In 1963, NASA had a problem. The solution was 421 cubic inches of thunderous American muscle.
The mass of 200,00 people occupying a makeshift parking lot in the dried-up lakebed of Dryden Flight Research Center must have looked like a small colorful island in a sea of sand from the flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia.
It was the morning of April 14, 1981, and John Young and Bob Crippen were at the controls of the shuttle. It was the first-ever test flight of NASA’s first reusable spacecraft, and therefore, the first-ever landing. They brought her in for a silky-smooth touch down.
The shuttle was also the first craft to resemble an airplane, with wings and a vertical stabilizer, but it was never designed to take off like one. Instead, it had to rely on massive booster rockets to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull. The shuttle lands like a conventional aircraft, only it employed a lifting body design, meaning the fuselage and entire body act to produce lift, unlike a conventional airplane.
The Columbia (Courtesy of NASA Archives)
In the early '60s, research resulted in the creation of a very special prototype craft that would lay the foundation for the shuttle 20 years later. It was dubbed the M2-F1, M for “manned” and F for “flight." In other words, the M2-F1 was an unpowered lifting body glider that was designed for someone to actually sit in and fly. But unlike most of NASA’s X-planes of the time, the M2-F1 wasn't going to be launched from the wing of a B-52 at altitude — instead, it was designed to be towed behind a vehicle quick enough to produce lift and take flight.
NASA had recently launched the Mariner 1 using the Atlas-Agena rocket platform to the tune 233,000 pounds of thrust, but the only problem the M2-F1 project faced early on was the lack of a vehicle powerful enough to tow it.
The M2-F1 needed a tow clocking in at over 100 mph, and the tow vehicle needed to maintain enough power to lift the 1,000-pound airframe. That worked out to roughly a 400-pound tow.
It didn’t take the hive mind of NASA engineers to solve the problem. This was the early '60s, after all; massive carbureted big-block engines churning out obscene horsepower were commonplace. Cars truly lived their best moments a quarter mile at a time back then.
The M2-F1 (NASA Archives)
Walter Whiteside, a retired Air Force maintenance officer who also happened to be a hot-rodder, suggested something simple and unorthodox.
Enter the first-ever government-sponsored hot-rod convertible, a ragtop Pontiac Bonneville.
The Bonneville moniker was earned by numerous victories at the Bonneville Salt Flat time trials in the previous years, exactly the kind of driving the car would need to perform for NASA: all out, wide-open throttle for miles on a dried-up lakebed.
Boyden Bearse from the procurement department worked with Whiteside to convince Pontiac to special order a Bonneville convertible with a 421 featuring a four-barrel carburetor and a “four on the floor” stickshift. Pontiac acquiesced, and NASA became the owner of a souped-up car in a rare configuration but, like the M2-F1, the Pontiac preparation was only just taking off.
NASA equipped the car with airspeed indicators and welded in a tow hitch to the frame of the car before it was driven to a local garage in Long Beach to tune the car to produce maximum torque at 100 mph and comfortably cruise at speeds well over that. A roll bar was fabbed up, and the front passenger seat was reversed in order to observe the lifting body aircraft. The gear ratios were tightened up for top-end speed and straight pipes were installed to let the massive 421 breathe more efficiently. The build was topped off with a set of racing slicks like the ones used in the salt flats. Government duty aside, this was one bad-ass hot rod.
The NASA logo was applied to the car, and like the rest of the flight line vehicles, the hood and trunk were sprayed with hi-visibility yellow paint. On the way home from the garage, Whiteside caught the attention of Johnny Law, but it wasn't criminal — the officer had simply never seen a souped-up rodder roaring down the highway outside Edwards AFB with government plates. He stopped Whiteside out of curiosity. The bright yellow paint certainly worked.
So did the whole project. The Bonneville towed the M2-F1 to flight on March 1, 1963 and went on to perform 48 test runs total before the prototype aircraft earned a spot being towed behind a C-47. All the M2-F1 needed was simple American ingenuity — and some brute muscle — to get off the ground.