Ford Thunderbolt

Brannan couldn’t sleep. After winning over 65 races and setting 22 track records in 1963, the competition pressed him. As leader of Ford’s Drag Team, he had to keep Ford products competitive on the drag strip, and thus keep Ford dealers competitive. In a flash, he said, the competition changed. Chevrolet was working on the Z-11 and a “Mystery Motor.” Mopar had its own lightweights, a Stage III Max Wedge engine, and a new Hemi on the way. New NHRA rules for 1964 enable a engine weighing 3,200 pounds. The Drag Team’s Galaxies featured a 425hp V-8 for the 1963 cars, but they could only get down to 3,425 pounds or thereabouts.

“We just couldn’t compete,” Brannan added.

Brannan went smaller rather than bigger.
In 1962, he joined Ford’s Stock Vehicles Department following a day in Detroit with his Romy Hammes-sponsored 1962 Galaxie. Bill Humphries and Len Richter, two Ford test drivers, tracked Brannan down to his birthplace of South Bend, Indiana, and asked him to oversee Ford’s drag-racing efforts.

The automobile was fully stripped down before he prepared it, leaving it inside the rules but giving it every potential advantage. Brannan shaved his weight at every lawful chance. He used it on the 1962 and 1963 Ford OEM lightweight Galaxies. He didn’t want sound deadening or seam sealant. Fiberglass front fenders and trunk lids, metal front bumpers and inner fenders, thinner side glass. He replaced the factory bench with lightweight bucket seats and the carpet with rubber. Les Ritchey’s was down to 3,510 pounds, and Gas Ronda’s to 3,425 pounds.

He put together the Ford Drag Team, which featured Ritchey, Ronda, Bob Tasca and his driver Bill Lawton, Phil Bonner, Ed Martin, and Mickey Thompson. Its 425hp 12.0:1 compression low-rise FE-series V-8 with twin Holley four-barrel carburetors was given to the racers in 1963. With all of this, the lightweights ran 12.40s, 12.10s, and 12.03s at York U.S. 30 in July. But the competition kept up. An ultra-lightweight 1963 Plymouth with a 425hp 426 Max Wedge engine won the NHRA Winternationals in 12.37 seconds and set the NHRA Super Stock record in 12 seconds flat later that year.

They ran in the low 11-second range, with Malcolm Durham’s Strip Blazer running 12.01 seconds on its first outing. A low-rise V-8 in a blue 1963 Fairlane 500 2 door hardtop was Tasca’s experiment earlier that year. Ford marketing manager Frank Zimmerman liked the idea. This car, according to the Dick Brannan CD, Ford Drag Team: The Birth of Ford Factory Drag Team, “provided grounds to consider the Fairlane for the 1964 season.” “However, producing enough units to satisfy the NHRA may be pricey, as the engine compartment barely allowed for the conventional engine.”

The Fairlane 500 hardtop shipped at 2,992 pounds and the two-door post at 2,913 pounds. With fluids and a driver, the minimum weight is roughly 3,200 pounds. Brannan ordered ten two-door hardtops. “I knew the hardtop had a lower roofline than the sedan and a higher windscreen than the convertible. Because of the shorter roofline, I felt it would have a faster top speed.” The Ford division didn’t even know the difference. Vern Tinsler, who worked with Brannan on the project, ordered the sedans because they were lighter. ”

The 10 Fairlane’s landed at Dearborn Steel Tubing, the same manufacturer that converted the Galaxies to lightweight racers in 1962 and 1963. “They basically told me to grab one and start,” Brannan added. He opted to create and test the drag modification on one car before applying it to the other nine. Keeping the rear bench, he deleted the rear side windows, backlight, and crank mechanisms in favor of fixed Plexiglas windows and backlights and replaced the door panels with ones lacking holes for the rear window crank and front armrest. He even took off the passenger side sun visor.

The high-riser 427, a new engine for 1964, had the same 425hp rating as the low-riser. Brannan had to move the battery to the trunk, then trim the spring towers back to create place for the rocker arm covers. “The next step was to add headers,” Brannan remarked. “It was a nightmare. We couldn’t get them out of the engine bay intact, so we ran them through the front suspension.” Later Thunderbolts came with a single exhaust that blew through “a little bitty muffler that everybody pulled off,” Brannan added. The 271hp 289 comes with the Ford 9-inch rear axle and bigger 10.5-inch front disc brakes. The NHRA rules required a 7-inch back tire. “At Dearborn, a guy named Hammer Mason finished the first car,” Brannan added. “On our first run, it sucked out the rear glass, which flew 50 feet.”

Brannan ran 12.26 seconds at 122 mph. That evening, and practically every evening for the next three weeks, Brannan and Tinsler took the car to Dearborn Steel, notifying Mason of their repairs, upgrades, and modifications. It would be ready the next morning, Brannan added. Danny Jones created the crossbar in the rear suspension that kept both rear wheels planted. Some of Brannan’s modifications made it to the other nine, but not all. For example, he removed part of the original car’s firewall to accommodate the big FE engine and allow access to operate on the car.

