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Tales of a Hay Hauler: Way back when – Especially for you gear heads

Brad Nelson Published on 10 November 2010

What an idiot!” was what I thought. Probably out loud. 1997 was the last year Ford made the Thunderbird, until the retro showed up, I think in about 2002.

Ford had been using the T-bird body shape for the cars it campaigned on the NASCAR race circuit for a number of years. When the T-bird was dropped, they came up with a car body shape that resembled the Taurus, only it was a two-door – something Ford had never produced.

The above exclamation was over a letter to the editor that showed up in one of the automotive magazines. The writer, who owned a Ford Taurus, was going on and on about how the Taurus was a better, faster car than the T-bird, and the fact that the Taurus seemed to have replaced the T-bird on the race track proved his point.

Once upon a time, back in the early 1950s, one of the drivers of the “stock car races,” the group that eventually became NASCAR, arrived at a race to discover that his race car did not make it.

He beat feet down to the rental car place and rented a nice Hudson, the same make and model as his race car. He used white shoe polish to put numbers on the sides of the car, and with stock street tires and everything, went racing.

He actually placed well into the upper half of the field of race cars. When he returned the Hudson to the rental place after the race, sans the shoe polish numbers on the doors but sporting some obvious dings and scratches, he made a scene about the poor condition the Hudson had been in when he took possession of it.

It was a miracle that the stock tires even held air after sliding around the race track for 500 miles.

About two weeks later every rental car outfit in the country had changed the rental agreement they made customers sign before turning them loose with any car to add the stipulation that the car was not to be used in any formal or informal race or contest of speed and/or acceleration.

In case anyone is interested, the above-mentioned Hudson was powered by a six-cylinder engine of about 300 cubic inches of displacement. They were regularly in the winner’s circle in that era.

In 1954 Ford replaced the flat-head V-8 with an overhead valve V-8 engine. The same basic engine showed up two years earlier in the 1952 Lincoln.

I think Ford did this to gain real-world experience with the new engine first introduced in a low-volume vehicle. (Ford did the same thing in 1991, the first year of the 4.6 liter overhead camshaft V-8, which first saw action under the hood of the 1991 Lincoln Town Car.)

That way, if there was a disaster, there would be fewer vehicles to replace the engines on. The new V-8 was an over-square (I just had to throw in a term that only the gear-heads will understand) engine of 317.5 cubic inches; the engine that saw service in the Ford was only 239 cubic inches.

The Pan-American Road Race that was held in northern Mexico was dominated by near-stock Lincolns for three or four years, all sporting the new overhead valve V-8.

The Lincoln V-8 also saw service as the engine in the Ford F-7 and F-8 heavy trucks the same year. Of course the labeling all read “Ford.” The big Lincoln flat-head V-8’s from the previous years also saw truck duty. The decade of the 1950s was the last decade that stock car racing meant “stock” like you or I could buy at the dealer in our hometown.

Ten years later the stock cars were all running engines that were at least derived from the engine you could buy from the dealer in your home town. In 1963 Jerry Baum showed up for his senior year of high school sporting a Ford with the 406 cubic inch V-8 engine.

He was very upset because shortly after he took delivery the stock car sanctioning body raised the cubic in limit to 427 cubic inches, and the 406 became a “has-been.”

The Nampa, Idaho police department was also very upset. American Motors (Rambler) had won the bid that year for police cars and the troops just admonished Jerry and his buddies to try really hard to get through the year without killing anyone, since there was not a ghost of a chance of the Rambler patrol cars catching Jerry’s Ford.

Chevy showed up on the scene with a screaming 427 V-8 and the Chrysler camp re-invented the “Hemi,” with 426 cubic inches.

These monsters went too fast, and restrictor plates were required between the carburetor and the intake manifold. And then the Hemi was banned altogether. The oil crunch of the early 1970s killed the speed machine as we knew it.

An interesting note from the early 1960s was when a handful of the stock cars and drivers traveled to Europe for an off-season exhibition of racing on some of Europe’s and England’s tracks.

This was the era when former moonshine runner Junior Johnson was running a Chevy with either the 409 or 427 engine and was doing very well.

The tour promoters and the other drivers and customs agents from both sides of the Atlantic and Junior Johnson’s own people knew he could not be trusted. Junior and his car and all his effects were searched repeatedly for contraband. It was not found.

As I understand the protocol, when you have an audience with the Queen of England, you speak when spoken to, you do not touch the Queen, and you certainly do not attempt to give her any form of a gift.

Junior Johnson vigorously shook her hand and placed in her other hand a mason jar filled with clear liquid with a sliced peach floating near the top, which he stated was the very best “peach” corn liquor distilled in the American South.

The NASCAR racing scene evolved to the current “car of tomorrow,” of which the shell is the same shape for each team and the identity would be unknown without the team logo painted on.

The Ford, Dodge and Chevy guys, and lately Toyota, still build their own engines, which are carburated push-rod V-8s which are so limited as to be about the same, even though they are built by different groups.

The T-bird-bodied NASCAR race cars were rear-wheel drive and powered by a purpose-built V-8 that would turn over 10,000 rpm for the duration of one or two races. Just like the competitors.

When the switch was made to the Taurus body shell, since the T-bird no longer existed as a new car, it also sat on a tube-frame chassis with the purpose-built V-8 in the front and the rear axle pushing the car around the track.

Over the years I’ve wondered if the guy who wrote the letter to the editor mentioned at the start of this piece was really so dense that he thought the Taurus race car shared the V-6 and front-wheel-drive of his grocery-getter, or if he was just mocking the sport.

By the way, “over-square” means that the bore diameter of a cylinder on an internal combustion engine is larger than the stroke.  FG