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The Birth Of The Flip Top

The modern Funny Car was not invented in Southern California, but rather by a cadre of Ford engineers and racers in Dearborn, Michigan

By Jim McCraw, Photography by Car Craft Archives, Ford Archives

In 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association decreed a ban on racing. It was the wrong message to the Eisenhower-era Wally-and-Beaver American public. All of the Detroit manufacturers—AMC, Chrysler, Ford, and GM—agreed to abide by it. They all lied.

Fuel injection, multiple carburetors, and superchargers were already on the scene in 1957, but small, lightweight, agile cars were not. In 1961, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Dodge, and Plymouth were producing big cars with big engines, multiple carburetion, and lightweight body parts for NASCAR homologation and drag racing. Ford struggled with an outclassed tri-power 390ci engine that produced 401 hp in a hugely heavy body-on-frame car. In five years, absolutely everything would be different.

Our story begins in Dearborn with the Ford racing guys trying to find an edge for their 1962 drag cars. Remember, there was no Mustang yet, and although the Fairlane was in production, it wasn't ready for combat. All they raced then were big Galaxie sedans with the 406 and, later, the 427 engines. The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the governing body of international racing, had decreed an engine size limit of 7.0L or 427 ci, so that's all they had to work with.

Charlie Gray, a farm boy from Virginia with a background in dirt modified racing, attended what is now Virginia Tech to get his engineering degree, and then went to work for Ford Motor. He was the lead engineer in the special test division, designing head-on, side-impact, and roll-over crash tests long before there were any federal mandates.

Dave Evans, the man in charge of Ford's sub rosa racing efforts, picked Gray as the drag racing liaison engineer. Although the AMA racing ban was still in place, by 1962, Ford had already put together a racing group and racing plans.

John Cowley, Don Sullivan (the man who had perfected the flathead V8 for Henry Ford and later worked for Ford SVO), Evans, and Gray were the nucleus of the racing group, pursuing NASCAR, USAC, and drag racing. Gray was the designated engine guy, and Don Wahrman was the chassis guy. Six months into his new gig, Gray got another one. Even though he knew nothing about the sport, the dirt modified racer from Virginia was to become the drag racing guy at Ford.

Gray says, "Ford had a dealer council, with people like Paul Harvey, Bob Tasca, Charlie Wickersham, and Ed Martin, and it said we were not representing Ford very well at the drag races. So Dave Evans said, ‘You're it!' and I said, ‘OK!'"

Gray's first assignment was to take hundreds of pounds out of the Galaxie giants. Drag racer Dick Brannan was a Ford employee, working for Gray, and the team used six-cylinder frames, half-thickness glass and fiberglass hoods, fenders and doorskins, aluminum inner fender panels, and aluminum brackets and bumpers, to build 11 copies.

Brannan says, "They were neat, they were light, and we took close to 500 pounds out of them. I got the first one of those things and raced it for Romy Hammes Ford."

The other cars went to a galaxy of Ford stars, including Ed Martin, Tasca Ford, Jerry Harvey, Phil Bonner, Bob Ford, Jim Price, and Jerry Alderman. But the cars weren't ready until August, with only the NHRA Nationals left to run, in A/Factory Experimental. Brannan says that, since the frames were the same, most of the cars were just re-bodied with the '63 lightweight package to run the following season.

Ford Division boss Don Frey gave Gray a budget of $500 per car to do the lightening job, thus was born the "lightweight" '63 Ford at a porky 3,702 pounds with a 427 engine in a class structure where the lower weight limit was 3,205.

Gray says, "Everything was listed, and everything was registered with NHRA. We sold every one we could build. People wanted those things. They ran OK, but with a 500-pound deficit, running a wedge against a Hemi…they certainly didn't win any national meets."

Brannan says that his '631⁄2 Galaxie was the first Ford ever to hold the NHRA record in Super Stock (set at York, Pennsylvania). Ultimately, he says, the company built 212 of the lightweight package cars for sale to the public.

Gray says the dealer council got the message that Ford was trying. Don Frey then gave Evans and Gray the go-ahead to develop a competitive 3,200-pound race car.

"We knew it could be done, because it had been done once before in 1962. We had built a 3,200-pound Fairlane to run in NASCAR, a car that never got to the racetrack. So we employed Dearborn Steel Tubing to scallop the front spring towers and slide the 427 wedge engine in there. That was the Thunderbolt."

A total of 127 Thunderbolts were built, the first 12 of them assembled from complete cars by Dearborn Steel Tubing, and the balance was built from parts kits at DST. Brannan and chassis engineer Vern Tinsler worked on the first prototype, completing three weeks of strip runs to determine the final NHRA specifications before the first 10 maroon T-Bolts were built.

Gray says, "We were very proud of that car. We had to build 50 sticks and 50 automatics, and we won seven of the NHRA divisional titles with those cars, and won the overall championship for the year with Gas Ronda. I always said we chased Chrysler out of Stock Eliminator and into Factory Experimental because it knew we were coming and it knew that our automatic, with a 4,000-stall converter, was ready. The dealer council wanted us to let all those cars run, but they wanted us to switch to the Factory Experimental class for 1965."

Concurrently, the engine division had designed the single-overhead-cam (SOHC) 427—using the 427 wedge engine's side-oiler block and bottom end, new hemi-chamber heads, and a chain cam drive system—for use in NASCAR with a single four-barrel carburetor.

By Jim McCraw
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