“I had built a couple of cars that had ended up in magazines, so I thought maybe I’d give that career path a try,” Jeff Schwartz explained. As such, he founded Schwartz Performance back in 2005 on the premise that racecar-level performance and road car comfort and reliability didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“In 2006 we started making custom chassis for muscle cars,” Jeff explained. “Coming from a manufacturing background it was kind of a natural progression for us, and these days we specialize mainly in restomod and pro touring-type builds. Since we manufacture chassis, pretty much every build we do has our chassis underneath it, and as a result we’re kind of known for bringing modern engineering into old cars.”
I just love the way it gets down the road – it runs really well and it has the look we were going for. — Jeff Schwartz, Schwartz Performance
Not long after things got underway at the shop, Jeff procured a rust-free ’67 Ford Custom 500 restoration candidate – a model he’d been around a lot in his youth, but never actually owned.
“As a kid growing up, a lot of my family had those 1965-68 Fords,” he told us. “My step dad had a ’65 Custom, my grandpa had a ’65 LTD, and my uncle John had a ’66 Galaxie 500.”
While Galaxie and LTD have become well-known Blue Oval commodities over the years, the Custom 500 has largely flown under the radar of most muscle car enthusiasts. “I think in all my years in hot rodding I’d seen like two of them,” Jeff said of the Custom 500 went he stumbled across the Craigslist ad. “I thought it was kinda cool — like Ford’s version of a Biscayne.” (Photo Credit: Adam Cha)
It would be fair to assume that Schwartz was bound to own one of these full-sized Fords sooner or later, but that wasn’t always the plan, Jeff says. “I was looking around for a Bel Air or a Biscayne and the asking prices were already pretty steep, even back then. I just wanted a project that had a rust-free body that maybe ran.”
Serendipitous timing would end up steering Schwartz away from the Chevys, as Ford’s sophisticated factory design made it a perfect fit as a Schwartz Performance build.
“I just happened to have a customer come in with a ’66 Galaxie, and I started looking at the chassis on it and doing some research,” Jeff said. “I discovered that that chassis ended up dominating NASCAR racing from the time it came out in ’65 until they discontinued it – it had a Panhard bar with a three-link rear suspension and it was a fully boxed frame, so there were a lot of really cool things about the chassis design.”
Uncle Sam’s Muscle Car
“I found a rust-free, radio-delete car listed on Craigslist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a 289 and a three-speed for $950 and ended up buying it,” he explained. “While I was cleaning the car out, I found this card in the rear seat between the springs and cushion that had the original owner’s name on it – Joe Baca. It was some kind of FBI employee identification card. I thought that it was really weird that it was hidden up underneath the seat like that.”
Jeff says that while he’d initially planned to get the car back in shape fairly quickly with a twin-turbo small-block providing the motivation, life ended up getting in the way.
While the Custom 500 certainly has visual presence, it's less extroverted than some of the more mainstream muscle car models, which lends itself to the car's overall sleeper vibe. Behind those steelies, Jeff installed 11-inch Wilwood disc brakes with four-piston calipers at all four corners, giving the big Ford enough stopping power to keep up to the stroked big block under the hood. With the factory chassis being as capable as it is, he chose to simply freshen it up rather than replacing it, cleaning it with a pressure washer and a wire wheel on a large hand held grinder before painting it and applying undercoat.
“It was running when I got it, but I took the engine out right away and started the project,” he said. “Of course, then business got busy and all this other stuff started demanding more of my time, so it ended up sitting in a corner of the shop for 10 years.”
Jeff’s plan for the car changed over that time. Eventually he decided that rather than building a boosted small-block, he wanted to make the Custom 500 into a R-code clone with a naturally aspirated big-block and some modern touches, including a six-speed manual gearbox and a dual quad-style EFI system.
“While we were putting the finishing touches on the car I was looking for 1967 Ford license plates on eBay,” Jeff recalled. “I stumbled upon this US Congress plate from 1967 and thought that would be a better visual fit than the New Mexico plates from ’67, which didn’t really match the color of the car. So I put this plate on the front of the car, and we went on our first road trip with the car – Hot Rod Power Tour. At the first stop on the trip a bunch of people asked me what the deal was with the US Congress plate and I didn’t really have any story for them. Then I started wondering, ‘What if this Baca guy actually was a Congressman?’”
Jeff Schwartz says the initial idea for the Congressional plate had more to do with aesthetics than anything else — the fact that the previous owner was a Congressman was basically a happy coincidence.
Jeff started searching around on the internet for more information on the original owner. “Turns out there was a US Congressman from California named Joe Baca and his bio said he was from the Belen, New Mexico – the same small town that the car came from. So we pieced together that he’d been an employee of the FBI before moving to California and becoming a Congressman. So it turned out the car had a built-in story that happened to match up with the license plate I’d bought!”
Inside and Out
Under the hood of Jeff’s Custom 500 lurks a 427 big-block that’s stroked to 468 cubes and dishes out 560 horsepower and 580 lb-ft of torque at the crank.
“The key to it is the cylinder heads that Barry Robotnik at Survival Motorsports put together for us,” Jeff said. “Those flow some really good numbers, and pairing it up with a Schwartz Performance custom grind cam really took advantage of what those heads can do.”
The stealthy modernization theme continues under the hood, where the 468ci V8 is fed by dual quad-style Fi Tech fuel injection system rather than a pair of traditional four-barrel carburetors. The interior sees a few similar touches as well, like the old-school look of the shifter that's hooked up to a modern six-speed manual gearbox.
That powerplant is paired up with a close-ratio Tremec T-56 six-speed manual that sends the grunt to the rear tires through a Ford 9-inch rearend with a Moser center section and 4.10 gears.
The Custom 500 sits on its original fully boxed factory chassis and utilizes the three-link setup that Ford originally equipped it with. Although Jeff has added an adjustable Panhard bar, beefier sway bars, RideTech adjustable shocks, and a quicker steering rack.
“Those upgrades made a huge difference in the ride and handling,” he explained. “With the adjustability you can go to the drag strip and loosen up the front for better weight transfer, then stiffen them up a bit later if you’re going to head out to some twisty mountain roads.”
Dominance In NASCAR
Ford’s new full-sized coupes were a force to be reckoned with on America’s oval tracks right out of the gate when they debuted for the 1965 model year. The boxed frame gave the chassis much-needed rigidity, while the three-link and Panhard bar suspension setup helped keep the cars stable at those sustained high speeds. Edwin “Banjo” Matthews, a former Ford factory team member turned race builder, would use the Ford design as the basis for his aftermarket racing chassis, which were used for years in NASCAR under all brands of cars. Cars built by Matthews won 262 of 362 NASCAR Winston Cup races between 1974 and 1985, including all 30 races in 1978, and four consecutive Winston Cup championships between 1975 and 1978.
Given the amount of seat time Jeff enjoyed in the Custom 500 since completing the project, we’d imagine it’s seen a bit of everything.
“I finished the car last June and put 6,000 miles on it between then and October,” he told us. “I just love the way it gets down the road – it runs really well and it has the look we were going for. I don’t really have any plans to do anything really different with it in the future, but I do want to get some drag radials on it and head back to the track. It ran a 12.63 at 113 MPH on these tires with like a 1.9-second 60-foot, so there’s definitely a lot more left in it.”