Garageside Classics: 1955, 1956, & 1957 Ford Thunderbird – Maintaining and Driving Harold’s T-Birds

I’ve always liked Ford’s original two seat Thunderbird. It was a cool car to see at car shows and imagine tooling around in with a pretty girl next to you on the bench seat. I never suspected, though, that I would ever get to live that fantasy. Then one day, in a most unexpected way, I did, and even got paid for the pleasure. Since I recently wrote the CC article on Thunderbirds in the Scottsdale auctions, I figured it would be a good time to tell the story of how, for a time, I had the privilege of being the caretaker to a trio of Thunderbirds; a ’55, a ’56 and a ’57.

All photos are of the actual cars, I apologize some aren’t the best quality.

My wife, Wendy, used to work part time for a pleasant retired woman named Judy as a chauffeur/companion, driving her to doctors, shopping, lunch or whatever she needed. Judy had been partially paralyzed by Polio as a child. She used to drive cars with hand controls, but had given that up in retirement as it was harder for her to get around.  Wendy would go out a couple days a week or more to Judy’s home, then they would drive Judy’s Lexus LS all over Houston. Judy was married to Harold, who owned and ran an industrial galvanizing company. They were pretty wealthy. They didn’t start out that way when they got married, but as Harold built his small company into a successful large company, they both remained pretty down-to-earth people.

 

’55 Thunderbird with its ever-present battery charger

 

One day Judy and Wendy were chatting and Wendy mentioned that I liked old cars. Judy said, “Oh, he would probably really like Harold’s Thunderbirds”.  Shortly after that, I got a call from Harold. He said he’d heard I like classic cars  and that he had a few. He asked me if I had any experience working on cars, to which I replied definitely not in any professional capacity, just taking care of my own cars and doing some occasional wrenching on them.

He said he was looking for someone to maintain his car collection for him. This would involve coming out regularly and driving the cars, keeping them fueled and ready to drive, oil changes, washing, etc, but not necessarily any actual mechanic work. They could be taken to a shop for that. He offered a reasonable wage and I thought that sounded like a pretty good deal and a fun job, so how could I say no? I started in the spring of 2010.

 

Harold had for a number of years owned his lifelong dream cars: a complete set of the first three years of Thunderbirds. I never got the whole story on the cars’ backgrounds, but he had had them all restored by a professional who specialized in T-Birds (who had recently died, unfortunately).

I could come out whenever I wanted to do my thing. I sometimes came out every couple of weeks, but occasionally it would stretch to over a month. My goal was to drive the cars at least once a month, which I usually succeeded at. I was under strict orders not to drive them in the rain, and slightly less strict orders to stay in their rather large neighborhood of estate homes, except to get gas.

The neighborhood restriction wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because I could get up to about 50mph on straight aways and drive at least 5 miles with only a handful of intersections to stop at. It would take me a minimum of an hour to drive all three cars enough to get fully warmed up and an adequate amount of exercise, though longer would be better if I had the time.

 

This job was an eye-opening immersion into the realities of old car ownership. I learned that those pretty cars sitting at car shows or auctions don’t keep themselves clean or running well. They may look perfect, but that doesn’t mean they work perfectly.

The most challenging part of the job was starting the cars, as funny as that may sound. They could be pretty resistant to starting, even if only sitting for a couple of weeks. The red 1955 was the worst. These cars were all restored to enter competitive shows, so they had no modifications to enhance function. 1955 was the last year Ford used 6 volt electrical, so that’s what Harold’s ’55 had to crank its 292cid V8. I’ve heard people say that 6 volt can work just fine, but that was not my experience with this car. It always needed at least a few minutes on the battery charger. It ran very smoothly, but when cold it would sometimes die when put in gear. Most of the time, that meant that if I pulled it out of the garage and it died, I had to get a long extension cord and put the battery charger on it again. Needless to say, I gave that one generous warm up time, especially in the winter.

