Bolt from the blue. Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt We try to tame the slithering, bellowing 600bhp monster that took a famous win at the Goodwood Revival – after starting from the back of the grid. It looked like the mighty Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt’s string of race victories might have ended in ignominy at this year’s Goodwood Revival. We drive the car Tom Kristensen opposite-locked to an unlikely – and unforgettable. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Gus Gregory. The Fairlane Thunderbolt was built by Holman & Moody as a replica of the long-lost 1964 NASCAR contender.
I admit I’m rather in awe of this 600bhp monster when I climb into it for the first time. Just three weeks previously nine times Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen drove this 1964 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt to victory in what many now consider to be the Goodwood Revival’s most exciting St Mary’s Trophy race. That he won despite having started from the back of the grid – with 27 cars ahead of him – frankly beggars belief. Now it’s my turn to unleash the beast that pulled off this seemingly impossible feat.
I clamber over the roll cage cross-bracing and lower myself into the driver’s bucket seat. It feels hugely supportive but I wish it were a bit more reclined. I glance down at the five switches poking out of the neat aluminium pod between the seats and begin the starting procedure. Ignoring the one labelled ‘rain’ – with 500lb ft of torque under my right foot I pray I won’t be needing the Thunderbolt’s single wiper today – I flick the main electric switch and ‘Pump 2’ to prime the carburettors. ‘Pump 1’ elicits a quiet hum rather than the expected loud whirring then it’s on with the ignition. A firm push on the spring-loaded starter toggle and the starter motor spins with a raw and metallic clatter, then the colossal V8 erupts into deafening life, the stripped-out bodyshell instantly alive with a fizzing vibration, the side exhaust bellowing angrily just below my left ear.
The tachometer calibrated to 8000rpm directly ahead does nothing to quell the flutters. But the engine is nicely warmed through now so I depress the clutch and select first. The clutch is smooth but the big, heavy gearbox has to deal with immense torque and creates a fair bit of mechanical drag. And yet the Thunderbolt moves away cleanly with just 2000rpm dialled in. Much to my surprise, it’s an absolute sweetie at pottering speeds.
Not for long. Out on the track, I square it up and floor it. The tachometer needle spools round instantly, the big 650×15 Dunlop Historic tyres scrabbling wildly in a largely futile search for grip, and the rear end crabs to the right. I correct with opposite lock, then it crabs again, this time to the left. It jinks briefly to the right again before we’re finally off in a rough approximation of a straight line.
Acceleration is terrific, pinning me back in my seat. My hand is on the big shifter ready for second gear, and not even the padding inside my crash helmet can mute the 7.0-litre V8’s deafening cacophony as it bellows its way to 6000rpm in first. I can stand it no more and pull the lever back into second. The big Ford is tracking straight now, so it’s up into third, the shift action smoother now but with a curiously slithery-feeling notch through the gate.
The surge of power is impressively linear and the needle has streaked back round the dial in what feels like microseconds. I’ve been instructed to not exceed 7000rpm, but restrict myself to 6000rpm so I won’t detonate the engine if I miss a gear.
That’s maybe just as well because the rate at which this car homes in on 6000rpm, even in third gear, is astonishing. In this respect it’s a bit like a multi-valve four-cylinder screamer, albeit one with the thudding soundtrack of a V8 at full chat. It’s addictive stuff.
Then I remember that this private track we’re on has no run-offs to speak of and that if the huge Fairlane lets go, it’s going to let go big time. I’d hate to bend it, so at somewhere north of 120mph I opt for discretion, backing off and easing the gearlever into top. I’m not usually a fan of power-assisted steering in race cars but this one has genuine feel to it. The disc/drum brakes are powerful and progressive too and my feet fall on to the pedals so naturally they might almost have been tailor-made to heel and toe.
And as anyone who watched that St Mary’s Trophy race will know, hustling the Thunderbolt through the turns is an old-school joy. It’s the complete opposite of something like a Mini Cooper or Lotus Cortina, slower in the corners but enormously powerful on the straights, so wringing the most out of it in the bends demands turn-in on an open throttle to get the rear out and cancel its tendency to understeer. Once it’s sliding and balanced on the power, understeer turns to near-perfect neutrality – right up to the point when the rear tyres start to let go. Alan Mann Racing’s sublime set-up – double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar up front, live axle, half-elliptic springs, trailing arms and Panhard rod out back – means there’s hardly any discernible body roll so it’s all very progressive. It’s enormous fun too – as long as you remember that all that torque is just an ankle flex away from throwing a colossal spanner into the works. With such near-instant throttle responses, I sense that allowing the back end past a certain point will reduce me to passenger status in a panicked heartbeat.
