1987: the stock market crashed, the world’s population reached five billion, Maggie Thatcher scored term #3 in the UK, Michael Jackson released Bad, and worse, New Zealand’s relationship with the USA went down the plughole (anti-clockwise, naturally) thanks to us becoming a nuclear-free zone. There’s no truth to the rumour that NZ leaving the ANZUS pact turned it into ANUS. In the motoring world, 1987 was the year Australia’s esteemed Wheels magazine took a tru-blue dinky-di Aussie Holden Commodore to the US of A and road-tested it against the Buick Grand National, Chev Monte Carlo SS Aero, Ford Mustang GT and the subject of Curbside Classic this week, the Ford Thunderbird. Read on for how that beautiful Ford in that magazine contributed to this Kiwi kid’s automotive coming-of-age.
I knew 1987 was going to be a tumultuous year for me – I’d turned 13 at the end of ’86, which meant the end of my years 1-8 junior schooling, and the end of the sense of comfortable familiarity those years had given me. 1987 meant starting secondary school, which in New Zealand is years 9-13, covering ages 13-18. It was going to be challenging going from being one of the big kids at junior school to becoming a ‘turd’ at high school!
One of my methods of getting through that year was to pore over my Great-Uncle Bill’s car magazines. Uncle Bill was a keen car enthusiast who, along with my mechanic Dad, influenced my love of cars. In 1987 Uncle Bill drove a Vauxhall Chevette (metallic gold with white seats and orange carpet)…and an Audi 200T (black on black, so exotic, so fast, so much understeer!). More importantly to a young and impressionable mind in those pre-internet days, was Uncle Bill’s car magazine subscriptions – Wheels from Australia and New Zealand Car from Uzbekistan (I kid, I kid). I loved biking over to my Uncle and Aunt’s house to read the latest issues – and work my way through the shelves of the older ones. Sadly Uncle Bill died of cancer in the 90s, but his magazines live on on my book shelves – the ‘982’ on my scanned cover below was his subscription number at the local bookshop.
Unlike most issues, February 1987’s Wheels puzzled me. I’d read car magazines for a couple of years, and understood the format: they have photos of cool cars on the cover to entice readers in. But this Wheels only had words on it! Words! How will that look good in my dreams or on my bedroom wall?! The main words referred to there being no Car of The Year, as nothing was deserving enough. But down the bottom were another four words and three red-white-&-blue letters that piqued my interest: “Calais Director Takes On USA”. Wait, what? Aren’t American cars all big-bumpered boxy things that look hopelessly out-of-date, my 13-year-old know-all self asked? What could Wheels have possibly found that could compete against the stylish sophistication of the Commodore?
To be fair, it wasn’t a standard Commodore, but a top-spec Calais, modified to become a ‘Director’ by HDT, the Holden Dealer Team. This was Holden’s semi-official racing team, and was owned by Aussie racing legend Peter Brock. HDT had been modifying Holdens for some years and Holden honoured the HDT cars’ factory warranties. Wheels‘ Director was Brocky’s prototype, so wore HDT’s subtle but stylish ‘LE’ bodykit seen above, rather than the, um, different ‘Director’ kit seen below:
This Calais Director features the full 21-piece ‘Director’ kit, and I can see that a lot of tupperware and Lego died for it… I’m kind of glad that Wheels‘ one had the LE kit. With the unusual bodykit, the Director was perhaps the zenith of HDT’s modifications, with HDT also bestowing it with Opel Senator-based independent rear suspensions (all Aussie Commodores were live axle until the mid-90s).
Unfortunately HDT didn’t get GM approval for the IRS (even though it was a bolt-in proposition and factory fitted in the Commodore’s European cousins), so Holden refused to continue honouring the factory warranties. There was also the matter of the crystal and magnet filled ‘Energy Polariser’ that Brocky insisted on fitting to the cars, to which Holden said “Yeah, nah, complete bollocks mate, so hoo-roo, we’re not cobbers any more”.
I wasn’t aware of this behind-the-scenes GM-HDT divorce, but I was aware that Wheels said the Calais Director was a world class car made right there in Australia! However, I also knew saying something is quite different from proving it. In those pre-intergoogleweb days, inter-market comparisons simply didn’t happen, so taking a real, live Commodore to the States was a new and exciting concept to me. I’ll try now to channel my 13-year-old impressions from 1987 as to how the Thunderbird in the test brought about a coming of age for me in the way I viewed American car design.
