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AUG 10, 2023 | By John F. Katz

Carlisle 23’s Recipe: Honorees, Rarities, SVT & Saleen – With A Dash Of V-8 To Cure Malaise

Carlisle Ford Nationals entrance

CARLISLE, Pa. – The 3,434 cars and trucks on the show field this year fell just short of 2022's record 3,454, but Carlisle 2023's combined turnout of 60,000 vendors, spectators  and car owners made the 29th annual Ford Nationals – held the first full weekend in June at the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Fairgrounds -- the second-largest Ford Nats ever, the largest since 2014, and still the biggest all-Ford show in the world.

It's nearly impossible to visualize this 82-acre Fordopolis until you've stood gob-stopped in the midst of it or, better still, climbed to the high north end of the sloping Fairgrounds, and turned back to look down on the Great Fordutopia spread out below. Surely this is a bucket-list pilgrimage for all of Henry's Faithful. Not surprisingly, Mustangs dominate. Fully 116 of the 207 participant-judged classes, and  24 of the 53 clubs in attendance, are devoted to Mustangs. Covering a territory that sweeps west-to-east across the middle third of the Fairgrounds, enveloping the stage, grandstand and Manufacturers Midway, Mustangs are literally the center of the event. Subtract the flea market to the south, and Mustangs occupy more than half of the remaining real estate.

Trucks, appropriately, take the high ground in the northeast. Focus, Fiesta, Merkur, Probe and Capri hug the eastern edge of the Great Mustang Plains. That leaves the rolling northwestern quadrant to the T-Birds and Tauruses, Falcons, Fusions, Lincolns, Edsels, and everything else. Reasoning that one-quarter of the field should accommodate one-quarter of the vehicles -- and subtracting 10 percent, because we do see more open spaces here than among the Mustangs or the trucks – and that's still a staggering 770 Fords, give or take.

Most of those date from 1955 or later. Of the handful of prewar cars, Derek Heinbaugh's '21 Model T is the oldest, and the winner of the Antique class. Noteworthy, too, is Robert Weimann's modified '48 Lincoln, which won the Continental class and earned a “Celebrity Pick” from event manager Kenneth Appell. But the numbers begin to build with the Sunliners, Skyliners, and two-seat Thunderbirds of the mid-1950s; and swell dramatically in the late '60s, with an impressive array of Fairlanes, Torinos, Montegos, Cyclones, and Cougars. Interest in full-size cars drops off in the '70s but then explodes with the aero-styled “Panthers' of 1992-2012.

Among the beauties lurk a few beasts: A Panther Town Car coupé created by simply sawing off the back half of the body. The rusty shell of a '65 Mustang dropped over a '96 Honda Civic platform, turbocharged and driven by, yes, the front wheels. (“I hate this thing,” was one of the more printable comments we overheard.) Carlisle seems to serve up something for every taste. We decide to focus, however, on the Featured Vehicle Displays, which “showcase some of the best examples from Ford Motor Company,” according to Mike Garland, PR manager for Carlisle Events, “and/or represent anniversaries and reunions chosen for the current year.”

Every year more than 400 hopeful hobbyists apply for Featured Vehicle status; perhaps one in four are chosen by the event manager for a Featured Vehicle Display, usually housed in one of the Fairgrounds' several indoor galleries. Among the six such exhibits for 2023 was the intriguingly titled “Malaise Era Display,” defined as the mid-1970s to mid-1980s and described as “a gallery of odd, off-the-wall stuff many of us have forgotten about.” Odd certainly applies to Justin Oulette's '74 Mercury Comet, modified with earlier chrome bumpers and  '71-73 Maverick Grabber scoops and stripes. Sly Maverick and Cobra Maverick nameplates complete the rolling commentary on badge engineering; but no one was smirking at the 331 stroker under the hood.

