Well, looks like I’ve done it again.
One more car added to the stable, one bucket list item crossed off the list.
Like many of us car nuts, I’ve always been in love with the 1955 – 1957 Ford Thunderbirds. Of course, I really like the “squarebirds” too (1958 – 1960 Thunderbirds) – but the ’55 – ’57 T-birds are in another class by themselves!
I even started a file to help push me along the path of acquiring one of these timeless beauties. That file is dated 1998 (it’s now July, 2018)! In 20 years of career, kids, family and all the other great parts of modern life, I had set aside the dream of a Thunderbird for me. Now, I figured, it’s my turn.
Excuses Not To Buy A Thunderbird
Fast forward to 2018. With both of my kids out of the house (my daughter is just about done with a PhD from Clemson and my son is a semester away from an electrical engineering degree from University of Texas, Dallas), it was time. I’m not getting any younger, and they’re not getting any cheaper to buy. And, a book I was reading ( “The One Thing” by Gary Keller), I came across a mention of a study that stated most people regret the things they DIDN’T do. That struck a cord with me, as I had been putting off the dream ‘Bird for years due to a variety of reasons (whining excuses);
- Too expensive
- Couldn’t find one in my area that I liked
- Afraid of the level of restoration work needed for one I could afford
Make The Leap?
Realizing that procrastination was getting me nowhere, and my excuses for not making a leap were insane, I started looking for a 1955, a 1956 or a 1957 Thunderbird about 6 months ago. Truth be told, I might have been happy with a 1960 “Squarebird.” But, I figured as of recent, I would probably have to invest the same amount of time and energy restoring a lesser T-bird (if there is such an animal), so might as well shoot for the stars and get EXACTLY what I wanted.
I had some basic requirements, but year and condition were definitely fungible.
- The Thunderbird had to have both tops. As I learned, there is a huge value loss when only one top is present – up to $6,000 each according to Hagerty. Many of the less expensive ‘Birds I saw were missing one or the other (usually the soft top). Yes, you can find them on eBay, but the supply is extremely limited and they just don’t come up for sale too often. Plus, if you’re buying in a far-away city, it’s not wise to purchase without a personal inspection.
- It had to have power steering and power brakes. IMHO, these options are non-negotiable. Of course, you can add them to a car, but that can be very expensive. I saw only one such sale for a power steering set up on eBay for over $2,500. Again, the cars lacking these options were usually among the cheaper cars. Plus, who wants a pleasure car that you have to muscle around?
- Automatic transmission was mandatory. Maybe I’m turning into a fuddy-duddy, but I didn’t want the complexity & inconvenience of a do-it-yourself shifter. Heck, I’m all for manual transmissions – I learned to drive in a 1961 VW Bug – but I didn’t want one here. Once again, the lower priced cars usually had manual transmissions. Note: if you do get a manual, try and get the overdrive. That is definitely a good thing.
- I didn’t want a modified car. There are lots of early 2-seat Thunderbirds out there with different engines and transmissions. I wanted one that was as original as possible – no modern retrofits.
So, I started scouring craigslist.org and several of the online vintage car magazines. I set a budget purchase price, but realized that I might have go a little above that if I found one that I liked. I started looking in earnest in the Fall of 2017.
Several worthy candidates presented themselves over the months. Mostly some pretty scraggly examples that were missing at least one of my required pieces of equipment. Most were wildly (IMHO) overpriced. One was a 20 year-old barn find 1955 that needed a lot of work to be road-ready, and still priced at the top of my budget. Most were in Denver or thereabouts. So I just passed them by.
1955 Thunderbird – Should I?
One in particular caught my attention in May of 2018 – a red 1955 Thunderbird located in Casper, Wyoming. Casper is about 5 hours North of Colorado Springs, and I figured it would be a full day of driving to see it. I whined a little at that as well – 10 hours of driving time just to see a car! Waaa! It sounded great – rebuilt engine, good body & new interior. One problem – price was out of my price range.
But, I figured I should check it out. I contacted the owner, a retired couple, and we discussed the car. It sounded pretty nice.
Eventually, it was May – time for vacation! But, right before we left for 3 days at The Henry Ford Museum and a week at a Lake Cottage in Michigan, I saw a black 1957 Thunderbird that was located in Livingston, Montana. About 11 hours from Colorado Springs, it was at the tippy-top of my price range. Bot, it was a 1957 Tbird (the EXACT year I dreamed about) and ticked all the boxes for equipment & condition – both roofs, fender skirts, PS, PB and automatic, plus it was a D code car – meaning it had a 312 cu. in. engine with 245 hp!
And, even though the owner said it had been in storage for over 5 years, it looked complete and relatively un-molested. More on this later!
This was definitely a contender, but had 2 big strikes.
- It was in Montana – 11 hours away
- It was over my top budget price.
- It had some rust (more than I thought initially, but I’ll get into that in subsequent posts).
Next: The trip!
I wanted to include a link to a great blog by Chris at riseofthethunderbird.wordpress.com. He really inspired me to purchase my Thunderbird, and with his many detailed how-to posts, has made me want to document my fixes and restoration on my glamorous “Bird as well. This is a MUST read for anyone owning or restoring any old car or truck, as it shows how dedication and hard work can overcome just about anything. Thanks Chris!
First Stop – Casper, WY
I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the ’55 T-bird in Casper. So we did.
The owners were very nice and gracious – he handed me the keys and said take her for a drive! So I did. It seemed to run ok and I really got a shock as my wife and I were trundling along, as the brake pedal went completely to the floor! Fortunately I was able to (vigorously) pump the pedal and got a little braking action, so no disasters this time.
I returned the car and really started to notice a lot of really amateur bodywork. I’m guessing a lot of poorly repaired rust and possible some accidents too.
Plus, this was a 1955. I really wanted a 1957, so we told the owners we were going to pass on this one and headed out to Montana.
On To Montana To See A 1957 Thunderbird
We made it to Montana mid-afternoon, and the Thunderbird was stored in a garage. We met the owner who was the daughter – her father bought the car 30 years ago and mainly drove it in parades and car shows in and around Oklahoma. The father had passed on about 5 years ago and she wanted to see the car gone.
I was able to do a complete look-around and we did get it started. I did notice that there was some rust on the body (mainly rockers and rear quarters) and that rust damage had been badly “repaired.” How badly I wasn’t going to learn for at least a few months! However, it looked like there was no accident damage and all necessary accessories were present and accounted for.
My initial judgement was that there was way too much rust repair on this car for my taste, so my wife and I decided to finish the trip and come home. On the way we discussed the car and, even though it had more potential work involved that I wanted to do, we ought to make her an offer anyway. Silly me – that made sense at the time so I called the owner
I was surprised – she accepted my middling lowball offer (should have offered less)! Next up – going to pick up my new Thunderbird!