Curbside Classic: 1961 Ford Thunderbird – The American Dream-mobile

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(first posted 10/21/2014)    What exactly is the American Dream? Was it easier to answer that question fifty years ago? If you were seven years old, and had just arrived from Austria at the same time the 1961 Thunderbird first appeared, the answer is definitely yes. What more was there to aspire to then this? Seeing fifty of these convertibles in Kennedy’s Inaugural Parade only cemented the image. In America anyone could realistically aspire to own a car that actually looked like a Dream Car in a car show, one that would glamorously jet you away from the humdrum of ordinary life, if not exactly rocket you to the moon. Yes, in the fall of 1960, Ford was building my dream. And then I was rudely awakened.

Thunderbird 1961 white ad-

Just three years later, both the stunning 1961-1963 “Bullet Bird” and Kennedy were gone. The squared-off, fussy 1964 T-Bird confirmed my defection to the Church of St. Mark of Excellence, and my brief childhood love affair with Ford was mostly over. In my dream driveway, the T-Bird was were replaced by an ever changing palette of GM’s finest.  The American Dream has never been a static affair.

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Was 1961 Ford’s finest hour, at least for a very long time to come? In my book, yes. I have mixed feelings about Ford’s late fifties styling, and that extended to the 1958 – 1960 “Square Bird”, regardless of how revolutionary a car it was. They impressed me on some level, the interior, mainly, but I though their front ends looked like a hideous creature from the depths of the ocean. I guess the public didn’t quite agree with me, because the Square Bird outsold the Bullet Bird, right through its last year (1960). Everyone’s dream is different.

Thunderbird 1962 Sports-Roadster-1962

The highlight of my fling with the 61-63 T-Bird came when we were on vacation in NY, and I saw a red Sports Roadster in the flesh for the first time (there were none in Iowa City). Available for 1962 and 1963, the fiberglass cover over the rear seats was meant to evoke the original two-seat T-Bird. Of course it was a bit ridiculous, but don’t tell that to an eleven year-old agog, or the proud driver.

It evoked the classic roadsters of the thirties, with their long tails and no pretense of practicality. And it was about as sporty as they were, but who cared? The T-Bird had long ago ceded that role to the Corvette, while it was laughing all the way to the bank. The big Birds outsold the ‘Vette by almost ten to one. McNamara made the right call when he backed the big change to four-passenger Birds in 1958. And the T-Bird practically owned the market segment it created, for way longer than GM would have liked, despite everything they threw at it.

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Has anyone thought about how the poor Mercury dealers felt during the T-Bird’s heyday? What was Ford doing selling such an upscale and exclusive car anyway, especially when it sported the optional (and popular) Landau package? Sucks to be them, then and more recently. Mercury was doomed anyway; Ford just didn’t do the multiple brand thing well, and at least they’ve finally embraced that reality now. But where’s today’s Dream Car by Ford?

Thunderbird Engel design

The 1961 Thunderbird might well have looked very different than it turned out. Elwood Engel’s design proposal (above) lost out to the winning one by Bill Boyer and others. Does Engel’s proposal look familiar? Ford President Robert McNamara ran into it by accident, liked it, and had it turned into the 1961 Lincoln. That was convenient for production reasons too, allowing both cars to share aspects of their unibody innards.

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The most dramatic and original feature of the Bullet Bird is the sharp blade that serves as its belt line. It rises from the steeply sloping front end, that was way too un-American for Americans, lacking a big open mouth. It may well be why the Bullets sold less than both the Square birds before it and the Flair birds after it. I’m sure you’re not surprised when I reiterate that it’s by far the best of the bunch: clean, original, (mostly) lacking the clutter of group-think throwing too many styling gimmicks at it.

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The blade does double duty as my favorite door handle ever. Maybe the least ergonomic ever. Don’t the doors open telepathically?  Nothing’s ever been done just quite like this, although the ’61 Conti does give it a run for the money. Gives the term “knife edge design” new meaning.

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Mustn’t neglect the Bullet’s red-hot jet exhaust with after-burner nozzles.

Ford Thunderbird 1961 engine

Sadly, there was only an internal combustion engine at work under the hood. I have vivid memories of gazing into the T-Bird’s engine room as a kid hanging out in the work bays at the Ford dealership. I always felt sorry for the mechanics that had to work on them; they were the most crowded of any car back then. The giant flat air cleaner and the separate tank for the side-flow radiator were distinctive, concessions to the tight clearances around the 390 CID FE motor. Rated at 300 (gross) hp, it moved the ‘Bird well enough, but hardly with any genuine thunder.

This was a porky fowl (4,000+ lbs), several hundred pounds more than a bigger Galaxie. Their unibodies didn’t necessarily save weight, having been designed in the pre-CAD era. “Better to overbuild than not”, that was the Wixom mantra.

Ford Thunderbird 1963 sports roadster

And no one is going to accuse these Thunderbirds of actual sporting qualities; any pretensions to that were fully abandoned when the format went to a four-passenger personal luxury coupe.

Ford Thunderbird 1963 Palm Springs

Their dynamic qualities were best left to the realm of dreams or movies (these two shots are from the movie “Palm Springs”). No, that’s not diesel soot, but an FE at full chat, in the pre-EPA era. They were rather fond of their liquid hydrocarbon diet.

Thunderbird 1961 c

And watch where you drive that thing; these cars probably set an all-time low for clearance, which only got worse as the springs sagged in old age.

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Who cared about such mundane matters, when you’re ensconced in that cockpit, the swing away steering wheel back where it belongs, and piloting down that glassy smooth new pavement of the just-built interstate? The Thunderbird’s interior was at least as enchanting for me as the exterior. When you’re used to being packed into our 62 Fail-lane sedan with too many siblings with whom skin contact was not exactly desirable, just the idea of bucket seats separated by that huge expanse of console was dreamy.

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Now that I really think about it, that may just have been the biggest attraction of the Thunderbird to me. It represented true freedom… from being sandwiched between a pesky big brother and a sweet but sticky little one. All my dream cars back then had bucket seats, even the lowly Falcon Futura. My brief infatuation with a neighbor’s ’58 Impala coupe ended with the front bench seat; What! no buckets? I arrived in America exactly at the right moment: the beginning of the bucket seat era. And the T-Bird played a key role in ushering it in.

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It may have looked dreamy to a seven-year-old, but that big console was there pretty much out of necessity: to hide or cover the inordinately large central tunnel, necessary because the unibody ‘Bird sat so low, and because it served as an important structural member.

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Finding this particular convertible Bird was a dream fulfilled (they become more modest with age). I’d seen it on the road in the summer, piloted by a guy in his early thirties or so, and obviously driving home from work. I was going the other way with a huge load of compost in the back of my old Ford truck, and I just had to abandon any hope of giving chase, especially since he’s a spirited driver. But rarely have I been more eager to find a car after I first saw it; it fulfills the highest aspirations of CC: a significant historical car being used as daily driver. Plenty of patina, and the baby seat in the back just cements it.

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The interior is a little worse for wear, and the rain shower that started minutes after I took these shots probably didn’t help. But chrome and vinyl were built tough back in the day, and what’s a little dust and grime on the console to keep from enjoying this beast, rain or shine?

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Someone is living out their dream with this car, even if it isn’t the same one I once had. It certainly isn’t the American Dream anymore, but then what is? We can’t agree on anything anymore, never mind a collective dream. But as long as folks like this T-Bird owner are tooling home from work with the top down, rain or shine, the Dream is alive, even if it is a bit grimier than it was in 1961.