Born to Run: We knew the Mustang was a racer the minute we saw it
By PETE LYONS/AUTOWEEK
(Photo by Pete Lyons)
AUTOWEEK’S NAME was still a small-point addendum to the original Competition Press logo in 1964 when the biweekly newspaper dated March 21 broke cover on “the surprise car of the year.” Ford didn’t mean for its new Mustang to be unveiled until April 13 at the New York World’s Fair, but neither did it reckon 20-year-old Buhlie Ford, nephew of the Deuce, would take it joy riding. In downtown Detroit. The Detroit Free Press grabbed some photos, and CP&A (that’s us) ran them, too.
And knew exactly what they showed. “Long Option List Makes Mustang Car for Grandma or Race Driver,” enthused our front- page subhead.
Once CP&A had a chance to grill Lee Iacocca about racing his baby, he replied, “With the optional equipment available, you can do anything you want with the car, from grocery shopping to running Le Mans.”
Iacocca knew about Le Mans, because as he spoke, the GT40 was being prepped for its debut there that June. Ford was deeply into its aggressive “Total Performance” image makeover of the early ’60s, and Galaxies and Falcons as well as Carroll Shelby’s Powered by Ford Cobras were already winning road, drag and stock car races. So the corporate climate was right for racing the Mustang, too.
In fact, Ford and Shelby were already on it. We were able to report as early as April 25 that “Ford Promises Active Race Schedule for New Mustang,” and in our issue of Nov. 7 we confirmed longstanding speculation that in 1965 the SCCA would open its B Production class—already home to small-block Corvettes and Jaguar XKEs—to a new “Shelby American Cobra Mustang.”
GT350 turned out to be the official designation at the formal unveiling on Jan. 27, 1965, at Riverside Raceway in California. And it was a real racer. Shelby had changed the front suspension geometry, bolted traction bars to the back, lowered and stiffened both ends, quickened the steering, thrown out a lot of weight, and to convince the SCCA this was a sports car, transformed the 2+2 coupe into a two-seater by replacing the rear bench with a shelf. In its most dedicated competition form, called the R model, the 289-cid V8 was said to bellow out about 350 hp.
All this was enough to make the Shelby Mustang a winner first time out, on St. Valentine’s Day 1965, in the hands of factory driver Ken Miles at Green Valley Raceway in Texas. To Comp Press, that was front-page news. Inside, a full-page ad let fans know they could buy a GT350 of their own for a mere $4,311 (two weeks later the ad showed the price at $4,547).
Incidentally, the same issue also reported the first race victory for the vastly more advanced, expensive and troublesome GT40—two weeks later, at Daytona.
Both these Fords did go on to great success over the next few years, and if the Mustang has ever stopped winning races, it cannot have been for long. Thirty-nine years after Green Valley, a full victory tally would be as hard to print as to produce. But here are some of the highlights.
That seminal GT350 took drivers to B Production national championships in 1965, 1966 and 1967. Meanwhile, in ’66, SCCA had launched a new professional series for automakers (not for drivers, at first) called the Trans-American Sedan Championship. To satisfy the “sedan” clause in the rules, Shelby produced a notchback Mustang that racer/writer Jerry Titus drove to secure Ford the inaugural manufacturers’ title. He did it again in 1967, along with being first in drivers’ points. Three seasons later, that epic 1970 season when six Detroit brands fought the Trans-Am wars hard, Parnelli Jones and George Follmer drove Bud Moore Mustang Boss 302s (fastbacks) to Ford’s third championship—by a single point over Mark Donohue’s Chevrolet.
Parnelli Jones (talking with George Follmer seated in car), won the 1970 Trans-Am Championship. (Photo by Pete Lyons)
Ford and the SCCA then went different directions for a couple of decades. In 1989 the Trans-Am was again made attractive to “American Muscle,” though through the medium of special-purpose race chassis carrying lookalike bodywork. Ford’s Mustang promptly won its fourth title, this time courtesy of Dorsey Schroeder, who also happened to be named rookie of the year along with being the champion driver. The Mustang was celebrating its 25th birthday.
Tommy Kendall dominated as the top driver in Trans-Am in '95, '96 and '97.
Tommy Kendall’s turn came in 1995, 1996 and again in ’97, when he dominated the series in one of the new-generation Mustangs. Paul Gentilozzi repeated the feat in 1999, before switching to the Jaguar body style. But under his foot remained the classic Ford pushrod V8, and it kept winning.
While all that was going on, the Mustang—or at least the Mustang image—was also being presented in other race arenas. Ford itself plunged into IMSA in 1981, starting with rebodied Capri European touring cars in the GTX class, then building GT prototypes for ’83 and ’84. These were thoroughly modern missiles in most respects, except Ford insisted the engines be in front because that’s where they were in production Mustangs. Yet the GTP powerplant had nothing to do with a traditional V8. It was a tiny, turbocharged four from Germany. The project never gelled. A later, mid-engined “Mustang-Probe” didn’t either.
Taking a more conventional approach (relatively) did work for our favorite driver-actor Paul Newman one magic weekend in 1995 at Daytona, when he strapped on a front-V8-engined, tube-framed, Jack Roush-prepared Mustang and co-drove it to first in GTS, third overall in the 24 Hour. The car number was 70, same as Newman’s age. Just to show that America’s original pony car wasn’t just for kids.
Kids and granddads, no doubt grandmoms too; racers of every generation still like the Mustang. You see them competing everywhere, in road racing, drag racing, autocross, rallying and daily traffic. This is a car that gets your blood up. It’s been like that for 40 years.
Now we’re getting a brand-new model, one whose lines hark back to what this paper said of the first one, way back in 1964: “It’s a handsome machine, one of the most pleasing designs to come out of Detroit in years...”
And do you see a racer in there, too?