COAL: 1961 Ford Thunderbird – Chapter 11, Wherein Realism Crushes Optimism


Before I got married, and for awhile after that milestone event, my “gotta get another car” pangs continued to strike every spring and every fall.  In the fall of 1986 I bought the F-100.  The next spring I took my mind off cars by buying an old garage (which came with an old house), and the following fall I salved that urge with the ’66 Fury III.  Thus came the spring of 1988, when I suddenly realized that I had one car, a two-car garage, and therefore room in both my garage and my life for another car.  After all, I had owned two-at-a-time before the big white Plymouth, so why not now?  But this time, I wasn’t looking for a practical daily driver.  I was ready to tackle a project!  After all, I was single, owned a house with a garage, had my tools and plenty of spare time on my hands.

I am generally an introvert.  I am fine interacting with others – I have no problem doing so in my professional life, and if a friend would call and suggest a fun activity, I would be all-in.  But for the most part, I was happy to leave work on a Friday evening and have a minimum of human interaction for the next couple of days.  So a car project was something that would fit right in with that kind of life. But with a project, my choice of cars would have to be different, with no big, low value sedans.  If I were to get something that needed much work and investment, it would have to be something worth some money in the end.  Muscle cars were just starting to get big, but I wasn’t really into those.  The cars that interested both me and collectors in general tended to be stuff that had been some combination of sporty and expensive when new, so that was where I started looking.

One day I saw an ad for a 1961 Thunderbird.  I had always loved those Thunderbirds – there was always something special about them.  The couple selling it had bought it to drive a few years earlier.  They were people who did not do things in a normal way – they lived in a restored Victorian home deep within the city limits and were far more artsy than I had ever been.  They had started with a decent car, but didn’t like the white color and painted it red to match the interior.  They had gotten the transmission rebuilt, but told me that the shop could not get the park mechanism right, which led to binding and a cracked shift collar.  The fix had been to disable the transmission’s park function.  The car had the famous Swing-Away steering wheel, the 4 bbl 390 V8 (in its first year) and, well, it was a Thunderbird!

Although I was thrilled that I could finally have the 390 with the 4 bbl carb that had been denied me in my ’67 Galaxie convertible, this one didn’t run that well – it was hard to start and wasn’t terribly smooth after it started.  The transmission shifted right though, and it seemed to drive OK around the block – other than the way the power steering seemed to want to turn left more than it wanted to turn right.  The interior was so-so.  The seat upholstery was decent (though not decent enough to avoid new upholstery if this car went the way I imagined), the driver’s door panel was shot and the dash pad was a mess.  The windshield had a couple of  big cracks and the fender skirts were missing.  The biggest problem was how the car had been parked under a pine tree and needles had filled the concealed cavity under the rear glass, causing rust holes that kept the inside of the trunk wet and caused havoc with the interior chrome.  “I’ll think about it” I said.

The other car on my short list was a ’71 Continental Mark III.  It was everything the Thundering Bird was not.  It was a gorgeous, turn-key proposition (and air conditioned besides).  The old guy who owned it had a fascinating history with cars.  He had owned a small company of some kind and had owned at least one Duesenberg in the 60’s, along with a series of new Imperials.  He reminisced about buying one of the first Mark IIIs in 1969, and how the Lincoln salesman refused to take his ’66 Imperial in trade.  The only things I didn’t like were the ivy green color inside and out and that there had been some evidence of rust repair (though a very nice job of it).  “I’ll think about it” I said.

I should have bought that Lincoln.  I could have enjoyed it for awhile, driven it more often in hot weather, and it would have been an easy sale when I got tired of it.  But I could not get that stupid Thunderbird out of my mind.  Had they been in equal condition, I would have taken the Bird all day long.  The Ford Motor Company’s advertising people had spent much effort burning into my mind what kind of man drove each of those two cars.  I was clearly Thunderbird Guy and not Mark III Guy.  Besides, wasn’t the whole idea here to find a project?

I went back and bought the Thunderbird.  Actually, I bought two of them: the one I saw in my imagination . . .

