"Parnelli?" Mark Brown smiles. "He's just your basic living legend." Mark goes back to fussing over the perfect Boss 302 in front of us. A moment later he says, "And his car is in my garage."
The only Boss 302 Parnelli Jones has ever owned is perched on an over-center hoist in a single-stall hobby shop in the middle of Mark's 23-acre flower farm. No one driving through the rolling hills of semirural Fallbrook, California, would guess that one of racing's greatest would have his personal car in the stucco building under a pepper tree. Five years ago, Mark wouldn't have either.
Five years ago, not even Parnelli Jones was thinking of owning a Boss 302. After racing and winning in nearly every racing discipline, from the '63 Indy 500, to stock cars, Pike's Peak, the Baja 1000, and the '70 Trans-Am in a Bud Moore-prepared Boss 302, Parnelli is what legends are made of, and he has the cars to prove it. His real estate holdings and chain of retail tire shops has given him the means to showcase many of the machines-or replicas of the machines-that he made famous. Upstairs in his Torrance, California, headquarters isn't a museum, but one of the world's truest trophy garages. Only open to Parnelli's guests, the garage houses burly Indy roadsters and he-man sedans of racing's golden era. While even the "Big Oly" off-road Bronco is on-hand, there is no Boss 302.
There could've been one. After winning all the Trans-Am marbles in 1970, Ford offered Parnelli his championship racer for $1. That shows how much Ford thought of that year's race car. It was "the oldest thing in the world," according to trackside wisdom. Parnelli's response-turning it down- also indicated his feelings. Increasingly busy making his fortune as an Indy-car team owner and business man, he didn't think much about his Trans-Am legacy until recently.
Evidently, he couldn't stop thinking about it. Approaching racing patron Steve Saleen for a one-off, late-model Mustang for his personal driving pleasure, the end-result was the limited run of Saleen/Parnelli Jones commemoratives (see sidebar). Before that, Parnelli approached longtime racing associate G.S. Johnson about finding an original Boss 302 that could be made to resemble his '70 Trans-Am race car. Similar to the late-model Saleen, it would primarily be a fun street car.
G.S. was Parnelli's go-to man for a Boss because in addition to sharing an IMSA race car in the '80s, Parnelli paired his son P.J. with G.S. for a full season. He'd seen G.S.'s restored Boss 302 and loved it.
Parnelli tried out his new...
Parnelli tried out his new Boss 302 for the first time during our photo shoot. His smile is genuine; he said it was "like putting on an old glove." He didn't miss the chance to give it the what-for around the block, either. When we slipped behind the driver seat, we found the driving position very tight for someone who is more than 6-feet tall. That doesn't matter-it fits Parnelli's shorter frame just fine.
Because the engine is such...
Because the engine is such an integral part of the Boss 302 mystique, Parnelli's powerplant retains its stock stroke and high-rpm personality. In fact, G.S. Johnson built the engine with enough cam to give it a definite stutter in idle, something Parnelli approves of. Details include a 289 Hi-Po distributor with PerTronix innards, a three-angle valve job, and F.P.A. headers.
Parnelli's Boss came with...
Parnelli's Boss came with an oil cooler, but it was plumbed with a huge aftermarket oil filter adapter and braided hose that looked wrong. G.S. substituted a proper Ford adapter for $500 and a factory-correct hose to keep the Boss looking period correct.
Parnelli's Boss was found in Antioch, California. The car wasn't a restored cream puff. It had been run hard and modified, but it was Grabber Orange and rust-free. The owner was happy to sell it to Parnelli, and he even delivered it to Southern California for the asking price.
G.S. set to work in his Ontario, California, shop. At first, the orders were for a relatively simple clean up and a few improvements, such as rear-disc brakes. The fastback was disassembled, and the body was repainted by Auto Craft in Torrance. But as the repairs progressed, G.S. realized it needed a full restoration to be done right. While he knew Parnelli might initially growl about the price, he charged ahead.
Then life intervened. G.S. was a single man living for cars when Parnelli tasked him with building a Boss, but a year and a half later, G.S. was married and living three hours away from the shop he shared. Project PJ was in cardboard boxes going nowhere fast, and its owner wasn't going to wait forever. That's when he called his friend Mark Brown.
Mark doesn't look like Rocky Balboa, but his dedicated amateur-to-professional restoration story follows the familiar Hollywood script. After a career wrenching on cars and owning his own repair shop, he switched to growing flowers on the family acreage to keep the tax man at bay. Cars remained his hobby and Mustangs his love. His first serious work was a black '86 Fox hatchback that made the magazines, followed by his own medium-red Boss 302 restoration. That car just finished making the rounds of book and magazine covers-you've seen the car many times whether you know it or not-when he took on a neighbor's '6411/42 convertible. He was within a couple months of finishing that project in March 2006 when G.S. called wanting Mark to do the heavy lifting on Project PJ.