Ford’s Muscle Cars from the 1950’s to the 1970’s
Ford muscle cars are the foundation American motorsports are built on. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ford cars were famous for their fast lines, big engines, and a loyal following that was dedicated to getting every last bit of horsepower out of them.
While the machines that owned drag strips and tracks around the world may have captured our attention, the path Ford took was born out of necessity. Before they became an automotive powerhouse known for their pony cars, they were actually headed toward mediocrity.
Let’s explore Ford Motor Company’s deep rooted history in the making of American muscle cars, ranging from the early 1950’s all the way up to the 1990’s.
Classic Ford Cars of the 1950’s – Before the Muscle
Before Ford started to gain traction for their muscle cars in the 60’s and 70’s, they were under the leadership of Henry Ford II. During this time, the company was known for its focus on safety and reliability. However, it was becoming clear in the auto industry that car manufacturers and customers were starting to value high performance vehicles over anything else.
As popular brands like Dodge and Chevrolet started to produce sports cars with roaring engines and fast finish times, Ford was focused on creating a family friendly vehicle for the daily driver. The classic Ford models produced during this time include:
- The Ford Fairlane (1955-1970)
- The Ford Galaxie (1959-1974)
The Ford Fairlane (1955-1970)
The Fairlane replaced the Crestlane in 1955. During the 1960’s, the Fairlane 500 was redesigned as a mid-size car to compete with the Chevy Bel-Air, and for the rest of its lifespan, was largely known for its broad appeal through the base level trim’s use in police car fleets.
However, as the muscle car market started to heat up in the early to mid 1960’s, Ford introduced the 1964 Fairlane Thunderbolt as a limited-run experimental car specifically engineered for drag racing. The Thunderbolt was based on the basic two-door post sedan, and featured a relatively lightweight body coupled with a 427 cu in (7.0 L) V8 engine featuring dual 4-barrel Holley carburetors. The latter were intended for the full-size Galaxie, but that car was considered too heavy for the racing circuit. While the Thunderbolt had a brief run and was only available in 1964, its conversion from a standard, nondescript sedan to a lightweight racing coincided with Ford’s Shelby American collaboration, which would yield the first generation Shelby GT350 released in 1965.
The Ford Galaxie 500 Hardtop (1959-1974)
Intended to be a competitor to the Chevy Impala, the Galaxie was introduced in 1958 for the 1959 model year. Going into the 1960’s, the Galaxie was Ford’s full-size model range competing with GM’s Chevy Impala and Pontiac Bonneville. The Galaxie was another standard choice for police fleets and drivers seeking robust, but family-friendly models, but beneath the hood, the Galaxie proved itself capable of matching power ratings with its GM counterparts. Following the 1962 reshuffle that saw the Fairlane redesigned as a smaller, lightweight mid-size car, the full-size Galaxie featured straight-six or V-8 engines for all three trim levels. Ford’s Y-Block V-8 would stay in-use until 1964, while the newer FE Series V-8s were used until the Galaxie’s discontinuation in 1974.
Classic Ford Cars of the 1960’s – Leaning Into Performance
After the 1950’s, Ford started to transition into high performance vehicles that could keep up with Chevy, Dodge, and Chrysler on the racetrack. The Total Performance initiative was put in place by the Ford Motor Company and created the muscle cars that we know and love today. Performance became a priority as the path forward for the company shifted to winning trophies and proving that Ford could deliver vehicles with the big horsepower the public was clamoring for.
With the start of the Total Performance initiative, Ford dedicated some time to remodeling old classics like the Ford Thunderbird and the Galaxie. But, they also introduced some new hot rods that could be competitive on the Nascar track. These included:
- The First Generation Ford Mustang
- The Shelby Mustang and the GT500
The First Generation Mustang (1964-1973)
The most iconic Ford model that you think of today is the Mustang. The first generation Ford Mustang was first produced in 1964 and has withstood continuous production to this day. It has proven it’s standing power as Ford’s longest running model. Based on the platform for the compact Ford Falcon, it was short, wide, and designed to thrill.
Featuring a “fastback” design popular with other models and adopting the squared-off front grill reminiscent of a jet’s air scoop that would come to define muscle cars across popular brands in the late 1960s, the car was projected to sell a whopping 100,000 units in its first year. That projection was passed in three months, and in the first 18-months, over a million Mustangs were produced for a public that had suddenly remembered Ford existed.
