DEARBORN - Remarkably, in a 10-month time frame, the famed “Bonner Thunderbolt” was transformed from a relatively unknown off-the-radar muscle car barn-find, to a show-stopping concours-restored, world class, race-ready drag car. And I was there to witness it all.
On January 16Th, 2015, I had the opportunity to be present for the removal of the Phil Bonner Thunderbolt from a pole barn in Cumming, Georgia, where it had been stowed away for nearly 20 years. The week prior, new owner Donald Allen reached out to me with news about his recent purchase and asked if I’d have an interest in being on hand when he pulls it from the pole barn. One week later, with Nikon in hand, I was photographing one of the most significant muscle car barn-finds of the decade.
The Thunderbolt had been previously owned by Hal Reed for more than 30-years. In the early 80’s, Reed had located the car in Stone Mountain, Georgia, after seeing it listed for sale in the classifieds section of a local magazine. Reed wasted little time and made a phone call to inquire about the car. The seller told him the car was still available and added that the interior and trunk compartment was full of Ford 427cid engine parts, and that it was a Thunderbolt originally owned by legendary drag racer Phil Bonner. The seller went on to say that he had worked for Bonners back in the day as a body repairman. Reed asked for the vehicle identification number (VIN) and after extensive research with experts within the Ford Fairlane and Thunderbolt collector community, he discovered the car was, indeed, the Thunderbolt provided to Phil Bonner by the Ford Motor Company in 1964. So he called the seller and made the purchase.
While cleaning out the Thunderbolt, Reed came across a 427cid engine. A closer look revealed block letters stamped into the casting and the name “BONNER”. He knew this significant piece of physical evidence took things to another level.
Hal Reed had started building engines as a teenager more than two-decades before. His specialty is none other than the Ford Big Block 427cid engine; coming across this one with the Bonner markings is pure nirvana.
Many of the original parts came with the Thunderbolt purchase, including the fiberglass fenders, hood, doors and trunk lid. It also had the original ultra-rare and hard-to-find aluminum bumper, front bucket seats, Ford 9-inch rear axle and other specialty items unique to the Thunderbolt.
Reed went out of his way to keep the Thunderbolt purchase a secret, yet over the years word eventually got out and people connected with the Ford Fairlane community caught wind of its existence. One of them was Donald Allen, who recalls visiting Hal Reed over a decade ago at his small engine shop in Cumming, and asking about the Thunderbolt. A very cool and collected Reed acted as if he knew nothing about it, and responded by asking Allen, “What Thunderbolt?”
After recovering from a serious illness in the spring of 2014, Reed decided to sell the car to help with medical costs and replace lost income. With the help of longtime childhood friend Charlie Boulware, Reed and Allen worked out a deal.
Soon after making the Thunderbird purchase, Allen started the challenging quest to locate and purchase the parts needed to fully restore the car back to the way it would have been built by Ford Motor Company and Dearborn Steel Tubing (DST). He knew it was going to be a challenge with countless man-hours involved in order to do it right.
But Allen has restored several Thunderbolts. While restoring his first one, he acquired a booklet containing the correct part names, numbers and dates unique to the Ford Thunderbolt.
More than three-decades later the same book was used for the restoration of the “Bonner Thunderbolt.” I was on hand for a majority of the restoration and watched Allen use the booklet extensively during the restoration process. Many hours went into research, as well as in the process of locating, validating and properly installing the rare Thunderbolt-only parts. Each and every one was crossed-referenced before it went into the restoration. During one of many conversations we had, Allen stated: I’m going to make this Thunderbolt the best one I’ve ever done.”
From January through August that year, I made several trips to northern Georgia to document and photograph the progress of the restoration. The Thunderbolt’s body was stripped to bare metal; the body work – including metal finishing, sanding, preparation and the application of epoxy primer, took place over the next seven months.
