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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

Gray says the Cammer engine was a miracle of modern engineering, with Norm Faustyn's team taking it from first drawings to first dyno test in 90 days. "We could get the valve sizes we wanted, the valve angles we wanted, the volumetric efficiency we wanted. We were in tall cotton."

But the engines were specifically designed for NASCAR. "We did it exactly the way [NASCAR founder] Bill France told us to do it, but he said no. We'd spent all the money; we'd done everything he'd told us to do, including building Galaxies with the engine in them, right on the production line. I drove one for a long time." One of those cars won B/FX at the Winternationals.

"As head of the drag racing program, I couldn't wait to get my hands on that engine," Gray says. "Vern Tinsler helped me get that engine into a Mustang, because that's what we wanted to run, and that's what the dealers wanted us to run."

Tinsler and his crew had developed a quarter-elliptic spring front suspension about six years prior to this and Tinsler thought it would work under the front end of a Mustang to make room for the SOHC engine.

Gray recalls, "Brannan, Tinsler, and I looked over the plans for the front suspension. We didn't tell anybody what we were doing. They found the guys who had built the prototypes, and they built us some more. The Cammer engine just slid right in. We were really pushed for time. Brannan and I left with two cars for a two-week test session in California."

In that first test of the Cammer-powered Mustangs, they found that the bumpsteer in the front suspension made the front wheels wobble under both acceleration and braking.

Gray says, "Brannan and the guys from Russ Davis Ford figured out what was wrong, and they fixed it. Phil Bonner came out, and we fixed his car. Tasca came out, and Gas Ronda was there with the Russ Davis car. Bob Ford came out with Len Richter. We got all the front ends set on the five cars. We had more cars, but that's all the overhead-cam engines we had!" The other cars ran with wedge engines, including those of Les Ritchey, Al Joniec, and Clester Andrews, but they were replaced with Cammers later on.

Gray recalls, "At the same time, we had talked to a fellow by the name of Connie Kalitta, and he decided that the overhead-cam engine was the cat's meow. Kalitta was one of the brightest men I have ever met in my life. He realized that if he had a Ford running against all those Chryslers, he'd make a fortune in match racing. He could write his own ticket. And he did. Some of the things he did with that supercharged Cammer engine would curl your hair!" Kalitta, of course, later won everything there was to win during the winter of 1967 with the Bounty Hunter T/F dragster. Before long, Pete Robinson, Lou Baney, Don Prudhomme, and Kenz & Leslie joined the Cammer fueler ranks.

At the 1965 NHRA Winternationals, the new Mustangs dominated A/Factory Experimental. Len Richter's car broke an axle, and Bill Lawton, in the Tasca Ford 427 Cammer Mustang, won the race. A Cammer Galaxie won B/FX. Mike Schmitt's 289 car took C/FX. Ford was looking good.

"We ran Chrysler out of Stock, and then we ran it out of FX, and then everybody started sliding the wheels forward, building the most hideous things I'd ever seen," Gray says. "Brannan and I decided to do something about it. We built a long-wheelbase Mustang, and I don't think he ever got beat in that car. Bonner wanted to build a Falcon. At Lions, Bonner and Brannan ran for the money, and Bonner [in a Falcon] did a Second-gear wheelstand and lost the race to Brannan."

Ford built two of the tube-framed, stretched-wheelbase Mustangs for Brannan and for Tasca Ford in North Carolina at the Holman & Moody NASCAR shop, using a long-wheelbase chassis with the front wheels moved far forward, a steel body shell, and fiberglass hood, doors, fenders, and decklid, along with a full rollcage and onboard fire system. They used a lightweight four-speed transmission and a Ford 9-inch rear with a 4:88:1 gearset.

Gray says, "I couldn't tell my boss about this. He wanted us to go back to running stock Mustangs. So Brannan was gone, mysteriously, during a lot of the time that fall in Charlotte. He and John Wanderer built the two cars right under the nose of John Holman, who didn't know about the program, which had been cooked up by Ford with his partner, Ralph Moody.

"Holman called my boss, John Cowley, and told him about the two beautiful race cars he had seen in the shop. Cowley said, ‘What cars are you talking about?' I got fired three different times by my boss, but my super-boss [Jacque Passino] hired me back all three times. So Cowley told us to get the cars up to Dearborn right now. When he saw them, he ordered me to take them both to the crusher, but Passino said, ‘If those cars will hold paint, let's race them!"'

Ford cleaned up at the AHRA Winternationals at Irwindale Raceway. It had brought all of its best guys to California, rented Irwindale, and tested for three weeks before the event, changing weight classes, moving ballast around, and switching back and forth between race gas and alcohol.

At the event, Les Ritchey won Super Stock Eliminator with his Performance Associates Mustang. Dick Brannan's new Mustang won Unlimited Fuel Stock, and Bill Lawton's Tasca Mustang won Unlimited Gas Stock against Ronda in the final. Ronda, Lawton, and Brannan had switched over to Hilborn fuel injection, and Brannan ran on fuel with an automatic transmission to spread out the number of eliminator victories as far as possible within the AHRA class structure, which was far more liberal and less restrictive than the NHRA dominion.

Two weeks later, Lawton beat Bonner in the final round of heads-up eliminator at the NASCAR drags in Deland, Florida, and Tommy Grove beat them all with his 427 wedge Mustang. Jerry Harvey's Ford beat Mike Schmitt's Cammer-powered Galaxie to win Street Eliminator at the NHRA Winternationals at Pomona. By this time, Charlie Gray, who had engineered all of these cars, was told he was going to NASCAR, where he spent the rest of his career in Ford Racing and with great success.

By Jim McCraw
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