(first posted in 2011) The sixties, that golden decade of American performance cars, had two very distinct eras. The first half was dominated by the full-size bombers with their ever-larger big block V8s sporting dual quad or triple deuce carbs. Think Impala 348/409, the wild cross-ram Chrysler 413 and wedge 426, Pontiac’s 421 HO, and Ford’s specialized 406/427, which powered the Blue Oval to enduring glory, even at LeMans.
These over-sized sleds were the terror of the drag strips, NASCAR, and Main Street on Saturday night, duking it out for the glory of their respective makers, with the hope of more sales on Monday morning.
But with the arrival of the mid-size GTO and the compact Mustang in 1964, the full-sized performance cars became doomed dinosaurs almost overnight. Yes, the big hairy engines were still available in some of them (for a price), but why bother when a dirt-cheap 327 Chevy II had a better power-to-weight ratio? So the Big Three tried something else to prop up sales of the profitable mega-sized rods, like this 7 Litre Galaxie. In the case of the Ford at least, the tip-off is the 7 Litre badge.
The space where Ford’s vaunted “427” badges once sat proudly on the front fenders of Galaxies is now blank sheet metal, replaced by the prominent “7 Litre” badges on the grill and the fender spear. That’s because a 428 has taken its place. So what’s a measly cubic inch among friends? (three, strictly speaking, since the 427 actually displaced 425 cubic inches). Whereas the 406 and 427 were specially developed racing motors, with unique blocks, cross-bolted mains, and other forged performance goodies, the new for ’66 428 was just a bored and stroked 390 in mild tune, shared with the T-Bird, and available across the board. It was rated at a modest 345 (gross) hp, compared to the 410 (single quad) and 425 hp (dual quads) that the 427 belted out at much higher revs thanks to a woolly cam, solid lifters and heads that hyperventilated. These heads were of course the most critical component, and they trace their origins back to the 350hp 352 FE that came out in 1960 for the benefit of NASCAR racers, and was followed up by the 375/401hp 390 Super Thunderbird V8s in 1961. Ford was quite capable of building serious performance engines, but not in having them find their way into the mass market, unlike Chevrolet and even Chrysler, to a somewhat lesser extent.
Since the NASCAR racers switched to mid-sized cars in ’66, the Fairlane was now the primary beneficiary of the 427, and although a very wicked machine indeed, it never sold in any significant numbers compared to the Chrysler and GM intermediate muscle cars. It was too expensive, and lacked low-speed torque and tractability on the street. The 428 meanwhile was cheap and expedient. And it was perfectly happy (happiest?) schlepping a fully-loaded Country Squire with an automatic, A/C and power steering. The 427, which one could still order in 1966, was not available with the automatic, power steering, A/C and even the power assist for the disc brakes. Woolly indeed!
Well, those macho days were over, except for the exactly thirty-eight buyers that insisted on a genuine 427 in their 1966 7 Litre. One hopes that Ford checked their arm and leg muscles before they turned over the keys to them. That’s not to say that the 428 powered 7 Litres were a smash sales success by any means either: barely 11k sold that year. By 1967, it was just a trim/engine package available on the Galaxie XL, rather than a distinct model. And by 1969, it was history (as was the very short-lived 428, replaced by the all-new “385” 429 engine).
It was all a bit confusing for me as a kid, especially since in the mid-sixties Ford made distinct V8s in 427, 428, 429 and 430 cubic inch sizes. It must have been Ford’s way of trying to keep up with GM, whose divisions still proudly flaunted unique engines (mostly). Admittedly, the 427 was in the same FE engine family as the 428 and 390, and looked similar from the outside, but was a totally different animal otherwise. The 430 was the old MEL engine, and the new 429 replaced them all. But not before Ford heavily revised the 428 for its final three-year outing in ’68 as the Cobra Jet, sporting a low-balled 335 hp rating for insurance purposes.
