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Carlisle Ford Nationals celebrates the Torino’s 50th birthday

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1968 Ford Fairlane Torino GT fastback. Photo by Jeff Koch.

In 1968, Ford revised its Fairlane lineup, replacing 500XL models with a new nameplate, Torino. Named for Turin, Italy, the Torino offered buyers a bit of the luxury that the nameplate implied, and remained a fixture in Ford’s product line through 1976. This year’s Carlisle Ford Nationals, taking place on June 1-3 at the fairgrounds in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, honors the Torino with a special display expected to include models of all kinds, including race cars, Starsky & Hutch “Striped Tomato” tributes, and more.

In its debut year, the Fairlane Torino was available as a two-door hardtop, a four-door sedan, or a four-door station wagon (complete with vinyl woodgrain trim), and the base engine was Ford’s 115-horsepower, 200-cu.in. six. Those seeking a Torino with a bit more velocità could opt for a Fairlane Torino GT, which came as a two-door hardtop, a two-door fastback (called SportsRoof in Ford-speak), or two-door convertible. Here, the base engine was the 302-cu.in. V-8, topped by a two-barrel carburetor and rated at 210 horsepower, but those wanting maximum thrust could check the option box for the 390-cu.in. V-8, topped by a four-barrel carburetor and rated at 325 horsepower. About 600 Torinos even came equipped with the 428-cu.in. Cobra Jet V-8 in 1968, which Ford (conservatively) rated at 335 horsepower.

1968 Ford Fairlane Torino

The Fairlane Torino came in a wide variety of body styles, such as this 1968 four-door sedan. Photo by Richard Lentinello.

In 1969, the Torino Cobra (also known as the Fairlane Cobra) joined the lineup, offering buyers the Cobra Jet V-8 as standard equipment, with a Ram-Air version (rated at the same 335 horsepower and 440 pound-feet of torque) an available option. Ford also wanted to emphasize the Torino’s performance potential in NASCAR, but doing so required subtle changes to the Torino’s shape to enhance aerodynamics. To make this revised Torino fastback – called the Talladega – eligible for NASCAR competition, Ford had to build a minimum of 500 examples for sale to the general public.

From a distance, particularly when viewed in rear three-quarter profile, the Talladega didn’t look that much different from any other Fairlane SportsRoof model, but one look at the front end (reportedly designed in a wind tunnel by Holman & Moody) gave a clear indication that this was no ordinary Torino. The grille was flush instead of recessed, and the bumper looked familiar but somewhat out of place. It was, in fact, a reshaped Torino rear bumper, mounted low enough to serve as a crude but effective air dam. That the Talladega looked longer was no optical illusion, either – its nose was stretched by six inches and given a profile meant to reduce lift and drag at high speed.

1969 Torino Talladega

1969 Ford Torino Talladega. Photo by Matthew Litwin.

Beneath the exterior sheetmetal, the Talladega received the 428 Cobra Jet V-8 with the extra cooling package (or, optionally, the same engine with Ram-Air), a separate engine oil cooler, power steering and a power steering cooler, power front disc brakes and a staggered shock setup on the live rear axle that mounted the driver side damper behind the axle and the passenger side damper in front of it. Front coil springs and rear leaf springs were described as “ultra-heavy duty,” and oddly enough, no Traction-Lok differential was available, even as an option. A Ford SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic was the sole transmission available, and the only rear axle ratio offered was 3.25:1.

Buyers could order the Talladega in Wimbledon White, Royal Maroon or Presidential Blue, but all colors came only with a black interior, a matte black hood and styled steel wheels. Ultimately, Ford produced about 750 copies to meet consumer demand, driven by the car’s success on the track. In 1969 – ’70, the Talladega won 29 Grand National races, easily taking 1969 manufacturer’s championships in NASCAR and ARCA. Its success also led to its downfall: The dominance of the Talladega (and its Mercury equivalent, the Cyclone Spoiler II) prompted Chrysler to rethink its aero warrior Dodge Charger 500, introducing the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird, which would dominate on superspeedways during the 1970 season.

1968 Ford Torino

Though the Torino Cobra wouldn’t become a separate model until 1969, about 600 Torinos – like this GT fastback example – were built with the 428 Cobra Jet V-8 in 1968. Photos by Terry McGean.

To counter the Daytona and Superbird in NASCAR, the director of Ford’s Special Design Center, Larry Shinoda, was tasked with creating an even more aerodynamic version of the Torino and Cyclone. Using all-new sheetmetal from the firewall forward, the end result – called the Torino King Cobra – looked like byproduct of a one-night stand between a Torino SportsRoof and a Datsun 240Z, particularly with the headlamp’s sugar scoop covers removed. Underneath, Holman & Moody were assigned to develop the car’s suspension and engine, a 429-cu.in Super Cobra Jet V-8.

By the summer of 1969, the King Cobra was ready for testing at Daytona. Cale Yarborough took to the track’s high banks, but soon returned to the pits, shaking his head. The car looked fast, but the nose generated far too much front-end lift at speed, making the King Cobra’s handling a bit more unpredictable than anyone expected. Further windtunnel development was necessary, but before that could happen, things changed at Ford and in NASCAR.

Ford Torino King Cobra

Ford Torino King Cobra. Photo by David Newhardt, courtesy Mecum Auctions.

In Dearborn, Bunkie Knudsen, who’d long backed Ford’s racing efforts, was fired on September 2, and Shinoda was shown the door before the month was out. To return the “stock car” to its name, NASCAR revised homologation requirements, upping the required production total from 500 units to 3,000 units, effectively ending any further attempts from automakers to create one-off racing specials. With the stroke of a pen, NASCAR’s brief-but-glorious “aero wars” era came to a close.

In 1971, Ford dropped the Fairlane from the Torino’s name, making it a true standalone model. The following year, the Gran Torino became the upper trim level, while the Torino soldiered on as the base model. Buyers could still opt for performance-oriented models, equipped with engine choices that included the 248hp (net), 351-cu.in. Cobra Jet V-8 and the 205hp (net) 429-cu.in. ThunderJet V-8. Perhaps the most famous of 1972 Torino models was the dark green Gran Torino Sport that starred alongside Clint Eastwood in the 2008 feature film, Gran Torino.

1973 Gran Torino Sport. Photo by Richard Lentinello.

The most famous Torino of all, however, has to be the red-with-white stripe 1974-‘76 Gran Torino driven by detective David Starsky in the 1975-’79 television crime drama Starsky & Hutch. Though actor Paul Michael Glaser, who portrayed Starsky, hated the car and referred to it as “the striped tomato,” the public loved it, prompting Ford to create a limited run of 1,308 replica cars for the 1976 model year. The 351-cu.in Windsor V-8, rated at 152hp, was standard, but buyers could also opt for 400-cu.in., 180hp, or 460-cu.in., 202hp V-8s.

1973 Gran Torino Sport

The Gran Torino Sport aimed to deliver an equal mix of luxury and performance.

 

In 1973, the Q-code 351 V-8 was referred to as the Cobra Jet. Photos by Richard Lentinello.

For its final year, Ford billed the Torino as offering “full-size value in a mid-size car,” but overall, sales were down compared to prior model years. In its final year on the market, Ford sold just over 193,000 Torinos, compared to just over 195,000 in 1975. The drop between ’75 and ’74 was even more pronounced, with buyers taking home 428,625 Torinos in 1974, a reduction in model sales of over 54-percent.

For more information on the Torino’s 50th birthday bash at this year’s Carlisle Ford Nationals, visit CarlisleEvents.com.