DEARBORN, Mich. – When it comes to an automotive nameplate as iconic as Ford’s Thunderbird, it should be no surprise that there’s more than one single club to celebrate ownership of these cars. Thunderbird has consistently enjoyed a strong enthusiast following – even though it’s been nearly 20 years since T-Birds were last produced. Ford had built more than 4 million Thunderbirds over the years, with owners, collectors and fans alike drawn to the car’s consistent brand promise of style, power and prestige. The three major T-Bird clubs -- the Classic Thunderbird Club International (CTCI), Vintage Thunderbird Club International (VTCI), and the International Thunderbird Club (ITC) – each have their own ways of celebrating the various T-Bird generations and have only teamed up to promote the annual “Thunderbird Appreciation Day” that takes place each May. Until now.
That’s because this past August at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, longtime ITC president Gerard (Bart) Bartasavich was finally able to realize his years-long goal of hosting an international reunion for all of the Thunderbird clubs. Bart’s tireless promotion of the ITC, fueled by growing the club’s Facebook footprint from 50 members to over 28,000 today, is most evident at the Carlisle (PA) Ford Nationals, where his club is always among the groups drawing the most attendees. He originally planned for an all-T-Bird club reunion at the Carlisle Ford Nationals in 2020, but the COVID global pandemic kept that from happening. So last fall, Bart again floated the idea of hosting an all-club Thunderbird reunion to his membership, enlisting Michigan chapters of the ITC – the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club and the American Open Road Thunderbird Club – to help sponsor an all-inclusive Thunderbird reunion at Ford World Headquarters in late August of 2023.
With years of planning and organizing already in hand and his wife Vera in full support mode, Bart began the reunion promotion with The Bird Nest and TBN leader Paul Thomas, then connected with both regional and national leadership of the CTCI and the VTCI to push the gathering to their membership. Next was working with Ford Performance Club Connect on helping to gain approval for use of the Ford World Headquarters lot, plus info on area automotive attractions and even securing speakers and goody bag items. After attending to a myriad of details for months, the 2023 Thunderbird Reunion in Dearborn took flight and opened with a welcome breakfast and dinner on Wednesday, August 23. Ford Performance Enthusiast Communications Manager John Clor helped kick things off with a presentation at the Welcome Dinner that night and he followed that up by hosting a center-stage Club Connect Meet & Greet display and swag giveaway at the WHQ show on Saturday.
There was also an invitation-only event for attendance at a private “Wine and Chocolate Party” at Dr. Steven Legal’s car and memorabilia collection, which filled 10 rooms in a nearby restored mid-century neighborhood bowling alley. In addition to the Thunderbirds themselves, the collection includes every kind of T-Bird model car of all different years, plus model kits, medals, belt buckles, pins, tags, games, pens, pencils, placemats, towels – almost everything imaginable! And the library room contained hundreds of books and artwork. Ironically, the collection is featured in Chapter 5 of Michael Lamm’s hardbound book, “Thunderbird 2002” (Lamm-Moranda Inc. 2002), several copies of which John Clor had handed out as door prizes.
Thursday the 24th was Detroit Destinations Day where participants could plan their own automotive venue visits, including tours of The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, the Ford Rouge Plant, the Automotive Hall of Fame, Ford’s Garage Restaurant, Gateway Classic Cars, the Ford Piquette Avenue Model T Plant, the Detroit Historical Museum and Institute of Art plus Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, the Gilmore Car Museum and the Roush Automotive Collection, as well as the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum & National Hudson Motor Car Company. Some members opted to attend two Thunderbird seminars with experts at the host hotel, while others headed over to Roush Headquarters for a presentation on the Ford 427 engine program by Larry Seyfarth, who helped develop the performance variants.
For Friday the 25th, the ITC arranged a group tour of the nearby Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport, where originally attendees could plan for a ride in a famed 1929 Ford Tri-Motor plane. But the weather didn’t cooperate, so Bart set up a photo-op of members cars with the Tri-Motor instead. As you’d expect, there was a full-blown party atmosphere for the big Reunion show on Saturday the 26th in front of Ford’s Famed “Glass House.” There, more than 400 members from the various clubs as well as hundreds of spectators were in attendance, along with more than 250 Thunderbirds on display representing each generation, from the first 1955-56-57 “Baby Birds to the 2002-05 “Retro Birds” – and everything in-between.
Club member Darryl Heiner came the farthest from Australia, and T-Birds drove in from as far as New Jersey, Texas, Florida and Canada. Some notables included Steve & Myrna Wishnick’s 1963 Princess of Monaco Edition, who drove it to Detroit all the way from Cape Coral, Florida. Plus, in from New Jersey was Tom Mirro’s remarkable AACA Zenith Award-winning 1956 T-Bird wearing its ultra-rare “Lincoln Cinnamon” S paint code. The car was recently featured Tom Mirro's 1956 T-Bird (ford.com) in the “Enthusiasts” section of Ford Performance.com, and seeing it in person truly brought the story to life. The mayor of Dearborn, Abdullah Hammoud, even came out to the show to award Bart with a special proclamation. For the Saturday night banquet, the guest speaker was Ciera Casteel, Collections Archivist for Ford Motor Company, who revealed the Ford Archives’ ongoing effort to digitize all things relating to Ford history and make some 2 million items available to the public via its website, https://fordheritagevault.com.
Ford Performance enlisted two of our top photojournalist correspondents -- SAAC-MCR co-founder and longtime Thunderbird owner and club member Jeff Burgy, as well as Ford Marketing retiree and super-enthusiast Bill Cook – to walk the show and capture some of their favorite reunion moments in photos. We selected a fraction of the hundreds of photos they took for the gallery below, including a few from Bart and the ITC. Never before had all three of the major Thunderbird clubs held a single reunion event for all owners and fans, making this 2023 Thunderbird Reunion an historic show that was “Unique In All the World!” – just as the classic Ford catchphrase says about the Thunderbird itself.
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY BILL COOK, JEFF BURGY & ITC