So let’s start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start). Looking at the two-page opening photo appeared to confirm my American-car-design prejudices. Big square GM things that looked stylistically out-of-date? Check. No Chrysler – do they even still exist? Check. A too-small Mustang with slightly-suspect proportions? Check. A Euro-influenced VL Holden? Well that’s the whole point of the article, so check. Oh wait, what’s that great-looking coupe on the left? A Thunderbird? It’s styled in America and looks as good as that? I suspect my views are about to be challenged…
The Buick: Looked boxy and old, with non-flush rectangular headlights and steel wheels. Wheels compared its roofline to that of a Volvo 760. My 13-year-old self giggled. I stopped giggling when I turned to the interior photos and saw the horizontal strip speedometer. In a performance car! In 1987!! Overall I didn’t think the car looked bad, it just didn’t look modern. Except for the lack of a chrome grille, it was the epitome of heavy-handed and dated American styling as I thought I understood it. If it came in orange I could see the Duke boys in one. Next please.
The Monte Carlo: Scored full round instrumentation and red stripes inside, and big mag wheels and bigger red stripes outside. It had the brashness that I equated with American design, but also featured a distinctive and stylish wrap-around rear window. Wheels said the aero-back gave the full Monte “a drag coefficient of 0.365 compared to the Grand National’s disastrous 0.44“, but I said any modernity the aero-back brought to the styling was cancelled out by (again) non-flush rectangular headlights. More typical dated American design. My teenage prejudices remained alive and well. Sigh.
The ‘stang: Ok, a bit of an improvement here with flush lamps and no grille. The non-flush side door glass doesn’t gel with the flush rear-side windows, And half the glass on the afore-mentioned rear-side appeared to be covering a solid pillar instead of letting the sun shine in. But teenage me was surprised at how Ford had made it look fairly current. The interior looked very good too – unlike the GM twinsters, it looked up to date, similar to the Aussie XF Falcon, and almost *gasp* European! The proportions were slightly odd, but it certainly sparked a seed of doubt in my prejuiced thoughts.
But the Thunderbird, oh the Thunderbird!: I turned the page and all my pre-conceived American-car-design prejudices were completely shattered. In my mind, Thunderbirds were old cars – stumpy in the ’50s, torpedoes in the ’60s, and long low-roofed whale-monsters in the 70s. I had no idea they were still being made in 1987, let alone wrapped in such beautiful sheet metal. It was so smooth and streamlined, with flush lamps, flush glass all around, no grille, nice alloy wheels, and such a gorgeous reddish colour. Inside was so modern and European-inspired too.
The old-fashioned door pull and clunky chrome door-release handle were questionable, but paled into insignificance alongside everything else. Overall that 1987 Thunderbird Turbo was easily the most modern, most European, most non-American American car I’d ever seen! And beautiful, so very beautiful. I fell instantly and deeply in love with the Wonderbird, but was brought crashingly back down to earth when I turned the page to…
…the Commodore: Similar lovely colour to the Ford, but easy to see its late-70s German origins inside and out. Having riden in them I knew the dashboard was basically poor quality rubbish – although Brocky’s graphic equaliser mounted in a separate pod in front of the gear lever was quaint! The semi-hidden headlights and the large windows did give it a passably modern look, but I…I couldn’t help myself, I just had to turn the page back to see more of that beautiful Thunderbird that I’m going to dream about forever (to a teenager, a week was forever!)
Let down by its “nasty” 2.3 turbo, the Thunderbird actually came third in the comparison, behind the Mustang and the victorious Holden, but I didn’t care. In my eyes and heart the Wonderbird came first. It’s funny that all these years later, I can still remember how intensely I felt about the Thunderbird upon seeing it for the first time in that issue of Wheels.
So that’s my coming-of-age tale of how, one day in early 1987, a beautiful American Ford completely changed the way this Kiwi kid viewed American car design. More importantly, it taught a know-all 13-year-old (aren’t we all at that age?) that that there was much more to the world and to cars than I thought. I learnt what parochialism was, and how to question my prejudices. Thanks Wheels, and thanks Ford!
Postscript– as I went to hit ‘save’ on this post, I held the magazine up to the light to look at a Thunderbird photo better. I discovered the faint indentations that 13-year-old me left when I traced it to put onto my school books. And isn’t schoolboys tracing a picture of a beautiful car the biggest praise a designer can hope for?