It’s no secret that back in the early 1960s, the Big Three liked to dabble in drag racing. These limited production factory racers were a force to be reckoned with during their reign of terror on the drag strips of America. Pontiac’s warriors were Catalina and Tempest equipped with the 405 horsepower 421 Super Duty. The guys over at Dodge laid rubber with their 426 Max Wedge and Hemi powerplants. The fellows from Ford were no different. Their claim to fame was the limited production 1964 Thunderbolt. This lightweight drag racer was a stripped down, bare bones wolf in sheep’s clothing. Although late to the party, this pint-sized racer made up for lost time by winning several drag racing honors and titles.
In this edition of the Muscle Car Showcase, we’ll take a look at the 1964 Ford Thunderbolt. With the Thunderbolt, Ford finally had a contender in the hotly competitive world of drag racing. It’s hard to imagine that there once was a time when the Big Three actually tried to outdo each other on the drag strip. A time when speed, performance, and horsepower were the only things that mattered out on the strip and streets. This was Ford’s best known factory racer that was loud as loud as thunder (no pun intended) and fast as lightning.
“Lest some of you readers start getting the idea that this 427 Fairlane would be a nice replacement for the present family car, we’ll stop right here to let you know that this car is designed only for the quarter-mile strip and is not suitable for driving to and from the strip, let alone on the street in everyday use. It is a specialized racing machine.” Ray Brock, Hot Rod Magazine, February 1964
Let’s go back to the year 1962. The guys at Ford are struggling to keep up with the quicker and lighter offerings from GM and Chrysler. The overweight Galaxie, even with its potent 427, wasn’t getting the job done and was falling behind on the drag strip. In 1964, Ford turned to the Galaxie’s sibling, the smaller and lighter Fairlane, and with a massive amount of modification, the Thunderbolt was born. Now it was the Blue Oval’s time to turn the tables and exact a little revenge on the other guys.
In order to transform the feeble Fairlane into the beastly Thunderbolt, a vast amount of modification was performed on the body and interior. To help with the alterations, Ford turned to Dearborn Steel Tubing, a local builder of high performance and custom cars. The first order of business was to shave off several hundred pounds of weight from the body and interior. Fiberglass was used for the high-rise hood, fenders, door, and bumpers. Later, due to Chrysler’s whining, aluminum bumpers replaced the fiberglass pieces. Plexiglas windows were used instead of glass. Sun visors, armrests, insulation, rear window cranks, jack, and lug wrenches got the boot. Creature comforts such as heater and radio were also deleted. Seats were bare-bones buckets and a rubber mat served as floor covering. All this weight reduction brought the weight down to around 3,225 pounds which was slightly over the NHRA-imposed limit. High beam headlamps were removed and replaced with screens. Ductwork behind the screens fed cool air into the twin Holley four-barrel carburetors.
Fitting a 427 cubic-inch engine under the hood of the Thunderbolt was no small task. Several modifications were necessary to stuff the engine under the hood. Suspension, exhaust, and body panels had to be altered to accommodate the engine’s size. Moving the 95 – 125 pound battery to the trunk saved space and provided better weight distribution. A high-rise hood was created to clear the height of the intake and carburetor.
The 427 V8 in the Thunderbolt was conservatively rated by Ford at 425 horsepower. Horsepower was actually closer to 500. This engine is a true work of art. Features of the powerplant included 12.7:1 compression, an intake that positioned the dual carbs directly over the ports, and forged steel crank. In order to take the abuse drivers would dish out on this brute, Ford reinforced the block with cross-bolted main caps. Other features of this engine include high riser-heads, lightweight alloy valves, and 1.73-inch exhaust. Buyers had a choice between a Borg Warner four-speed manual or a Lincoln Cruise-O-Matic 3-speed auto.
Quarter mile times for the Thunderbolt were in the 11-12 second range at around 122 mph. That’s comparable to the 1964 Dodge 426 Hemi which could run the quarter at 11.40 seconds at 125 mph. The Thunderbolt’s time is quite faster than the 1963 Pontiac Super Duty 421 which could sprint the quarter in 13.7 seconds and register 107 mph on the speedo. Ford definitely accomplished what it set out to do when creating the Thunderbolt. Create a car that would give the competition fits on the drag strip and take championships and titles away from GM and Chrysler. Speaking of which, the Thunderbolt racked up several trophies and awards including the 1964 NHRA Super Stock title and gave Ford the 1964 NHRA Manufacturers Cup.
Drivers who wanted one could waltz right in to their local Ford dealer, dish out $3,800, and have a car that was ready for the dragway. Upon delivery, drivers probably needed a trailer to get the car where it needed to go. Since the car was built for drag racing, driving on streets and highways was not an easy task.
A recent search of auction and classified sites shows prices for a 1964 Thunderbolt are quite high. A burgundy Thunderbolt was auctioned by Barrett-Jackson in 2012 for $242,000 (including buyer’s commission). A Mecum auction from January 2012 featured Thunderbolt #68 which garnered a high bid of $198,000. Unfortunately, this bid didn’t meet the seller’s reserve and the car was not sold. Due to their rareness, high prices are nothing new when it comes buying a legitimate Thunderbolt.
In order to satisfy racing requirements for the NHRA, Ford was required to build 50 Thunderbolts. However, Ford chose to build 100 of these drag strip hellions. The first 11 were painted burgundy and the rest of the cars were painted white. In 1965, the NHRA changed the rules and now required a minimum production number of 500 cars. Ford decided this was not practical and cancelled the Thunderbolt. No one can say for sure how many of these are still left around today but one thing is for sure. The Thunderbolt was a success and proved that Ford could built a drag racer that could take on anything coming out of Detroit in the early 1960s.
Just the facts…
- Number built: 100
- Construction: steel unitary chassis
- Engines: V8 w/ cast iron block and heads
- Displacement: 427 cubic-inches
- Horsepower: 425 @ 6,000 rpm
- Torque: 480 @ 3,700 rpm
- Induction: dual 720 cfm Holley 4-barrel carburetors
- Compression: 12.7:1
- Transmissions: Borg Warner T-10 4-speed, Lincoln Cruise-O-Matic 3-speed
- Suspension: modified front and rear
- Steering: recirculating ball
- Brakes: drums, front and rear
- Wheels: 15-inch steel wheels
- Tires: bias ply front, slicks rear
- Length/Width/Height: 190.3/73.6/56.9 inches
- Wheelbase: 115.5 inches
- Front Track: 58.6 inches
- Rear Track: 55.3 inches
- Weight: 3,225 pounds
- Quarter Mile: 11.8 seconds @ 123 mph