Ask the average gearhead about classic Ford muscle, and they will invariably evoke cars such as various and sundry Mustangs, Shelby Mustangs, Talladegas, and Torinos.
But what if I was to tell them the most powerful, classic, street-legal muscle car ever to roll out of a FoMoCo factory wasn’t any of those legendary models? They’d likely be flummoxed and assure me I was wrong.
Well, I’m not wrong, and to boot, the car I am referring to also happens to be one of the rarest Fords ever made. Figured it out yet? If not, don’t feel bad. Many die-hard Ford aficionados wouldn’t know the answer either.
Lucky for you though, you’re a reader of this monthly column, and are now privy to the answer: the 1966 Ford Fairlane 500 R-Code. It’s the subject of this edition of Rare Rides!
The Fairlane made its debut in 1955, replacing the Crestline as Ford’s top-of-the-line full-size automobile. The first-generation vehicle was available in no less than six configurations including the Crown Victoria sub-model, and a small handful of straight-sixes and V8s were available for it. The car was a moderate success, prompting Ford to restyle the vehicle in 1957 with a sleek, longer, wider, and lower look.
This second-generation was a big hit with the car-buying public, cementing the Fairlane’s future for five more generations. In the process, it was one of Ford’s longest continuously running models. The next two generations would see the car heavily restyled in the svelte, Jet-Age styling of the early-1960s, and reduced in size to that of a mid-sized offering.
The fifth-generation of the Fairlane was released in 1966. A wide range of models was available, including a sedan, coupe, convertible, hardtop, and station wagon.
Of particular interest was the coupe, which was exquisitely rendered in razor-sharp lines somewhat reminiscent of the Pontiac GTO. It featured classic, Coke-bottle styling with upswept quarter panels, a slicker roofline, stacked quad headlamps that flanked an upright grille and tall vertical rectangular taillights. It was, by most accounts, an exceedingly attractive car.
Still a mid-size, with a length of 197 inches, a width of 74 inches, and a wheelbase of 116 inches, the coupe featured unibody construction with steel subframes that kept its curb weight down to a light 2,747 to 3,493 pounds, depending on drivetrain.
Trim levels for the coupe included the XL, GT, and GT/A packages.
The XL offered four powerplant choices, ranging from a basic 120 horsepower inline-six to a pair of big-block 390 V8s. It gave all four occupants bucket type seats and a center console. Options included a vinyl roof, accent striping, and wood-tone steering wheel.
The GT made things racier, with a Thunderbird Special chromed-out version of the 390 with a high-lift cam and a Holley four-barrel carb, good for 335 hp as standard equipment. GT’s came with nonfunctional hood vents that displayed engine displacement, triple racing stripes low on the body, a rear-deck emblem, and a blacked-out crossbar-style grille.
A three-speed manual gearbox was standard, but a four-speed was available as an option, as a SportShift Cruise-O-Matic auto with manual gear change capability. Selecting the latter turned the GT into a GT/A.
Enhanced handling was afforded to the GT cars, with stiffer springs and a thicker front stabilizer joining the party with Firestone 7.75 x 14-inch whitewalls for rubber.
These trims certainly did a lot to turn the Fairlane coupe into a capable performer, but it was still a far cry from various Chevrolets packing the 375 horsepower 396 cubic inch V8, Pontiac’s 360 horsepower Tri-Power 389, or Mopar’s 375 horsepower 440 Magnum and Mack Daddy 426 Hemi Elephant Motor which yielded 425 ponies.
It was this horsepower deficit that led Ford executives to greenlight a top-dog, street-legal variant for the Ford-loyal stoplight warriors and drag strip racers who were tired of having their butts handed to them by the competition.
Midway through the model year, the R-Code option hit order forms. The $2,017 premium brought Ford’s legendary 427 cubic inch side-oiler V8 to the table. Cars equipped this way were officially called Ford Fairlane XL500 427s but became colloquially known as Ford Fairlane 500 R-Codes.
And what a car the R-Code was.
Under a lightweight, fiberglass lift-off hood with quad pins and a functional forward-facing scoop, the 427 OHV V8 had a cast-iron block, “medium-riser” intake (which afforded high-riser flow in a more compact package), Holley 9510-BC and 9510-BD 710-CFM four-barrel carburetors, mechanical pump, and an Autolite single-point mechanical-advance distributor with under-dash amplifier.
With a 4.23-inch bore and a 3.78-inch stroke and a compression ratio of 11.6:1, FoMoCo’s big lump put out a factory-rated 425 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 480 lb-ft of torque at 3,700 rpm putting it on equal footing with Mopar’s Hemi.
All R-codes came with Ford’s Toploader four-speed manual with synchromesh ratios sending power to a Ford 9-inch “SPEC” housing open differential with a 3.89:1 ratio.
For suspension, the R-Code had front independent, unequal-length control arms, coil springs, lower trailing links, telescoping shock absorbers, and a 7/8-inch anti-roll bar. Out back was a rigid axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs and telescoping shock absorbers.
Brakes consisted of a hydraulic, dual-circuit master cylinder, and a vacuum-power assist system with 11-inch discs and single-piston calipers in front and 10-inch drums in the rear.
Wheels consisted of Ford styled, 14-inch painted steelies, shod in Firestone Sup-R-Belt, red side-stripe tires.
The R-Code’s exhaust system had a single transverse muffler and dual exhaust outlets. The car’s cast-iron manifolds were unique and had a profound consequence on the production of the car.
According to Ford history experts, the manifolds were extremely difficult to produce. Owing to a lack of manifolds onhand, production at the Atlanta assembly plant ground to a halt on 1966 R-Codes after the 57th car was assembled.
Ford Fairlane 500 R-Codes only came in one color combination: Wimbledon White with a black vinyl interior that was Spartan by anyone’s standards. A standard front bench seat was the only option. A dash-mounted tach and radio-delete plate that featured a Ford emblem were the sole sources of spice that differentiated the car from its less performance-oriented brethren.
As one would imagine, a car with as much firepower and light curb weight as the R-Code would offer some serious performance. Indeed, a July 1966 road test of a 1966 Fairlane XL500 427 in stock trim tripped the quarter-mile in just under 13 seconds at 114 mph. Heady stuff for the era.
To be honest, in spite of being a Mopar man myself, I would not blink at procuring an R-Code, as its mix of great styling and prodigious power is hard to resist.
Alas, the aforementioned issues with exhaust-manifold production limited the car to only 57 examples. That means finding one today would largely be an exercise in futility. What’s more, one of the few, correct numbers-matching cars known to exist sold a few years back for over $275,000 at auction, putting it out of this writer’s league.
Nonetheless, the 1966 Fairlane XL500 427 R-Code is one heck of a rare ride for us all to admire.
See you next month!