Since McTaggart took us through his twisted mind today I thought it was a good idea to take you through some history as well. 1964 was of course 51 years ago and it was the greatest year for the American automobile ever. That’s our opinion at least. Anyway, as we all sit around the commiserate about how crummy the world is today, let’s look back at a year where it all came together in one awesome maelstrom of horsepower back in ’64.
WWII had been over for about 20 years, the country was booming like it had never boomed in modern times, and quite frankly the universe was America’s oyster. 1964 was the greatest year for American cars and there will never be another year like it. How can I be so declarative on that fact? I’m about to take you through 11 reasons why and frankly each of the 11 reasons on their own would be good enough to call ’64 a landmark year but the fact that all of this happened in that span of time makes it all the more incredible. To me it is weird that no one has put all of this stuff together into some big “1964” story. If anyone reading this is so inspired, allow my 11 reasons below to serve as your road map. It would actually make for one hell of a book when you think about all the stories converging at one time.
The interesting thing about ’64 was that inside the USA, there was incredible inter-brand competition amongst the individual companies and even the divisions which all lived distinct lives under the full corporate umbrella but there was also intense national pride as the country’s racing efforts were starting to be recognized on an international level. This was the year where stuff got serious and the world recognized that we could bring the heat in our own equipment and not just drivers in others’ stuff.
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER – HERE ARE THE 11 REASONS 1964 WILL NEVER BE TOPPED IN AMERICAN AUTOMOTIVE HISTORY
11.) The 426 Hemi is introduced –
50 years ago the Chrysler Hemi was turned loose on the high banks, drag strips, and side streets of America and nothing has been the same since. This is one of the engines that everyone stops to stare at, this is one of the engines with an aura that will never go away, this is one of the engines that fundamentally transformed every form of motorsports it was allowed to compete in. The power and more importantly the potential power of the 426 Chrysler Hemi was immediately recognized by everyone. From the Bonneville salt to the banks of Daytona and the strips between them, the Hemi has set records and won. You don’t have to love the Hemi, but you sure have to respect it.
10.) The Ford Thunderbolt is introduced –
Stuff got real serious all of a sudden in 1964. See, in 1963 Tasca Ford in Rhode Island built what would become the prototype for the Thunderbolt when they plugged a 427 into the front of a 1963 Fairlane. The lightweight Galaxies were cool but the Fairlane was 700lbs lighter than those and that meant much better performance. Once word got back to Dearborn, combined with the Total Performance kick the company was on, the Thunderbolt turned into a real deal program. 100 cars were built, 49 automatics and 51 manual transmission cars. Most found their way into the hands of the “right” guys. With a 427 high riser estimated to make 600hp, these things were terrors. Ford won the 1964 Super Stock championship and things escalated from there. Dearborn Steel Tubing transformed these cars and they were the most fearsome Super Stockers in 1964 and are still pounding the ground today.
9.) Ford releases the Mustang –
There’s no way that anyone at Ford could have known what they were getting into when they decided to release the Mustang half way through the 1964 model year. The car became an instant and incredible success and its production has never been interrupted for 50 years. Based off of the stodgy Falcon and appealing to a youth audience that Ford was desperate to get its hands on, this car is one of the great success stories of American automotive history. Lee Iacocca and his team get the credit for this one. From its explosive beginnings to the newest model coming in 2015, the Mustang is forever engrained in American car culture.
8.) Shelby releases the Daytona Coupe and starts to beat up on Ferraris –
There was an inherent problem with Carroll Shelby’s thundering and much loved Cobras and that was the fact that due to their open top design, they just couldn’t turn the necessary speeds at LeMans and other long tracks to run with the Ferraris. On shorter courses, they were hell, but on longer courses, even with the mighty 427 making the noise, they just didn’t have the top end stuff. Enter Peter Brock, a beautiful design, and a compliment of less than enthusiastic mechanics at Shelby American. While they weren’t at all “into” these cars, the guys got them built and while the first year netted them a fourth overall at LeMans (behind three Ferraris) they had all but scared Enzo’s cars off the track by the time the middle of the ’65 season came around. The Shelby Daytona coupe was born in ’64.
7.) The Pontiac GTO is introduced –
While there is always hot debate among muscle car fans, this one, “The Great One” (as declared by Pontiac) is seen by many as the originator of the species. “A device for shrinking time and distance,” claimed the ads of the day penned by Jim Wangers. John DeLorean used some crafty back channel tactics to get the hotted up 389 into the front of the mid-sized Tempest as a special model called the GTO, which was a direct poke in the eye to Enzo Ferrari and his amazing machines. Like the Mustang, this model sold exponentially better than anyone planned and soon the competitors were arriving on a near weekly basis. Affordable, fast, easily hot rodded, and great looking, the 1964 GTO launched a horsepower and performance nuclear war in Detroit that hot rodders still revel in today.
