COAL: 1963 Ford Thunderbird–A 19-Year-Old Me’s Wish Fulfilled

Owning seven old cars has painted me as a man with no impulse control, but that’s a little unfair.  In truth, most of the cars I have bought had been part of the plan months or years in advance, manifesting themselves at the exact moment when I was least inclined to resist them.  Of course, that manifestation was almost always the direct result of my actively looking for them, but why split hairs when there is a Thunderbird to introduce?

In this case, I’ve actually wanted a Bullet Bird for 23 years.  As a 19-year-old college student, I daydreamed of a silver 1961 Hardtop, but over the years that aspiration grew a few hashmarks on the doors and changed into a 1963 model, and a 1963 model it has remained for about six years, ever since my wife caught me looking over a ’63 for sale in Escanaba, Michigan.  I didn’t buy that one, but I didn’t forget it either.

Therefore, when I spotted this ’63 in Hemmings, and it was a mere two hours away, and it was painted in a nice ’62 color (Acapulco Blue), and it seemed so ready made for a guy like me, how could I NOT call about it?  A nice ex-schoolteacher lady was selling it to settle her late uncle’s estate, and this was the last car to go.  It had a completely rebuilt engine and transmission (as settled by my borescope’s images of freshly finished cylinder bores), a nice interior, older paint, a rust-free undercarriage, and an entirely new brake system.

A few problems, of course, were immediately obvious as well.  It had old tires, it wouldn’t idle without surging, the idle mixture screws were unresponsive, none of the power windows worked correctly, the shifter and swing-away steering wheel were in desperate need of help, and the power seat didn’t work.  Knowing my car count and storage situation, I offered a dollar amount I wasn’t sure the owner would take, mentally prepared for either eventuality, and ended up driving the car two hours home with my wife following in her car.

My first job upon getting the car situated was to get it running well.  The carburetor wasn’t much of a problem; the power valve was loose, which caused fuel to leak from the float bowl into the intake manifold.  I also changed the carburetor lid and choke mechanism for an improved system from a ’66 model Autolite 4100.  Finally, I replaced a leaky secondary diaphragm.  The other problem was the distributor: it was simply worn out.  The advance mechanism was sticky, the points cam had a mile of axial play, and the points were filthy.  I replaced the whole distributor with a new one from the parts store, set the timing, and enjoyed a smooth running 390.  As of now (and I’ve only been able to put a couple hundred miles on the car so far), the only problem is a finicky cold start that I’ll have to work through.

I’m not sure why a car with a clean engine compartment and an obviously new engine (judging by the smell of combustion the whole way home, I was the guy breaking it in) had worn out ancillary equipment, but no matter.  I now had to move on to other “new” old car issues.

I hate needless complexity, which makes a ’60s Thunderbird a terrible choice for me, in all honesty.  The swing away steering wheel and shift mechanism is, in my opinion of course, a labyrinthian device designed to frustrate the average home mechanic.  The shifter flopped around due to a cracked shift collar and a worn business end (the end that engages the shift detent plate inside the column).  Fixing everything was such a comedy of errors that I didn’t take pictures, but imagine a guy wrapping himself in fiberglass welding blankets to MIG weld a broken tab on a shift tube inside the car, and you get the idea.  I hated that job, but now the car starts without jockeying the shifter up and down.

Not much better was the power window situation.  So far, I’ve replaced two switches (modifying them along the way because reproduction parts sometimes suck), cleaned two, replaced a relay and a circuit breaker, disassembled and cleaned a motor, fixed some hack wiring, and lubricated everything I could get at.  As of right now, the front two work fine, and the rear two will work perfectly once I remove the door panels to lubricate the tracks.  I’ll save the power seat for later.

Even if a ’60s Thunderbird is somewhat irritating to work on (how could such a big car have such a cramped engine compartment?), it rides beautifully.  It’s quiet and relaxed, even at a registered 83 miles per hour (which is actually 70 mph…another problem).  It’s obviously beautiful, if not a little obnoxiously styled.  Compared to another of my vehicle loves, the ’63 Riviera, the T-Bird is a bit Vegas Strip compared to a boat ride on the Thames, but who cares?

One thing it is not is fast; whoever put the “390 High Performance” sticker on the air cleaner was kidding himself.  It’ll one wheel peel with alacrity, but we’ll call acceleration “refined.”  I’m pretty sure my ’65 Skylark will walk away from it, and it’s not a fast car.  But who buys a T-Bird to go fast?  Not me.  Unfortunately, that lack of speed will certainly be paired with dismal fuel mileage.  Maybe I should have bought that Volvo P1800 I’ve been lusting after.

Eh, who am I kidding?  I probably will someday.  Until then, this T-Bird will need new leaf springs, a light buffing with some compound (it has at least two paint jobs under the top coat), new tires, and a few other odds and ends.  Considering I haven’t been able to drive it too much thanks to an endless Michigan winter, I can’t yet say that “Aaron hearts T-Bird,” but it’ll happen soon.  Since I’ve waited over 20 years for a Bullet Bird of my own, what’s a few more months?

If you’d like to read about my other automotive exploits, please follow the link:

Aaron65’s Continuing COAL Series