Ford Thunderbolt SVT Dragster is 40 Years Old
The Auto Channel
Photo's by Rapidcars.com
DEARBORN, June 16, 2004 -- Pop quiz: 2004 is the 40th anniversary of what significant Ford?
Well, yes there's that Pony car, but 2004 also marks the 40th anniversary of the Ford Thunderbolt. A special high-performance version of the Fairlane 500, the Thunderbolt was the first and only complete drag racer built for and sold to the general public.
"Before 1963, the Ford drag racer was the Galaxie 500," said Dennis Kolodziej, Ford division process engineer in Powertrain Operations and Thunderbolt enthusiast and historian. "It wasn't that competitive because of its weight. Ford looked at the possibility of converting the smaller Fairlane and once that proved feasible, the company took the next step of building a limited number of the cars and selling them to the public."
Developed by Ford's Special Vehicle Department, the Thunderbolt was eventually built at the Dearborn Steel Tubing Company (DST). Initially, the first eleven vehicles were production cars assembled at the Rouge and sent to DST for disassembly and conversion. After the initial run, however, the process shifted gears and the remaining 89 Fairlanes were shipped to DST as incomplete vehicles for modification and final assembly.
The Thunderbolt was a Fairlane 500 two-door sedan without sound deadener, sealer and insulation and minus the unnecessary frills of radio, heater, rear-window cranking mechanism, carpeting and one front windshield wiper. The side windows were made of Plexiglas. Hoods, fenders, doors and the front bumper were fiberglass. Special traction bar eliminated body roll. Beneath the hood, the Thunderbolt came with a 427-center oiler High Riser engine and dual 4 barrel carburetors.
"The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) stipulated that a company had to make at least 50 units of a vehicle for the car to be eligible in the Super Stock class," Kolodziej said. "So Ford made 50 in late 1963 and 50 more in 1964. The Thunderbolt was so successful that in 1965, the NHRA changed the rule, raising the number to 500. Unfortunately, it was economically impossible for Ford to make that many of such a specialized vehicle. The Company was already loosing $1500 to $2000 on each car. Ford had no option but to cancel the project."
By successful, Kolodziej means the Thunderbolt broke both elapsed time and mile per hour records in 1964, took the NHRA Super Stock title and won the Manufacturer's Cup. "At first, the Thunderbolt almost did not qualify," Kolodziej said. "The cars had to weigh at least 3200 pounds and the Thunderbolt couldn't make the limit. Finally, it had to be raced with a full tank of gas which allowed it to just meet the weight restrictions. In addition, Ford was then required to use a 'metal' front bumper, so aluminum bumpers were manufactured and shipped to vehicle owners to convert cars already delivered."
The Thunderbolt may be gone, but it certainly is not forgotten. On the weekend of June 25–27, The Thunderbolt Owners Association in conjunction with the Fairlane Club of America will hold a reunion at the Holiday Inn Fairlane in Dearborn to commemorate the car's 40th anniversary. Along with a car show featuring the Thunderbolt, the event features an awards dinner, ceremonies, guest speakers and a special dinner and social event.
"Just as important is the chance to talk to some of the original special vehicles' team," Kolodziej said. "For fans of the Thunderbolt, these people have a wealth of information and history to share on the thunderbolt as well as the other cars they developed over the years."
Kolodziej will jump at the chance to quiz the special vehicles' engineers on his two Thunderbolts. He has restored the cars and since 1977 has raced his pride and joys. "Other guys are going faster than I am," he said. "Mostly this is nostalgia racing run by enthusiasts. Even so, I can do a quarter mile in 10.6 seconds. That's about 126 miles per hour."
When Kolodziej first purchased the car, his curiosity over the car's history peaked and led him on a search for information that included networking with Thunderbolt fans across the country. Eventually, he traced one of his cars' lineage back to an original car sponsored by Dearborn's Bob Ford, Inc. In the Thunderbolt's day, dealerships often sponsored cars as a way of enticing customers into showrooms. Indeed, it was a partnership between the Ford Special Vehicles Department and East Providence, RI dealership Tasca Ford that led to the initial development of the Thunderbolt.
Of the original 100 Thunderbolts, there are approximately 60 still in existence. Of the 60, just over 20 will be featured at the June reunion in Dearborn. For more information on the Thunderbolt and the reunion, go to Craig Sutton's 1964 Ford Thunderbolt website.