6.) Arfons and Breedlove battle on the salt –
There was a time when land speed records were reserved with guys who had fancy names and millions of dollars of family money backing their efforts but all that changed in the 1963 time frame when Craig Breedlove of California hit the salt and wrested the crown back from the British. When 1964 rolled around, Breedlove was not alone in his quest for speed supremacy. He was joined by a wily mechanic from Ohio with his own creation and drive for the title. It was Breedlove who struck first in ’64 becoming the first man to break 500mph and then setting the record at over 500mph. He then suffered a parachute failure and nearly died when the Spirit of America cut through wires and ended up in a salt pond as you see to the left. 12 days later Art Arfons wicked up his Green Monster and reset the record to 536-mph, becoming the new king of speed. 1965 would prove to be even heavier duty, but that’s another story for another list in another year.
5.) Richard Petty wins his first NASCAR championship –
With a hemi planted firmly between the fenders of his Plymouth, the already famous Richard Petty launched into the public consciousness by winning his first NASCAR Grand National title. He’d do it six more times during this career, win hundreds of races, and end up simply known as, “The King”. Petty won nine races in 1964, earning more than $100,000 in prize money. The mighty hemi had shown up and started to do what it was designed for, which was the domination of stock car racing. 1965 became a different story when the engine was banned, but again…another story for another year.
4.) The Olds 442 is created –
While watching in horror as the Pontiac GTO sold like free beer in 1964, despite its violation of the 330ci rule, Oldsmobile figured that it had to do something to get a piece of the market that was being stolen by its (then) smaller brother. Their answer? Put famed engineer John Beltz on a project to come up with a warmed up Cutlass or F-85 to keep youthful buyers coming into the showroom. The answer was the 442 which of course stood for “four barrel carb, four speed transmission, and dual exhaust”. The car had a slightly hotter version of the 330ci V8 a normal Cutlass would have but the suspension, brakes, and other systems were all beefed to police spec. The introduction of the 442 was a big deal because while it only sold about 3,000 units that first year, it was the complete recognition that there was a muscle car market and that thing was poised to blow up. Pontiac was first to the part but EVERYONE was in the pool by the end of the year.
3.) The final version of the Chrysler turbine car is introduced –
Chrysler’s long lasting turbine car experiment wrapped in 1964 and it wrapped after a national tour to show people the cars, gauge interest, and show off the Italian designed coupes that were packing a turbine engine and Torqueflite transmission. Although never practical enough to be sold to a mass audience, the cars were extensively tested and driven for many thousands of miles before the program stopped being funded and the money went somewhere else. It was the most extensive program of its kind attempted by any automaker anywhere and it all came to a close in ’64.
2.) Garlits goes 200 in New Jersey –
It was a seven second lap heard ’round the world because on it, Don Garlits went 201 mph and became the first man that the NHRA recognized as breaking that barrier. Some argue that Chris Karamesines did it a couple seasons earlier in Illinois, but in terms of the documented historical record, it was Garlits at Island Dragway in Great Meadows, New Jersey during the ’64 season. This was in an era where engineers had said that dragsters would never go faster than 180mph in the quarter mile and that the performance envelope of this style of car had been reached and they would never go any faster. Even after Garlits busted 200 in a quarter mile, it wasn’t like there were 100 guys behind him beating down the door to do it. Those 200 laps were hard to come by in that time frame.
1.) The Indy 500 survives its darkest moment ever – new emphasis on driver safety emerges from tragedy
The horrendous scene shown at left nearly brought an end to the Indy 500 after the 1964 race. Why? Dave McDonald and Eddie Sachs were killed after McDonald’s car hit the wall, exploded, and rolled into a speeding Sachs path. The wreck happened early in the race, which was then restarted and finished with AJ Foyt winning. Why is this one of the moments we chose to highlight from 1964? Because despite a widespread public outcry to end the race, much like what happened after the LeMans in 1955, it survived and continues today as one of the most important racing traditions that our country has. From that disaster came a new focus on driver safety and car design, meaning that the lives of McDonald and Sachs were not lost in vain. It is impossible to talk about cars and racing in America during the year of 1964 and not recognize what happened at Indy. It is just that simple.