1969 Ford Falcon - Reciprocity = Velocity
Inspired By Past PHR Feature Cars, This Budget-Built, 11-Second Falcon Wagon Provides Its Own Share Of Inspiration.
From the February, 2010 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Stephen Kim
Photography by Stephen Kim
If everyone had access to PHR's coveted stack of Hometown Hot Rodding submissions, then shrinks, dive bars, and Oprah would all go out of business. That's because readers itching to get pictures of their cars published in a big magazine have a way of boosting our ego by telling us how PHR is the best car magazine around. It's the kind of empowerment that makes you want to shout from a mountaintop. Unfortunately, reality sets when those emails of praise end with: "I read each issue cover to cover, but tell me which issue it will be in because I might miss it."
Although such posturing is as harmless as it is amusing, it forces us to exercise reservation when someone claims to be an avid reader. Just as we began to wonder if anyone actually reads car magazines any more, we crossed paths with Lee Atkinson and his '69 Falcon wagon. It's the freak factor of a budget-built 11-second wagon that inspired us to put it in the mag, but Lee says, it's the pages of PHR that inspired him to build such a freakish machine in the first place.
Of course, we can't take all the credit. Lee's 557hp, 4R70W overdrive-shifted, home-built people hauler is ultimately the product of his ability to transform an outside-the-box vision and a sub-$25,000 budget into sheetmetal and tire smoke. This is a man who was quite literally destined to build hot rods from birth. "My dad was a car guy, and he actually drove me home from the hospital after I was born in a '64 Corvette Fuelie," so the story goes. "Even though he liked muscle cars, he wasn't very good at working on them, so I got a job in the parts department at a local Pontiac dealership as a kid to learn as much about cars as I could. I saved up enough money to buy a '72 Olds Cutlass-which is the car I cut my teeth on-and picked the mechanics' brains nonstop on how I could make it faster. From talking to them, I figured out early on that building a fast car isn't always about how smart you are, but rather taking the initiative to try stuff out and building upon those experiences."
Hanging out with the Poncho crowd during his formative years had a lasting impression on Lee, who has never felt the inclination to build anything mainstream. After fiddling around with a '79 Trans Am for a few years, he picked up a '67 Firebird that eventually ran 11s. During his many dragstrip outings, he became pals with Pontiac guru Jim Hand, and a friendly rivalry developed between the two. "Jim had an old Pontiac station wagon that was always a few tenths quicker than my Firebird. When my car was running 12.30s, his wagon ran 12.0s, and when my car squeaked into the high-11s, his car ran mid-11s," Lee says. "I remember thinking how cool it was to see a 4,000-pound station wagon-driven by a guy in his 80s-running 11s in full street trim. I didn't realize it at the time, but Jim and his car really made an impression on me that I'd never forget. Circumstances forced me to sell my Firebird a few years later, but when I was finally in a position to build another car, I found inspiration in Jim's wagon.
Surrounded by Pontiacs his entire life, Lee wanted to do something different this time around. He felt that building a Chevy was just too easy, and was intrigued at the prospect of wrenching together a Ford. "I absolutely love building motors and seeing how much power I can get out of them. I've built tons of motors for my friends over the years just for fun," Lee professes. "PHR's coverage of the Jegs Engine Masters Challenge has been of great interest to me. Right around the time I was looking for a new project car, I saw guys like Jon Kaase making some serious power with small-block Fords. Like many of the competitors in the EMC, I decided to build a CHI-headed Windsor."
The only unknown now was the kind of car the motor would go in, and once again he got a few ideas from PHR to steer him in the right direction. "I noticed that PHR was featuring a bunch of street machines that all ran 11s or quicker for around $25,000. I thought, 'Hey, this is something that I could do, too,' " Lee explains. "I tentatively priced out things like the engine, driveline, suspension, and fuel system and set a budget of $25,000. My wife likes Rancheros, but they were too expensive and we wanted a car that had enough room to go cruising with our kids. I liked the idea of building a Ford wagon, and to stay on budget, I realized we needed to find a car for $5,000-$6,000 that didn't need any bodywork. Comets in that price range had way too much rust, so a Falcon suited our needs perfectly."
As with the rest of the car,...
As with the rest of the car, everything underhood is low-key. The air cleaner hides the TPS, fuel pressure regulator, and braided lines. The distributor has been fitted with electronic internals, but it retains the stock housing. To further minimize the bling, the intake manifold, heads, water pump, and oil pan have all been painted blue to match the block.
While perusing some online classifieds, Lee spotted the perfect candidate in a '69 Falcon located in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Loretta, hopped on a plane, and struck up a deal for $5,500. Before driving the wagon home 1,700 miles to Houston, Lee tracked down the Falcon's former owner in New Jersey who wanted to see it one last time. "He was the guy that did most of the restoration work, so it was a great opportunity for me to find out more about the car's history," Lee says. "When I told him my plans for the car, he thought the idea of drag racing a wagon was so cool. He gave us some dash panels and a custom gauge cluster he built for the car before he sold it, and sent us on our way."