 

The buckskin ’56 had the 312 4-barrel engine, which thankfully had 12 volt electrical. I kept a trickle charger on all the cars, so the ’56 generally had no problem cranking. The ’55 and ’56 had the same design Holley carburetor, which wasn’t designed to prevent evaporation. After sitting for a couple weeks, there was no fuel in the carb. Spraycan starter fluid can gum up carburetors over time, so Harold didn’t want me to use it, which I totally agreed with even though the can worked much better than my system of pouring a little gas down the carb.

 

 

Overall, the ’56 had the best combination of starting ease and running well. When Harold took a car out to drive, that was the one he usually took. I think it was his favorite. It was also the only one with two tops. He left the fender skirts off, I’m not sure why, except that he liked the look (just on that one? I never pushed him for an explanation).

 

Harold had entered the cars in competitive shows when they were first restored. By the time I was taking care of them, he was not so particular about small things, like the discolored carpet in the ’56 (from a heater core leak, which I replaced). The radios quit working on all the cars, and the clocks on the ’56 and ’57. If the cars needed something to actually run right, he was fine with fixing that, but wasn’t worried about the small stuff. He just wanted them clean and maintained.

I found myself being the cars’ advocate at times. The garage, which was an older structure away from the house, had A/C but after I’d been there a couple years, the unit broke and needed replaced. I tried to convince him that it was worth the trouble to get it fixed, because the super humid weather of southeast Texas would work to deteriorate the cars over time. I never could get him to fix it, I think because he had a grand plan to build a whole new garage.

 

My personal favorite was the ’57. I think the styling revisions were spot on and I love the colors on this car.  This car also had the 4-barrel 312 “Thunderbird Special” engine.

 

Another idiosyncrasy of Harold’s was that he didn’t want the tops lowered. T-birds have manual tops and they’re not the easiest to operate. He rarely bothered to put them down himself and I think he felt I wasn’t “top certified” to operate them, so he just told me when I started to leave them up. Which I did, except for one time. After a few years, I just couldn’t resist, so after washing the ’57 one day I put the top down and took these photos. I also took my wife out in the cars a couple times, but never with the top down, so I didn’t ever get to live the full fantasy.

 

 

The cars were each equipped a little differently. The ’55 had power windows and seat, the ’57 had power windows, but not seat and the ’56 had neither. The ’55 had power brakes and steering, the ’56 had power steering but not brakes and the ’57 had power brakes but not steering.

Leg room was not generous for a 6 foot 2 inch driver like myself. Getting in, with the low roof and large steering wheel, it worked best to sit down with both feet on the ground first, then swing my legs around under the wheel (like a lady in a dress. Less wear and tear on the carpet, too). I couldn’t stretch my legs fully, but there was ample knee room, so it wasn’t bad. My eye level was just at the top of the tiny side windows, so side visibility was limited and the tiny driver-side-only mirror didn’t help greatly. The portholes in the ’56 hardtop are actually a functional improvement.

 

 

As far as driving the cars, it goes without saying that they handled much differently than a modern car. They all had reproduction Firestone bias plys, so cornering was not their strong suit. The ride was similar in all three, smooth but a little choppy. Body rigidity was minimal. Lots of lean in the corners with just a little tire squeal if you got a bit speedy. Power was pretty good. The 1-2 shift was a bit rough, especially when cold.

Brakes were plenty adequate for normal driving, but I don’t think I’d want to push them too hard. The manual brakes in the ’56 weren’t a problem at all. It had a bit more pedal effort, but not bad. The power steering in the ’55 and ’56 was extremely light, as you’d expect. I liked the manual steering in the ’57. With a 3,200 lb car, it was hard to turn when still or moving extremely slow, but with almost any speed it would lighten right up. When driving at speed, it felt a lot more connected. In addition, I’d choose that also just because it would be one less thing to leak or fail. The ’55’s power steering leaked. In fact, they all leaked oil and rear axle fluid, especially the ’55 .

