Thunderbolts were designed for high-profile Factory Experimental and Super Stock classes; Galaxie Lightweights targeted regional Stock-class competition
In March 1963, General Motors dropped a bombshell by banning factory support of auto racing. Ironically, just one month later, Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca issued a press release that read, in part:
“Our attitude is based on three points:
- We believe that performance events-whether they be races, road rallies, or acceleration-economy-braking trials-are an important means of ‘improving the breed.’
- Those who enter such events are entitled to and will receive our support. We want our products to do well in such events.
- We plan to communicate to the public the constructive lessons learned in such events. For example, the durability of the product which enabled Ford to sweep all five places in the NASCAR Daytona 500 race was communicated through ads in 2,800 newspapers plus radio and television.
… Race on Sunday, sell on Monday… Our philosophy is based on Total Performance.”
While some within Ford felt venues like Indianapolis and Le Mans were the perfect showcases for the company, the marketing folks knew it was stock-looking race cars that brought the masses into the showrooms. In 1963, that meant NASCAR and USAC oval-track competition, plus NHRA and AHRA drag racing.
For the ’63 drag race season, Ford created special lightweight Galaxie coupes for the Factory Experimental and Super Stock classes. Though hardly a failure, the 427-powered Galaxies struggled to keep up with the smaller, lighter Dodges and Plymouths. For 1964, Ford mounted a two-pronged attack on the nation’s drag strips.
In another twist of irony, Ford used the formula for the stillborn ’63 Pontiac LeMans Super Duty cars (see profile, March, p. 48) by stuffing the Galaxie’s 500-plus-horsepower 427 into the midsize Fairlane 500, creating the Thunderbolt. Since there was no way the massive 7-liter V8 would fit the stock Fairlane engine compartment, Ford turned to a long-time contractor, Andy Hooten’s Dearborn Steel Tubing company, to make the extensive modifications needed to create the Thunderbolt.
The first eleven Thunderbolts, all painted Vintage Burgundy with tan interiors, went to the top Ford racers, including Phil Bonner, Bill Lawton, Gas Ronda, and Mickey Thompson. First time out, Butch Leal destroyed the competition at the 1964 Winternationals with a best time of 11.47 seconds at 120.16 mph. Subsequent cars were painted Wimbledon White, and most authorities believe a total of 100 Thunderbolt – Galaxie Lightweight cars were built, though some think as many as 127 might have been created.
For Super Stock and Stock drag competition, Ford brought back the Galaxie Lightweight for 1964. Lighter than the ’63 cars and packing a bit more power, the new Lightweight was much more competitive. A total of 50 were built at the Atlanta assembly plant, all painted Wimbledon White, while 25 were equipped with Ford’s “Top-Loader” manual 4-speed, and 25 with Lincoln’s stout 3-speed automatic transmission. While the Thunderbolts were created to grab the spotlight in national events in the high-profile Factory Experimental and Super Stock classes, the Galaxie Lightweights were tailor-made for regional Stock-class competition. Either way, Ford Total Performance grabbed the trophies throughout 1964, and buyers filled the showrooms in record numbers.
In 1965, the NHRA mandated that at least 500 cars be manufactured to qualify for the stock-type classes, which effectively killed the future of the factory lightweight race car. Both the Thunderbolt and the ’64 Galaxie Lightweight represent the end of an era.