In the early 1960s, the NHRA’s Factory Experimental / Super Stock class yielded some of the most legendary hardware to every roll out of the Big Three’s showrooms. Similar to the formula that Pontiac used when they launched the Tempest Super Duty to terrorize race tracks across America, Ford took the unassuming, intermediate-body Fairlane, stuffed the biggest motor in the FoMoCo arsenal in the engine bay, and set about tuning it for the drag strip.
The result was the Ford Thunderbolt – a lightened, purpose-built, limited-production dragster that became a legendary performance machine both at the track and on the street.
Ford’s “Total Performance” Initiative
During an era when the mantra, “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” held legitimate credence, Ford went to great lengths to put Blue Oval models on top podium spots in every branch of motorsport it competed in.
While the company had been successfully campaigning the full-sized Galaxie in NASCAR for years, the heated competition in NHRA Super Stock forced them to turn to another chassis to remain competitive at the drag strip, as the Galaxie proved to be too heavy to successfully go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Hemi-powered Plymouth Savoys and Dodge 330s.
A foot shorter in overall length with 3.5-inches less wheelbase and approximately 700 pounds less weight than the Galaxie in stock trim, the 1963 model year Fairlane was an obvious choice for Ford to get to work on to create a competitive drag car. But putting together the Thunderbolt was not a simple task of swapping power plants.
Considering the extent of modifications that Ford had in mind for the Thunderbolt, it quickly became clear they would not be able to build the cars on the same production line as the standard Fairlane models. Instead, the company teamed up with Dearborn Steel Tubing, a contract car builder, to create this monster.
As any racer will tell you, power is only part of the equation – weight plays a huge roll as well. As such, the Thunderbolt received fiberglass doors, hood, front fenders, and front bumper (they later moved to aluminum bumpers due to NHRA rule changes), along with Plexiglass for the side and rear windows.
And in the grand tradition of “less is more”, the Thunderbolt cars ditched a number of components deemed unnecessary for drag racing, including the radio, heater, passenger-side windshield wiper, sun visors, mirrors, sound deadening material, carpeting, spare tire, and various other “extras” in pursuit of weight savings. The front seats were also replaced with no-frills light weight units from either the Fairlane police package or Ford’s Econoline vans.
All in all, the Thunderbolt weighed about 3200 pounds, which was actually a bit more than a stock Fairlane (due to the heavy duty mechanicals), but the weight savings initiative put the dragster within spitting distance of the NHRA’s minimum weight for its class.
The high-beam headlights were another particularly noteworthy component that was eliminated from the Thunderbolts, and for good reason. By removing these lights, it allowed engineers to create a cold-air intake system that ran from a mesh grill installed in the high-beam headlight housing directly into the special air cleaner that was outfitted on the 427ci big block that the Thunderbolt cars received.
Other mechanicals of the Thunderbolt saw heavy revision too, as fitting that massive motor into a chassis that was originally designed to accept a V8 no larger than the Windsor small-block was no minor task, and making it hook up at the drag strip was equally as important.
To fit the 427, engineers had to relocate the car’s front suspension components, and strengthening the suspension mounting locations was also required, while special equal-length headers were routed through the Fairlane’s tight engine bay to shoehorn the mill in. The 427’s high-rise intake manifold also required additional hood clearance, which in turn yielded the Thunderbolt’s iconic “teardrop” hood bulge.
Out back, the rear suspension received heavy duty traction bars and asymmetrical leaf springs in order to help put the power to the ground, while a locking differential and unique wheels and tires supplied by Goodyear and Mickey Thompson rounded out the setup.
Each Thunderbolt was equipped with either a heavy-duty Lincoln automatic transmission or a Borg-Warner four-speed manual transmission, along with a final drive ratio of 4.44:1 for the automatics and 4.58:1 for the four-speed.
Mythic Capability From Street Light To Drag Strip
Ford’s Thunderbolt efforts paid off substantially. Right out of the box, racers were posting mid-11 second passes at drag strips across the nation, and the Thunderbolt went on to earn them the NHRA Super Stock title in 1964.
And while it was built for the singular purpose of dominating the competition at the drag strip, the Thunderbolt was technically street legal, though it wasn’t exactly ideal for use on public roads – particularly with the racing gear ratios out back.
Some sources had noted at the time that the Thunderbolt was not suitable for driving every day, or even to and from the drag strip. Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that a few Thunderbolts made their way to street lights rendezvouses across the nation during the period.
And while the dual-quad equipped 427 motor was very conservatively rated at 425 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque in official documentation, estimates put the engine’s output well past 500 hp, making the Thunderbolt one of the most potent factory-built street machines money could buy.
Mickey Thompson / Hemi Connection
Mickey Thompson was one of the first racers to take delivery of Fairlane Thunderbolt, and at the encouragement of Ford, he set about finding ways to seek even more power out of the 427 V8. His shop cast new aluminum cylinder heads modeled after the hemispherical combustion chamber design championed by Chrysler’s Hemi engines.
After trying a few different designs and combinations with different intake manifolds, Thompson’s team eventually decided to use Chrysler 392 Hemi pistons with custom-built connecting rods.
At the 1964 Winternationals, the one-off Thunderbolt Hemi ran in the Altered/Factory Experimental class with driver Jess Tyree at the helm, laying down an 11.40 at 129mph – two tenths quicker than the times that had earned Ford the NHRA Manufacturers Cup that year – before the differential exploded.
This one-of-one Thunderbolt Hemi was later restored and hit the auction block at Barrett Jackson not long ago. When the gavel dropped, the bid had reached $242,000, nearly a quarter million bucks.
Legitimate Unicorn Car
Because of all the bespoke componentry and outsourced construction of the Thunderbolt cars, it comes as little surprise that these drag titans are exceedingly rare. Just one hundred examples of the Thunderbolt were produced for the 1964 model year, with the first eleven cars painted in Ford’s Vintage Burgundy while the remaining eighty-nine cars were painted Wimbledon White.
Anyone with $3,780 could walk into a Ford dealership and order a four-speed equipped Thunderbolt. The automatic gearbox would add another $200 to the price tag, although it’s said that the slushbox’s proved to be a weak point in the driveline during competitive use due to the torque converter stall speed being too low.
Currently about half of the original Thunderbolts that were produced are still known to be in existence. Prime examples have netted well over a quarter-million dollars at auctions in recent years, and even well-executed replicas and tribute cars can fetch more than $50K.