Bad Bird: A GT-1 Heavy-Hitting Falcon With a Vintage Disguise

By Staff Writer
Jul 5, 2018 | Ford | Posted in Features | From the May 2012 issue | Never miss an article

story by dan scanlan • photos by scott r. lear

Some cars are born into greatness. Others have greatness engineered upon them.

The 1960 Ford Falcon is one such tale of greatness coming after the fact. Ford created it to become the brand’s first modern compact—something to fend off the European invasion of Volkswagens, Opels and other small Euro-sedans. Later on, the Falcon’s frame, engines and bits were engineered into the original pony car, the 19641/2 Ford Mustang.

This is not a tale of a Falcon transformed into a Mustang, but of a Falcon flying higher than Ford ever imagined. The Falcon does have its own racing pedigree dating back half a century, mind you, assuming you know where to look.

As for the Mustang, it has become one of the most popular performance cars out there. Longtime racer Tommy Riggins has built several for competition, many of them GT-1-class racers featuring a tube chassis draped with a silhouette body. It’s an easy way to turn most anything into a 200 mph missile.

His latest Ford creation, though, makes use of the Mustang’s donor vehicle, the Falcon. Specifically, it’s based on a 1963 Falcon Sprint coupe. Really.

Why use a Falcon, a family grocery-getter, as the skin for a fire-breathing, 840-horsepower SCCA GT-1 racer? Because racer Joe Llauget asked Riggins to build him “something a little bit different”—otherwise, he didn’t care which body the car sported. The car needed to be legal for SCCA GT-1 competition yet feature a historic-looking shell.

Though he was strongly invested, Llauget ultimately decided to sell the car at a steep discount while it was still a work-in-progress. He asked Riggins to find a buyer. Bill Riddell, a veteran driver who started off in four-cylinder cars and raced Riggins’s machines over the past 16 years, wanted a GT-1 car but wasn’t sure about the unconventional body. The bargain price helped him take the bait. His uncertainty about the Falcon vanished at the car’s first event, as it was a huge crowd-pleaser.

“I think that is probably one of the craziest things we ever thought about doing, but also one of the neatest things,” Riddell admits. “I have had people call me from all over the country who have seen this car and say, ‘It’s the coolest thing I have ever seen,’ and, ‘It’s so neat!’ And when you pull up to the grid where people haven’t seen it, they get so excited and start telling you about their grandmother’s or mom’s Falcon that they had in high school.”

Seeing photographs of the Falcon racers made Jack Telnack happy, too. He was global VP of design at Ford when he retired 15 years ago, but he started working as a designer there in 1958 and was head stylist for Lincoln-Mercury in 1966.

“It didn’t take me any time at all to recognize the car. I know that car,” he says. “He sectioned the body and that’s really cool.” Telnack especially likes the way the original taillights are grafted into the fiberglass body.

Falcon Fights Back

Some car folks might say a Falcon race car is for the birds. After all, the original version was merely a compact made by Ford between the 1960 and 1970 model years.

While much of its competition came from Europe, it also fought for sales against a new wave of smaller domestics, including the Dodge Dart, Plymouth Valiant and AMC Rambler. Chevy had two entries in the class, the Corvair and the Chevy II.

The Falcon was popular, sure. The line featured coupe and four-door models as well as station wagons and the tidy Ranchero pickup. But that “compact” label was a bit of a misnomer, as the Falcon could hold six college students in a pinch. Remember, this car hails from an age before seat belts and air bags.

While most commuter-grade Falcons made do with a puny 90-horsepower six, drum brakes and a suspension that allowed the car to wallow like a dinghy, Ford also introduced a semi-fastback Sprint coupe version for 1963. It featured a 260-cubic-inch V8 that made 164 ponies.

The company rallied the Falcon Sprint in Europe; power for that one came from a 260-horsepower V8 tuned by Holman Moody, the company’s go-to competition firm. Back home in SCCA Trans-Am racing, Jim Taylor took a ’63 Falcon Sprint and gave it a 289-inch V8 massaged to make 485 horsepower.

Tricking Out a Brick

The Falcon’s racing days aren’t limited to the ’60s, as the model has been grandfathered into GT-1, the SCCA’s fastest GT road racing class. The fields are usually dominated by machines that marry tube chassis with bodies that only sort of resemble production cars; pony cars from then and now mix it up with other V6- and V8-powered machines.

Like the Falcon, 60-year-old Riggins also isn’t new to racing. His career dates back to the ’70s, and he tends to favor tube-framed cars like the ones run in NASCAR, IMSA, Grand-Am and SCCA. Daytona and Sebring? Yes, he’s made appearances at the big shows, and his co-drivers have included Scott Pruett and Joao Barbosa. He even co-drove a Brumos Grand-Am prototype in 2004.

Since 1972, Riggins has been constructing his own race machines at Riggins Engineering. A number of them have been purpose-built, GT-class machines, but this Falcon started life as an old Sprint coupe.

