Fish Out Of Water: The Carlisle Ford Nationals From An Outsider’s Perspective
Stepping out of one’s comfort zone usually requires some coercing from others. I have spent the majority of my journalistic career attending sport-compact-related events, with the exception of Mustang Week last year, where I was enlightened to the overwhelming quality Ford’s pony car could become at the hands of talented enthusiasts. That pleasant surprise has forever changed my attitude toward the domestic automotive culture, and has made me appreciate the occasional dip out of my comfort zone. When I was asked to attend the Carlisle Ford Nationals, my hopes were high for another outlook-altering occasion; the incredible collection of Blue Oval machines on the property did not disappoint me.
With over 50,000 attendees, the Nationals found its home covering the vast expanse of the Carlisle Fairgrounds – a 150-acre grass lot mecca – which hosts 11 specific automotive events each year. In order to skip the hassle of walking all day searching for a particular car of interest, the record-breaking 3,200 various car show entrants of the 2016 Ford Nationals were organized into rows by model year and other parameters, to make judging and spectating an easier experience. It also made me gravitate to a particularly special example of each model within moments of entering each row.
Let’s take this Falcon for example; there were countless other Falcons present at the event, but it was the matte black paint, solid hubcaps, and low ride height of this particular example that drew me in. The shaved and smoothed rear door handles, tinted windows, and aggressive side-exit exhaust separated this car from the others in its row. The blend of parts was period-correct for that era of street rods, and I especially liked the subtle Mooneyes sticker on the rear door glass.
I would consider myself a motorsports enthusiast over other facets of the automotive culture; the spirit of competition is always incorporated as I gaze at different vehicles. This Ford Maverick’s window net and slick tires were a dead giveaway to its competition use, accompanied by numerous South Atlantic Road Racing Championship (SARRC) stickers for proof. Notice the use of widened fiberglass fenders and lightweight polycarbonate front and rear windshields to decrease weight and increase overall performance.
The spotless black paint and clean Team Dynamics wheels of this SVO Mustang’s exterior carried through to the tidy appearance of its engine bay. It housed an upgraded version of the stock turbocharged 2.3-liter powerplant, this engine featured an Esslinger valve cover to hint at what laid beneath.
Mid-day on Friday the inclement weather forecast proved accurate, and the rain decided to join the event, which temporarily emptied the show grounds of its guests and filled it with accumulating water. To seek shelter from the storm, I found my way into the indoor showcase on the fairgrounds.
Celebrating the 41st anniversary of its first episode, iconic pieces of the Starsky and Hutch crime drama were in attendance, much to the delight of long-time fans of the show. This included an autograph signing with star actors of the series, Paul Michael Glaser (David Starsky) and Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear), but the real star of the celebration was the Ford Torino. Numerous examples were stationed throughout the fairgrounds, bearing the legendary livery associated with the car driven on the show.
Elsewhere in the indoor showcase, this vibrant green Bronco departed from the norm. Its large rear tires – utilized for attaining grip on a dragstrip rather than mountain terrain – are necessary, due to the massive blower and Hilborn EFI system, which help push the horsepower numbers to 597 at the rear wheels.
In between the intermittent rainstorms, the staff organized and executed their traditional gigantic assembly of red, white, and blue Mustangs to form an American flag. I was unable to gain access to the bucket truck for the overhead angle, but it can be viewed here.
For many of these vehicles – which are usually garage-kept – an unfortunate side effect of the rain presented itself: drops of water. This cleared out many of the show’s registered cars from the grounds, but left a few remaining survivors. The skeleton of the show field included some pristine, rare finds like this Shelby GT350. I loved its smooth passenger-side bodyline with no rear-view mirror to split it up, and how perfectly the water beaded on the surface of its vintage curves .
I have this strange fascination with retro styling cues on automobiles. Straight lines in particular – there just are not enough cars designed using straight lines in today’s automotive landscape. Most of the smoothed orbs that populate the roadways now are built with improved gas mileage in mind and not aggressive styling. In stark contrast to modern circular designs, enter the “quad-eye” Fox-body Mustang. This specific 1979 Pace Car Edition epitomizes my love of straight lines, and was not only designed using them, but implements them as a flamboyant set of pinstripes located across its entire body.
Shelby America’s involvement with the show included a presentation and walkaround of their newest gem, the Shelby GT-H. These 5.0-liter V8 Mustangs mark the 50th anniversary of the Hertz “Rent-A-Racer” program of yesteryear, where the automotive rental agency offered a host of Shelby Mustangs available to its customers. The tradition lives on with the S550 chassis, granting a new generation of drivers the chance to partake in the same fun experienced years ago by their elders.
An ugly duckling, a redheaded stepchild, a misfit, and a social pariah are all descriptions that characterize this car, also known as the Mustang II. Although disliked by most Ford enthusiasts, this car is a favorite of mine for two reasons. It wasn’t trying to be anything it’s not, meaning it was not an aggressive continuation of the popular Mustangs before it. However it was a necessary evil, as without the Mustang II today’s Mustang might not exist. During the gas-rationing years of the mid-70s, the small-footprint and fuel-efficient Mustang II kept the nameplate alive. Some forget they were actually some of the best-selling Mustangs, also, with more than a million sold over the five-year model run.
