I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t watch NASCAR. When I was a kid, I’d religiously sit down on Sunday afternoons to The Nashville Network or ESPN and watch my favorite drivers and their nemeses beat and bang on the banked ovals of the Southeast. Dad and I would fight traffic to attend the August race at Michigan International Speedway, where in 1991 we saw one of the greatest finishes in the history of the sport. Of course, my interest in NASCAR in those days led me to study its heritage, and one of my racing heroes of the past had a heck of a year in a ’68 Torino.
It is my opinion that David Pearson, nicknamed “The Silver Fox” for his wily racecraft and salt-and-pepper locks, was the coolest guy in NASCAR history. Ranking second to King Richard Petty in overall wins with 105, Pearson’s accomplishments become more impressive when one considers that Pearson rarely ran a full season. Even so, he still managed to win three NASCAR Grand National championships, two of them behind the wheel of a fastback Ford Torino in 1968 and 1969. Ford had the hot ticket in 1968, as the Dodge Charger’s beautiful tunneled grille did its best impersonation of a brick wall out on America’s superspeedways. Of course, General Motors had distanced itself from racing (at least officially), so NASCAR was dominated by Fords and Chryslers until factory sponsorship dwindled in the face of the 1970s.
Out in the real world, the ’68 Torino GT that Pearson’s car resembled sold quite well, with over 74,000 fastbacks being built according to the Standard Catalog of Ford, 1903-1998. Most of those Torinos were undoubtedly powered by the small-block 302, but more than a few did their best impersonation of the Silver Fox’s favorite ride by concealing an FE big block under the hood. With the 351 Windsor still being a year away, Ford offered a 390 two barrel as a “gap filler” between the 302 and the 390 four barrel.
A far cry from the race-prepared 427, even this GT’s 390 four barrel had a bit of a reputation as a “stone,” at least according to every old magazine article I’ve ever read, including period road tests in Hot Rod and Car and Driver. Rated at 325 horsepower, quarter mile times in the low-to-mid 15s were standard equipment. It wasn’t until the 428 Cobra Jet became available that the Torino’s motive force was able to match its high-banked image.
None of this is to say that the 390 isn’t a good engine (it is), but Hot Rod went so far as to initiate a letter writing campaign to let Ford know that its street cars were doing their superb racing efforts no favors in terms of maintaining a reputation for performance.
Our featured Torino was a participant in the 2023 Pure Stock Musclecar Drag Race at the Stanton Mid-Michigan Motorplex. I don’t remember what times it ran, but its position near the front of the staging lanes suggests the mid-to-high 14s. Its nearly flat fastback roofline brought back memories of those many hours of watching old race footage from the 1969 NASCAR season on a VHS tape my parents got me for Christmas in the early ’90s. In 1969, Fords were called “The Going Thing,” and between the Torinos and the Mercury Cyclones, they had another outstanding season, with Pearson winning another title (as mentioned above). Even Richard Petty eschewed his normal Plymouth for a Ford in 1969, when Chrysler refused to let him switch to a Dodge Charger Daytona (their definitive answer to the sleek Ford fastbacks). Petty switched back to Plymouth in 1970 when they showed him the new Superbird.
Mercury’s Torino equivalent, the Cyclone (this one a 1969 model), sold for some reason a mere fraction of the number of Torinos Ford was able to peddle. Poor Mercury often found itself in this situation.
You can’t blame the lack of a NASCAR image either, as the Cyclone was well represented by drivers such as Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, shown here beside his Boss 429-powered ’69 Cyclone, owned by the famous Wood Brothers, a team that’s still around today.
David Pearson himself famously drove for the Wood Brothers for the bulk of the 1970s, earning over 40 of his 105 wins in one of the most successful combinations in NASCAR history. The Purolator Mercury was certain to be up front in the big races, as Pearson ran a part-time schedule throughout the 1970s. Never again running for the championship, he settled simply for winning all the time. Indeed, his career stats show that he won almost 20 percent of the races he entered.
Our featured Torino may not have had the performance of its 427-powered (or later Boss 429-powered) Grand National champion contemporaries, but it was perhaps a nicer place to spend one’s time. Though Pearson notoriously had a cigarette lighter installed in his stockers so he could light up during caution periods, he certainly didn’t have luxuries such as a C6 automatic on the column. This particular Torino otherwise looks lightly optioned and mostly original, but that view over the long hood and ample big-block power must make for a nice cruiser these days, even when the owner isn’t out on the strip.
Today, it’s anecdotally rare to see a fastback Torino on the road or at a car meet. Although the sales numbers suggest that it was roughly as popular as the gorgeous (and now stratospherically priced) second-generation Dodge Charger, it’s the Charger that sits in everyone’s dream garage (including mine).
With that being said, the Torino’s beefy NASCAR vibe makes it a very worthy collector car. After all, if it’s good enough for the late, great Mr. Pearson, it’s good enough for anyone.