This 1961 Ford F-100 Unibody Is The Latest Holley Research And Development Vehicle

10 min read

This 1961 Ford F-100 Unibody Is The Latest Holley Research And Development Vehicle

10 min read

Pickup trucks of the early 1960s were a far different machine than what is sold on your dealer's lots today. Creature comforts were few and far between, handling was not a priority, and power was only present when moving a load was part of the program. Things like sport trucks, muscle trucks, luxury trucks...they simply did not exist. The standard pickup truck was a beast of burden, first and foremost. The engine had enough grunt to move weight, the bed had enough room to haul items, and the interior had one slab of a seat for, at most, three people. The heater was an option. An air-conditioner was an expensive luxury, if it was offered at all. Carpeting was a liability, a radio was extra-cost, and the expectation for a long life wasn't there. The truck was supposed to be used until the body fell off, the engine expired, or the frame rusted. For anything else, there was the sedan or the station wagon.

Decades later, the pickup truck has gone from a tool with license plates to the most popular vehicle style in the United States, with the Ford F-series, Chevrolet Silverado and the Ram taking first, second and third place in ranking for 2020. These trucks have as much in common with their 1961 counterparts as their 1961 counterparts have in common with a 1961 Cadillac de Ville. Most are offered as four-door, well-trimmed trucks with the latest in electronic gadgets, infotainments systems, seats that rival a good home recliner for comfort, and enough power to induce vision warp in the right circumstances. Even the most basic work truck package of today can out-gun, out-handle, and out-lux anything from back in the day, adjusted for the times or not. But the lines of a classic truck can't be ignored...there is just something about the looks of those old work rigs that looks great.

Arclight F-100 hood badge

One of the newest members of the Holley fleet is this 1961 Ford F-100 unibody pickup truck. You might know this truck as "Bozo", the truck that was built by Aaron Kaufman's Arclight Fabrication Co. as a pilot vehicle for suspension kits. Holley has recently acquired the truck and will be using the unique F-100 as a product development vehicle for testing of upcoming products.

The History of the Ford Unibody

1961 Ford F-100 "Unibody"

1961 Ford F-100. (Ford Motor Company)

1961 marks the start of the F-series' fourth generation, and the first major overhaul of the Ford truck since 1953, when the "Triple Economy" body style had debuted. The short-lived third-generation had taken the 1953 design and had pushed the fenders out to meet the cab's door width, and had seen the development of the clamshell hood that closed over the whole nose as well. Wider than the third-generation trucks, the 1961 Ford (and it's Canadian Mercury M-series twin) debuted what is commonly referred to as the "unibody" truck. This is a bit of a misnomer: a true unibody vehicle utilizes the body structure as part of the frame. Vehicles like the Ford Mustang and the Jeep Grand Cherokee use unibody construction. But the 1961 F100 is better understood as an "integrated-body" truck. The cab and the box are one continuous piece of metal. Unlike a standard truck, the bed is not a separate part of the body construction. The complete body, integrated bed and all, would be set upon the chassis in the traditional body-on-frame arrangement, making the F-100 and two-wheel-drive F-250 more like the 1957-1959 Ranchero. This did provide a bit of cost savings to Ford, since they could save on tooling for the separate body panels, and it provided Ford some bragging rights, since the design opened up more cargo area. Whether Ford had seen the trend for suburban workers who needed more than a basic station wagon's utility a decade before anyone else really did, or whether they were just trying to feel out a new market for the truck beyond farmers and tradesmen, that's anyone's guess.

The "unibody" design did not last long. Stories that involved the doors jamming shut when the truck was loaded or worse, popping open while crossing railroad tracks, started to pop up. The amount of body flex that was occurring when loaded was unacceptable to many who bought the truck as a utility vehicle and the situation only got worse with age and rust. Even in 1961, having any mark against the F-series was a serious issue for Ford, so halfway through 1962 Ford made the decision to start cranking out conventional-bodied half-ton and 3/4 ton trucks, which were so rushed that they wore the box of the 1960 F-series, which did not line up at all with the 1961's body lines. The "unibody" truck continued on until the end of the 1963 model year. By that time, both the unit-constructed truck and the conventional platform had been sold side-by-side and the unit-body truck was being outsold by the conventional model by a margin of two-to-one.

The logic was easy enough to understand. The design was handsome. But the failing of the "unibody" F-100 fell to the design itself. In 1961, even if the truck was going to be used in an urban setting, it was going to be "used". Yes, it was nice to get a truck with air conditioning, two-tone paint, a large rear window, and some visual gingerbread to dress up the F-series from the typical farm-worked pickup truck. There would be no shame in parking a unit-body F-100 that was clean and sorted in the driveway as the second vehicle to haul the camp trailer or some items that wouldn't fit in a station wagon. But Ford's luck ran out with owners who didn't see the "light utility" idea behind the F-100. They still wanted a truck that could be worked to the bone.

The F100

Arclight F-100 theme park 1

Knowing the story behind the 1961 Ford truck, let's take a closer look at the Arclight-built rig. What didn't work out as a farm truck in 1961 makes for a great-looking street machine with a bed, and you can't knock the lines of the "unibody" Ford...the flowing wheel arches and the mid-body line that was designed for two-tone paint jobs is spot-on. That's not to say that this truck is perfect. But it wears sixty years' worth of age very well, with the right amount of patina that was earned over the years. After all that time, a little bit of surface rust at the edges of the trim is nothing to be worried about. That's just character! A full Arclight Stage One suspension package is fitted to the F-100 and is accentuated with power front disc brakes for a safer driving experience than a standard 1961 Ford truck would have offered. The original engine is long gone, replaced with a 340 horsepower Ford 302 that drinks from a Holley 650 double-pumper carburetor through an Edelbrock Air Gap intake manifold. The 302 is fitted out with a COMP Cams hydraulic roller camshaft, allowing the engine to breathe air and fuel in through Ford GT40 heads, where it is sparked off by an MSD ignition system before being breathed out through Pypes stainless headers into a 2.5" Magnaflow exhaust with an H-pipe.

Managing the power from the 302 is a Tremec T-5 five-speed manual transmission, which takes the grunt and moves it out to a Ford 9-inch rear axle fitted with a Spartan Lunchbox locker unit and 3.70 rear gears, giving the driver a nice, good shove into the rebuilt seat when the throttle is applied. That seat sits inside the fully Vibro Solutions sound-insulated and carpeted cab of the Ford. While they are there, they will be able to enjoy the cool breeze from a modern air conditioning system that is dressed up in the original Ford "Polar-Aire" A/C unit for that taste of luxury that Ford hoped would swing buyers to a pickup truck. The wiring is courtesy of American Autowire, so there is no fear of what sixty-year-old wiring could potentially do. All they need to do is fire off that 302, shift into gear, and get moving. The chromed steel wheels and the BFGoodrich Silvertown whitewall tires (215/65R15 front, 255/70R15 on the rear) will do the rest.

Make no mistake, this F-100 is a riot of a truck. But a research and development vehicle? That's the truth, that's what the Ford is earmarked for. As for what products will come out of the truck's contributions to Holley's R&D program, you will just have to be patient and wait a bit. It isn't like we aren't enjoying the F-100 the way it is at the moment...

Arclight F100 starship shot


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