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First Thunderbolt

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Feature Article from Hemmings Muscle Machines
August, 2006 - Daniel Strohl

Dick Brannan couldn't rest. Despite personally winning more than 65 races and setting 22 track records in 1963--including the first for a Ford in the NHRA's Super Stock class--the pressure-cooker of competition squeezed him.
As head of Ford's Drag Team, he had to find new ways to keep Ford products competitive on the drag strip so, ultimately, Ford dealers could remain competitive in the marketplace. "The competition was changing overnight, almost," he said.
Chevrolet had its Z-11 and some new "Mystery Motor" in the works. The Mopar guys had their own lightweights, a Stage III Max Wedge engine and, deep in the bowels of Chrysler, a new Hemi on the way.
And new NHRA rules for 1964 would allow a engine with a 3,200-pound minimum weight. The Galaxies that the Drag Team had stuck with since the organization's inception had a 425hp V-8 in place for the 1963 cars, but try as they might, they could only come down to 3,425 pounds, or thereabout.
"We just weren't going to be competitive," Brannan said.
Rather than go bigger, though, Brannan went smaller.
He joined Ford's Stock Vehicles Department in 1962, shortly after driving up to Detroit for a day and mopping the field with his Romy Hammes-sponsored 1962 Galaxie. Among that field ran two Ford test drivers, Bill Humphries and Len Richter, who tracked Brannan down to his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, and asked him first to spill his guts and later to coordinate Ford's drag-race activities.
He had no special tricks, though--he simply applied what he knew about a car's mechanicals to the entire car, completely stripping it down before preparing it, leaving it within the rules, but giving it every possible advantage. Weight remained one of the most important of those advantages, and Brannan shaved it at every legal opportunity.
He applied that method to the Ford factory lightweight Galaxies of 1962 and 1963. He ordered them without sound deadener and seam sealer. He had thinner side glass, aluminum front bumpers and inner fenders, fiberglass front fenders and trunk lids installed. He swapped lightweight bucket seats for the stock bench and a rubber mat for the carpeting. From the 3,615-pound shipping weight of a stock 1963 Galaxie 500 fastback, he had Les Ritchey's down to 3,510 pounds and Gas Ronda's to the aforementioned 3,425 pounds.
He assembled a team of factory-backed racers, the Ford Drag Team, which included Ritchey, Ronda, Bob Tasca and his driver Bill Lawton, Phil Bonner, Ed Martin and Mickey Thompson--none of whom were slouches behind the wheel.
He gave those racers the latest Ford high-performance engine, the 12.0:1 compression low-riser 425hp FE-series V-8, equipped with dual Holley four-barrel carburetors, in 1963. Combined with all the above, the lightweights earned time slips in the 12.40s, then in the 12.10s and as low as 12.03 seconds at York U.S. 30 in July.
The competition kept up, though. The Melrose Missle III, a lightweight 1963 Plymouth with a 425hp 426 Max Wedge engine, took the 1963 NHRA Winternationals with a 12.37-second run and later that year set the NHRA Super Stock record with a run of 12 seconds flat. The 1963 Z-11 Chevrolets, which ran a W-engine and lightweight components similar to the Fords and Mopars, ran in the low 11-second range, with Malcolm Durham's Strip Blazer running 12.01 seconds its first time out.
Tasca, of the famed Rhode Island dealership, though, earlier that year started to toy with a low-riser V-8 in a blue 1963 Fairlane 500 two-door hardtop. Word of the car got to Ford marketing manager Frank Zimmerman, who liked the concept.
"Thanks to Bob Tasca, it was his car that gave reason to consider the Fairlane for the 1964 season," according to the Dick Brannan CD, Ford Drag Team: The Birth of Ford Factory Drag Team. "However, a company effort to produce enough units to satisfy the NHRA could be costly since the engine compartment barely allowed for the engine that came as standard."
The Fairlane 500 made an excellent choice for 1964 as its shipping weight came in at 2,992 pounds for the hardtop and 2,913 pounds for the two-door post. Add in fluids and a driver and they'd weigh in right around the 3,200-pound minimum.
"I actually ordered 10 two-door hardtops," Brannan said. "I knew the roofline on the hardtop was an inch and a half lower than the sedan and the windshield laid back further, like the convertible. It did weigh more, but not by much, and I felt the lower roofline would provide a faster top speed.
