Spring convertible cruises in style

06/02/2012 12:00 AM

06/02/2012 6:34 AM

Phillip Nelson has always been attracted to smaller, compact-sized cars of the 1960s. Over the years, his stable has included a second-generation Corvair with Weber carbs and racing stripes, a boxy, but beautiful 1964 Chevy II hardtop, and a bright red 1966 Mustang GT with Hi-Po engine and a 5-speed close-ratio transmission.

"That was a hot rod," he said. "But there are too many nice Mustangs out there and I wanted something different. I wanted something I could cruise in."

So he decided to sell the Mustang and went looking for something that would stand out from the crowd a bit more. He found it about a year ago in the form of his 1963 1/2 Falcon Sprint convertible.

It was the last year of the "round-bodied," first-generation Falcon, with both the sporty Sprint model and the "scat back" hardtop design introduced at mid-year. Thus, the "1963 1/2" designation.

"They got it perfect," Nelson said of the mid-year changes. "Ford advertisements called it `the compact cousin of the Thunderbird.’ "

Although it was still wearing vintage Rangoon Red lacquer paint, the Sprint convertible had been through some serious changes in its lifetime.

"A previous owner had the car for 25 years and he had put a 351 with a floor-shift automatic in it,” Nelson said. “It had an all-black interior back then."

That was how the car was configured when Jim Dottling of Phoenix got his hands on it.

"He had done early Fords forever … he is one of the Falcon gurus," Nelson said. Dottling had turned his Ford parts business over to the next generation.

"Now he finds nice cars and fixes them up and sells them," Nelson said. "He pulled the 351 out and put the correct 260 V-8 and a 2-speed automatic from a ’64 Comet in the car. It was supposed to have just 40,000 miles on it."

The car had a fresh set of Falcon bucket seats in it, but the doors, armrests, dash and sun visors all needed help.

"I had to strip it all down and re-dye it all to match the red upholstery," Nelson said. "I put a set of Bilstein shocks on it … but first I had to put Mustang shock towers on it.

The car was also treated to a suspension modification that lowered the upper control arms by about an inch.

"It really helps a lot in the wind," said Nelson, who noted the convertible tended to wander a bit on breezy days.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that Dottling had mount a numbers-correct Autolite 2-barrel carburetor under the beautiful original Sprint chrome-top air cleaner. The engine wears the appropriate chromed valve covers with the correct Sprint logo on only the driver’s side cover, as factory-issued.

Nelson had the power steering pump top smoothed and chromed, another small detail that adds to the Sprint authenticity. For reliability, he recently added a Pertronix electronic ignition module to the distributor.

"I’m trying to get it all to work and look as original as possible," he said. "I did upgrade the 13-inch wheels to original looking 14-inch Mustang wheels, which I had powder-coated red. I had to come up with stock-looking wheel covers. I found a set of ’57 Thunderbird hubcaps that I think match the design of the original tail lights nicely."

The 260 V-8 already had been converted to dual exhaust, using cast iron factory manifolds, but Nelson had Kevin Kaiser add a set of resonators to the system to tone down the "blat" of the glasspack mufflers.

There were problems along the way, of course. He had a new boot made to cover the top when it was down and made the mistake of putting the top up on a cold day — not a good move when you’re dealing with an original plexiglass rear window that’s nearly 50 years old.

"That thing just shattered," Nelson recalled. He could have had a new window installed, but opted instead to have Morgan Bulleigh install a whole new top assembly on the car.

"I was really surprised it had a power top, because Falcons started out as economy cars," he said. "But it was mid-’63 and they were gearing up for the Mustang, so all Falcon convertibles had power tops."

One of the big challenges was finding a correct Sprint tachometer for the top of the dash pad. "I knew I had to have the correct tach or it would not be a Sprint," Nelson said. "I finally found a guy who rebuilds them and I paid a decent amount of money for it.”

The shiny chrome Mylar interior door panels also had to be replaced and the Sprint’s iconic simulated wooden steering wheel needed work, too.

With only an AM radio available in the Falcon dashboard in 1963, Nelson decided to do what he had done when he was back in high school. He located a wood-grained Realistic FM converter box and positioned it under the dash, the perfect complement to the factory radio.

There are still improvements to be made: a later model 3-speed C4 automatic transmission sits in one corner of Nelson’s garage, waiting to be swapped into the Sprint for a bit more pep.

But for now, the bright red convertible is just what he wanted it to be — an eye-catching cruiser, perfect for warm summer nights when he and his wife Shelley and daughter Rebekah feel like taking a leisurely ride to the ice cream shop.

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