"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.
Mark was only too ready. A mainstay on the Boss Registry Web site (www.boss302.com), he had already offered G.S. his services on an enthusiast's basis just so he could say he had touched Parnelli's Boss. Now the car was coming to the flower farm.
True to form, Parnelli didn't...
True to form, Parnelli didn't want a bunch of toys interfering with his driving pleasure. His Boss features an AM radio, two extra instruments, and a brassy soundtrack from the high-rpm small-block with the percussion-section valvetrain. It's vintage Boss all the way.
Virginia Mustangs was the...
Virginia Mustangs was the source of many items on Project PJ, including the current production, '60's-era Grant steering wheel.
Reproduction Hurst shift knobs...
Reproduction Hurst shift knobs are available, but details are what make a great restoration. The new handles don't precisely match the originals, so Mark Brown steel-wooled Parnelli's original shift handle clean, resprayed the black paint, and then wiped it with a rag to get the numerals to show in relief. The add-on Stewart-Warner instruments are genuine '60's parts G.S. had been hoarding.
The unibody and piles of boxes were set aside until Mark finished his neighbor's car. Thinking he'd better get started, in June he began dragging out boxes and investigated the body. What he found wasn't pretty. Aside from the painted body work, what he had was a dirty Boss 302 that someone else disassembled. "A painted basket case" was Mark's description. Then the call came.
It was Parnelli, the legend Mark had yet to meet, and he wanted to know if his car would be ready for an event at the Petersen Automotive Museum in November. "Uh, sure," Mark mumbled, still in awe that he was talking to Parnelli Jones.
After hanging up, Mark began pacing in the shop. "What have I done?" Mark wailed. "It took me three and a half years to do my Boss, and now I've promised Parnelli Jones his car in five months. What have I done?"
What Mark did was assign himself the personal challenge of delivering Parnelli's car. "I asked myself if I was a car guy or not," says Mark. Then he got to work.
Finishing The Job
Although the Boss was in Mark's shop, it was still a team effort led by him and G.S., as well as their many subcontractors. With the car disassembled and painted by G.S., Mark concentrated on his strength of fastidious attention to detail. He disassembled and organized everything. While the Hurst shifter was rebuilt by Toploader Heaven, the 9-inch rear axle with 3.50 gears and a Top Loader transmission went to drivetrain specialist Jed Jacops for a mechanical overhaul. Logging the first of many hours with the pressure washer and blast cabinet, Mark cleaned and painted the parts their correct colors.
G.S. built the Boss engine with a rumpity-rump cam, MPG Head Service port plates (a cool trick for the large Cleveland ports), TRW forged pistons, and a mechanically proper 780-cfm Holley. Parnelli didn't want the car's original Shaker hoodscoop because the Trans-Am racers didn't have them, so the otherwise highly prized ram-air system was replaced with a standard air cleaner.
Parnelli did want power steering, however, and his car didn't have it. He picked up a tired Boss 302 power-steering system, and while Mark ended up replacing most of it, it included a $1,000 Boss-specific pump pulley and fluid cooler. The existing Boss 302 oil cooler was correctly installed and the radiator enlarged to a four-core using the original tanks.
As a non-concours car, Parnelli didn't need to spend $2,000 on an authentic Boss 302 air filter or another $1,600 for air injection parts. He didn't need an $800 rev limiter, either-he has one of those in his head.
The restorer's art was let...
The restorer's art was let loose on Parnelli's Boss, even though the car isn't destined for judged shows. It's just the way a detail artist such as Mark does things. G.S. was happy to find the ultrarare Boss 302-only rear lower shock mounts/ spring perches on Project PJ.
Few people will get to see...
Few people will get to see this view of Parnelli's Boss, which is a shame. G.S. points out that the roller bearing front spring perches, negative wedge kit, the "Shelby drop," and large 71/48-inch sway bar wake up the handling.
The four-in-one headers are from F.P.A. and connect to a Dr. Gas X-shape crossover, 2-1/2-inch tubing, and DynoMax mufflers. Because of the tight fit around the staggered rear shocks, 211/44-inch tailpipes were fitted. The whole system suspends from correct Ford hangers and sounds righteous.
