Muscle Cars You Should Know: 1964 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt

mcyskthunderboltIn 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.

Much the way GM had, Ford turned to its unassuming intermediate-body grocery-getter sedan to create a high performance monster.

Much the way GM did around the same time, Ford looked to its unassuming intermediate-body grocery-getter sedan to create a high performance monster. Image: Wiki Commons

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.

The Fairlane cut a significantly different figure in Thunderbolt guise than it did in standard trim, particularly do to the eye-catching "teardrop" fiberglass hood.

The Fairlane cut a significantly different figure in Thunderbolt guise than it did in standard trim, particularly due to the eye-catching “teardrop” fiberglass hood. Image: Mecum

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.

Due to the unique low-production components and off-site construction, the build quality of the Thunderbolt differed substantially from a typical Fairlane built on the production line. As such, each Thunderbolt carried a disclaimer tag mounted to the glove box that read, "This vehicle has been built specially as a lightweight competitive car and includes certain fiberglass and aluminium components. Because of the specialized purpose for which this car has been built and in order to achieve maximum weight reduction, normal quality standards of the Ford Motor Company in terms of exterior panel fit and surface appearance are not met on this vehicle. This information is included on this vehicle to assure that all customers who purchase this car are aware of the deviation from the regular high appearance quality standards of the Ford Motor Company." Image: Wiki Commons

Due to the unique low-production components and off-site construction, the build quality of the Thunderbolt differed substantially from a typical Fairlane built on the production line. As such, each Thunderbolt carried a disclaimer tag mounted to the glove box that read: “This vehicle has been built specially as a lightweight competitive car and includes certain fiberglass and aluminum components. Because of the specialized purpose for which this car has been built and in order to achieve maximum weight reduction, normal quality standards of the Ford Motor Company in terms of exterior panel fit and surface appearance are not met on this vehicle. This information is included on this vehicle to assure that all customers who purchase this car are aware of the deviation from the regular high appearance quality standards of the Ford Motor Company.” Image: Wiki Commons

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.

The interior of the Thunderbolt is truly all business, with luxuries like the radio, heater and even the sun visors tossed in favor of weight reduction.

The interior of the Thunderbolt is truly all business, with luxuries like the radio, heater and even the sun visors tossed in favor of weight reduction. Image: Mecum

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 Thunderbolt's ram-air style induction was routed through the former home of the high-beam headlights.

The Thunderbolt’s ram air-style induction was routed through the former home of the high-beam headlights. Image: Mecum

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.

In order to help with weight transfer to the rear tires, the battery was relocated to the trunk, and the standard unit was replaced with this 95-pound beast out of a bus.

In order to help with weight transfer to the rear tires, the battery was relocated to the trunk, and the standard unit was replaced with this 95-pound beast out of a bus. Image: Mecum

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.

Less than a dozen of the original Thunderbolt cars came dressed in Ford's Vintage Burgundy paint hue. This one was Mickey Thompson's, which was outfitted with several custom engine modifications - including some Mopar hardware. Images: Barrett-Jackson

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

Image: Mecum

Image: Mecum

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.

Images: Mecum

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.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
Read My Articles

Hot Rods and Muscle Cars in your inbox.

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from Street Muscle, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes
Street Muscle NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

We'll send you the most interesting Street Muscle articles, news, car features, and videos every week.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Street Muscle NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...



Classic Ford Performance

Drag Racing

Classic Chevy Magazine

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...

  • Classic Ford Performance
  • Drag Racing
  • Classic Chevy Magazine

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Street Muscle - The Ultimate Muscle Car Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Loading