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SEP 6, 2018 | JOHN F. KATZ


Various white Thunderbirds on display in museum

HERSHEY, Pa. – The first-ever “National Thunderbird Appreciation Day” was officially celebrated on May 21, 2017. On that day, members of three nationally renowned Thunderbird clubs showed their appreciation of one of the most successful automobiles ever produced by the Ford Motor Company.

Patterned after the highly successful National Mustang Day initiative thaw was launched a few years back, the Thunderbird day was sponsored by the Classic Thunderbird Club International (CTCI), the Vintage Thunderbird Club International (VTCI), and the International Thunderbird Club (ITC). For weeks leading up to Appreciation Day, each of these clubs encouraged Thunderbird owners across the nation to join together and create a driving event in their area. In doing so on one single day they would be able to draw the public’s attention to these beautiful cars and at the same time allow owners to pay homage to one of the greatest automobiles ever to grace the American Road.

May 20, 2018 marked the second annual Thunderbird Appreciation Day, again a joint project of the world's three largest Thunderbird clubs. Or, as a press release explained it: "The ITC, CTCI, and VTCI are encouraging their members to take their Thunderbirds out, individually or in groups, for the general public to see, to learn more about, and to just plain enjoy."

Here in south-central Pennsylvania, grey skies and predicted rain pretty much washed out the whole Appreciation weekend, including a planned T-Bird caravan to the AACA Museum in Hershey.

"Frank Falcone brought his '64 hardtop," said Bob Hylton of the Central Pennsylvania Thunderbird Club, "and I brought my Merlot 2004." But while most local Thunderbirders left their treasured cars at home on this day, they still gathered at the Museum in person for the May 18th debut of a small but special exhibit guest-curated by ITC President Gerard "Bart" Bartasavich.

The ITC exhibit shared an opening-night reception with a much larger temporary show titled Mustangs: Six Generations of America's Favorite Pony Car. But while nearly 30 Mustangs currently graze throughout the Museum's two main levels, just three Thunderbirds nest together in the Williams-Clyne Gallery, a relatively small space constructed specifically for special exhibits curated by enthusiast clubs. Brightly lit behind its glass wall and doors, the gallery effectively simulates a period dealer's showroom.

White Thunderbird on display in museum

The three cars on display will change during the run of the exhibit, and it should prove interesting to see how Bart chooses to represent the 4.5 million Thunderbirds manufactured over five decades and 10 to 12 generations, depending on how you count. Logically enough, however, he opened with one example each of the Thunderbird's first three iterations: 1955-57; 1958-60; and 1961-63.

For all of Ford's fervent denial that the early Thunderbird was a sports car, people did race them -- and Richard Stuck's '57 pays tribute to one of the most notable Thunderbird racers of all time. Motorsport veterans Chuck Daigh and Peter De Paolo built two radically lightened Thunderbirds -- promptly labeled "Battlebirds" by the automotive press -- for the 1957 Speed Weeks at Daytona.

Front profile of a white Thunderbird on display in museum

Profile of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Rear profile of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Close up of front headlight on white Thunderbird

Close up of wheel and dashboard of white Thunderbird

Both cars rode on a modified frame that dropped the engine down four inches, scrunched it back six, and tucked it two inches the right, to lower the center of gravity and optimize both front-to rear and side-to-side balance with a driver aboard. Four-speed transmissions were sourced from Jaguar. One of the cars, powered by a Lincoln big-block and driven by Danny Eames, scored 98.065 mph in the standing mile, and then in the flying mile set the fastest official time of the event, at 160.356 mph.

The second Battlebird was motivated by a 312 Y-block bored and stroked to 347 cubic inches; a centrifugal supercharger and Hilborn fuel injection-fed modified heads through a short-ram manifold. Helmed by Marvin Panch, it finished first-in-class and second overall in the road race at New Smyrna Beach Airport. Eames has already taken it through the standing mile at 97.933 mph, and in the flying mile had exceeded 200 mph one way; unfortunately, a mechanical failure prevented the return run that was required to write an official record.

The Lincoln-powered car was later wrecked, while the Y-block survives in the private collection of Ross & Beth Myers.  But Rich Stuck wanted a Battlebird of his own, and in 2011 was able to purchase a partially built replica. He spent the next year researching the original car, hunting down parts, and ultimately completing the tribute you see in these photos. Stuck regularly drives it to Thunderbird events, campaigns it in vintage drag racing, and turns exhibition laps all over the northeast.

The '58 Thunderbird was, or course, an entirely different animal: a unit-bodied four-seater as fashionably flashy as the two-seater had been classically simple. Still, this new Thunderbird retained the original's lean profile and low stance -- and the latter proved a real asset on NASCAR ovals, where Johnny Beauchamp famously photo-finished alongside Lee Petty's Oldsmobile in the inaugural Daytona 500. (NASCAR later awarded the win to Petty).

