair work that’s been done on a car, and above all get the best example you can afford.”
Step Outside The Norm
The Ford Torino GT would be replaced by the larger and softer Gran Torino for 1972, closing the door on Ford’s classic muscle phase as it eased into the malaise era. Despite its position as one of the most focused performance two-doors to have ever been conceived in Dearborn during Detroit’s glory days, non-Cobra-Jet examples of the Torino GT (and its Mercury Cyclone twin) have largely flown under the radar of modern collectors.
The opportunity to own a fun-to-drive, inexpensive-to-maintain V8-powered machine like the Torino GT is a rare one in a market where most comparable Mopars and Bowties have already soared into the pricing stratosphere. So if you’re late to the party, it might be time to ask yourself: Have you driven a Ford lately?