NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, meet the Car of Yesterday.
The order of the day was simple: win races and sell more cars.
The limited-edition Torino Talladega was the tip of Ford’s sword.
As most people know, the cars that compete on today’s NASCAR racing circuit have absolutely nothing in common with those sold at any Ford, GM or Chrysler dealership. They’re basically handbuilt machines that incorporate a specially constructed steel chassis with bodies of custom-made sheetmetal. One is essentially identical to the next, thanks to a common design dubbed the “Car of Tomorrow.” There is also very little variation when it comes to engines, which are identical in displacement, no matter who makes them. The only way to spot one race car brand from the other on the track is by the paint and decals.
Meet the Car of Yesterday.
More than three decades ago, however, stock-car racing was quite a different matter. The cars were actually similar to those everyday vehicles that folks drove to the track to watch the race. However, the doors were welded shut, interiors removed and suspensions beefed up. The engines were even derivatives of the manufacturer’s original designs.
Back then, NASCAR rules stipulated that the car bodies had to be completely stock. For 1969, that meant a minimum of 500 examples had to be produced and available for sale to the public before they could be called a “stock car” and converted for track use.
As overall top speeds increased, aerodynamic improvements became a crucial element. Get the car to neatly slice through the air and it was like gaining free horsepower. The only problem was that in the late 1960s, automotive designs for the general public were not intended for 200-m.p.h use, so aerodynamics were seldom, if ever, even a faint consideration.
The racing solution was for the factories to develop “aero packages” for their race cars, produce the bare minimum number required for certification, or homologation as it was called, and hit the track. Essentially, cars such as the Talladega were designed for racing and then sold for the street, which was a tricky proposition since a car that performed well in the wind tunnel might not be a visually appealing set of wheels in the showroom. It was a clearcut case of function over form, a concept the buying public of the day was not particularly familiar with, at least as it pertained to automobiles.
In 1969, Dodge brought out the Daytona, essentially a Charger body that came with a special wind-cheating snout in front and a giant wing attached to the rear end that created enough downforce to keep the rear end glued to the track.
Ford countered with the Talladega, a special version of its Torino GT that was designed to lead the NASCAR pack.
The Torino coupe came in two shapes: a roomier notchback; and a swoopy fastback that heavily borrowed from the Mustang fastbacks of 1967-’68 vintage. Nevermind that the Talladega severely restricted side or rear vision and that the back seat was only good for packing groceries or small children. It looked fast just standing still.
The Talladega featured a number of wind tunnel-developed aerodynamic improvements compared to a regular Torino. The car’s front sheetmetal was rounder and protruded an extra six inches to better deflect the wind. Also, the car’s grille was mounted flush to the body. The rear end received only slight modifications.
Regular Torinos and Torino GTs were available with a wide assortment of engines, including three strengths of the base 302 cubic-inch V8, two versions of the new-for-’69 351 V8 and a GT-exclusive 390-cube V8 in two power levels.
But Ford saved its best for the Talladega by stuffing it with a 335-horse 428 cubic-inch V8 that was optional on the Torino GT. That was the for-public-consumption car; the NASCAR teams ran with either race-prepped 427- or 429-cubic-inch motors that put out about 550 horsepower.
Most of the Talladega’s advantages were nullified on NASCAR’s slower, shorter tracks. But on the super speedways of Daytona, Charlotte and Talladega (at 2.66 miles it’s the longest speedway in NASCAR and the source for the car’s name) this slippery beast really came into its own and it managed to win its fair share of races for the 1969 season, including the prestigious Daytona 500.
The Talladega only existed for one model year, but some cars were raced in 1970 as well. For 1971, NASCAR changed the rules to prevent these oddities from competition.
As was the case with the Dodge Daytona and similarly bodied Plymouth Superbird (based on a Road Runner), the Ford Talladega was an extremely limited model, with slightly more than 750 cars made out of a total Torino production run of more than 81,600. It exists today as a brief, but important footnote to the development of more aerodynamic – and thus more fuel efficient – vehicles that most of us drive today.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news reviews and features.