The Falcon didn't putt around town with its 302 for long. While looking for used parts on various online message boards for his small-block combo, Lee spotted a deal he couldn't ignore. "The seller was a machinist who had a fully machined factory 351 Windsor block and a forged rotating assembly that had already been balanced for $2,350. He changed his mind and wanted to build a bigger-inch nitrous motor using an aftermarket block," Lee says. "I had actually planned on using a cast crank and cheaper rods, so this setup was definitely an upgrade from what I had in mind. He also had a set of AFR 225cc Windsor heads he was willing to throw in for $1,900. The CHI Cleveland heads would have made more power, but I couldn't justify the extra expense when these AFRs were staring me right in the face for so cheap, so I decided to stick with a more traditional Windsor combo. This route enabled me to save hundreds of dollars, and now I have an over-built bottom end just in case I decide to spray it."
Wanting to make respectable power while maintaining streetability, Lee matched the 425ci pump gas small-block with an Ultradyne 243/251-at-.050 mechanical roller cam that features a healthy .630-inch lift. Induction duties are handled by a Professional Products single-plane intake manifold, and a DaVinci-tuned Holley 750-cfm carb. On the engine dyno, the Windsor kicks out 557 hp and 540 lb-ft. All that power, however, put Lee in a pickle when it came time to sort out the transmission. He felt that a C6 would offer the necessary durability, but he wanted the relaxed cruise rpm than only an overdrive could provide. "After speaking at length with my trans builder, Jay Broader, he recommended a 4R70W. I'd never heard of it before, and the last thing I wanted was an electronically controlled transmission," Lee recollects. "However, he explained that the 4R70W is an updated and stronger version of the AOD that's actually very easy to program. It runs off of a standalone electronic control module that interfaces with a TPS sensor mounted on the carb. I can hook my laptop up to it and set the shift points, line pressure, converter lockup threshold, and upshift and downshift curves."
To date, the 3,530-pound Falcon has run a best of 11.51 at 118 mph at the dragstrip on a 1.65-second 60-foot time. That's pretty darn impressive by most standards considering its brick-like drag coefficient and rudimentary suspension setup. The front underpinnings are stock, while the posterior features Calvert Racing leaf springs and traction bars, Competition Engineering shocks, and Mickey Thompson ET Street radials.
Brisk e.t.'s aside, Lee enjoys the Falcon's stealthy nature the most. "I really like surprising people, because no one expects a wagon to be fast. I've tried my best to keep the car as mild-mannered in appearance and sound as possible," he explains. It's safe to say that Lee's accomplished just that. And while he may be flattered by the opportunity of having his car featured in PHR, quite frankly, we're the ones who are flattered to have somehow inspired the creation of such a freakishly cool machine that hauls people, cargo, and ass in equal measures.
With the addition of an electric...
With the addition of an electric cooling fan, water pump, and an electronically controlled trans, Lee didn't want to risk overstressing the electrical system. A Painless Wiring circuit fuse box mounted on the passenger inner fender acts as a safety net for all the electric hardware.
Compared to Lee's best tuning...
Compared to Lee's best tuning efforts, the experts at DaVinci were able to extract a few extra ponies from his Holley carb. At the track, DaVinci's tuning was worth an extra 1.5 mph in the eighth-mile.
The custom switch panel controls...
The custom switch panel controls a plethora of functions. The two switches on the left actuate the line-lock and the MSD box's second stage rev-limiter. The two switches on the right activate two different trans programs-one for late shifts and one for earlier shifts. The center switch is used to disable overdrive, which comes in handy on the dyno.
The Falcon's former owner...
The Falcon's former owner fitted a custom dash gauge panel off of a Torino GT into the wagon. The gauges look crooked to the casual observer, but there's reason to the madness. "The way the gauges are oriented, when everything's operating in the ideal pressure and temperature range, the gauges on the right should point right, and the gauges on the left should point left. Also, when the tach points straight up, it's time to shift. This allows me to focus more on the road instead of looking down at the gauges," Lee explains.
Using a laptop, Lee can fine-tune...
Using a laptop, Lee can fine-tune the transmission computer based on its intended use. Shift points, shift firmness, and convertor lockup can be altered instantaneously.
The cooling fan and water...
The cooling fan and water pump are electric, and both are operated by a custom controller from DC Controls. Right after the motor is fired up, the fan and water pump operate at between 5 to 25 percent of their full speed, then ramp up as coolant temperature increases. Lee says the setup is much easier on the electrical system.