Mercury is a manufacturer whose name is rarely uttered these days, due to its demise in the last quarter of 2010. Prior to their discontinuation, the brand carried a list of vehicles relatable like cousins to its parent Ford Motor Company’s examples. In 1969, it released the Cougar Eliminator – the Mercury version of the ever-so-popular Mustang Mach 1. I couldn’t help but stare at this example on the show field. Every detail of its exterior was created to be more aggressive than the already striking base model Cougar. After some brief research, I stumbled onto an old advertisement for this car that read, “Spoilers hold it down. Nothing holds it back.” I’d say that’s an accurate description.
At the dawn of the ‘60s, the Ford design team had some funky ideas for color palettes. Illustrated by this 1960 Galaxie 500, the body was offered in an exciting red, accompanied closely by the interior upholstery and paneling. This particular example caught my attention not only with its perfect ratio of brilliant color and reflective chrome, but also its lack of high-beam headlights. They were removed in favor of a custom ducting setup, providing additional air to the intake, a slight clue to the performance this build has to offer to its owner.
While we’re on the topic of design, I need to discuss this beautiful teal 1972 F-250. I may not be one for trucks – since I’ve spent my entire driving career inside a compact of some sort – however, the broadside of this truck is so commanding it almost completely changed my perspective on them. The extended bodywork of the crew cab model is what tugs at my heartstrings – more importantly the separation lines of the two doors. The edge of the door weaves up the B-pillar (and C-pillar) in complete contrast to the start of the door behind it. This combination of lines is so unique to this time period and simply doesn’t exist in modern production model trucks anymore.
The third example of my obsession with retro Ford styling is this Starliner 500 – the two-door fastback version of the red Galaxie pictured above. For someone who normally enjoys small cars with straight lines, this hefty curvaceous car was a complete eye opener. The styling of this car shows off a master class of swooping metal filled with outlandish aviatic design cues. The owner of this particular Starliner had lowered it significantly, thus increasing its appeal to me and giving it an undeniable presence.
I’d have to say my favorite part of this Starliner was its unbelievable visibility. The crystal-clear colossal rear windshield, the absence of a post between the front and rear side windows, and its eccentric red and burgundy interior all come together to create the complete package.
Gateway Classic Mustangs – a builder of high-performance classic and modern Mustangs – used two of their tuned modern chassis to give ridealongs to eager onlookers on a tarmac course outlined with orange road cones. The autocross course was positioned on the outskirts of the fairgrounds, and was viewable from high above ground level. Whether it was cast to the furthest reaches of the property on purpose to alleviate the recent ugly combination of Mustangs and crowds of people – or not – is still up for discussion.
Taking home my award for most unique car on display at the event is this mutt. I don’t know exactly what to call it, but it’s a crossbreed between a Merkur XR4Ti chassis mated with the truck bed of a Subaru Brat. With no owner in sight, I took to the Internet to find out more details on it and stumbled onto his build thread. Before any Merkur fans get upset, he apparently saved the car from a trip to the junkyard, which is where he found the rust-laden Subaru Brat he morphed onto the rear of the chassis. You can read more about this automotive take on Dr. Frankenstein’s monster named the XRBrati here.
Apparently, traveling the event by foot is a simpleton form of transportation at Carlisle Ford Nationals, as I witnessed this custom golf cart drive by me. Replicating the body of a ’55 Ford Fairlane 500, this miniature version transported its owner around the fairgrounds in ultimate style with minimal effort.
By shying away from the gas-gizzling large V8 engines of years past and gravitating toward fuel-efficiency and smaller chassis sizes, the automotive world has bred compact vehicles like this Ford Focus. This ’14 Focus ST is equipped with an airbag suspension system from Air Lift Performance to crush the blades of grass in front of their booth, displaying the extremely low ride height that is achievable with one of their kits. The Art In Motion three-piece wheels are the perfect addition to complete the exterior of the sprightly turbocharged hatchback.
The uncommon ancestry responsible for spawning this new breed of automobile happened to be in attendance, despite never being offered for sale in the United States – the Ford Escort RS Cosworth seen here. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine pushes 220 horsepower to all four wheels with a 34/66 front/rear power split. The body was massaged from the standard Escort to provide a more aggressive look and house the performance model’s widened track. This particular example of the rally racing legend has been upgraded with a larger Borg Warner turbocharger and AP Racing brake calipers mounted behind Team Dynamics wheels. I wonder if I’ll ever see one of these gems again in my lifetime…
By the end of the event, seemingly the entire batch of guests piled into the grandstands to witness the burnout competition. The entrants had several minutes to burn as much rubber as they wanted, making large plumes of tire smoke in the process. It was quite a sight to see and the perfect finishing touch on a great weekend. Here’s to stepping out of my comfort zone (into the rain) and thoroughly enjoying the result!