Leading the field at the Indy 500 is still a big deal nowadays, but it was significantly more important back in the day, when carmakers were actually bringing more customers into dealerships by winning races. In the 1950s and early 1960, U.S. brands took turns in providing the Indy 500 pace car, unlike today, when Chevy has been the sole provider since 2002.
Having paced the iconic event in 1961 with the Thunderbird, Ford was set to return in 1964 with the Fairlane. But a quick change of plans brought the Mustang into the spotlight.
Although it had only been in production for a couple of months as of late May and its official debut took place with just six weeks before the 1964 Indy 500, the first-gen Mustang replaced the Fairlane as Ford’s choice for the race and two specially prepared pony cars were brought at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ford was supposed to send three, but one prototype wasn’t completed in time and was eventually scrapped.
The two convertibles that arrived at Indy were reworked by Holman Moody, which handled some of Ford’s racing projects at the time, and had their stock 260-cubic-inch V8s replaced with a 289 developed for the GT40 race car. The engine was detuned to 450 horsepower, a tremendous figures for the light and compact pony, and the suspension was dropped and stiffened. They also received two flag stanchions in the back, and three grab handles – two beside the rear seat and one atop the windshield – were added to help keep pace-lap passengers in place.
Ford made an additional 35 pace cars, 33 required for the Festival Parade, one for use by the Festival Committee director, and one more to carry the race queen around the track before the race. These were all standard models and didn’t have the Holman Moody modifications, but had the pace car graphics. These stock cars were variously equipped, being delivered with both four-speed manual and automatic transmissions, and red, white, or blue upholstery.
Additionally, Ford also built coupe replicas that were awarded as prizes in a company contest for the top Ford salesmen. They featured the same lettering and racing stripes as their convertible counterparts, but were painted Pace Car White instead of Wimbledon White.
All coupes were equipped identically, using the 260 two-barrel V8, Cruise-O-Matic auto transmission, power steering, and white interior. How many coupes were built is still a mystery. While some sources claim a production run of 180 units, some Mustang historians say that as many as 190 or perhaps more than 200 were created.
Unlike the coupes, the Festival Parade convertibles weren’t supposed to be sold to the public, but as many as 35 customers eventually owned one that year, after dealers got their hands on them after the race. The fates of the actual pace cars modified by Holman Moody remain a mystery to this day.
For a while it was believed that the car driven by Benson Ford on race day was given to the 1964 winner, A.J. Foyt, and later wrecked. Indy officials later confirmed that both cars were returned to Ford, which shipped them to Holman Moody, which in turn delivered one car to Sebring, one to Watkins Glen to continue to serve as pace cars.
Only one of two cars is known to still exist. Fortunately, it’s the one that Benson Ford drove around the Brickyard, which is essentially the most important pace car Mustang ever made. Often called “the most significant historic Mustang in the world,” the pace car was put to good use at Sebring for a 11 years and then locked in a raceway storage facility and all but forgotten.
Until 1991, when a Mustang Club of America official learned that the pace car had been stored roughly 120 miles from his house for almost 20 years and bought it, becoming the first private owner of the car. The Mustang was restored down to the last bolt, which wasn’t very difficult given that the convertible was in very good condition. Since then the car has won numerous awards, including a perfect score in MCA’s exclusive Thoroughbred Class.
Essentially a time capsule that’s fully functional and has less than 4,000 miles on the odometer, the only surviving 1964 Mustang pace car is estimated to worth in excess of $1 million and in 2016 was listed by RK Motors Charlotte for $1.1 million. It might not be the most expensive classic Mustang on the market, but it’s definitely the rarest gem you can buy.
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