T-Bird brings fun, fun, fun

Written and photographed by Clive Branson

1956 FORD THUNDERBIRD

Owner: John Landreville

 

“And she’ll have fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes her T-Bird away.” The Beach Boy’s verse mirrors a certain dalliance and youthful insouciance of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was equally reflected in the first-generation Ford Thunderbird (1955-1957) heralded by Ford as their first sports car (to compete against Chevrolet’s Corvette), when in fact, it was a supped up two-seater, luxury sedan (for comfort-conscious Americans) that Ford coined as a “personal car” since this would appeal to a wider and larger market.

 

It didn’t have the lines, lightness or handling of a traditional sports car, but the introduction of the ’55 Thunderbird suddenly provoked a new perception that its contemporary automobile was about as exciting as a Westinghouse blender. Not only did it compete against the Corvette, but massively outsold it 24 to 1. Even Ford was taken aback by its success, selling almost double the expected number anticipated. Yet, had it not been for Corvette’s debut, there is little doubt that the Thunderbird would have existed, particularly since sports cars accounted for a tiny percentage of the U.S. market.

 

In contrast to Corvette’s fiberglass frame, the Thunderbird had a neat, athletic-looking steel body emphasizing its centrespread-like long hood, simulated air scoop and short-deck proportions to give an edgier, sexier appearance. Buried beneath the metal was a powerful V8 waiting to be unleashed opposed to Corvette’s impotent Straight-Six. Ford relished in highlighting the T-Bird’s potency with a glaring dashboard that advertised the capability of climaxing at 150 mph on its speedometer.

It was apparent that the T-Bird was not your family sedan and more like Mad Men’s executive car. And though it had the same dimensions as a Jaguar XK-140, to keep the costs down, Ford made sure the parts were interchangeable with other Ford models. Other options included power steering, brakes, windows, and even a power front bench seat designed to look like bucket seats. It also featured a removable hardtop or optional softop. The weight alone (nearly 3,500 lb) clearly demonstrated that it was not a sports car, though it had good speed for its time, rivaling any competitor in a straight line, but was essentially a stylish, luxurious, upper-middle-class cruiser.

This was embarrassingly obvious when a couple of Jaguar XK-120s blew the T-Birds off a circuit track in competition. Motor Trend’s Detroit editor, Don McDonald wrote: “Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the new Ford Thunderbird is the clever wedding of sports car functionalism with American standards of comfort.”

There were still flaws, such as a blind side when the roof was secured and negligible trunk space, but these were rectified with the emergence of the ’56 model, designed with the “Continental Kit” to house the spare wheel at the rear exterior above the newly extended bumper and circular ‘portholes’ distinguishing the sides of the hardtop to improve driver visibility. The engine was upgraded from a 292 V8 (from Ford’s Mercury division) to the larger 312-cubic-inch V8 enabling it to produce 215 horsepower with a three-speed manual gearbox and 225 with the automatic transmission.

Ford also incorporated a slew of safety features, such as energy-absorbing panel padding, concave steering wheel, safety door latches and a shatter-resistant mirror. Seatbelts? Well, they were optional, and regardless, there was a greater selection in colours, including two-tone paint schemes. Ford assumed the line-up of options were more important than precise road handling and steering, which may account why this car never appealed to European enthusiasts.

 

It is hardly surprising when I admire John Landreville’s stunning ’56 T-Bird, how thrilled he is with it. “I always wanted an early T-Bird,” declares John. “I decided on New Year’s Day 2005, while present at the Barrett-Jackson Auction, that it was time to get one.” John got to meet T-Bird aficionado, Amos Minter in Dallas. Amos has been restoring and selling early Birds for 40 years and has a wide selection of the early models. “When I saw Amos in late January 2005, we short-listed four cars,” continues John. “I wanted a nice driver and that is the range I picked from.

The selection was quite amazing. You only ever see one or two T-Birds at any car show, but to see 30 plus – all for sale – was quite a treat. I returned in two weeks the next month with my friend, Brian Donagan, and we spent two days at the dealership test driving and examining cars. This car met all my needs and wishes,” nods John confidently. “We made a deal and Amos took us to his house where he has a 25-car garage and showed us his personal collection, which includes Eisenhower’s inauguration Caddie. Quite a bonus for us!”

 

With only 25,000 miles registered, the car still had some wear n’ tear, but could claim that most of it was original based on matching numbers, including the engine. “It had been well maintained and Amos gave me a list of things his shop did prior to the sale. Since my purchase, I’ve replaced the tires with Firestone Bias Belts. They were the original make of tire when the car was new with the wide white walls.

A lot of owners use Radials, which actually give a better performance, but I prefer to stick with the original equipment as close as possible.”  Sixty-two years ago, this T-Bird first graced the dealership’s floor at Bev Smith Ford in West Palm Beach, Florida for $3,304.49. Gasoline was $0.23 per U.S. gallon. It seems surreal. “I have a copy of the original invoice,” affirms John.

“Bev Smith was a car dealer who had originally met Henry Ford Sr. in a Detroit Ford factory where he worked. Apparently Henry Ford frequently walked through the plants, conversing with employees and struck up a friendship with Bev. After World War II, Henry Ford set Bev up with a Michigan Ford dealership. Bev’s wife became ill and they moved to Florida for her health and opened a dealership in West Palm Beach. It is still operated by Bev’s son, Nick, who has written his father’s biography. I visited Nick in 2007 to reminisce about his dad. Unfortunately, with the privacy laws, it is difficult to track ownership and history, so I have no history from 1956 to 1970, but my research of the car’s previous owners lead me back to the late 1970s when the car was purchased in California by Bill Mitchell, a movie-set builder. He had worked on the film classic, Bonnie and Clyde and was a personal friend of Amos, who displayed an actual gas pump in his Recreational Room that was in the film.

Mitchell owned three early T-Birds and Amos purchased this car from Bill’s estate in 2004. Bill was divorced and his ex-wife married the disc jockey and recording artist, Groovey Joe Poovey.” John raises the proverbial eyebrow. “In Amos’ house there is a wall displaying photos of famous people who have purchased cars from him, including Frank Sinatra (2), Dean Martin, Reba MacIntire, John Melencamp, Dave Thomas (of Wendy’s fame), Elvis’ dad, and many others. I don’t think my photograph is up there,” John says with a laugh.

I can see my reflection off the midnight black skin of the car. “It’s called Raven Black, an original factory colour,” states John as though he’s reading my mind. “It has won several awards including a Dealers Choice, Best T-Bird, People’s Choice, and a Top 50 in and around the Ottawa region, but the best award is simply driving it and seeing such a positive reaction from the public.

This car represents a connection with my past a though we grew up together. I call her Baby Bird. Some of my fondest memoirs are from the mid- to late-50s. The ’56 T-Bird is truly a classic representing a time when cars were truly beautiful and full of character. People of all ages comment on how they appreciate the style and beauty of cars like my ’56 T-Bird. There is no shortage of high fives, thumbs up, waves from the public when my wife and I cruise in it. The car always draws a crowd and lots of photos are taken. My wife says she feels like a celebrity. I’m very lucky, I already knew she was special and just as unique as the Baby Bird.”