Most of the millions of Ford Mustangs made in its first few years back in the mid-1960s were built for fun and pleasure on the street.
On the other hand, the very-limitedproduction Boss 302 Mustang was created first and foremost as a racing car. With its thundering V8 hoofbeats, the Boss made a sound that was music to the ears of of Ford fans everywhere, but alarmed and intimidated the competition.
The best part about the Boss 302, however, was that anyone willing to shell out an extra $1,200-$1,500 over and above a base Mustang (an extravagant sum back in 1969), could own a car that was little more than a full-on race machine with “civilian” interior and trim.
The Boss 302 was developed because Chevrolet, a late comer to the “Pony” car wars — which began with the Mustang, of course — with its 1967 Camaro, had come up with an effective secret weapon for winning races in the popular Trans-Am road course series. That year, the Camaro Z/28 (named for its order-form option-code designation), with its special 302-cubic-inch engine, made obsolete all other competition machinery.
In the hands of team owner Roger Penske and driver extraordinaire Mark Donohue, the ultra quick and slick Z/28s were clobbering the Mustangs at what had been their own game. In 1968, Penske, Donohue and their dark blue Sonoco-sponsored Camaro captured 10 of 13 races, including an amazing string of eight consecutive victories. Suddenly, the less-powerful 289 cubic-inch Mustangs were outclassed and outgunned.
The brass at Ford needed to turn their losing situation around, and fast. At the time the company was pouring millions of dollars into a variety of racing programs throughout the world, including NASCAR, long-distance sports cars, dragsters, rally cars and numerous forms of open-wheel classes. Weakness in any of these categories would simply not be tolerated.
With the encouragement of company president (and racing fan) Bunkie Knudsen, Ford’s performance head Jacque Passino was charged with putting the Mustang back in the winner’s circle. Also involved was former General Motors stylist Larry Shinoda, who had been appointed director of Ford’s Special Design Office. Since the Trans Am rules demanded that each manufacturer sell a minimum 1,000 vehicles to the general public (no prototypes or one-offs allowed) before a given vehicle could be used for competition, Shinoda ensured that the new Boss 302 would at least look good in the showrooms as well as whip the Camaro on the track.
The car began with what Ford called the SportsRoof (fastback) body style. Shinoda added special touches, including the car’s front and rear spoiler, rear window slats and special racing stripes. He is also credited with giving the car its name (“Boss” for his direct superior, Knudsen).
If horsepower and displacement were the primary issues, then Ford’s engineers had the solution. Just as Chevrolet had mixed and matched mechanical components to create its 302 engine to fall within Trans Am’s 305-cubic-inch limit, Ford took the heads from its 351 cubic-inch “Cleveland” powerplant and fitted them to the new 302 cubic-inch block. The resulting hybrid produced a claimed 290 horsepower, however, as with the Z/28, actual output was understated to keep the automobile insurance companies happy and premiums low. Prepped for competition, however, the Boss powerplant easily generated more than 400 horses.
Aside from the trick motor, the Boss was also equipped with a four-speed “Toploader” manual transmission, competition suspension setup, quicker steering ratio and a 6,150-rpm electronic rev limiter.
Right off the showroom floor, a $3,700 base-price Boss could sprint from zero to 60 mph in less than seven seconds and produce quarter-mile times of around 14.5 seconds.
To ready the Boss 302s for battle, Passino employed Bud Moore, a NASCAR stock-car race-team veteran, as well as former racer and Cobra sports-car builder Carroll Shelby who had successfully campaigned Trans-Am-prepared Mustangs (called Shelby GT350s) in the mid-1960s. Each man, along with a group of experienced and high-priced driving talent, fielded two cars for the 1969 season.
On the road courses, full-race versions of the Boss 302 certainly began to take charge, but these more competitive Mustangs were still no match for the dynamic Penske/ Donohue duo and their superbly prepared Z/28. By season’s end, the Chevy had won six races, twice as many as both Ford teams. In the manufacturer standings, Chevrolet finished with 78 points, 14 ahead of secondplace Ford.
For 1970, Bud Moore became the sole operator of Ford’s two-car Trans-Am effort. To make the Boss even more competitive, a more rigid rear spoiler was added as well as a rear stabilizer bar.
The outcome of that year’s championship was a squeaker with Jones beating Donohue (who was then driving an AMC Javelin) by one point. It was a more lopsided story for the constructors trophy, with the combination of Boss 302 Mustangs and Cougars equipped with similar engines beating GM, AMC and Chrysler for the title.
Following the 1970 season, both Ford and GM abandoned their corporate Trans-Am sponsorships and the series evolved into a battle of the imports, with Porsche becoming the dominant player for the next few years. Today, a variety of foreign and domestic manufacturers are involved in Trans-Am racing, but the rules have changed to allow pure racing machines with composite bodies that bear only minimal resemblance to vehicles that anyone would drive on the street.
But for one shining period in time, the Boss 302 Mustang beat all comers and Ford was able to reclaim the Mustang’s top spot in the Pony car corral.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.