BEAVER SPRINGS, PA – “Man-OH-Man!” Beaver Bob McCardle is pumped. He’s revved. Frank Pellegrini has just clocked a 9.29 at 144.5 mph in his 1965 “Dearborn Thunder” Falcon.
Beaver Bob is ecstatic. And as owner and promoter of the IHRA-sanctioned Beaver Springs Dragway – not to mention the main man on the microphone, the Grand Poobah of the public address – Beaver Bob is center stage, the focus, the high-energy nucleus of the Second Annual FE Race & Reunion; which has drawn some150 FE-powered Fords to this quarter-mile of pavement in eponymous Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania, in late April. They range from Richard Brant’s ‘59 Squarebird to Dyno Don and Ronnie Sox-tribute Comets to a couple of Fox-body Mustangs converted to FE power. Mostly, however, they are full-size Fords from ’61-64, Fairlanes from ’66-67, and Mustangs from ’68-69, accurately mirroring drag racing’s migration from family-size to mid-size to pony-size machinery.
Most conspicuous among them are the Thunderbolts: lightweight, purpose-built drag cars masquerading as Fairlane two-door sedans. Extensive modification made room for a high-compression 427, fed by twin Holley four-barrels on a high-rise manifold. Ford subcontractor Dearborn Steel Tubing assembled between 54 and 127 (depending on the source) of these $3,900 turn-key race cars in 1964 – and enterprising enthusiasts have built who-knows-how-many-more since then. We counted 13 at the Reunion.
Up in the tower, the DJ played pop, rock and country; having launched the open time shots with Life in the Fast Lane. Mostly, however, the music was overwhelmed by the swaggering braggadocio of high-lift cams cackling through unrestricted headers, regularly punctuated by the battle drone of a V-8 punched wide open and pointed toward the horizon.
The FE story began in 1958, by any measure a ground-shaking, epoch-shifting model year for the Ford Motor Company. An all-new dedicated factory in Wixom, Michigan, turned out all-new and now unit-bodied Thunderbirds and Lincolns. The newborn Edsel Division still promised performance with distinction. New engines were needed to power all this mighty new machinery, and Ford launched two new “big-block” V-8s, its first all-new engines since 1954.
The bigger of the two, designated LEM, (for Lincoln-Edsel-Mercury), was arguably the more innovative, with decks machined 100 degrees relative to the cylinder bore, creating a compact, wedge-shaped and fully polished combustion chamber inside the block. But with the rapid decline of the Edsel, leading to increased part sharing between Ford and Mercury, the LEM was soon retired to wafting Lincolns to the country club.
The smaller of the new engines, the FE (for Ford-Edsel), was a comparatively conservative design, with fully machined, wedge-shaped chambers in the heads. As MotorTrend’s Joe Wherry remarked in December of 1957, the FE offered no gimmicks, just exceptionally large, deep-breathing ports; and a simple manifold providing eight straight shots from the carburetor to the cylinders. Eventually produced 332, 352, 361, 390, 406, 410, 427 and 428-cubic-inch displacements, the FE motivated the maximum-machismo Cobra 427, and propelled Ford sedans to seven NASCAR manufacturers’ titles from 1963-69. It even won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, four years in a row, from 1966-69. And on drag strips across the country, FE-powered Fords and Mercurys lined up against Super-Duty Pontiacs, Chevrolet 409’s, and Max Wedge Mopars, setting a national Super Stock record in 1963 and nailing down the NHRA manufacturer’s title in 1964. There was even an overhead-cam version of the 427, which was raced but never reached production.
Beaver Bob first pitched the FE Race & Reunion to Barry Rabotnick, owner of Michigan-based FE specialist Survival Motorsports, at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show in 2012. Barry and Bob expected maybe 30 or 40 cars in 2013, but three or four times that many came.
“It just started, and then it went over the top,” Beaver Bob whooped. “So last year was good, but this year – -LOOK OUT!” He readily shares credit with local racers Doug Bender and Jody Aberts, and with dozens of others who contributed time, effort and/or money to make it all happen. In 2014 the cars came from 20 states and three Canadian provinces, as far away as California, Maine, and even Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (“MAN-i-toba,” mused Beaver Bob. “I didn’t know you could get here from there!”)
Among the 100 or so drivers was Bruce Larson, who piloted a lightweight Ford in ’62, then set new NHRA A/Sport and AA/Sport class records in his ’63 Cobra “Dragonsnake” before switching over to that funny little car from Chevrolet. At the 10 o’clock driver’s meeting, Larson bantered with Hubert Platt – a.k.a. The Georgia Shaker – who had drag-raced Fords professionally from 1964-1977, shattering multiple records and shutting down Richard Petty’s Hemi-powered Barracuda along the way. Platt recounted how, at the previous night’s meet-and-greet, Beaver Bob had dusted off his own ‘63 Galaxie 427 and invited Platt out for a scorch, culminating in a 13-second run down the drag strip.