That sense almost becomes reality during one particular lap. I’m feeling more at home in the car now but sense the big Dunlop tyres beginning to struggle as I charge into a long left-hander. At 1500kg this is a heavy car and I can feel it trying to get away from me as soon as it begins to slide. A combination of reflex and plain luck means I get away with it, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson – take liberties with this car once too often and it’ll swap ends.
Eventually I pull off the track, double declutch down into first and trickle back through the paddock. As I turn the steering wheel to the right, I can’t resist stabbing the accelerator pedal. As the tail promptly slews round, I’m grinning like an idiot. I shift into neutral, blip the throttle – just to clear the plugs, you understand – and revel in the V8’s roar one last time. After the adrenalin rush I’ve just experienced out on track, killing the ignition feels like an anticlimax. The Thunderbolt’s stark, echoey interior – so recently awash with a gloriously relentless V8 bellow – is suddenly silent, punctuated only by the faint tinkling sound of metal cooling.
As I face up to the end of one of my most memorable drives my thoughts turn to a conversation with the car’s creator, Lee Holman of Ford race specialist Holman & Moody. ‘Ford built 100 Thunderbolts in period, primarily as American Super Stock drag racers,’ he explained. ‘Holman & Moody built its Thunderbolt road racer in 1964 from a standard Ford Fairlane bodyshell to show NASCAR founder and owner Bill France the true potential of a unibody monocoque NASCAR racer.
‘We entered it into the 250-mile American Challenge Cup race that took place during the Daytona Speed Week leading up to the Daytona 500 with Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts – so-called because of his high school baseball pitching skills – at the wheel. He finished second behind AJ Foyt in a Cooper Monaco despite having lost his earlier lead following a spin.’
Because of Holman & Moody’s ties with Alan Mann Racing – Alan worked for a while at the Charlotte factory helping to develop the factory rally cars – it sent its Thunderbolt to England where Alan himself raced it twice at Brands Hatch. Here he won the September and Boxing Day meetings and later recalled, ‘Our mechanics Brian Lewis and Lionel Whitehead towed it to the Boxing Day race and being a NASCAR racer, it had no windows so Brian had to sit in the back in the freezing cold. Eventually he signalled for Lionel to stop because he was so cold he could no longer feel his legs.’
After this the car just disappeared from the radar, according to Lee Holman. ‘I recall hearing that someone eventually wrapped it around a tree on a hill climb.
‘We built this car in our Charlotte factory in 2004 using original parts and a period bodyshell. Ford offered the glassfibre bootlid, bonnet, doors, wings and rear panel as competition options back in 1964, together with aluminium bumpers, but Goodwood asked us to fit chrome bumpers for the Revival. We even used the same wiring harness and windscreen wiper motor – the car is exactly how it’s supposed to be.
‘Its previous owner developed it so much that it caused huge problems for race authorities because it usually beat whatever it raced. He once entered it into a national event at the Nürburgring Nordschleife against Porsche 930s, AC Cobras and Ford GT40s and lapped the entire field in just two hours.
‘It’s FIA-legal because the Thunderbolt ran at Daytona in 1964 as a Holmann & Moody NASCAR prototype. People kept saying at Goodwood that the car was very light, but in actual fact we had to run it with 40kg of ballast because regulations stipulated it had to weigh the same as the Ford Galaxie.’
The Thunderbolt’s current owner, Martin Adams, bought it with the intention of getting historic racer Martin Stretton to drive and maintain it. However, when he learned of the car’s historical links with Alan Mann Racing, he got in touch to see what they knew about the car. Alan’s son Henry says, ‘Martin asked if we thought we could get the Thunderbolt into the Goodwood Revival because Martin Stretton had had his doubts. I reckoned we could so I collected the car from Germany and we ended up running it. ‘Basically we had to rebuild the entire car because its previous owners had done a lot of work to it that made it faster but meant its specification wasn’t fully period-correct. It was basically running as a sort of hot-rod when we got hold of it.
‘Goodwood knew its original specification and said we could run in it the St Mary’s Trophy as long as it conformed to certain requirements. This mainly involved us swapping the aluminium bumpers for chrome originals and fitting a passenger seat.
‘Many bits and pieces were worn-out and had to be replaced. We had to do a lot of work to bring it back to how the original car would have raced in period. Luckily, we had records to refer back to and Brian Lewis still works for Alan Mann Racing. Lionel Whitehead retired a while back but still remembers it and popped in every now and then to offer advice. Lee Holman was a big help too and his input meant we were able to take it right back to the way Holman&Moody had built it originally.’
So the Thunderbolt made it to Goodwood after all, but there was still a problem. Dunlop is now based in Portugal and supply problems meant that Alan Mann Racing could get hold of only one set of tyres prior to the Revival.