"But people at the Ford division at the time didn't even realize the difference. So, when Vern Tinsler (who assisted Brannan on the project) put in the order, he figured the sedans were lighter, so he ordered them as such."
The 10 Fairlanes, all sans radios, heaters, seam sealer and painted maroon, arrived at Dearborn Steel Tubing, the same company that converted the Galaxies to lightweight racers in 1962 and 1963.
"When I went down there, they just told me to grab one and get started," Brannan said.
He decided to start with one car to develop and test the drag transformation before applying those changes to the other nine. Though he left the rear seat in place, he added bucket seats from an Econoline van in place of the front bench; removed the rear side windows, backlight and rear crank mechanisms in favor of fixed Plexiglas rear side windows and backlight and replaced the door panels with ones without holes for the rear window crank and front armrest. He even removed the passenger side windshield wiper and sunvisor.
He replaced the steel front fenders and hood with fiberglass versions, which concealed the high-riser 427--a new engine for 1964 that came with the same 425hp rating as the low-riser. To make room for the big FE engine, which "almost fit as it was," Brannan said, he first relocated the battery to the trunk, then had to cut the spring towers back to make room for the rocker arm covers.
"The next task was to figure out how to put headers on it," Brannan said. "That was the biggest nightmare. We couldn't get them out (of the engine bay) in one piece, so we routed them through everything in the world, including the front suspension."
Interestingly enough, the later production Thunderbolts shipped with headers that fed into a single exhaust, blowing through "a little bitty muffler that everybody took off," Brannan said.
Because the cars all originally came with the 271hp 289, they had the Ford 9-inch rear axle and larger 10.5-inch front disc brakes. NHRA rules limited the cars to a 7-inch-wide rear tire.
"A guy named James 'Hammer' Mason at Dearborn, he finished the first car," Brannan said. "Vern and I went out on our first run, and it sucked out the rear window, which went 50 feet into the air."
Brannan clocked 12.26 seconds at 122 mph on that run, though.
That evening and nearly every evening for the next three weeks, Brannan and Tinsler dropped the car off at Dearborn Steel with a note for Mason, letting him know what they broke, what to upgrade and what to alter. "He'd have it ready for us the next morning," Brannan said.
Danny Jones also helped Brannan develop the car during that time and designed the crossbar in the rear suspension that kept both rear wheels planted.
Many alterations that Brannan made to that first car made it to the other nine, but some didn't. For example, he cut out a portion of the firewall of the first car, figuring the large FE engine would require extra room both to fit and to provide access to work on the car. Yet he found cutting the firewall unnecessary afterward, so the rest of the cars did without it.
Brannan also developed the first line-lock at about that time, using a modified Studebaker Hill Holder unit that he often saw in use during his younger days in South Bend. On that first car, he adapted one by cutting a hole in the firewall under the master cylinder.
Once Dearborn Steel finished the other nine cars, Brannan, Tinsler and Jones introduced them to the Drag Team members on October 22, 1963, at the Ford test track across from the Stock Vehicle office in Dearborn. They told the Drag Team that even with the monster engines, the cars weighed in just a little less than 3,200 pounds, allowing for additional fuel, an NHRA-legal ballast. While the first two remained in the hands of the Stock Vehicle Department, Ford delivered the remaining eight to the Drag Team members a couple weeks later, then an eleventh car, with an automatic transmission, in December.
At the time, though, none of the cars went by the name Thunderbolt. In fact, the car that Brannan would race, that first car that he used to develop the others, had "Lively One" lettered under the rear side glass. At some point over the next couple of months, the Drag Team and Ford settled on the Thunderbolt name and had graphics printed up for the cars.
