Historic Ford Falcon Races Again After 30 Years

Posted August 23, 2017

By Dean Larson

Photos by Dean Larson and courtesy of Mike Mulcahy

One of my favorite parts of spending a day at the racetrack is wandering around the pits. It’s one of those few places where you can get up close and personal with a piece of machinery that just flew down the front straight at 150 mph 15 minutes ago. Beyond that, it’s a great place to track down cars, drivers and owners and get the scoop on a car that caught your eye. Now I respect the work and investment that goes into perfecting an automobile as much as anyone, but I’ll be the first to admit that imperfect cars excite me. So you can imagine how elated I was to see a beat up old Ford Falcon mixing it up on the track with historic Trans-Am cars at Road America this year. When I finally pinpointed the orange Ford in the pits the next day, I found out that there was a lot of history hiding in that beat up old Falcon.

This ’64 Falcon Sprint started life in ’63 as factory prototype wearing a 999 VIN, Sunlit Gold paint and a red interior. The Sprint package equipped the Falcon with stiffer suspension, a less restrictive exhaust and a 260 V8, or a 289 in late ’64. As a preproduction car, Ford tested this Falcon extensively with different tweaks and components, like the Monroe adjustable race-inspired shock absorbers the car retains today. The Falcon was also fitted with lightweight fiberglass doors, (with roll-up windows) front fenders, hood and deck lid, which are miraculously still with the car after two decades of racing from 1967 to ’85.

Johnson Falcon 103

The Falcon's whereabouts from 1964 to '67 are a mystery. There's a rumor that the car was released from Ford and sold on a used car lot, but no one really knows. What we do know, is that the Falcon was prepped for Trans-Am racing to SCCA FIA-GT homologation standards in 1967 and piloted by Shelby hired gun Bob Johnson. By this time, Johnson was no stranger to road racing Fords and had plenty of seat time in Cobras and Shelby Mustangs. He and his crew chief Tom Greatorex, snagged all the speed parts they could from Shelby’s R-model program for the Falcon, including the HiPo 289 and the rest of the driveline, steering and suspension components, and a Smiths speedometer from a Cobra. The car wore Johnson’s signature No. 33 on the doors and raced at Sebring, Mid-Ohio and national events throughout the Midwest. After the 1967 Trans-Am race, Carroll Shelby called Johnson to his office and proclaimed, “We’re trying to sell Mustangs, not Falcons! Get rid of that car or you can find another team to drive for!”

Johnson reluctantly parted with his Falcon racer, but kept the car in the Ford family, selling it to Ford engineer Jim Harrell. Harrell prepped the car in 1968, painting it in his signature orange paint, the last cosmetic change the car would see for nearly 50 years. The Falcon served as a stress reliever and a means to acquire his SCCA national license, but Harrell ultimately sold the Falcon in 1969.

Johnson Falcon 101

The Falcon was flat-towed behind a GT350 in the "as raced" Jim Harrell configuration.

By the early 1970s, the Falcon had gone through one collector and was onto the next. Paul Michelsen purchased the car for $1,800 in 1975 and flat-towed it from Michigan to Illinois behind a ’66 Shelby GT350. The Falcon apparently got “squirrely” behind the Mustang at some point and he hit a guardrail. Michigan billed Michelsen $1,180 to repair the guardrail, but he and the Falcon made it home in one piece. Michelsen enjoyed the car on the street, in autocross events and at Shelby track days for the next 10 years, but the Falcon overheated in 1985 and was parked in Michelsen’s garage. With a slew of other priorities, fixing the head gaskets was put on the back burner, and the car sat unchanged for the next 30 years.

Johnson Falcon 100

By the '80s, the Falcon was showing some age, but was registered for the street and tracked often.

Mike Mulcahy, the car’s current owner, met Michelsen back in the 1980s and the two became lifelong friends. Mulcahy, a collector of Fords and race cars, knew about the Falcon and hassled Michelsen to sell him the car every so often. In early 2017, Mulcahy had recently sold his company and had some extra coin in his pocket, so he gave Michelsen a call to ask about the Falcon one final time before he wrote the car off forever. It took some of that extra coin, but it was Mulcahy’s Factory Five Cobra that sealed the deal. It wasn’t easy for Mulcahy to give up his 650 hp Cobra Champ car, but it was worth it to finally get his hands on the Falcon.

After hauling the Falcon home in February, Mulcahy and his team performed a complete mechanical restoration on the car in just four weeks to get ready for the upcoming race season. Mulcahy intended to perform a concours-level restoration on the car down the road and return it to the Bob Johnson configuration with gold paint and red interior, but talks with race fans might have put those plans on hold. The car retains the orange Jim Harrell paint job for now, but a few things have been returned to the Bob Johnson configuration. The headlight covers, No. 33 meatball (there likely was another 33 on the track that day, so it was temporarily switched to 39), and removal of front and rear bumpers, match up perfectly to black and white photos of the car from 1967. In my mind, the mismatched visuals are a nice homage to the car’s history, and it's damn cool to see a beat up old Falcon mixing up with high-dollar Shelbys again.

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