The 7-Litre wasn’t the only car that had its 427 replaced by the 428. The legendary Shelby Cobra 427 started out with a full-on side-oiler 427, but because the whole 427 Cobra program was a financial disaster, many of them actually were built with the much cheaper 428. And, no, they weren’t rebadged “7-Litre” or “428″. Shelby wasn’t/isn’t exactly famous for a propensity towards full disclosure.
Hemmings has a write-up on the 7-Litre here, and a more detailed comparison of the two engines here, but here’s a few highlights: the mildly tuned 428 developed its maximum power at a diesel-like 4600 rpm. And its healthy 462 lb.ft. of torque was all there by 2800 rpm. Whether it even made its rated horse power is suspect: John Smith, author of Super ’60s Fords: “The carb is way too small, they are severely under-cammed, and the exhaust system is incredibly restrictive. Even though they were rated by the factory at 345hp, I’d be very surprised if the actual output was more than 275hp.”
So how does a 7-Litre run? About 8.8 seconds to sixty, and 15.2 in the quarter. Modest for the times, and econo-box stats nowadays. The big Ford was a cruiser; but not a performance car. All of GM’s big blocks of the times had higher power ratings, and could back them up. You wouldn’t want to goad a big Buick, Olds or Pontiac with your 7-Litre, never mind a 427 powered Impala.
The FEs made great truck motors, having spent parts of my youth trying to kill more than one in some pretty large trucks. And great engines for hauling big cars and wagons around. It’s just that they were outclassed by the deeper-breathing Mopars and Chevy, in the streetable versions anyway. But what about the rest of this beefy Galaxie 500?
Well, I happen to have a November 1965 Popular Science from my subscription as a kid in front of me, which has a comparison test of the ’66 Galaxie, Impala and Fury III by Jan Norbye. He refused to pick an overall winner, and in fact, said that he would prefer an intermediate sized car if he was buying. The vagueness of the power steering, the soft handling and touchy power brakes was an issue with all of them. But he had a particular dislike of the Galaxie’s front end: “Ford’s front suspension will not let the car stay on its intended line on a fast turn or if the road is bumpy. The steering angles change too much on spring deflection; incessant steering corrections are needed to keep the car on its line”. But, yes, the Ford was the quietest if the bunch, reflecting the priorities of the times.
The PS tester had the 315hp 390, and it pulled a 9.2 in the 0-60 and trundled through the quarter mile in eighteen seconds. The 396 Impala handily creamed it; and in the transmission department, the Ford Cruise-O-Matic came in last too, especially against the new Turbo-Hydramatic. Contrary to all the myth about Chryslers handling better back then, the Fury’s newly-softened suspension for ’66 actually tended towards oversteer (!), and the Chevy was deemed the best handling of the bunch. Brakes? At least Ford and Plymouth offered discs on the front, which were standard on the 7-Litre.
Here is Norbye’s take on the marshmallow handling and numb power steering of the times: “I like to get an indication of the forces acting on the car through the controls, and I’m not satisfied with the “dead” feel of all of these cars’ systems. The engineering problems of making power steering with proportional assist (Mercedes, etc.) were licked long ago, but the industry seems to have forgotten. When reminded, they talk lamely about some ladies’ complaints about hard steering…The automakers mistrust you, underestimate you, and give you their idea of a fool-proof car. But control systems that are more alive would put the driver in better command – and make him a safer driver” Norbye actually recommended buying these cars with manual steering and unassisted brakes “if you’re slightly fanatical about your driving”.
Styling? I was not a big fan of Ford’s attempt to ape the ’63 Pontiac with their re-styled 1965/1966 cars. But there’s an undeniable husky charm about this particular big coupe. Its angularity is quite a contrast to GM’s coke-bottle curvaceousness, but that actually seems to work in the 7-Litre’s favor. By 1967, Ford was (again) chasing GM’s softer lines, and any pretense of true performance, even appearance wise, just wasn’t coming through. It was the era of the LTD (CC here); big performance cars were finished. So as a visual testament to the end of that era, this big Ford carries it off quite well.
And your neighbors were quite unlikely to know the difference between a 427 and a 428 anyway. And they certainly would have been more impressed if it was an LTD.