‘Tom Kristensen pretty much used up the tyres in his race – the rears in particular were literally done for,’ says Henry. ‘So when I raced the following day in the second heat I just had to make the best of what I had. My qualifying lap times were a full two seconds slower than I’d posted in testing and the best I could manage was third behind Bill Shepherd’s Galaxie and Matt Neal’s Lotus Cortina. I would have had all sort of problems if it had rained but thankfully it stayed dry and the Thunderbolt stole the show for the second day in a row.’
Having driven this extraordinary machine just three weeks after its famous Revival wins, I’d say stealing the show is what the Thunderbolt does best.
Thanks to: Martin Adams, Commonwealth Racing, Henry Mann at Alan Mann Racing (alanmann.co.uk), Lee Holman, Holman&Moody Inc (holmanmoody.com), Tom Kristensen, Jamie O’Leary, Goodwood Revival
1964 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt
Engine 6964cc V8, ohv, two Holley 750 four-barrel carburettors
Power and torque 600bhp @ 6800rpm; 500lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Recirculating ball, power assistance
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic springs, trailing arms, Panhard rod
Brakes Front: vented discs. Rear: drums
Weight 1500kg Length 5019mm Width 1834mm
Performance Top speed: 180mph
Years made 1964 only
Current value £200,000
‘We had to rebuild the entire car because it was basically running as a sort of hot-rod when we got hold of it’
Chrome bumpers replaced lightweight aluminium originals to satisfy Goodwood regulations.
Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts (No 96) on his way to second at Daytona in 1964.
Thunderbolt takes of in the 2010 Eifelrennen.
Chasing Jochen Mass’s Ford Galaxie in the 2015 St Mary’s.
TOM KRISTENSEN ON THAT WIN
‘I was looking forward to getting a good grid position during Friday qualifying to make life easier if it rained on race day – I knew it would be a serious handful in the wet. Then when I went for fourth gear in my first flying lap the engine died so I had to pull into the pits. The mechanics worked on the car overnight and it was fine the following morning. Luckily the weather stayed dry, so I decided to use the grunt of the car to see how far I could get up through the pack.
‘Limiting myself to 7200rpm, I went flat-out from the of in case the car’s considerable weight caused any braking issues later on in the race. The Thunderbolt is very powerful and torquey and I think after a few laps I was already up to 12th place. The brakes turned out to be better than I’d expected although I did use the gearbox a lot to slow the car down as a precaution.
‘My hands were constantly on the move in the slower corners winding the steering on and of, so the power assistance really helped. I couldn’t slide it as much as a Galaxie, even though the two cars weigh about the same, but it understeered if I didn’t get the tail out and was much slower through the corners as a result.
‘It started to get really interesting when I realised I was a couple of car lengths behind the two Lotus Cortinas and the Alfa at the front. I knew the only way I could pass them was to use the Thunderbolt’s massive grunt to accelerate out of the chicane. When Andrew Jordan looked in his mirror I could see the whites of his eyes. I could sense what he was feeling and began to think that I actually had a chance of winning.’
‘Tom Kristensen pretty much used up the Thunderbolt’s tyres in his race – the rears in particular were literally done for’
Thunderbolt packs the much bigger Galaxie’s 7.0-litre FE V8 engine.
Thunderbolt’s hot rod stance is a clear nod to its American Super Stock origins.
Power-assisted steering ofers a reassuring amount of feel. Sports bucket seats in racer, but factory Thunderbolt used Econoline van seats.
OWNING THE THUNDERBOLT
Thunderbolt owner Martin Adams founded the Commonwealth Racing team in the Eighties and ran both Camel Team Honda and Smokin Joe’s Racing.
He says, ‘I saw the Thunderbolt was for sale and really wanted to buy it. As a boy growing up I knew all about the Thunderbolts and that they were simply rockets on the drag strip. Holman & Moody was a racetrack legend all over America building NASCARs and brilliant road racing cars and I knew the Thunderbolt had finished second at Daytona in 1964.
‘I knew that if we could make the car eligible for Goodwood it would absolutely scintillate the crowds – which it did. Our failure in practice was one of those left-handed gifts you get presented with once in a while and often don’t really fully appreciate. Clearly Tom Kristensen did, though – what a race it turned into, the three drivers hammering away at each other at the front of the pack and Tom streaking through from the back of the grid to win.
‘I’d long felt that if Holman & Moody had taken the original drawings and made the Thunderbolt as spot-on as it could manage, no one would have anything that could hold a candle to it. And I was proved right. Winning the St Mary’s Trophy was a great accomplishment and Tom’s drive was incredible, but in all honesty I feel it was all down to Henry Mann’s tireless work that we managed to succeed as well as we did.’