 

 

The ’57 was the easiest to start, by far, which was another reason I was fond of it. The ’57’s had a different design Holley carb which retained fuel inside it much better. If sitting for only a couple weeks, it often didn’t even need a prime. If it did, just a little bit of gas down the carb and it would always start right up. Unfortunately, it was also the worst runner, by far. Once the ’55 and ’56 got running, they would immediately settle into a smooth idle. The ’57 needed a foot on the gas constantly for the first several minutes, though I did set the idle higher to allow it to idle on its own sooner. I thought it was missing on at least one cylinder. You couldn’t even put it in gear without it dying until it warmed up some, and then for a while you had to keep it moving or put it in neutral, because it didn’t like to idle in gear. Once it had been driven a couple miles and got good and truly warmed up, it didn’t run badly. It could be driven normally and it actually felt like it had the most power of the three.

 

Several months into the job, I convinced Harold that the ’57 needed professional attention. The problem was that the mechanic he had been using, who was also the cars’ restorer, had died and he hadn’t found another one. Harold and Judy lived about as far out as you can go and still be considered to be in the Houston area and I couldn’t find any shops nearby that did classic cars. I did find a shop about 30 min away, by my house, that always had about half the shop filled with all variety of cool old cars and hot rods. I talked Harold into letting me take the car home so we could get it into the shop. That is the ’57 parked in my garage. It looks good in there, doesn’t it?

 

The shop took the car in and the owner told me they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. The ignition and compression were both fine. He said it just needed to go on some longer drives to get the carbon blown out. I told him that we didn’t mind spending money on it if it would help (it’s nice not having to use your own money). He said just try the driving and go from there. I was a little frustrated. I wanted them to rebuild the carb, or replace the distributor or, God forbid, crack open the engine and work on the valves. Something that would give an instant fix! Oh well. Harold agreed that I could take it out F.M. 2920 on some longer drives. It did help some, but it was not a silver bullet. I was never really happy with how it ran.

I actually appreciated the shop owner’s attitude of not wanting to do work he thought the car didn’t need. I’ve taken my own car there since. They’re not cheap, but they seem real honest and have stood by their work when they could have refused to, so that’s been a good thing.

 

 

Most every fall, Harold would enter one of the cars in the Tomball Rice Festival car show, and ask me to get whatever car he was going to take clean and detailed. About the fifth year I did this, I came out to the cars not long after the show and he was out working on something in the yard (I could go months without seeing him sometimes). We chatted and he told me all about the show and some of the other cars there. About a week later we got news that Harold and Judy had been down at their hunting ranch in South Texas, as they often were on weekends. Harold was out doing some work on the land and had a massive stroke, and died that day in the hospital. He was 78, but still running his company and a very active guy. The funeral was large and a touching tribute to the great life that Harold and Judy had together.

At first Judy said she wanted to keep the cars in Harold’s memory, but after a few months wisely decided that was not practical. She had a family friend who also had some classic cars take on the task of getting the cars sold. Wendy kept in touch with Judy, but hadn’t been driving her for a couple of years. Harold was Judy’s life and she visibly slowed down and lost her spark when he wasn’t around any more. She passed away less than two years after Harold.

I was sad that Harold passed, but I have to confess that I was somewhat glad not to have the job anymore. I usually felt like it was hard to make the time for the cars on top of my job and other things I had to do, especially when we got kids, which we didn’t have when I first started. I never did as much detailing or driving as I thought the cars deserved. I would have liked to use the opportunity to really learn engines, and carburetors in particular, and be able to get the cars in a perfect state of tune. I just felt like I was doing well to find the time to do the basics, let alone anything ambitious.

I feel privileged to have gotten to spend time with these beautiful cars. They did give me a good appreciation of what is involved in keeping a classic car, which I still want to do someday.

 

P.S. In preparing to sell the cars, the family friend replaced the ’55’s starter and said it didn’t have any problems starting after that. I never thought of that. I replaced the battery a couple times, the regulator and took the generator in to be tested and nothing helped it. It would have been nice to get that ironed out five years earlier! Live and learn.