Not odd but at least eccentric might describe the baby-surfer-van look of the 1977-80 Pinto Cruising Wagon; an anonymously-presented '79 model is mildly customized, with stainless-steel headers and plenty of under-hood chrome. But the real cure for malaise appears to be a V-8 conversion. James Harmke's '76 Pinto Squire packs a 302 crate motor, and motivating Michael Warman's '80 Fairmont sedan is a 347 stroker. There are 5.0-liter HO's in the Fox-Body LTD's belonging to Carl Botelho and Derrick Hock. In marked contrast, Brenda Benitez'  '78 Mustang II is a  numbers-matching, V-6/automatic original, neither odd nor off-the-wall but an attractive and authentic example of the breed.

Two other Featured Vehicle Displays marked significant anniversaries. It's been 30 years since Ford's Special Vehicle Team released the SVT Mustang Cobra – with roller-rocker GT-40 heads and suspension tuning input from Bob Bondurant and Jackie Stewart – and a hot-rod half-ton called the SVT F-150 Lightning. A race-spec SVT Mustang Cobra R was a natural extension, and -- after Carroll Shelby returned to Ford in 2007 -- a new-generation Shelby GT500.

Most of the SVT Anniversary vehicles occupied an ample tent on the show field, between the judged SVT classes and Building R's malaise. But the offshoot SVT Cobra Reunion spilled into the enormous Building T at the northern edge of the flea market. Notable there were the Cobra R's belonging to Brian and Nickie Armstrong (1999) and Andy Bentinck-Smith (1995). According to Bentinck-Smith, his Number 20 car collected more points during the 1996 race season than all other Cobra R's combined.

Sharing space in Building T was the Coyote Den, a Featured Display showcasing Ford's sophisticated 5.0-liter, four-cam V8, whether factory-installed or “Coyote Swapped” into an older vehicle. Among the latter was Adam Delamielleure's 1988 Thunderbird, which also boasts a T56 six-speed manual transmission. Color coordination is clearly popular with this crowd: Matthew Milnich's '92 Mustang LX, one of 277 delivered in Bright Calypso Green, carries that rare hue onto its cam covers and intake system. Cynthia Dalpe showed a Coyote-swapped 2008 Mustang base model with white paint, red fender stripes and pink-and-red graphics under the hood.

Most of Building T, however, belonged to the Saleen 40th Anniversary Display. Mustang racer Steve Saleen founded Saleen Autosport in 1983, and released the first Saleen Mustang – with modified suspension, bodywork, and interior – in 1985. Dale and Carlene Warner's '85 hatchback is one of eight finished with white paint, blue stripes and a tan interior.

Among Saleen's more striking creations is the Mustang Speedster, which channels the '62-64 Thunderbird Sports Roadster by hiding the rear seat under a hard tonneau cover. The several examples on display included two 2000 S281's – -one handsome in white, owned by Laura and Greg Wackett; the other whimsical in color-fading “Extreme Rainbow” and belonging to John Elias. Ted Falk's 2011 S302 is claimed to be the only Saleen Speedster painted Grabber Blue, while David Clayman's '06 S281 is the only “Extreme Rainbow” coupe. Competing with those cars for most stunning finish was Tom Cesare's '06 S281, wrapped in 3M “Liquid Copper” vinyl. And if racing stripes are more your style, check out the 2014 George Follmer Heritage Edition belonging to Gary Ross.

Accompanying the Mustangs were a pair of Focus-based Saleens from 2005: The N2O of James Hosrtman and the S121 of Camden McCoy; plus Mike Charles' '89 Ranger race truck; and Roger Fortune's '96 Explorer XP8 Prototype. And no Saleen collection would be complete without a mid-engine S7, and Lance Miller kindly contributed his stunning yellow '04.

The most prestigious of the Featured Vehicle Displays is the Ford Nationals Select – “cars unique to Ford's history that best represent the Ford brand as a whole.” Only 110 vehicles have been so honored since the inaugural display in 2015, each receiving a sequentially numbered plaque. Housed in Building Y, near the central grandstands and food court, this year's honorees included several original-condition or mostly original vehicles equipped with rare combinations of color and options: Joe Shookla's '89 Ranger V-6 with factory ground-effect bodywork is one of 750; Eric Hubert's Lincoln Mark VII, also from '89, is one of 262 painted Light Crystal Blue over Dark Charcoal and fitted with Shadow Blue cloth sport seats. Brian and Michelle Shanahan's '88 Saleen S281 supercharged speedster is one-of-a-kind (Rio Red paint, Dark Charcoal interior, chrome wheels and silver stripes), as is Michael Kaszycki's Limestone Green 1974 F-250 4x4.