. . . and the one that I actually drove home.  I got it home and parked it in the garage so that it could dry out.  And I really did start out well.  A front end shop gave it an alignment and pronounced the suspension to be sound, other than some sagging front springs.  I got down under the rear and spent several weeks cleaning/de-rusting/painting the underbody.  I got the gas tank boiled out and a small leak fixed.  I removed and ordered new rear springs and rebuilt the rear suspension with new rubber bushings to go with the springs.

This included stripping and painting the 1961-only multi-piece front spring hangers that allowed the springs to move around up front as well as in back, and fortunately the rubber cushion blocks were still available.  What a fascinating, complex design that must have played havoc with high-speed stability.  I also did the full 4 wheel brake job, including new steel lines in the rear half of the system.  I intended to start underneath at the back and work forward, making a good strong runner first before tackling the more fun cosmetic stuff. What a great outlet for a guy who could spend a quiet weekend in a garage to recharge for a work week of dealing with often-difficult people and their problems.

Early on in my enthusiasm arc I was reading the Sunday paper (remember those?) and saw that a local Ford club was having an “All Ford Day” event downtown.  Well, I thought, I have a Ford, I think I’ll go.  I drove there, and was waived in way at the end of the field.  My car was easily the rattiest car there, and not by a little.  But hey, I owned a Thunderbird.  I also decided to show some real (and totally unwarranted) faith in the car and take it out for a two hour drive north to visit my sister and her family for the day.  Amazingly, everything held together and I arrived safely there and safely back, thus encouraging my over-active optimism.

The little jobs continued, like when the starter gave up the day I decided to drive the car to a lunch meeting and the day the generator quit while I was out running some errands.  At least this second one did not require a tow truck.  Unfortunately this Thunderbird would soon reveal its darker side.

Problem 1: I found a big rust hole in I would call a rear frame rail for the unibody, ahead of the rear axle on the passenger side.  It appeared fixable – for someone who could weld.  I had no experience at welding and owned no welding equipment.  Hmm, let’s think about that and move on.  Problem 2: Well, this one wasn’t really a problem at all – but I began dating the future Mrs. JPC around this point in the process. The result was that my free time had a way of getting spent with her and not so much under the Thundering Bird.  Which spent all its time in the garage moldering instead of Thundering.

At some point I decided to move to the front part of the car and take out one of the inner front fenders.  This revealed some badly rusted structural members that were far worse than the frame-hole in the rear.  It was at this point that my waning enthusiasm more or less evaporated.  I was married by this time and had added another couple of cars to my fleet (stories to come), and finally faced a hard fact: I did not have the time or the skills or the inclination to give this car what it needed (if that was even a good idea to start with) and was certainly not prepared to pay someone else to do it.  Had I been able to find that much spare change rolling around, I had a house, a wife and a new baby, any of which was a far better place to put those funds than what I now viewed as not so much a car, but a very expensive Thunderbird kit.

I would love to say that the car was as nice as it appeared in most of these photos, but it was not at all.  Car pictures are like the photos we share of ourselves on social media – photos of us having fun in interesting places with interesting people.  But real life is sitting around in gym shorts or loading a dishwasher.  Car pictures are the same way – I tend to take them after a good, deep clean and wax when they are looking their best.  And where the camera is said to add 20 pounds to we humans, it also takes about 20 years off an old, not very good car.  Where most of these pictures show a car that appeared ready to hop in and head for the drive-in movie, it actually spent about 98.5% of its 5 years in my possession taking up too much of the garage and looking like this.

I learned one other interesting thing with that car.  By this time I had one car-crazy little boy.  One Sunday I went to run an errand and he went with me.  The original purchaser of this car had failed to pop for the optional seat belts, and nobody had installed them in the decades since.  Which was another reason I didn’t drive it more frequently than I did.  But this one day the toddler begged to ride with me in the Thunderbird.  Well, I thought, it’s a short trip, and I spent my first 12 or 13 years riding in a back seat with no seat belts, so I’ll just be careful.  Here is what I learned:  while I had grown up sitting still while unbelted in the back seat, this is not the case for a kid who has spent life being tightly strapped into a child safety seat every time he got into a car.  I didn’t make it to the end of my street before I had to turn around because the kid was climbing every which direction from the start.  I could drive carefully, and I could keep an eye on him as he explored, but I could not do both at the same time.   We took another car and I made a mental note about loose toddlers in old, beltless cars.