“This was actually a car I intended to restore and make a street rod out of, but when we got into it, it was just too rusty,” he explains. “We used the Falcon as the basis of the body and reshaped it to make it where it would be a competitive GT-1 race car.”

Carbon-fiber replicas of the original Sprint hood, roof, trunk lid, fenders and doors were subtly reshaped so they’d fit the Riggins Engineering GT-1 Mustang tube chassis. The body was also widened to make room.

The front of the car has been reworked a bit. The grille looks stock, but the fenders have been slightly rounded to aid airflow. The nose itself is also 3 inches longer than the original, the shape influenced by the 1969 Ford Torino Talladega. “I just couldn’t leave the brick that was there,” Riggins quips.

Then there’s the tail: The mandatory GT-1 carbon-fiber rear wing stands almost bolt upright. Underneath the silhouette, most of the car is encased in flat aero panels.

Not all of the Falcon’s DNA has been cast aside, though. The original turn-signal holes can be found intact above the splitter. The taillights are Falcon pieces, too, and there’s a bit of the original car’s rear bumper in the body mold. “We shaped the roof a little, but not much,” Riggins adds. “There were some things we could have enhanced aerodynamically that would have been better, but we didn’t take too much liberty with that because I still wanted it to have some resemblance to the ’63 Falcon Sprint. From the windshield back, that car is not very much tweaked off the original.”

The final design buck now hangs at Riddell’s race shop in Fernandina Beach, Florida. It cost about $25,000 to create, and two bodies have been built from molds pulled from the buck: Riddell’s car is done in a proper Ford Wimbledon White with a flat-black hood, while Vermont Ford dealer Dave Machavern had his done in Ford blue.

Under the liftoff nose, the NASCAR V8 sits low and back about 2 feet from the radiator, the carburetor topped with a classic 1960s-shaped carbon-fiber air cleaner. Ribbed valve covers are framed by red chassis tubing, while hoses duct air onto big, vented AP Racing disc brakes up front.

Lift off the very light rear deck and fenders, and you’ll find box frame rails encasing the fuel cell. The dry sump’s oil tank and battery sit nearby.

The Falcon has an operating driver’s door—most cars of this ilk aren’t so equipped. Slide into the low, formfitting aluminum racing seat, and the removable three-spoke wheel frames a digital gauge package. The hot seat is much farther back than in the stock Falcon, and the windshield’s base hits on the same vertical plane as the driver’s toes.

Taking Flight

“She is absolutely gorgeous right now,” Riddell says. “She’s a little hard to handle because I’m a little behind the curve.” Despite the vintage looks, both Falcons are serious machines. With Riggins driving at Daytona, the blue car hit 201 mph in the tri-oval. He also broke the GT-1 race record by 4 seconds that weekend with a 1:47.9.

“In doing this car, I applied some things I have learned over time about aerodynamics,” Riggins explains. “It’s aerodynamically pretty slick. If I was to do another, I would make a few changes, but not a lot. We wouldn’t want to sacrifice that unique Falcon look.”

Riggins adds that he enjoys how fellow racers respond to the flying Falcons. “It’s fun and kind of neat,” he continues. “I am proud of all the effort that me and my guys put in at the shop.”

His favorite part, though, is the crowd’s reaction. “You go to a track, and people come up and say, ‘Man , this is so cool’ and, ‘This is so different.’ Then it’s nice for the thing to fly, too.”

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Trackmouse SuperDork
7/10/17 10:11 a.m.

What a pretty NASCAR! Now if only they all could start adding artful body lines to the cars, instead of them all looking alike.

stan GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
7/10/17 12:00 p.m.


One of the prettiest/coolest race cars I've seen...

jimbbski Dork
7/10/17 3:45 p.m.

Saw this or one like it at Watkins Glen SVRA race last Sept.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/10/17 3:50 p.m.
jimbbski wrote: Saw this or one like it at Watkins Glen SVRA race last Sept.

What color was that one? In addition to this blue one, I remember there being a while one.

M2Pilot HalfDork
7/10/17 4:00 p.m.

I saw a white one at Savannah historics in Oct. 2012 or 2013 IIRC.

7/11/17 12:00 a.m.

Cool car. So Riggins has been building race cars since he was 15 years old? That is impressive.

JimS New Reader
7/11/17 1:04 a.m.

Saw a white one at VIR vintage event this past fall.

7/12/17 5:21 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

David, this car is now white with a black hood. I photographed it at VIR last year.

V8 Road Racing West
V8 Road Racing West New Reader
7/15/18 10:53 a.m.

Great article and GREAT build!   We love V8 thunder road racers.   Check out this vintage Falcon I found on racing junk:

Keep up the great work!


Michael Cohen

V8 Road Racing West

GTXVette SuperDork
7/15/18 11:37 a.m.

the car guy that started my life passion with cars bought a new 63.5 sprint 260 3 speed. the 64 would be me but not at 180.

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