Kaszycki's high-riding pickup was the clear crowd favorite, judging by the throng that surrounded it. Another attention-grabber was Marc Koszak's '96 F-350 XL: Previously owned by the Wilkins Township  (Pennsylvania) Volunteer Fire Department, and claimed to be “fully functional,” it was presented with an impressive complement of fire and rescue equipment. Rounding out the truck contingent was Austin Bogush's truly charming 1955 F-100, restored to original after 50 years of family service.

Among the custom and modified cars to achieve Select status, Rick Thayer's '67 Fairlane GT packs a rare SOHC 427; as does Barry Smith's '67 Shelby GT500 Centennial, a continuation car build by Legendary GT. Robbie Carbaugh brought another malaise-curing Fairmont, this one a mostly stock-appearing '78 wagon with AFR heads on a 351 Windsor. Gary Young's 2013 Boss 302 looks anything but stock, with its racy Shirokai wide-body kit. And Brett Parker's “Warbird” is a clean, custom '63 Falcon Futura, modified for Autocross and hill climbs, and powered by a race-built four-Webber 347.

But wait, there's so much more. On the Fairgrounds stage and Manufacturers Midway, Ford previewed EcoBoost and GT versions of the redesigned 2024 Mustang, plus the race-ready, 500-horsepower Dark Horse. RTR Vehicles showed its own customized version of the new Mustang, and presented drift exhibitions by two-time Formula Drift champion Vaughn Gittin, Jr. Steve Saleen signed autographs as he said good-bye to the S550 platform with the spectacular, limited-edition SA-40 Speedster. Ford Performance Club Connect hosted publisher Iconic Global Sports for a reveal of its limited-run Ford, the Collector's Edition, a lushly-produced 410-page chronicle of the company's first 120 years.

Friday noon saw the Grand Entrance of Team Shelby, followed by showfield parades of Saleen and then SVT vehicles. In between, NHRA Champion Bruce Larson helped unveil a fuchsia-metalflake tribute to his 1963 Dragonsnake, which Larson so successfully campaigned in AA/SR drag racing in 1964-65. The continuation car is the first of five drag-race Cobras to be built for Shelby American by Legendary GT.

On Saturday Nathaniel Hoffman won the Rolling Exhaust contest with his 2007 Mustang, and Robert Cirullnick smoked the Rolling Burnout competition in his '03 Grand Marquis. The Ford Nats climaxed Saturday evening with a “parade, park and party” in downtown Carlisle. And still the festivities continued, with Sunday's procession of show-field winners.

Had there been an award for sheer whimsy, or perhaps creative compression of Ford history, we'd have presented it unhesitatingly to William Myer's '79 Pinto Wagon (which in fact scored third in the Pinto/Bobcat class). Even in a line of Pinto V-8 conversions, what we saw under Myer's hood had us doubting our senses.

“Is that a . . .?”

“Yes it is.”

Myer explained that the car had been built by Florida Pinto racer Jimmy Trevathen, who “also owned a '50 Ford. And he was sitting around the garage one night with the guys, and he said, 'I wonder if a Flathead would fit in a Pinto?' And another guy said, 'You can't do it.' And a year later, this happened.” The '52 Merc 255 is bored .030 over; an Edmunds twin-carb manifold and a pair of Smithy glass-packs enhance its vintage look and sound.

Flatheads forever, as the old-schoolers say. At least until next year, when the Featured Vehicle Displays will include a Y-Block Reunion. The Dearborn die-hards know what we're talking about. It’s precisely that kind of tie-in to Ford’s production vehicle legacy that perhaps best-defines the Carlisle Ford Nationals’ annual recipe for success..

FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY JOHN F. KATZ