The cars also went through a few other changes during the last few months of 1963. Photos of the October introduction showed Brannan's car and a few others with cloverleaf hoods, but they would later appear with teardrop hoods. The first three or four, including Brannan's, also started life with fiberglass bumpers, Brannan said, but the NHRA told Ford no fiberglass bumpers in Super Stock, so Ford switched them over to aluminum. "When they all changed to aluminum, I changed mine too," Brannan said.
Ford officials at first believed the NHRA would accept the 10 Thunderbolts as an acceptable homologation figure (despite the 50 scheduled lightweight Galaxies Ford built in 1963), but the NHRA demanded that Ford build at least 100 Thunderbolts--50 with manual transmissions, 50 automatics. And this before the 1964 NHRA Winternationals in February, when Brannan and Ford planned to introduce the Thunderbolts.
"That's why everybody now says there were just 100 Thunderbolts," Brannan said. "But Hammer, Tinsler and I agree it was 127, all of them built at Dearborn Steel." Aside from the first 10, all came in white.
At the Winternationals, the Thunderbolts made an awesome sound. Brannan beat Dave Strickler, driving the Dodge Boys Polara, with an 11.80-second run at 122.28 mph over Strickler's 12.03-second run at the same speed. He later recorded a 128 mph top speed, the highest speed in the Super Stock class, but lost in the semi-finals due to a clutch failure. However, Butch Leal, driving Mickey Thompson's first Thunderbolt, won the Super Stock class for the event.
Over one weekend in June, Brannan took his car first to a Super Stock Bonanza at U.S. 30 Dragway in Gary, Indiana, to beat Arnie Beswick's Tempest with an 11.08-second run at 128 mph on Friday night. Saturday night, he traveled north to U.S. 131 in Martin, Michigan, to beat two Hemi-engined Dodges. Then on Sunday, he went back to Gary, where he ran an 11.30 in practice and an 11.29 in competition, but placed second to Tom Sturm in a Comet because he slid off the dragstrip.
Brannan continued to race his Thunderbolt throughout the season, calling himself the world's fastest Ford, but realized part way through the summer that the Thunderbolts could not continue for the 1965 season. Both the hardtop and the post Fairlanes would increase in weight--by 77 and 84 pounds respectively--but more importantly, altered-wheelbase "funny cars" and the compacts that General Motors and Chrysler introduced earlier in the decade started to come on strong by 1964, prompting Brannan to turn his attention to the newly introduced Mustang, and the Falcon that Ford based it on, as a competitive platform.
"After the season, Ford gave me the car for a dollar," Brannan said. "I had this car for a little while and maintained the Romy Hammes sponsorship."
Brannan said he then sold the Thunderbolt in 1965 to Vaughn Kubert, a Michigan collector who also bought the Falcon that replaced Brannan's Thunderbolt and Brannan's 1963 lightweight Galaxie, then kept them for at least 10 years before selling the cars off.
Another decade or so later, Mark Kuykendall of Ashville, North Carolina, set out to collect all of Brannan's early cars. According to Brannan, he found the 1962 lightweight Galaxie still on the road in Pennsylvania with a moonroof cut in it, the Falcon in Memphis, Tennessee, the 1963 lightweight elsewhere and the Thunderbolt in New York state.
"He called me up one day and told me he had them," Brannan said. "It wasn't until then that I realized they had more potential than just the old race cars I thought of them as."
Brannan authenticated the group at Kuykendall's request. He said he knew the Thunderbolt was genuine the moment he lifted the hood and saw the fan guard--when he owned it, he had the black fan guard chromed and stuck a gold-painted 427 bird emblem on it rather than the bird decal that the other Thunderbolts got. He also spotted the cutout in the cowl and the hole for the Hill Holder, both clear giveaways, and the Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed transmission, only installed on the first several Thunderbolts before Ford switched to the Toploader four-speed.
Kuykendall had Donald Allen, a well-known lightweight restorer in Georgia, restore the Thunderbolt and the other three cars, then sold all four to Don Snyder, Jr., in Ohio, where they remain today.
After a few more years developing Ford's drag racing efforts, Brannan did indeed rest. Funny cars had supplanted super stockers, the 427 SOHC engine came and went and Brannan became more interested in flying and selling planes. But he's since found his way back into cars, attending several shows a year and organizing his own annual All Ford South Classic near Atlanta.
"But for a while, all I thought was that these were just old race cars, not worth much," he said.