That July, I received a phone call from Donald Allen. He told me that while stripping the body, he noticed the same paint pattern on each panel. The first layer of paint top-coat on the Thunderbolt was a silver-blue, followed by gold, then burgundy and white. In other words, the paint top-coat colors went like this going from the top down:
4. White (Original Ford Factory Paint Finish)
The burgundy paint over the factory white really piqued his interest. Allen called Wayne Blackwood – a longtime friend to the late Phil Bonner – and told him what he’d found. Without hesitation, Blackwood explained: “I know Phil’s Thunderbolt was painted burgundy. I was in the body shop at Al Means Ford with Bonner when the little car went into the paint room and Stucco Doug painted it burgundy. We called him ‘Stucco Doug’ because everything he painted looked like stucco. As for the Thunderbolt being painted burgundy and not left white, I can tell you that Phil Bonner wanted his Thunderbolt that color – and not white.”
After talking with Blackwood and doing more research, Allen decided to paint the “Bonner Thunderbolt” burgundy, just as Phil himself had done. Allen also invited Blackwood to Allen Restorations on September 8th – the day that the “Bonner Thunderbolt” received its fresh burgundy paint scheme. Blackwood accepted the invitation and was present the second time the “little car” was painted burgundy. It had been more than 50-years since Blackwood had first witnessed the transformation of the Thunderbolt from white to burgundy in 1964.
I was on hand to meet Blackwood there and hear the story in person. We took the opportunity to take several pictures of Wayne and Donald with the Bonner Thunderbolt in primer, then again after it had received the burgundy top-coat. Using Pro-Spray Base/Clear Coat, pro painter Casey Ellenburg applied a flawless (and yes, “stucco-free”) finish. The paint material was supplied by Classic Auto-Paint and Supplies of Anderson, South Carolina.
With a methodical approach, Allen and his team went about the process of rebuilding the Bonner Thunderbolt. The restoration was done in-house at Allen Restorations over a 10-month period. Looking back at it now, I’m still in awe at how purpose-driven Donald Allen was on this project from start to finish. He worked through every challenge the T-Bolt could throw at him.
Hal Reed built the new Bonner Thunderbolt 427cid engine. He labored over it for days. “It’s my baby,” Reed said, noting that he wanted to build the engine and prepare it for drag racing just as Phil Bonner would have expected his original engine builder, Gene Wilson, to do back in the day. Reed gave the engine the name “Black Beauty” after racking up more than 100 hours in its creation. Donald Allen, his brother, Hal, and I had the honor of installing the engine into the car. Hal Reed and his wife, Vicky, was at Allen’s shop the first time the engine was started in the Bonner Thunderbolt. With a consistent smile on his face, Reed made an adjustment to the primary carburetor and the engine sounded phenomenal. Up to then, I’d not witnessed a single smile on Reed’s face at any time during the eight months I’d known him.
The Bonner Thunderbolt restoration continued to amaze. Being present to witness the old-school hand lettering process by the legendary, 81-year-old Johnny Watts, was an experience I’ll never forget. Using reference pictures from the 1960’s, Watts lettered the car just as it would have been done back in the day using a technique that Watts called “freehand” but was amazingly straight. Then again, he’s been lettering automobiles for 68 years, starting his craft at the age of 13. He’s one of only a handful of pros who still apply lettering and graphics freehand. His primary piece of equipment is a trusted brush that he’s had for many decades. Over a two-day period, Watts gave the Bonner Thunderbolt classic character and true drag racing charisma with his lettering work. He made it identifiable beyond belief.
I must mention the Firestone Lightning Slicks. They’re unique to the Thunderbolt as they have a lightning bolt tread pattern. Few remain still intact and installed on a Thunderbolt. From the beginning of the restoration, Allen had hoped he could come across a set for use on the Bonner Thunderbolt. During the final stages of the restoration a pair actually showed up at the shop. Christmas had come early to Donald Allen!
On November 14, 2015, Allen declared the restoration complete, just one week before the scheduled unveiling for the Muscle Car & Corvette Nationals (MCACN) at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.
One week later, on November 21st and to the applause of a packed house, Donald Allen and his team of supporters looked on as Hal Reed and Preston Bonner, the grandson to Phil Bonner, pulled the cover off the gleaming burgundy Bonner Thunderbolt at the MCACN show. Prior to this unveiling, the finished car had not been seen by the public. Bob Ashton and his team at MCACN (www.mcacn.com) had successfully presented yet another historically significant muscle car to the motoring world.
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS COURTESY AL ROGERS / FREEZE FRAME IMAGES