This Ford Fairlane 428 Cobra Jet Is One of the Greatest (and Rarest) Sleepers Ever
It's one of just 22 built.
Any Ford muscle-car enthusiast with even the slightest knowledge of drag-racing history will recognize the name Dick Brannan. Brannan's racing success in his Romy Hammes-sponsored 1962 406/405hp Galaxie led to his being hired by Ford in 1962 to direct its factory drag-racing program. During his 10-year career with Ford, Brannan brought Ford drag racing from the doldrums to the height of success, and among his myriad innovations was essentially inventing the line-lock when he adapted Studebaker's Hill Holder mechanism for drag racing. Brannan raced his 1963.5 427/425hp Galaxie to 65 wins and 22 track records. He was heavily involved in the development of the 1964 427 Thunderbolt, the Le Mans-winning GT40, and countless Super Stockers, Funny Cars, and high-performance production vehicles. In the later 1960s, Brannan opened Dick Brannan Ford in Carlisle, Indiana, which by his own description was more of a Ford Performance outlet store than a standard new-car dealership.
The Ford Fairlane 500 owned by Keith Blasius is one of 22 built in 1968 with the 428 Cobra Jet engine and C6 automatic. The original Presidential Blue paint looks great on the Formal Roof version of the Fairlane. The 1968 Ford dealer brochure has the SportsRoof as weighing 14 pounds more than the Formal Roof.
Fast-forward to 1991. Ford employee and enthusiast Keith Blasius was on the hunt for a high-performance Mustang. He stumbled across an ad in a local paper for a 1968 Fairlane in Novi, Michigan, that turned out to set up as a drag car. The car had 289 emblems but was powered by a tired 428 Cobra Jet race motor. The car had all the markings of a big-block swap in a small-block car, until he noticed the R in the VIN. That changed everything. The fact that this particular R-code Fairlane 500 happened to have been sold new at Dick Brannan Ford was a big plus. Although the owner claimed it was a real-deal R-code 428 Cobra Jet, Keith still had his suspicions. "To be honest, at the time, I didn't even know that Ford had made a 1968 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane."
The 428 Cobra Jet engine featured a 4.13-inch bore and a 3.984-inch stroke. The externally balanced engine had a stout 10.6:1 compression ratio. A 735-cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor fed the beast. The R-code Cobra Jet's factory rating of 335 horsepower was a bogus number set at exactly 10 ponies more than the 390-cubic-inch boat anchor. In reality, the 428 Cobra Jet was producing about 400 horses.
Originally an automatic car, it had been converted to a four-speed manual transmission. The trunk housed twin electric fuel pumps and a battery. Keith held off purchasing the Fairlane and began to research it. He checked with six Ford buddies as to the legitimacy of the 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane. Three of them said buy it, three of them said Ford never made an R-code Fairlane 500 in 1968. One of his Ford brethren said simply, "It's an R-code. Buy it."
Keith decided to take a chance and paid $3,500 for the car. He drove the Fairlane home, open headers and all. When he pulled in the driveway, his lovely wife was checking out the new arrival. The small carburetor fire that ignited at shutdown did not make a good first impression, but she learned to love the Fairlane with the big 428 Cobra Jet engine. When we spoke to him, Brannan confirmed that he had ordered two 1968 428 Cobra Jet Fairlanes with the intentions of drag racing them. However, plans changed. After the two Fairlanes arrived, Brannan and others at Ford decided that they were going to campaign the 428 Cobra Jet engines in the 1968 Mustang.
Of the engine's development, Brannan says, "Ford was tired of all the expensive stuff we were doing in our racing program, so we developed the 428 engine. Even though the 428 engine is only 1 cubic inch more than the 427, it is very different animal from that 427 SOHC Cammer motor. The 428 was designed with new features, including a completely different bore and stroke, in order to create wider applications. It turned out that the 428 had both great drag-racing potential and excellent compatibility with an automatic transmission for production cars."