In 1969, the Mustang fully blossomed, with a range of features that any Ford lover would recognize. A longer, larger body became available with spoilers, scoops, and tie-downs. Under the hood, Ford was making moves to get the Mustang on the race circuit. The Boss 302 and Boss 429 models were limited releases that used the finest in Ford engineering and modified components to produce enough vehicles to qualify the Mustang for stock car racing–the 302 for the Trans Am Racing Series and the 429, with its modified engine compartment to accommodate the gigantic 7-liter engine, for NASCAR.
The Ford Shelby Mustang GT500
Ford’s partnership with Carroll Shelby defined the automaker’s prowess in muscle cars. As an accomplished racecar driver throughout the 1950’s, Shelby’s retirement from the sport in 1960 gave rise to his prolific career as a specialty car designer. Through his company, Shelby-American, Carroll Shelby was free to experiment with some of the generation’s most innovative parts and components. Shelby’s endeavor reached Dave Evans of Ford, who agreed to provide a 221-cubic-inch and 260-cubic-inch V8 engine with transmission. Combined with the AC Ace chassis, Shelby’s experiment, literally called the Carroll Shelby Experimental, would eventually be the Shelby AC Cobra. Ford and Shelby-America would go on to produce iconic models such as the first generation Shelby GT350 from 1965 to 1967.
Classic Ford Cars from the 1970s – Updated Safety Standards and Fuel Efficiency
After their successful run throughout the 1960’s, Ford was looking to build on their ongoing success. With the introduction of models like the Mustang, Torino, and newly designed Thunderbird, Ford was one of the top sellers in the muscle car market. However, America’s passion for powerful cars was being tempered by world events.
With the release of the Clean Air Act of 1970, there were new emissions restrictions on vehicles. Ford relied heavily on it’s muscle cars with powerful engines – but their power output came with a lot of fuel consumption. In response, Ford began manufacturing iconic cars with a lighter weight to allow them to use smaller engines. These models include:
- The Ford Torino
- The Ford Mustang II
The Torino (1968-1976)
While the 70’s in automotive history were defined by a sharp drive towards fuel efficiency, that didn’t mean Ford muscle cars went away entirely. The Torino, introduced in 1968, was perhaps the most emblematic of Ford’s muscle cars during the early to mid 1970s. Produced on the same wheelbase as the Fairlane, the Torino set itself apart with a distinctive fastback body with a “SportsRoof” bodystyle.
This aerodynamic silhouette gave the Torino an edge when it came to racing. The 1969 Torino Talladega and 1970 Torino King Cobra solidified Ford’s racing cred, and today both models are among some of the most coveted collector’s cars since so few were produced.
Throughout the 1970’s, the Torino would go through several redesigns and alterations to fit evolving emissions and safety standards. However, its bold styling and performance cemented its status as one of Ford’s most iconic muscle cars of the decade.
1975-76 models were even used as the main prop cars in the TV show Starsky and Hutch. The series showcased the Torino in its most iconic form: a two-door fastback featuring a V-6 engine. The series popularized the Torino to the extent that Ford produced 1,000 replicas of the TV prop car, complete with the white racing stripe.
The Ford Mustang II & Fox Body Mustang (1978-1993)
As automotive technology caught up to regulatory requirements, muscle cars, led by Ford, made a resurgence. The Fox Body Mustang, shorter and lighter with a wider wheelbase, benefited from a high-output 5.0l V8 and improved handling. The GT badge was re-introduced to the line, hearkening drivers back to the heyday of the brand. With multiple variations, special packages, and performance-based options, the Mustang stood as the lone Ford muscle car through the 1980s and into the start of the 1990s.
Protecting Your Classic Ford Muscle Cars
Whether you love the Ponies or have a soft spot for Fairlanes, we’re ready to cover your classic cars with an agreed value policy that recognizes the time and money you’ve put into restoring and maintaining some of the most powerful cars to put rubber to the road.
Our collectors specialists share your passion for high-horsepower machines, and they’re ready to help you tailor a policy for your needs. Get a free quote on your coverage from American Collectors Insurance today, and let the community know which Ford muscle car is your pick to take the checkered flag as greatest of all time.