As I was trying to figure out how to get rid of a Thunderbird (something I had been trying with no success), a client mentioned to me that her son was attending an auto body program at a local high school and was looking for a project that he could do for a grade.  A light bulb went on inside my head – For the cost of materials, I could get someone to do some surface body work, pull some dents, fix a couple of rusty places, and paint the car.  I drove the car to the shop and the teacher rubbed his chin as he walked around it.  “This isn’t really what our program is about, but I have been concerned about this kid’s motivation, so if it is something he is enthusiastic about I’ll approve it.”

My big decision was to have the car resprayed in its original Corinthian White.  Why white?  By this time, I was getting a little tired of white cars, what with the two Plymouth Furys.  But I have just never been a red car guy, and never thought this car looked particularly great in red.  I also had zero knowledge of this kid’s skills, and white paint can hide a multitude of incompetence.  Besides, I thought the original white with red interior was a classic combination, a look completed when I bought a pair of fender skirts to be painted along with the car.

By this time we had moved and had two little boys.  I was delighted to free up half of the garage because winter was coming and I could park my daily driver indoors.  As I was enjoying a Thunderbird-free lifestyle, I got a call in mid January – “I have some bad news.  I was almost done but we had a problem.  I was spraying the roof and some of the old cracked sealant around the roof gutters popped out and dirt got blown all over the wet paint.  I’m going to need to keep the car for another month or two.”

Actually, this was the best news imaginable because I wasn’t ready to give up that garage space just yet.  It was also vindication for my choice of white paint.  I finally got the car back, and it actually looked pretty good.  White is very good at disguising iffy body work, but the work was pretty straight and the paint job nicely done.  My only “WTF” moment was when I saw that the kid had not fixed the rust holes concealed below the surface panel under the rear window.  Great – all this body and paint work and the car was still not water-tight.  Oh well.  I had turned the Thundering Bird into a 20 footer, which is a lot better than the 20 yarder it had been.


With the car back home, I cleaned up the inside a bit (not that it helped much) and advertised it for sale.  The guy who bought it ran a small dealership about 50 miles to the west of me.  The stars aligned when he came and looked at the car at night instead of in daylight, and agreed to buy it.  When I am selling a car, I have some rules.  One of them is this: If I am selling to an ordinary guy, I tell him the car’s problems.  But when I am selling to a dealer or someone in the car business, I let the buyer look, I answer any questions I am asked, but otherwise I keep my mouth shut.  Money changed hands, and then I started to worry when the buyer asked if it would make it back to his place.  I told him that my main worry would be the tires, which were old.  Fortunately, the taillights had decided to stop working, so the buyer elected to come back later with a flatbed.  If I remember, I bought the Blunderbird for $1200 and had certainly doubled my investment, at a minimum.  I sold it (freshly painted) for $2,000.  I did not break even on it, but it could have been a lot worse.  Like if I had stuck to my original plan to restore it.

I have always wondered what happened to that car.  Did someone fix the structural rust?  Rebuild the engine?  Replace the windshield and re-do the interior?  Or did my student paint job only slow the Bird’s final descent into a subject for one of Jim Kline’s junkyard features?  Every one of my cars had taught me lessons, but this one taught me a BIG one: Body, interior and chassis/mechanicals are each a thing.  If a car has all three things in great shape, buy it!  If one of those things needs significant work, maybe buy it.  If two of those things need significant work, think really, really hard and if you are really aching for a project, then buy it.  With your eyes wide open.  But if, as with this Thunderbird, all three of those things need major work, run away like you are in an old Quinn Martin television show and the car you have ridden down the steep embankment is about to explode.  Because buying one of Quinn Martin’s old cars couldn’t possibly be a worse idea.