Best of 2016 Curbside Classic: 1964 Ford Thunderbird Landau – Jazz Riffing

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(this Best of 2016 CC got scheduled incorrectly by me, so let’s give it the encore it deserves today)

A famous, now-nonagenarian jazz elocutionist lives a block away from me.  I won’t drop his name here, but suffice it to say that many of you have probably heard his warm, rich baritone voice on many old commercials, voice-overs, narrations, and perhaps even on one of his own word-jazz recordings.  I walk past the beautiful, red brick mansion where he and his wife reside, pretty much every day.  It is against this backdrop that I spotted our featured classic personal luxury coupe.

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Seeing this Thunderbird there at the curb on an early, Monday morning walk to the health club did more to wake me up than two cups of black coffee.  In fact, when I saw it, I thought I might still have been sleeping and dreamed this whole scenario…but it was very real.  My exercise “warm up” ended up being a full-rabbit sprint back to my condo to get my camera.  I was already late for my morning workout, but it was unquestionably worth it.

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Thankfully, these neighborhood streets have a minimum of traffic at this hour, so I was able to get all the shots I wanted with the light that was available.  This Thunderbird’s poise, grace and distinctive shape stood in stark contrast to those of many of the newer cars parked by it that, by comparison, looked barely indistinguishable from each other.  I will acknowledge that the age of our featured car obviously exaggerated its differences from the surrounding cars, but the artistry that went into the Thunderbird’s myriad details cannot be ignored.

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What I started to wonder as I snapped these photos was what it was about a classic Thunderbird of the 1960’s (specifically the third- and fourth-generation cars) that excited me so much.  It’s like they give me the same warm, “holiday” feeling as a Charlie Brown TV special.  It’s as if I can hear the late, great Betty Carter scat-singing, “Something big is going to happen…♪♫” when I look at this car and see the light from the street lamps glinting off the chrome.  This Thunderbird is optimism wrapped in sheetmetal.  And has there ever been a fall setting that was not made better by a blanket of colorful, fallen leaves?

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Look at this car’s surfaces.  Its lines are kinetic, dynamic, and highly sculptured.  While the third-generation, 1961 – ’63 “Bullet Bird” was smooth and svelte, the fourth-gen ‘Bird looks decidedly more angular, geometric, and a bit more complex.  This is not to say it’s prettier than the preceding design, but it certainly has many visually interesting details for the eye to feast on.

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For those familiar with my “CC Jukebox” features, you probably know I’m a fan of jazz in many of its forms.  (I’m listening to a recording of the jazz guitar of Wes Montgomery from the early-60’s as I write this.)  Part of what I love about jazz is its synthesis of seeming unpredictability, spontaneity, and raw emotion combined with a sense of elegance.  Those words describe this ’64 Thunderbird’s visual essence to me, to its core.  It wears its vinyl roof like a fedora, ready for a night out at the famous Green Mill jazz club and cocktail lounge, pictured above.  (The Green Mill, coincidentally, was reportedly frequented by infamous gangster Al Capone.  It has been open for over a century.)

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Production figures of the ’64 models had been the high water mark for the Thunderbird up to that point, with over 92,000 units sold that year.  Of that number, about 22,700 were Landaus like our featured car.  Prices started at about $4,600 without some necessary options (which is about $35,000 in 2016), with Buick’s Riviera of the same year starting at about $200 less ($1,500 / adjusted).  Its 300-horse 390 FE (“Ford-Edsel”) V8 purrs some sweet music, which I have heard myself in traffic from a different, but similar Thunderbird that I had spotted and written about earlier this year.  From a visual standpoint, this T-Bird wears its 4,500-pound weight very well, and it can undoubtedly get out of its own way.

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I’ve seen this car in the neighborhood only a couple of more times, but when I have, the sight of it has elicited the same visceral reaction out of me – a gasp, much awe, and a little extra correctness in my posture and in my speech.  This Thunderbird is almost like a mascot, like a favorite jazz holiday record on wheels.  Maybe I’ll stop and get some Dolly Madison snack cakes on the way home today.

Chicago, Illinois.
The Thunderbird was photographed on Monday, October 24, 2016.
The Green Mill shot was taken Sunday, December 2, 2012.

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