Curbside Capsule: 1956 Ford Thunderbird – By The Ocean Beach

With the arrival of December and its colder temperatures here in the Midwestern United States, my thoughts often turn to warmer climates.  I lived in Florida for a number of years, and while I absolutely loved my time in the Tampa Bay area, I still have no regrets about moving to Chicago… that is, until it’s ten degrees Fahrenheit and the snow blowing in my face is stinging my skin.  Ob-La-Di… It’s a small price to pay for the otherwise year-round awesomeness the Windy City has to offer.

I spotted this second-year Ford Thunderbird in the historic South Beach district of Miami while on vacation a number of years back.  It’s very easy for a guy like me with a taste for classic things to get lost in the vintage Art Deco architecture and exuberant signage in this area.  When I saw this T-Bird parked close to the entrance of the outdoor patio of The Clevelander, it was a moment for me accurately represented by the selective B&W treatment of the title photo.  For just a few moments, this car, and the buildings behind it, were all I could focus on.

“Earth to Joe…”  Those closest to me are great at acting as a tether while I get lost in my Walter Mitty-esque daydreams with my ever-present Canon camera.  Sometimes, that’s a good thing.  Perhaps just as often, I find it annoying.  As my friend Shaunna has told me before, “You gotta do you, Boo.”  Shaunna speaks the truth, and her succinctly stated philosophy is one I can get behind.  Absent the gift of my vivid imagination, my experience of much of today’s world would seem a lot less fun.  Both pragmatism and whimsy play important roles in my life.

As far as this particular Thunderbird, it was a stunner, especially in this shade of turquoise.  I’m not necessarily a fan of the Continental spare tire look, but in its application here on this beauty (in its first and only stock appearance on the Thunderbird, for ’56), I genuinely like it.  In terms of looks, between this car and its Chevrolet Corvette competitor from the same year, it’s kind of a push for me.  I’d probably give the Thunderbird the nod simply because unlike the Corvette, which looks almost exclusively curvilinear and a bit droopy in the rear, the T-Bird mixes it up with the inclusion of a good balance of curves and straight lines, in addition to neat design flourishes, like the small fins over the taillamps and the “gills” on the front fenders.

Unlike the Corvette in its first appearance for 1953, the Thunderbird arrived in ’55 with V8 power. And its target demographic was distinctly different from the Corvette, which positioned itself as a genuine sports car. Not so the Thunderbird, which Ford called a “personal car”. It was  for the guy who liked the idea of sports cars, but not the spartan reality.

For ’56, the T-Bird’s standard 292-cubic inch V8 was rated at 202 hp, with its newly-optional 312 V8 producing an additional 13 hp when teamed with the manual overdrive transmission, or 23 more hp with the Ford-O-Matic.  By ’56, the Corvette came standard with a 265-cubic inch V8 that produced either 210 hp, or 225 hp with two-four barrel carburation. And it was starting to make itself felt on the race tracks.

The Ford weighed about 10% more than the Chevy (3,000 lbs. versus 2,750), with the latter’s fiberglass bodywork likely owing to much of the difference.  The Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by a ratio of more than four-to-one that year, with about 15,600 units moved compared with the Corvette’s 3,500.  The base prices of the two cars started within $2 of each other.

Facts, schmacts.  My present-day experience of this type of vintage halo car is more about image, feel and emotion rather than numbers or actual dynamics, scoring many more points with my right brain than with my left.  A mental, musical soundtrack often accompanies my automotive fantasies.  I’ve recently rediscovered my love of downtempo electronica from the past twenty years, or so.  I’ll wrap this post with a track that seems to embody the moment of casual, old-meets-new elegance our featured car helped facilitate in my mind: “Ocean Beach (Cybophonia Cinematic Remix)”, by The Black Mighty Orchestra.  Sometimes, a little mental escapism can prove to be a welcome thing when the weather turns cold.

South Beach, Miami, Florida.
Friday, March 9, 2012.