CC Biography: Ian Fleming – The Man Who Loved Thunderbirds


(first posted 10/23/2014)    “I like a car I can leave out in the street all night and which will start at once in the morning and still go a hundred miles an hour when you want it to and yet give a fairly comfortable ride. I can’t be bothered with a car that needs tuning, or one that will give me a lot of trouble and expenditure.”

Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, was a genuine curbside classicist. Here is some of that story.


He was born into privilege, if not great wealth. Through his extended adolescence in the pre-war years he owned, amongst others; a black two-door Buick flung carelessly around Geneva and the South of France; and a red Graham-Paige seen charging around London during an unsuccessful stint as a financier before journalism took hold. Here he is with Count Zborowski, for whom he navigated in a Coupe des Alpes. The Count had a nick-name for a some of his cars… Chitty Bang Bang.


After helping organise covert Naval operations during the war, Fleming returned to work as a journalist. He owned a Morris Oxford saloon, then around 1950 he purchased a black Riley 2 1/2 Litre. He most likely owned the two-door roadster, but I’m hoping he had the more beautiful saloon. It was during ownership of the Riley that he proposed to Anne Rothermere; attractive, well-born, divorced and one who shared his nocturnal passions.


In 1953, at the age of forty five and on the eve of his first marriage, Ian Fleming invented the ultimate bachelor. James Bond was a gradual success for Fleming. In those first days, the book covers provided the only visual impression of the story. The first British paperback used Richard Conte’s face with Daniel Craig’s blond thatch, and the first US paperback was retitled and cast in a more lurid light – although they did get the hair right.


Fleming gave Bond a Bentley 4 1/2 litre; the ultimate bruiser. W.O. Bentley won Le Mans in 1924, 27, 28, 29, 30 with his creations, which (as Ettore Bugatti once observed) were scaled in size closer to trucks. Fleming added a further raffish touch; an Amherst Villers supercharger that was never approved of by W.O. and never won at Le Mans, but could ensure that added turn of speed when needed. This is the first visual characterisation of the Bentley; by John McLusky in 1957 for the James Bond comic strip that appeared in the Daily Express.


In 1955, Fleming sold the film rights for Casino Royale for $6000. He rewarded himself with his first Ford Thunderbird. An all-black 1956 model with hardtop and softop. He’d expected more for the rights, so an extravagance like the Thunderbird was a happy consolation. He wrote glowingly in The Spectator of its stressless speed and solid feel. Anne would complain of ‘Thunderbird neck’ after a ride with the top down. She took to calling her husband ‘Thunderbird’ in her correspondence with Evelyn Waugh.

elephant's breath

James Bond got two more Bentleys. In 1955’s Moonraker, the 4 1/2 was despatched by giant rolls of news print and for his next steed, Bond stayed true. A Mark VI with an open-tourer body painted battleship grey just like the 4 1/2. Later, in 1961’s Thunderball, Bond had moved onto an R-type Continental in ‘elephant’s breath grey’ bought from ‘some rich idiot who had married it to a telegraph pole’. Rolls straightened the chassis, a new ’squarish’ body was applied, an Arnolt supercharger added and it was kept out of doors in front of Bond’s flat.


Meanwhile, back in real life, Fleming bought another T-bird. This one had four seats, power-steering and a 7 litre engine. But, as he put it himself; “So I’ve had a Thunderbird for six years, and it’s done me very well. In fact, I have two of them, the good two-seater and the less-good four-seater.” Fleming was a habitue of clubs, golf and otherwise. He enjoyed his speed, but his car also needed a quantum of sophistication. In a Britain only just emerging from post-war austerity, ‘New American’ represented a luxury Bond’s patriotism couldn’t accommodate.


Between his last two Bentleys, Bond drives an Aston Martin. A DB III, which was presumably a DB MkIII. Fleming had perhaps confused the racing DB3S with the road-going DB2/4 MkIII and got it wrong. Anyway, in the novel of 1959’s Goldfinger, Bond chooses the Aston Martin over a Jag 3.4 in the workpool because it had stuff like hidden compartments and a beacon finder (but no ejector seat). It was also grey.


