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.
Before the Muscle
Before the heyday of Ford muscle cars in the 60’s and 70’s, Ford was under the leadership of Henry Ford II. During this time, the company was known for its focus on safety and reliability. However, as the 60’s rolled around, other car manufacturers were starting to focus on performance. Ford’s offerings were being beaten in motorsports competitions around the world and baby boomers, with their quickly-developing love for performance cars, were flocking to the roaring engines and faster finish times offered by Chevrolet and Dodge.
While the 1955 Ford Thunderbird made a big splash on release with its 193 horsepower 292, the company chose to brand it as a personal vehicle. The next generation of the Thunderbirds added a second row of seats and leaned into its sporty family car design, meanwhile competitors were styling their sports cars with sleek lines and increased speed in mind.
Meanwhile, Ford just couldn’t shake it’s family-focused image and competitors were still dominating Ford when the checkered flags waved. Before we get to the heyday of Ford muscle cars in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, let’s set some context for Ford’s mid and full-size lineup, which set the stage for
The 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 Galaxie (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.
The 1960s: Designing for Total Performance
Lee Iacocca went to Henry Ford II and convinced him that if Ford wanted to stay competitive, the company needed to get in the racing game and win. The result was the Total Performance initiative that created the Ford muscle cars 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.
The Thunderbird offers the easiest-to-see application of the shift toward the Ford muscle cars we know today. Starting with the third generation in 1961 and continuing through the decade, the large, boxy exterior was left behind in favor of fast lines and a lower profile.
The larger and heavier Galaxie saw a similar facelift, shaving some weight off its full-sized body, but still not enough to compete with Chevrolet’s Impalas. While Ford’s updated V8 motors were offering over 300-horsepower for low-end options and 400-horsepower with the 390 motor, it wasn’t enough.
The 427-cu. in. engine was designed to comply with the Nascar and NHRA mandated 7.0l maximum for engine displacement, and it finally gave Ford the power it needed to get Ford muscle cars to the winner’s circle. People started to take notice, but Ford’s next move would make waves that still affect the performance automotive industry today.
The First Generation Mustang (1964-1973)
No vehicle is as closely tied to the visual image of Ford muscle cars as the Ford Mustang. With continuous production since 1964, it’s proven its staying power as Ford’s longest-running model.
The Mustang, a pet project of Lee Iacocca, didn’t fit neatly into existing car segments, but became so popular it made its own, the “pony car”. 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.
Ford, Carroll Shelby, and the 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.
The 1970s: Updated Safety Standards and a Push for Fuel Efficiency
Looking to build on their success of the previous decade, Ford muscle cars looked to set the pace. The Falcon and Fairlane models both became casualties to a streamlined lineup including the Mustang, mid-sized muscle car dubbed the Torino that took much of its styling from the super-popular pony car, the newly redesigned Thunderbird, and the full-size Galaxie. America’s passion for powerful cars, however, was being tempered by world events.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 increased emissions restrictions on vehicles. This was done, in part, by the removal of lead from fuel, which reduced octane levels below what was needed for efficient burning in high-compression engines. It also necessitated a shift toward making cars more environmentally friendly, reducing power output in favor of less pollution. On the heels of this regulatory change, the 1973 Oil Crisis led to widespread gas shortages and rationing. While Ford muscle cars had powerful engines, that power output came with a lot of fuel consumption.
In response, mid-decade redesigns saw the Mustang returned to its smaller original size and released as the Mustang II. The lighter weight allowed the use of smaller engines, topping out on stock models with a 4.9l Windsor V8.
The Thunderbird was also downsized to a shorter, lighter body and given a visual overhaul that included a front grill projection and reduction in engine size to meet engine standards while still allowing respectable performance. The Torino, itself a successor to the Fairlane platform, gave way to the LTD II and the Ranchero.
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.
Fox Body Mustangs and a Return to Performance (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 Ford Muscle Cars
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