A tremendous amount of work went into the undercar area. The suspension had been media-blasted in place. By the time Mark got it, he had to remove it, reblast the rust off, install new Ford bushings, and paint everything. AMK Products supplied the concours-correct undercar hardware, saving a lot of time. Mark says Parnelli wanted his car to sit low, so G.S. performed the Shelby drop in front and cut half a coil from the 620-lb/in front springs. The rear leaf springs were just right with their 36-year sag. The sway bars remain stock; the Koni single-adjustable shocks were rejuvenated by Mark via media-blasting, paint, and new stickers.
G.S. continued by making the long haul from his Los Angeles home to Mark's shop. With limited time onsite, he concentrated on smaller chores such as fitting the front spoiler, blacking out the pinch welds in correct factory fashion, bleeding brakes, installing a negative wedge and eccentric eliminator kits, and so on.
Parnelli wanted braking optimized, so G.S. cross-drilled the stock front rotors, and a Baer disc-brake conversion kit was installed in the rear. Classic Tube hard lines were used, and the stock master cylinder was sent to Hunt's Auto Parts for rebuilding.
The Minilite wheels really are Minilites sourced from England, as were the originals on Parnelli's race car. They measure 15x8 inches and carry BFG TA radials front and rear. The tires measure 235/60-15 in front and 255/60-15 in back.
During reassembly, the exterior chores were the headlight doors, which Mark scuffed and painted, as well as replating the chrome and polishing the stainless steel trim at Sanchez Plating. Mark handled the black trim himself, including repainting the fiberglass interior panels and lower dash. He didn't have to worry about the backlight slats. They were removed and the mounting holes were filled by Auto Craft. Since the Trans-Am race cars didn't use the rear window slats, Parnelli didn't want them.
Mark stayed busy inside the Boss as he installed the interior. Friendly Upholstery rebuilt and upholstered the seats. New upholstery trim, headliner, and carpet were used, and Mark disassembled the instrument cluster for cleaning and fresh bulbs. He rebuilt the original heater box and installed a new heater core, along with hours detailing the switch gear and other small parts. He also added oil pressure and water-temp gauges for a racier look.
Final detailing was extensive in the face of the tight November deadline. A couple of hidden areas at the bottom of the doors and rocker panels were sanded and reshot by Bruce Berry of Quigly's Autobody. Bruce also helped Mark with the hood-pin installation and color-sanding.
Did He Make It?
With help from his friends and five months worth of 2 a.m. nights, Parnelli's Boss was reborn. The car was at the Petersen gala celebrating his racing career. Mark had the look of a tired but relieved man when we saw him there. To no one's surprise, he said that after getting the car back into its trailer and himself to the hotel in the wee hours, he slept the sleep that comes only when Parnelli's Boss is in your garage-finished.
Besides a Boss 302 to recall his Trans-Am championship, Parnelli thought a new Mustang painted to look similar to his T-A racer would be neat to tool around in as well. Who better for Parnelli to call than Steve Saleen? Parnelli and George Follmer were codrivers on the Saleen factory team in the Escort Endurance Series in the late '80s, helping Saleen win his first sports-car constructor championship. Parnelli had Steve's phone number in his Rolodex.
When Parnelli asked Steve to build him a single S197 Mustang, Steve countered with a limited run of 500 Saleen/Parnelli Jones Mustangs, or simply "PJs" as they're known around Saleen. The result is a hugely entertaining, naturally aspirated Saleen with 400 hp. What we found uncanny was how the PJ feels like its Boss predecessor. Cammed for a sparkling top end, the Saleen/PJ is OK down low but tears at the top of the tach. It has a Boss 302 personality without a frustrating lack of bottom-end torque.
Parnelli is pleased with his namesake Saleen. "It's so easy to drive, it sort of broke my heart," he says. "I felt sorry for the old car, like its time has gone." In fact, during Motor Trend testing, the new car was quicker than Parnelli's original race car around the Streets of Willow Spring road racing course, so that's no idle thought.
At press time, the $59,015 Saleen/Parnelli Jones cars were almost sold out, but if you hurry, you might still find one. Expect a good ride from the 19-inch rolling stock, a snarling soundtrack, and plenty of stares.