If you are a Ford guy you might have heard the following story from a Chevy or Pontiac guy from time to time. The 427 Galaxies or 428 Mustangs went pretty good but the 390 was a dog. A certain magazine of that era had a bias toward GM products and they would cast the 390 as a non performing boat anchor in their road tests and articles, so over time, the 390 picked up the reputation of being a bit of a stone. After all, the magazine had it in print, so it must be true. I was growing up on Long Island during that time and I know what I saw happen at the race track and I read other magazines. Sometimes it didn't always agree with what the publisher wanted you to believe.
I wanted to know more about the 390 from its introduction to its last performance incarnation so I acquired popular magazines and periodicals from 1961 through 1968 to get a clearer picture of exactly what the unbiased track record of the 390 was in order to separate what was fact from what was fiction (opinion?)
What follows is what I found after going through every page and every story of dozens of magazines and periodicals. The 390 was introduced in the fall of 1960 and carried a 375 H.P. rating. A 330 H.P. version, also with solid lifters, was offered for law enforcement (police interceptor) although it could also be ordered by the public. In 1961, just prior to the NHRA Winternationals, a 6V intake with 3 Holley 2 bbls. was introduced and Ford tagged it with an optimistic 401 H.P. rating. When the Winternationals dust had settled in early February of 1961, it came down to a 409 Chevy and a 390 Galaxie. The big 390 Ford did very well, but lost a close race in the final round for the gold. However, this doesn't really tell the whole story. Galaxies and Starliners were 150-200 lbs. heavier than Chevy's BelAir and Biscayne body styles. In addition, the only transmission you could get then was a column mounted 3 - speed. The Chevys had less weight to pull and the advantage of a slick shifting 4 -speed. In spite of the 390's disadvantages, they posted best times of 13.33 @ 106.16 mph compared to 13.20 @ 108 mph for the Chevys. Wow! Not bad for a boat anchor. What also needs mentioning here is the extremely low production numbers for Chevys 409 in 1961. For all intents and purposes, the 409 was such a low volume item, it really should not have been called STOCK. Chevy made a total of about 115 cars with the 409 engine. Many of them went to the pros. The average street Chevy guy had to order his car with the 348 cubic inch engine that carried a 350 H.P. rating and it didn't get the job done against the 390. The Fords routinely beat the 348's in 1961. On the street, 390 Galaxies and Starliners ruled. In addition, the October issue of Car Craft dubbed the 390 - 401 to be Detroit's hottest street engine and published a tune up guide that included headers, ignition, and valve lash among other things. The result for this 3-speed car with, 4.29 rear and open headers, was : (13.31 @ 105.96) , (13.24 @ 107.18) , and a (13.34 @ 106.84.) 390's won a variety of NHRA Divisional, Record and Bonus Points drags in '61. The August issue of Hot Rod shows a 390 eliminating a 409 and going on to win the Super Stock title at a Hobbs, New Mexico Southcentral divisional meet. Also, in the July '62 issue of Hot Rod, Vern Jones took his Starliner to a big Super Stock win over Arnie Beswick's Passionate Poncho 389 Pontiac in a large Southeast Regional and National Record meet that drew all the top professionals. Jones turned 13.41 @106 mph for his win and went home not only with the class win but bagged the overall Stock Eliminator win as well. At the Indy Nationals, the BIGGEST race of the year, a 390 Starliner, campaigned by Ed Martin Ford and driven by Don Turner, came away with a win in a new class called Optional Super/Stock Automatic. Not bad for a boat anchor.
In the years 1961 -1963, the police interceptor 390, 330 H.P. found happiness in A/S or B/S many times. A couple of these cars were regular winners at my home track with e.t.'s in the 13.5 - 13.8 range. In 1962, a box top Galaxie was entered in A/S at an NHRA national meet that attracted all of the nations best cars. He took the class win but unfortunately was disqualified for illegal valve spring tension. If the book says 255 lbs. open and you are checked with 258 lbs. you lose. In any case, that's not bad for a boat anchor.