Towards the end of his life, Fleming purchased a Ford 2.6-engined AC Aceca ordered from the factory with a Ruddspeed ‘Stage II’ conversion. He doesn’t seem to have rated it much; when discussing his cars with Playboy in 1964 (where I got the quotes in this article), he moves straight from the Thunderbirds to his next, and last, car. Interesting thing about the Aceca is how similar it looks to the DB2/4, particularly around the greenhouse. Other cars he considered later in life are a Mercedes Benz 220SE coupe or cabriolet, and a Lancia of indeterminate modellage.


In 1963 Ian Fleming bought a Studebaker Avanti. He asked for one in black. Studebaker, after initially declining, gave the car extra coats of black in apprehension of any rippling trouble with the fibreglass shell. Fleming again;

“Now, the Studebaker supercharged Avanti is the same thing. It will start as soon as you get out in the morning; it has a very nice, sexy exhaust note and will do well over a hundred and has got really tremendous acceleration and much better, tighter road holding and steering than the Thunderbird. Excellent disc brakes, too. I’ve cut a good deal of time off the run between London and Sandwich in the Avanti, on braking and power alone. So I’m very pleased with it for the time being.”


Fleming had form with a Studebaker. Years earlier, whilst in the US for research on ‘Diamonds are Forever.’, he met William Woodward Jr, heir and Studillac owner. When Fleming finally got to drive the Cadillac-engined hybrid, he stirred the interest of the local authorities and only managed to avoid a speeding fine by charming the officer with his clipped vowels. He wasn’t yet famous. He gave this car to Felix Leiter, his erstwhile proxy. After experiencing a session with Felix at the wheel, Bond describes it as a ‘hot rod … for kids who can’t afford a real car.’


By the time this 2002 Thunderbird appeared in ‘Die Another Day’, the James Bond franchise would have already earned over a billion dollars. Ian Fleming probably saw about a thousandth of that. He died in 1964 just before the release of Goldfinger. And with Goldfinger, Bond went wide in the widest possible way. It generated box office receipts far in excess of the first two films. It set a template for merchandising not surpassed until Star Wars. It demonstrated perhaps the most perfect example of embedded branding, and vigorously commercialised the idea.

To understand the Bond phenomenon timeline, it helps to know BG and AG. Before Goldfinger (The Movie) and After Goldfinger (The Movie). Ian Flemings’ life was entirely BG.


A Thunderbird hadn’t guested in a Bond movie since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. This Bunkiebeak was used by Blofeld’s assassins, Wint and Kidd, to dispose of Bond’s body after he has been gassed in Willard Whyte’s elevator. That’s Sean Connery in the trunk. They take him out to the desert and put him in a waterpipe, expecting him to be buried alive when the construction crews arrive the next day. Smart assassins. No action footage with this car, and mostly shot in the dark, so for any lovers of this model, the garage shots are the best.


Before that, it was the 16th arrondissement of Paris outside the offices of Centre International d’Assistance Aux Personnes Déplacées some time in 1965. A Thunderbird appears in the distance and pulls up. A man with an eyepatch emerges from the car. He is castigated by a police officer… until he is recognised. It is Emilio Largo, SPECTRE’s lead for the project outlined in Operation Thunderball. The whole nuclear warhead blackmail thing might have been avoided if that policeman had only done his job.

leiter tbird

Back to Goldfinger. It’s a shame Fleming missed this for another reason. It was the first James Bond movie to feature a Ford Thunderbird. It appears as Felix’s car as they wait outside Goldfinger’s farm in Kentucky. With some nice driving over decent screentime, I can imagine Fleming quietly enjoying these scenes.

61 tbird

Fleming let Bond drive a Thunderbird once. It was a dark grey with cream soft top rented by Bond after dealing with a small kerfuffle in Canada. He didn’t chase anybody in it. The book was The Spy Who Loved Me; written in 1961 and the single worst novel in Fleming’s canon. The whole story is told from the point of view of the female ‘conquest’ and Fleming was not up to the task. He tried to have the paperback stopped and refused to allow the scenario and characters to be reproduced in any other format, including film and comics. Which therefore leaves us with no pictorial evidence of the car.


Fleming’s tribute to the Thunderbird came in his posthumous last novel; The Man With The Golden Gun. Francisco Scaramanga, the most dangerous hitman in the world, drives a red T-bird. And even better, he runs a hotel called the ‘Thunderbird’ in Jamaica. Problem is, he’s building it with KGB and mob money. Enter James Bond.

Further Reading

Studebaker Avanti

Bentley MkVI

A Lotus Esprit that can’t swim

A James Bond car that flies

A Pinto that flies