After that, he decided not to cut the firewall on the rest of the automobiles. Brannan created the first line-lock around the same time, utilizing a modified Studebaker Hill Holder unit he observed in South Bend. On his first automobile, he drilled a hole under the master cylinder in the firewall. On October 22, 1963, Brannan, Tinsler, and Jones met the Drag Team members at the Ford test track across from the Stock Vehicle office in Dearborn. With the enormous engines, they weighed just under 3,200 pounds with extra gasoline, an NHRA-legal weight. Ford sent the remaining eight cars to the Drag Team members a few weeks later, and an eleventh car with an automatic transmission in December. But none of the cars were called Thunderbolt at the time. Brannan’s first car, the one he used to develop the others, had “Lively One” lettered under the back side glass.

The Drag Team and Ford decided on the Thunderbolt name and had graphics created for the cars. Late in 1963, the automobiles had a few more alterations. Brannan’s automobile and a few others had cloverleaf hoods in the October photos, but they had teardrop hoods subsequently. Brannan’s first three or four had fiberglass bumpers, but the NHRA ordered Ford no fiberglass bumpers in Super Stock, so Ford changed them to aluminum. “I changed when they all did,” Brannan remarked. Despite the 50 scheduled lightweight Galaxies Ford constructed in 1963, the NHRA required Ford to build at least 100 Thunderbolts, 50 with manual transmissions and 50 with automatics. Brannan and Ford planned to unveil the Thunderbolts during the 1964 NHRA Winternationals in February. Now everyone claims there were only 100 Thunderbolts.

The 127 were all built at Dearborn Steel, Hammer, Tinsler and I agreed. From 1-10, everything was white. The Thunderbolts sounded great at Winternationals. Brannan’s 11.80-second run at 122.28 mph beat Strickler’s 12.03-second run at the same pace. He later hit 128 mph, the fastest in the Super Stock class, but a clutch issue cost him the semi-finals. Butch Leal, in Mickey Thompson’s first Thunderbolt, won the event’s Super Stock class. Brannan won a Super Stock Bonanza at U.S. 30 Dragway in Gary, Indiana, in June with an 11.08-second run at 128 mph on Friday night. Against two Hemi-powered Dodges on US 131 in Martin, Michigan, Took the 11.30 practice and 11.29 competition, but finished second to Tom Sturm in a Comet after sliding off the dragstrip. Brannan raced his Thunderbolt all season, calling himself the world’s fastest Ford, but discovered mid-summer that the Thunderbolts couldn’t race in 1965. As a result of this, Brannan turned his attention to the newly introduced Mustang and the Falcon that Ford based it on as a competitive platform. Next Ford handed me the car for a dollar after the season. “I had this car and kept the Romy Hammes sponsorship.” Brannan said he sold the Thunderbolt in 1965 to Vaughn Kubert, a Michigan collector who also bought the Falcon that replaced the Thunderbolt and Brannan’s 1963 lightweight Galaxie. Mark Kuykendall of Ashville, North Carolina, was on a mission to acquire all of Brannan’s early automobiles. It was found in Pennsylvania with a sunroof cut in it, the Falcon in Memphis, Tennessee, the 1963 lightweight elsewhere, and the Thunderbolt in New York state, according to Brannan. “One day he called and claimed he had them,” Brannan added. “It was only then that I recognized they were more than just antique race vehicles.” Brannan confirmed the group’s authenticity. When he bought it, he had the black fan guard chromed and a gold-painted 427 bird insignia sprayed on it instead of the bird decal that the other Thunderbolts got.

The Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed transmission, only fitted on the first few Thunderbolts before Ford switched to the Top loader four-speed, was also discovered. Donald Allen, a well-known lightweight restorer in Georgia, restored the Thunderbolt and the other three cars, which Kuykendall sold to Don Snyder, Jr. Brannan rested after a few years of developing Ford’s drag racing efforts. The 427 SOHC engine came and went, and Brannan grew more interested in flying and selling planes. He’s now gotten back into automobiles, going to exhibitions and creating his own All Ford South Classic near Atlanta. “I thought these were just old race vehicles, not worth much,” he added. Opinion Do you have a passion for Ford factory lightweights and race cars? Don Snyder, Jr., of New Springfield, Ohio, has created Snyder’s Antique Auto Parts to serve Model A and Model T owners. “I used to race an original Thunderbolt,” Snyder added. “It was a later Thunderbolt, which I still have.” My sons, Don III and Brian, got me into drag racing.” I selected to race the Thunderbolt because it is unlike any other automobile. “I had the final Thunderbolt built, and being in the Thunderbolt crowd, I knew about the first one for years.” With the 1962 lightweight, 1963 lightweight, Falcon 427 and first Thunderbolt we have all four Dick Brannan cars. I’ve never raced this car, and I only take it to one event a year. But it’s the collection’s most unique automobile.”