Owner's View
Don Snyder, Jr., of New Springfield, Ohio, started Snyder's Antique Auto Parts to cater to Model A and Model T owners, but probably spends as much or more time with another love--Ford factory lightweights and race cars.
"I raced an original Thunderbolt about 20 years ago," Snyder said. "It was an actual Thunderbolt, one of the later ones, and I still have it. Actually, my sons, Brian and Don III, got me into drag racing.
"I chose to race the Thunderbolt, though, because it's a very unique car, very different than anything else. I did have the last Thunderbolt made, and being in the Thunderbolt crowd, I had known about the first one for years, so I started looking specifically for it.
"Now, it's special that we have all four Dick Brannan cars: the 1962 lightweight, the 1963 lightweight, the Falcon 427 and the first Thunderbolt. I've never raced this car, it's not licensed for the street and I don't take it to too many shows, maybe one a year. But it is the most special car in the collection."
+ It's a real Thunderbolt
+ It's the first Thunderbolt
+ It'll whip just about anything else
- Too valuable to race
- Too valuable to drive
- Wouldn't make a good street car anyway

Base price: $3,780.00


OHV V-8, cast-iron block and heads


427 cubic inches

Bore x Stroke:

4.23 inches x 3.78 inches

Compression ratio:


Horsepower @ rpm:

425 @ 6,000

Torque @ rpm:

480-lbs.ft. @ 3,700


Solid valve lifters

Main bearings:


Fuel system:

Dual Holley four-barrel carburetors on aluminum intake manifold, mechanical pump assisted by Steward Warner 240A electrical pump

Lubrication system:

Pressure, gear-type pump

Electrical system:


Exhaust system:

Dual straight-dump headers



Borg-Warner T-10 aluminum case four-speed manual; Hurst shifter

Ratios 1st:












Ford 9-inch





Recirculating ball



Turns, lock-to-lock:




Hydraulic, manual front disc/rear drum

10 x 2.5 inches


10 x 2.0 inches

Chassis & Body


Steel unibody with fiberglass front fenders and hood, aluminum front bumper

Body style:

Two-door post sedan


Front engine, rear-wheel drive



Independent; A-arms; coil springs; tube shocks


Four-link; heavy-duty asymmetrical parallel leaf springs (two left, three right); anti-tramp bar; tube shocks; 2 x 3 rectangular tubing parallel traction arms

Wheels & Tires


Chrome stock stamped steel


15 x 6 inches


15 x 7 inches


Firestone bias-ply (front), Mickey Thompson Super Stock drag slicks (rear)





Weights & Measures


115.5 inches

Overall length:

197.6 inches

Overall width:

72.2 inches

Overall height:

55.4 inches

Front track:

55.0 inches

Rear track:

56.0 inches

Curb weight:

3,202 pounds



8 quarts

Cooling system:

19 quarts

Fuel tank:

16 gallons

Calculated Data

Bhp per c.i.d.:

Weight per bhp:

7.53 pounds

Weight per c.i.d.:

7.50 pounds

Dearborn Steel Tubing built 100 Thunderbolts; 41 four-speed and 59 automatics
1/4 mile ET: 11.08 seconds @ 128 mph

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