Ever since that fateful day—Oct. 10, 1901—when Henry Ford defeated Alexander Winton on a 1-mile racecourse in Grosse Point, Michigan, Ford Motor Company products have always been in the winner’s circle. This was particularly true in the ‘60s when Ford’s Total Performance Program included NASCAR, Indy, road racing, international sports car racing and drag racing, all managed by Ford Racing czar Charlie Gray. Each program had its own team coordinator, and for the drag racing program, Richard H. “Dick” Brannan was the man.
Born in Tennessee in 1936, Dick was the only son of Claude and Alma Brannan. You might say that he was born with Blue Oval blood in his veins, as his father was a car salesman at the local Ford dealership. Later on, Dick’s father moved his family to South Bend, Indiana, where Dick graduated from Central High School. His first car when he was 16 was a ‘32 Ford three-window coupe.
Brannan attended Tri-state University, Angola in northeastern Indiana where he majored in mechanical engineering and business. Already a licensed pilot and a member of the Navy Reserves, upon graduation, he received pilot training in Pensacola, Florida, achieving the rank of Lieutenant JG, USNR. While still in the Navy, Brannan became interested in drag racing. When he was discharged, Dick joined RomyHammes Ford as a salesman where owner Hammes and his son Jerry fully supported Dick’s racing endeavors.
DRM: How did you end up at Ford Motor Company?
BRANNAN: I’d been racing around my area and winning, which was unusual for a Ford at the time because they were the underdogs. A bunch of us got together and decided to visit Detroit Dragway after seeing an advertisement indicating that all the big names we’d been reading about in the Super Stock class were going to be at this event. At the time, I’d been running a ‘62 Ford Galaxie with the 406/405-horsepower Thunderbird Special V-8 engine. It’s a funny thing, we almost didn’t take the car with us, but Jerry Hammes said, ‘Why not take the car?’ I finally agreed, but with some reluctance, not knowing exactly what I would be getting myself into.
After checking in at the race, we took a good look around. There must have been fifty or sixty Super Stock cars there for the Saturday night event, including two factory-owned Fords, one driven by Bill Humphrey and the other, I believe, was driven by Les Richter. With a little bit of luck and some good runs, we ended up winning the race, beating Dave Strickler’s Old Reliable 409 Chevrolet in the finals. The Ford lovers went wild!
Of course after that final race, I was directed straight to the tech inspection area for a complete teardown. The track owner, Gil Cohen, came over and said, ‘Look, we’ve never had a Ford win Super Stock around here so we’re going to need to get a look at your entire car before you can be declared the winner.’ He then asked what I planned to do, advising me that any car found illegal would be barred from his track for life, suggesting it would be best to load up and leave. I told him that I wanted to go through inspection. He cautioned, ‘Well, I’ll warn you, we know what we’re doing, so tell you what, if this Ford turns out to be legal, I will pay you double the money you won. If not, you’re gone!’ Shortly before 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning, with most of the fans still there, the car was declared 100 percent legal. The following Wednesday I received a call from Ford’s Dave Evans, the manager of the special vehicles program, inviting me for a visit to Dearborn. Eventually he offered me a position in the stock vehicles department where all performance development for the company was conducted.
DRM: What department did you start out in?
BRANNAN: I went to work for the engineering center in Building One, later we moved to Building Three. Our group was eventually transferred to the third floor of the prestigious Ford Division World Headquarters. We remained there throughout my employ where we designed, developed and launched all the racing car programs. Initially that even included Indy car engine research and development. That program was eventually transferred to another office, leaving our department with the Grand National (NASCAR), Drag Racing and Le Mans development programs. My immediate supervisor was Charles E. Gray Jr.; John Cowley was his boss.
July 1963, Brannan and his 427 FE engine, 1963-1/2 Galaxielightweight set a national E.T. Record at 12.42 seconds. This, the first 1963-1/2 Galaxielightweight, was handbuilt in Ford’s Dearborn Experimental Garage, or X-Garage, as it was better known.
DRM: That department turned out some pretty radical race cars. Did you have a hand in designing any of them?
BRANNAN: We created the ‘62 Galaxie Lightweight 406 cars and put together a team of key players to drive them, including Bill Lawton with Tasca Ford, Phil “Daddy War Bucks” Bonner, Gas Ronda, Les Ritchey, the Mickey Thompson group, Les Richter, the Ed Martin Ford team, and of course, me and my car.
In 1963, we started racing the 427 pushrod V-8 engine, which we successfully run as the ‘63-1/2 Galaxie Lightweights. My car, the first one built, and probably my most successful, was handbuilt in the Dearborn Experimental Garage in late 1962. It was the first Ford in NHRA history to hold a national record in the Super Stock class.