The 390 played a minor role over the next several years as the 406 and 427 cars dominated the spotlight. It didn't resurface again until 1966 when it was developed for use in the Fairlane GT. This time around it came to the party with a redesigned upper half (heads and intake) that featured a high velocity port design, (the same concept that is used for the 5.0 late model Mustangs), new high lift hydraulic cam and a 600 cfm Holley. From the factory, this combination suffered from a constrictive single transverse muffler arrangement. Right off the showroom floor, however, they went pretty good with magazine tests always in the 15.2 to 15.7 range at 92 - 93 mph. All of these tests were run with the very inefficient C-6 and dead 3.25 rear axle gearing. After the usual performance enhancements of headers, 4.11 or 4.56 gears, 7" tires, and some tune-up tweaking, the 390's did very well in NHRA C/Stock and D/Stock class racing. They didn't do well on the street, where you raced whatever pulled up next to you. The 335 H.P. Fairlanes, being down on factory rated horsepower, had to go up against higher horsepower machinery such as the 360 H.P. Chevelles and 360 H.P. GTO's with 3-2 bbls including ram-air systems. These cars were B/Stockers given their higher factory rated HP. Even Buicks rated higher at 340 H.P. Go to the track, however, and you would have found the 4-speed 390 in C/S or D/S a formidable foe for similarly equipped single 4 barrel GTO's and an absolute NO CONTEST when it came to the automatics. Mark it: Automatic GTO's were just no match for a 390 Fairlane GTA or a Cyclone GTA.
In a 1966 issue of Car and Driver, the magazine editors assembled a group of 6 muscle cars for a shootout. They were: Pontiac GTO (360 H.P. 4-speed), Buick Skylark (340 H.P. auto.), SS Chevelle (360 H.P. 4-speed), Olds 442 (350 H.P. 4-speed), and our heroes, the Fairlane GTA (335 H.P.), and Mercury Cyclone 4-speed (335 H.P.). When the testing was over, the Cyclone blasted a 13.98 @ 103 mph. The best selling and most popular muscle car that year, the GTO, came in second at a 14.05 @ 105 while the automatic Fairlane GTA posted the third best time of 14.26 @ 99 mph. Not bad for a boat anchor.
The June 1966 issue of Car Craft featured a detailed and revealing look at how a Cyclone GT was prepared for drag strip duty. The engine was disassembled and clearances were adjusted for maximum performance. Traction bars were added along with headers and gears. The Cyclone responded with an outstanding 12.97 @ 108 mph. The '67 versions of the 390 did even better in NHRA stock eliminator as both a Fairlane and a Cyclone won their respective classes at a major Nationals event going into the 12.80's to do their deed. Not a bad e.t. for a boat anchor.
In 1967, Popular Hot Rodding acquired a 390 Mustang GTA fastback as a project car. With a C-6 automatic and dead 3.25 gears, they baselined the car at 14.10 @ 100 mph. For the next six months, they changed gears, intakes, carbs, cams, headers, tires and a variety of other items that you or I might swap out on our cars, that transformed the car into a truly fast street machine, eventually posting a best of 13.29 @ 103 mph. All during the test, the project Mustang GTA remained a daily driven street car reliably bringing its driver to work and home every day while leaving the shifter in drive. On the weekends, it was a nasty race car that won more than it's share of races. Month after month, the author stated that the 390 GTA was not only competitive but embarrassed many cars with bigger engines. After 17,000 miles and 350 passes down the track, it was retired.
And finally, that same year, the team of Chesson and Terry , Gladstone N.J. took the NATIONAL e.t. record with a B/SA Mustang GTA blistering the track with a 12.79. Holy Cow! How about that? The 390 was the undisputed owner of the NHRA national e.t. record in B/SA. Well, if the 390 was a dog, what did that make the GTO or the SS Chevelle? Fill in the blank here. ----------------
In all the '66 - '67 magazines I looked at, and there were a bunch, I did not come across a better performance from a GTO or 442 or a 383 Road Runner or anything else that would have been classified as C/Stock or D/stock. I could be wrong, but I do not believe a GTO won a single class at a National meet during those years nor posted a time better than the Royal Pontiac professionally prepared B/S ram-air GTO of 13.04 @ 107 that I found in a Car Craft magazine. My conclusion. The 390 may not have been a world beater, but it certainly was a fast car capable of taking care of business and making its owner very proud. The truth is, the 390 was an excellent, if not outstanding, combination and it did very well in drag racing as well as NASCAR.
And that brings us to today. 390 Fairlanes and Mustangs are much more scarce than they used to be thirty something years ago, but there is a '67 Mustang GTA I know of that is still racing in NHRA's stock eliminator. It's a D/SA and the car is very competitive going 10.80's @ over 120 mph. Now that's definitely not bad for a boat anchor. The next time some Pontiac GTO or Chevy Malibu guy tells me the 390 was a dog, I'll say you are right, a pit bull that chewed up a lot of the General's finest.