Nonetheless, Bart chose a civilian model from 1960 to represent the Thunderbird's first four-seat generation. With its triple taillights and heavily segmented grille, the '60 Thunderbird was not only the most elaborately styled, but, with 90,843 units sold, the most popular model of the three-year series. Tom Young acquired this striking red-over-white hardtop in 1991, stripped the rust-free original to bare metal and then devoted more than a decade and a half to its restoration. It has since won an ITC Senior Award, an AACA Grand National Award, and is (so far) the only four-passenger model to win the AACA Thunderbird Award.

Front view of white Thunderbird with red top on display in museum

Lower front view of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Close up of side mirror

Close up of steering and front seat

Profile of white Thunderbird with red top on display in museum

Although nearly identical to the Squarebird in size and proportion, the '61-63 "Bullet Bird" was again an all-new automobile: riding on a wider track, cushioned by a more sophisticated suspension, powered by a larger engine and restrained by bigger brakes. Its razor-edged, rocket-ship styling renounced late-50s excess and reached clean into the future -- perhaps a bit too far, as the look troubled some dealers and may have put off some potential buyers as well. Production slipped almost 20 percent from 1960's peak.

As a sales-booster in the Bullet Bird's final season, Ford released a color-and-trim package called the Limited Edition Landau -- with a "World Premier" ceremony on February 7 at the Monte Carlo Opera House in Monaco. The 1956 marriage of actress Grace Kelly to Prince Ranier III was still a fresh memory, and Princess Grace herself was said to have chosen the car's unique color scheme: creamy Corinthian White topped by a Rose Beige vinyl roof; and a white leather interior accented by more Rose Beige surfaces and simulated rosewood panels (the latter replacing the standard Thunderbird's ribbed aluminum trim).

Of course the model became popularly (if never officially) known as the "Princess Grace." But regardless of who picked the colors, the result was one of the most elegantly beautiful Thunderbirds in the history of the breed.

Front profile of white Thunderbird with dark gray top on display in museum

Rear of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Interior close up of white seats

Interior close up of steering wheel and dashboard

A plaque on the center console read "Limited Edition Thunderbird Landau. Serial Number XXXX. World Premier, Principality of Monaco." The Princess herself was presented with Serial Number 1 of the run of 2000. The "Princess Grace" you see here is number 325, which Myrna and Steve Wishnick generously shipped from their home in Florida. Alas, as we mentioned at the outset, this is a changing exhibit, and as these lines are written the Wishnick's Princess has already returned home.

Now in its place is a Diamond Blue '65 Landau owned by Susan Sganga. The 1964-66 "Flairbird" retained the mechanical package and floor pan from 1961-63 series, but everything else was new. The gently rounded sides of the previous generation gave way to complex contours featuring dramatic planes and angles, highlighted by bold horizontal sweeps that visually lowered and slimmed the already low and slim body. Inside, "coved" rear seats curved into the door panels; and a massive new dashboard bristled with aircraft-fantasy details. Sales leapt to a new record-high of 92,465.

The 1965 model differed little in appearance from the '64, except for animated rear turn signals that lit up in sequence from the center of the car outward. Front disc brakes, still a novelty in Detroit, became standard equipment. Susan told us that she practically grew up in the back seat of a 1960 Thunderbird, but when she looked for one like it years later, she found this '65 Landau instead. It looked and ran well when she purchased it in 2011, but closer inspection soon revealed serious structural rust. A thorough restoration was completed in 2017. All numbers match, all options are correct per the factory invoice, and the Turquoise Blue interior is original.

Lower front profile view of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Close up front view of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Close up rear of white Thunderbird on display in museum

Profile of white Thunderbird on display in museum

 Close up front side view of white Thunderbird with wheel turned

Interior close up of steering wheel and dashboard

Interior close up of black seats

What's next? We anticipate at least a few more car changes before the exhibit closes on October 14, 2018. Committed for the duration, however, are hundreds of items of Thunderbird memorabilia -- toys, models, books, and so on, enough to fill one wall of the room -- generously lent by ITC members Steven Legal of Michigan and Bob Mench of Delaware.

Finally, looming large over the entire scene is Chris Osbourne's fanciful painting, Tony Bennett Dream Concert, featuring the famous crooner and his '56 two-seater. Osbourne met Bennet at Tower Records in New York in the 1990s, where she worked and the singer often shopped.

"My inspiration came about when Tony told me his favorite car had been a 1956 green Thunderbird," said Osbourne, who surrounded her hero in the painting with friends Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.

You and your friends will enjoy the ITC exhibit as well, and most surely will gain a new appreciation for the Ford Thunderbird as a lofty automotive achievement for Ford Motor Company.

Various Thunderbird merchandise on display

Toy red Thunderbird on display

Various Thunderbird merchandise on display

A yellow and red toy Thunderbird on display

Various Thunderbird merchandise on display


Various white Thunderbirds on display in museumFORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY JOHN F. KATZ