It all began in 1966, when SCCA’s Executive Director John Bishop established a “Manufacturer’s Title,” hoping to attract Detroit’s Big Three. The 1965 Mustang – the Shelby GT350, in particular – had been romping through the SCCA’s B-Production Sedan division and Bishop wanted more than just Alfas, Minis and Cortinas in a professional series.
Sure, he made allowance for them with an “Under 2.0-liter” class in a new series he called Trans-Am, but he had a larger vision. When the sun rose over Sebring, FL, on the morning of March 25, 1966, it was glory dawning, though it would take a while to figure it out. That day, three Ford Mustangs, three Plymouth Barracudas and one Dodge Dart left an indelible impression on American racing. The Trans-Am series was born and would create legends for the next half decade. Oh, Bob Tullius took the two-door Dodge Dart all the way to the checkered flag that day.
In September of that year, Carroll Shelby fielded a three-car Ford Mustang team with Lew Spencer at the helm, winning four of the seven 1966 season races. Shelby returned the following year, while Mercury recruited NASCAR legend Bud Moore to build Cougars for Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, and Ed Leslie. Chevrolet joined the competition as well, having Roger Penske and Mark Donohue armed with Larry Shinoda’s brand-new Camaro Z/28. The season opened at Daytona with 34 cars registered. That number grew to well over sixty by the next race at Sebring.
What followed from that event was some of the best road racing that America has ever seen. It also led to some of the best pony cars that are still legends, some 40 years later – the Mustang BOSS 302, Challenger T/A, AAR ‘Cuda and naturally, the Firebird Trans Am. Shelby took the 1967 series, with the Moore-prepared Cougars just behind. Mark Donohue logged three series wins with the new Z/28 Camaro, serving notice that the “Z” was soon to be reckoned with.
St. Jovite Trans Am, 1969. George Follmer (#16) and Parnelli Jones (#15) in their Bud Moore Mustangs lead Mark Donohue's Penske Sunoco Camaro.
With Roger Penske’s organization and Mark Donohue’s driving, they dominated the series that year, winning eight races in a row and finishing the season with 10 out of 13 victories. Ford would not roll over in the face of defeat, however stunning. They were taking on the world’s best in Europe and they would do it here.
For 1969, Ford returned with the BOSS 302 Mustang. Bud Moore was again fielding a team, with Parnelli Jones and George Follmer driving. Carroll Shelby was back in the fray with Peter Revson and Horst Kwech. The BOSS 302 Mustang was a factory team car that didn’t actually have much to do with the factory. Following the initial build, cars were shipped to Kar Kraft in Brighton, MI. The Kar Kraft operation was Ford’s performance partner in the North and involved in many special projects for the manufacturer.
The Trans Am series had ignited the country’s interest in road racing and former GM designer, Larry Shinoda, had penned out the styling of the road-going BOSS Mustang. Shinoda’s involvement with the Z/28’s development made him an invaluable resource at Ford. Kar Kraft handled the suspension development, while Ford engineer, Matt Donner, worked a great deal of magic on the Mustang’s chassis.
Kent Trans Am, Kent, WA, 1969. George Follmer (#16) and Parnelli Jones (#15) in their Bud Moore Mustangs during the race.
Modifications at the hand of Kar Kraft were far from trivial. The outfit started by building and welding permanent roll cages into the Mustangs, not only to increase their safety aspects but also help to stiffen the chassis.
Front suspension wishbone mounting positions were relocated, both upper and lower, for better suspension geometry and the arms were strengthened by adding steel plates across the wishbone. Even the rubber bushings that connected them to the unit structure were replaced by hiem joints. Following from the suspension relocation, the spring perches on the upper control arms were moved in by about an inch to allow for added tire sidewall clearance from the heavy-duty coil springs employed.
Critical to the entire effort, however, was the BOSS 302 engine. Surprisingly, the BOSS 302 block was essentially the next generation High Performance 289; a forged steel crankshaft, 4-bolt main caps, and screw-in freeze plugs were characteristic of the C8FE-6015-B and D0ZE-6015-A blocks used for 1969 production.
The BOSS 302 represented a culmination of efforts throughout all areas of the car. The high-revving engine is most remembered, but suspension and chassis rework made the car a potential winner.
Yet, the secret of the BOSS 302 engines came from its cylinder heads. First on the BOSS’ agenda was replacing what Ford called their “Tunnel Port” heads. The result of a crash development effort to oust the Johnny-come-lately Camaros and Firebirds, the ’68 302 cylinder heads (casting number C8FE-6090-A) placed the push rods inside a tube in the center of the intake ports instead of previous designs which routed the ports around the push rods, creating a rather rectangular profile as a result and earning the name “Tunnel Port” heads. The resulting modifications caused better flow of air/fuel mixture to the cylinder chambers.
Although they flowed well at high rpm, the torque didn’t begin to climb until well above 8,000 – far past the engines’ tolerances. The result during the 1968 Trans-Am SCCA competition was catastrophic; valvetrains failed and bottom ends scattered, earning Ford one of its worst years in the series.
Amending this, the BOSS 302s “borrowed” the canted-valve Cleveland 351 heads, including the steel spring seats, screw-in rocker studs, push rod guide plates, and adjustable rocker arms. Additionally, the BOSS 302 head castings were mainly the same as the 351C except for a minor difference in water passages. For the 1969 engines, the intake valve was 2.23-inches in diameter, while the exhaust valve was 1.72 inches. The difference in airflow – and resulting performance – was dramatic.
Follmer's on-track style was forceful and direct, which the BOSS 302 responded well to. Image: Flickr
Of course, additional modifications for the race car were made that never saw inclusion on the production BOSS 302s. Again, the cylinder heads figure significantly here; due to the larger Cleveland-style heads, the BOSS 302 weighed in slightly over the previous 302 plant, tipping the scales at 500 lbs. According to reports, the street BOSS 302 was conservatively rated at 290hp at 5,800rpm, while the tuned ’69 BOSS Trans Am racing engines were purportedly putting out closer to 470hp at a 9,000 rpm redline.
Facing a formidable task, both the Shelby and Moore teams returned to the Trans Am fray in 1969. In the #16 car, George Follmer won at Bridgehampton, while team mate Parnelli Jones won the races in Michigan and Donnybrooke, and took three second place finishes as well. Supplemented by consistent placements from the Shelby cars, the Mustang herd kept up with the Camaros through the season, despite winning half as many races.
Jones and Follmer would go on to maintain the road racing battle among Detroit’s Big Three manufacturers, which reached a peak in 1970, producing what is generally called the best season of racing in this era. The more recognizable “school bus” yellow Mustangs remain the images of common memory from that period. But, they did not appear without significant contribution from the 1969 versions characterized here.
Winners all - (L to R) George Follmer, Linda Vaughan, Parnelli Jones.
George Follmer would go on to build a career in other race series, including USAC and Formula 1.
Today, there remain only four 1969 Ford or Shelby team cars known. The #15 Bud Moore 1969 car, driven by Parnelli Jones was recently sold at auction. The later-production #16 car driven mainly by George Follmer, is owned by Vic Edelbrock Jr. The #1 and #2 Shelby BOSS 302 team cars are documented as well. Other cars that may have been built by Kar Kraft for the Trans Am series are acknowledged, but their whereabouts or ultimate fate remain unknown at this time. Nevertheless, the impact made by these Trans-Am BOSS 302s, particularly George Follmer’s #16, left an indelible mark on the industry – particularly Mustang and it’s potential for winning races – for generations to follow.