Hood pins were not factory issue on the 1968 Fairlane 500, but they were retained from its drag-racing days for safety purposes.
"We felt like we were spinning our wheels with the heavier Fairlane," Brannan says. "The Mustang was a sales hit, it was popular with the younger crowd, and it was lighter. We all agreed that we needed to go with the 428 Mustang in order to be truly competitive for the 1968 season. So we put all our racing efforts into the Mustang." Ford would eventually build 50 1968.5 Cobra Jet Mustangs, and the model debuted at the 1968 NHRA Winternationals. In storybook fashion, one of those Cobra Jet Mustangs, piloted by Al Joniec, ended up winning Super Stock Eliminator at the event vindicating Fords decision on which model to use. The two 428 Cobra Jet Fairlanes, meanwhile, originally slated for big-time drag racing, were sold by the Brannan dealership. Had that not taken place, Keith Blasius might have been driving an old 428 Cobra Jet Mustang for the past 28 years, and what fun would that be?
When Blasius first went to look at the Fairlane 500, it had 289 emblems on the front fenders. The emblem swap might have been an attempt to retain sleeper status, but no solid explanation exists.
When asked about whether the 428 engine is original to his car, Keith says, "Well, here's the deal on the engine. The car has a 1969 428 block, so it's not the original engine. I asked Mr. Brannan at the 2000 Fairlane Nationals if he remembered anything about either car, and whether either of them had engine problems. He seemed to remember that one of his two 1968 428 Fairlanes had received a replacement engine about a year after being sold, but he wasn't able to say that for certain. So that's all I have been able to find out about the engine."
The 1968 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane is an awesome muscle car by the standards of any era, but it was something of a jilted bride in its era. However, now it's getting its star turn—and one that's well-deserved.
The factory blue cloth/blue vinyl interior is about as pedestrian as it gets. When Blasius returned the car to factory specs, he fudged slightly by adding the 1968 gauge cluster with the in-dash 6,000-rpm tachometer.
1968 Fairlane 500 428 Cobra Jet at a Glance
Owned by: Keith Blasius, Ocqueoc, Michigan
Restored by: Owner
Engine: 428ci/335hp Cobra Jet V-8
Transmission: C6 3-speed automatic
Rearend: 9-inch with 3.50 gears
Exterior Color: Presidential Blue
Interior: Blue cloth/vinyl bench seat
Wheels: 14x7 steel
Tires: P215/70R14 BFGoodrich Radial T/A
When Blasius spoke to Dick Brannan at the Fairlane Nationals in 2000, Brannan kindly signed the glove compartment. He also recalled his dealership selling two 1968 Fairlane 500 cars with the 428 Cobra Jet engine.
One of Blasius's Ford buddies also owns a 1968 Fairlane R-code car. That car also has the R in the dash VIN plate that's slightly higher than the other characters. A second VIN plate, with the R in the fifth position, is attached to the driver door. Ford did collectors a huge favor in providing confirmation of originality.
The dog-dish hubcaps and body-color steel wheels help foster the sleeper persona.
The Fairlane 500 in 1991. It had been sitting for a time, but Blasius got it running. With open headers blaring, he drove it home.
While it was originally a column-shift automatic car, a Top Loader four-speed manual transmission had been installed. The high-back buckets were pirated from a slightly newer Mercury Cyclone. Blasius located factory 1968 Fairlane seats and a factory steering column with the original column shifter.
Blasius pulled the 428 Cobra Jet engine and rebuilt it to stock specs. Note the cast-iron headers. A C6 transmission with a correct cast-iron tailshaft was located, detailed, and installed.
Years of life as a drag car took its toll on the engine compartment and undercarriage. The engine compartment and suspension components were restored to stock condition.
Once the car was back in its proper condition, Blasius took it to local shows and races. He is seen here at the 2001 Pure Stock Muscle Car Drag Race at Stanton, Michigan, where he ran a 13.79 at 101.9 mph, "beating a Hemi" in the process. Attaboy.