Then McCardle introduced Dick Brannan, “the father of the lightweights and the Thunderbolt,” who had signed on as Ford’s Drag Race Team Coordinator in 1962.
“It’s hard to top Hubert’s story,” Brannan drawled, “except I was lying down in the back seat . . .”
“I told my wife yesterday that I could die happy,” added Beaver Bob, “because I’d taken Hubert Platt and Dick Brannan down my track in my 427. My GOD, how can it get any better?”
Qualifying split the cars into classes: Pro FE was reserved for the eight quickest cars. The remaining cars running a 12.99 or better were classed as Hot FE. Thirteen-flat and slower were classed Cool FE. Cash prizes were supplemented with gift certificates from Lakewood, NJ, valvetrain manufacturer Jesel. And every winner and runner-up took home an Iron Tree trophy, a scale model of Beaver Spring’s own “Christmas tree.”
But wait, there was more: Cars eliminated in the first round could compete in the “Bird Race” for a plaque based on the FE “Thunderbird Special” valve cover logo. And in a contest called Fastest Thunderbolt Standing, the top-qualifying T-bolt (or clone) won cash, a plaque and a Jesel FE belt drive.
The show attracted nearly as many cars as the race. Three ’69 Cyclones clustered just inside the gate, near a pair of customized ’61 Galaxies, each of which had apparently swallowed a fully chromed 427 cammer. An Inglese eight-stack injection system topped the 410 in Bob and Elaine Falci’s ’57 Custom 300 – proving that a Ford can be a ’57 Fuelie, too.
A gleaming black Thunder-clone caught my eye because it seemed to have too many carburetors: four Holley fours, in fact, fed by twin Powerdyne superchargers. Jim and Holly Marston brought the beast from Fairfield, Maine, and the crowd voted it Best-in-Show. Beaver Bob himself handed the Promoter’s Choice plaque to a relatively stock-appearing ’58 Custom 300 sedan.
“It’s got a 390, three deuces, a stick, and no radio,” he exclaimed. “Light ‘er up!” Twelve more show cars received runner-up awards.
The clouds had blown in and out all morning, but by 2 p.m. we heard thunder and could see rain on the mountains to the west. Around 2:15, Steve McBlane launched his ’65 Dyno Don Nicholson-tribute Comet in the left lane, jumping ahead of top qualifier Randy Spohn’s ’58 Custom 300. But as Spohn streaked into the lead, McBlane turned suddenly sideways and bolted across the track behind him, sliding about 175 feet, throwing up chunks of lawn as he hit the grass while digging in for a fortunate stop just short of the right-lane fence. Thankfully, neither man nor machine was hurt, although McBlane was heard to announce that “I ain’t buyin’ any lottery tickets this week. I used all my luck today.”
The cleanup took only minutes of relative silence. And then the guttural cackle-and-rrrrrip returned, splitting the sky as effectively as the thunder in the distance. Another interruption, as the rain pattered through, a little after 3 o’clock, exiting to the east. Again the racing resumed, but it was all over too soon.
Paul Adams’ proved the Fastest Thunderbolt Standing, at 9.047 and 148.22 mph. Two more T-Bolt pilots – D.W. Hopkins of Tupelo, MS, and Brian Merrick of Dellroy, OH – nailed down the Pro FE and Hot FE trophies. Hopkins, already No. 2 in the Fastest Thunderbolt Standings with an ET of 9.10, secured the Pro FE title at 9.303 and 128.02 mph when Jeff Colvert, driving a ’69 Super Stock/F Mustang, fouled at the tree in the final round. Merrick, who had already scored the Hot FE title last year, did it again with a 10.03 at 128.92 against Alan Estergomy’s ’62 Galaxie, whose final run was a 12.51 at 108.77.
Cool FE honors were collected by Don Nowak of Angola, NY, driving a ’67 Fairlane with a 428. Don Fotti – the individual who drove 1,730 miles from Winnipeg – won the Bird Race in his authentic ’68 Mustang Cobra Jet, one of the 50 originally assembled by Ford. He’s owned it since 1971.
The FE Race & Reunion will expand to two full days in 2015, with time trials from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, a beer-and-bratwurst party that evening, then racing all day Saturday. Even more FE powered Fords are expected to attend.
And Beaver Bob will be, no doubt, DEE-light-ed.
FORD RACING PHOTOS / COURTESY JOHN F. KATZ