How a Ford Mustang became a National Rally Champion
If the mention of “rally championship” has you picturing mud-caked Subaru WRX STIs flying through the forest, a 1970 Ford Mustang print ad touting a national rally championship for the muscular Mach 1 might leave you scratching your head. Yet, this performance model introduced for 1969 did indeed win the SCCA Manufacturer’s Road Rally Championship for Ford that year and then repeated the feat for 1970.
The ad writers hyped the Mach 1’s power, handling and braking for “driving 8000 miles of rallies in all kinds of weather.” The story behind the impressive feat, though, was more about the high caliber of rally drivers and navigators than the cars.
Ford’s Total Performance program had the carmaker competing in all types of motorsports through the 1960s. The Mustang impressed many by winning its class in the 1964 Tour de France road race, the same year that Ford’s Falcon Sprint took first in class and second overall in the Rallye Monte Carlo.
In the United States, Sports Car Club of America road rallies were popular among sports car drivers. These were time-speed-distance contests that emphasized precision driving and solving “traps” to reach checkpoints as closely as possible to a pre-measured time, which is different from the all-out-speed trials most associate with the word “rally” today. Points were deducted for being early or late.
Mach 1 and road rallying
For 1969, Ford began offering contingency money to rallyists who won or placed second or third with the new Mustang Mach 1. New Jersey-based accomplished rallyist Ed Crockett approached Ford with an idea for a national team, and Ford was in. The plan prescribed five individual teams based around the country to give Ford maximum coverage without the cost and logistics of transporting one team to all national and divisional events.
In Michigan, a separate group led by Gene Henderson, a Dearborn police officer and successful rallyist, proposed a similar plan to Ford. Henderson had run the Rallye Monte Carlo, Shell 4000 Trans-Canadian Rally and Michigan’s Press on Regardless Rally (P.O.R.) and also had a rally equipment company, Competition Limited.
“Gene and I put together a program for Ford to do national rallying, and Ford said yes,” recalls Ralph Beckman, Henderson’s fellow member in the Rallygators sports car club. “We later found out the New Jersey team had asked for a lot more money and got it!”
Prior to the Ford rally program, Beckman had won the Shell 4000 in 1968 with Chrysler engineer Scott Harvey in a Plymouth Barracuda. The duo also won the P.O.R. several times, before and after the Mustang program. Beckman is today involved with the Subaru Rally Team USA, and he also drives in European historic rallies in a 1967 Barracuda.
Crockett’s operation became the official “Ford Rally Team,” with Mach 1s painted Meadowlark Yellow. Henderson’s Dearborn-based group campaigned under his “Competition Limited” banner with Wimbledon White Mach 1s.
Crockett’s navigator was Mac Cornforth. Others on the Ford Rally Team included husband and wife Roger and Kathy Bohl, national rally champions based in New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, Bruce Gezon teamed up with Jack Chidester; Allan White and John Bain formed another team; Nathan “Available” Jones and Russell “Alligator” Brown were based in Houston, and Ken Adams was a driver with navigator Steve Wood in California.
“I competed mostly in the west,” Adams tells Hagerty. “I ran as far north as Washington, and I think the furthest east we went was Texas.”
Gezon and Chidester competed in SCCA Class B, which did not allow calculating devices, such as the Curta, a type of mechanical calculator, nor more sophisticated electronics. The rest of the Ford Rally Team members were in Class A, which allowed such equipment.
“I used home-made Fortran rally tables in increments of 0.04 miles and decimal-seconds,” explains Gezon.
Individual owners chose options for their Mach 1s; most had the 351-cubic-inch V-8 that debuted for 1969, and a few had the 428 Cobra Jet. There was a mix of automatics and four-speeds, and 1970 models were later used. The cars remained mechanically stock for rallying.
“The Mach 1s were quite good for what was needed,” recalls Gezon, who remains involved in rallying as a rallymaster and steward. “They had sufficient power and handling for the back roads, and a good feel for the road. The weight distribution wasn’t great, though.”
Dave Weiman, who was based in Chicago at the time, drove for the Competition Limited team and recalls the period fondly. He began rallying in the 1960s and continues to be involved in the sport.
“I was young and didn’t make much money when I was asked to be on the team,” says Weiman. “Bernie Rekus, a friend from a local sports car club, bought the car and navigated.”
Rally to grandmother’s house
The “8000 miles of rallies” touted by Ford’s Mach 1 advertisement was a total figure for the season’s rallies.
“The national rallies in those days were 400-500 miles over a weekend,” Weiman explains. “We drove the cars to them. We’d leave Thursday night, drive all night, rally on Saturday and Sunday, then drive home in time to go to work on Monday. As I recall, there were 15 or 16 events, including one-day divisional rallies. You had to do three out of five nationals and four out of six divisionals to do the championship.”
Weiman can explain time-speed-distance rallying in great technical detail but likes to sum up the competition as so:
In addition to Ford winning the SCCA Manufacturer’s Championships in 1969 and 1970 with the Mach 1, the individual teams also did well. The Bohls won the Class A Championship in 1969, and Wieman and Rekus took it for 1970; Gezon and Chidester won the Class B Championship in both years.
Ford dropped the Mustang rally program after 1970. As performance rallying with speed stages gained in popularity, road rallying has declined, Weiman explains.
“Back then, you’d get 60-100 cars at an event. Today, you might get 10.”
Only one left?
“To my knowledge, only one of the cars has been found,” says Gezon, referring to the Jones/Brown 1969 428 CJ Mach 1 that sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction in 2013 for $53,900.
The rest of the 1969-1970 Mach 1 rally cars have possibly been lost to time, or, if any are still around, their owners possibly don’t know the special history. Beckman sold his Mach 1 in the early 1970s, as did Gezon, who had used his as a daily driver for five years.
While not as dramatic as the discovery of the Bullitt Mustangs, locating more of the Mach 1 rally cars would bring well-deserved attention to this unique chapter in Mustang competition.
Author’s acknowledgement: Thanks to Ken Adams, Ralph Beckman, Bruce Gezon and Dave Weiman for sharing their knowledge, memories and photographs.