In 1964, we went to the 427-powered Fairlane. I had a leading role in the development of that car with Danny Jones, who worked on the Indy car program during some free time, along with Ford special vehicles’ Vern Tinsler. Danny is the guy who ultimately designed the famous traction bars that we used on the car. Initially, we built only 10 cars, which were all maroon. These cars were actually ordered through Vern and were shipped to the Dearborn Steel Tubing Co. (DST), which was an outside contractor that Ford used for special projects. James “Hammer” Mason was the Project Manager at DST and was a tremendous help to us as we developed and improved the cars for delivery to our team. In late 1963, we delivered these cars to our team members. Approximately two weeks later, we decided on the Thunderbolt name taken from a World War II fighter plane, as we had for the Mustang. At first the NHRA wouldn’t approve the Thunderbolts for Super Stock racing, stipulating that we must build at least 100 cars (50 four-speed cars and 50 automatics) to qualify as legal Super Stock. We agreed to these minimum numbers, but never said we’d stop at 100 cars. By my records the final count was 127 Thunderbolts (a contested figure).
DST played a pivotal role in the development of Ford factory hot rods, including the nearly invincible ‘64 Fairlane Thunderbolt. Brannan did much of the development work using his own T-Bolt, Car #1 shown here.
DRM: They were winners right out of the box?
BRANNAN: The Thunderbolt was one of the greatest Super Stock cars ever built, winning major events and today bringing large sums at collector car auctions. That year we won the NHRA Winternationals, Hot Rod Magazine Championship Drags, the NHRA Super Stock World Championship (Gas Ronda), Indy (Butch Leal) and set the NHRA Super Stock class record (Tasca Ford). That was a very successful program!
DRM: You also built a couple of 427 Ford Falcons for the A/FX class, didn’t you?
BRANNAN: We built the first Falcon primarily as a development vehicle. We actually wanted to build a 2+2 Fastback Mustang, but since the Fastback Mustangs weren’t going to be available until midyear 1964, and the Falcon shared the same platform as the Mustang, it was easier and faster to get busy on a Falcon and transfer what we learned to the Mustangs when they became available. Once again, DST built the car and we were able to incorporate a lot of what was learned from the Fairlane Thunderbolts into the Falcon.
DRM: And Phil Bonner’s Falcon?
BRANNAN: That car was built by default in a roundabout sort of way. Phil Bonner found out that we were building a 427-powered Falcon. Once he discovered what we were doing, he purchased and started building one of his own. My boss, Charlie Gray, didn’t like the idea of a factory-sponsored racer privately building his own race car, so we had him ship it to DST for completion. They finished construction and returned it as an exact copy of my car. Phil was very successful with that car, and it was a good investment.
DRM: Then it was on to the single overhead cam (SOHC) Mustangs?
BRANNAN: By the close the of the 1964 season, we realized that to be competitive in 1965 it would have to be with Mustangs. We thought with the Hi Rise 427 Falcon program we had a good basic platform already designed. This would make it easier to build a fleet of 427 Hi Rise wedge [pushrod] powered 2+2 Mustangs for Super Stock. Then, totally unexpectedly in late 1964, NASCAR outlawed the 427 SOHC engine for 1965. This engine had been totally designed for speedway racing and now it was banned from competition. This freed up all the existing 427 SOHC engines from the Ford Engine and Foundry Division, so we decided not to build the 427 Hi Rise Mustangs. Instead, we revised the number to 12 Mustangs instead of 50 and redesigned the cars to accept the 427 SOHC engine and run them in A/FX class since the Factory Experimental class was starting to attract the crowds.
The first two A/FX Mustangs were built by DST as development cars. One was red and the other white, so we could easily tell them apart. We shipped the red car to Pomona, California, in December 1964, and the day after Christmas, Charlie Gray and I started testing. We learned there wouldn’t be enough 427 SOHC engines ready for installation in 10 additional cars because Connie Kalitta had become involved with our department with his 427 SOHC-powered AA/FD and needed as many spare engines as possible for this new program.
My boss Charlie Gray contacted Holman & Moody to see if they could commit to our timetable. Once they agreed, we had the white car shipped to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they could copy it and build the remaining 10.
Since we didn’t have enough cammer engines, only five of the original 12 cars would have the SOHC engine at first. Gas Ronda, Bill Lawton (Tasca) and Phil Bonne, plus the two originals from DST made up the list. The remaining cars, although built to accept the SOHC engine, left Holman & Moody with the 427 Hi Riser engines. When the 427 SOHC engine became more available, we sent 427 cammers to members for conversion.
DRM: The Ford Special vehicles 427 SOHC Mustang program was a resounding success.
BRANNAN: Yes, Tasca Ford provided us with back-to-back wins at the AHRA and NHRA Winternationals for a start.
Text by Bob McClurg
Photos by Bob McClurg and Courtesy of Dick Brannan and Rick Kirk