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Our Cars--Uncle Bob's Thunderbird

A few weeks ago I discovered a marvelous piece of music I'd never heard before: "Silver Thunderbird" by Marc Cohn.

As you might have guessed from the title, "Silver Thunderbird" is a ballad about an old car. Actually, it's much more than a ballad. It could be the theme music to Car Lust: The Movie. It's as good an example of the love of automobiles set to music as anyone could ever write. If Marc Cohn had e-mailed the lyrics to Chris Hafner during Our Cars Week, Chris would have run it as a guest post.

Don't gimme no Buick
Son you must take my word
If there's a God up in heaven
He's got a silver Thunderbird...

At first I was not completely paying attention, and I heard those last two lines as "Uncle Bob's up in heaven/He's got a silver Thunderbird"--which was a little spooky because my Uncle Bob, who died about twenty years ago, not only drove a T-Bird, he collected them. In fact, he even gave me one.

Uncle Bob worked as a metallurgist for one of the steel mills, which meant that he made good money and bought new cars every couple or three years. Uncle Bob was not a particularly flamboyant person, but like many in the steel mill crowd he drove relatively flashy cars. When I was two or three years old--this would have been either late '63 or early '64--Uncle Bob bought himself a new Ford Thunderbird.

...You can keep your Eldorados
And the foreign car's absurd
Me I wanna go down
In a silver Thunderbird

The T-Bird defined what eventually became the personal luxury market segment. The original two-seater might have seemed at first blush to be Ford's answer to the Corvette, but the resemblance was superficial. While the early 'Vette was a single-minded sports car, the T-Bird was less about getting there faster and more about arriving in style. The heavily-decorated "Square Bird," introduced in 1958, completed the personal luxury formula by adding a back seat. The third-generation "Bullet Birds" toned down the chrome a notch and went for a more restrained mid-century look, but they were still very much on the flashy side.

The fourth-generation 'Bird, introduced in 1964, is known among fans as the "Flair Bird" or the "Jet Bird." Either nickname is appropriate. It was a baroque spaceship with bias-ply tires, the car Flash Gordon used for a daily driver after he retired from space flight and went to work as a life insurance salesman for Mongo Mutual. The stylists started with the jet-like "Bullet Bird" body, adding strong horizontal character lines, wide tail lights in chrome bezels that looked like squared-off jet exhausts, and a longitudinal recess in the middle of the decklid that carried the lines of the tail lights up to the rear window and echoed the fake hood scoop up front. Inside were bucket seats and a dashboard made to look like an airplane cockpit. 

Under the hood was a 300-horsepower V-8, but because the T-Bird was rather heavy for its size, straight-line performance was only fair to middling. The suspension was tuned for a soft ride, and the power steering for low effort, so this was probably not your first choice for outrunning Ming the Merciless on the twisty back roads of Arboria. On the other hand, it was just the thing for picking up Dale Arden for cocktails and a night of dancing.

When Uncle Bob got his Flair Bird, that's when I got mine. Uncle Bob got two plastic promotional models from the Ford dealership which he gave to me. These "promos" were highly detailed pre-assembled 1:25 scale models, with rubber tires (with raised lettering and white sidewalls!) and window cranks and speedometers with digits and needles. One was a Galaxie 500 hardtop in sea-foam green, which was cool enough, I suppose. The other car was a burgundy Flair Bird, and it was my favorite. I drove them both around the hardwood floors enough to turn over their little plastic odometers, but mostly I just liked to look at the T-Bird. All the cars were going to look like this when I grew up, I just knew it. It had a hood scoop and a cockpit!

While I remember my toy Flair Bird quite vividly, I don't have a whole lot of memories of Uncle Bob's full-sized 'Bird. I don't think I ever rode in it, just saw it in the driveway when he came to visit. Eventually he got another car, and others after that. As for the Flair Bird itself, Ford replaced it at the end of its intended three-year run. The fifth-generation "Glamor Bird" or "Big Bird" had hidden headlamps and styling that was more Matt Jeffries than Flash Gordon. The Glamor Bird even came in a sedan version with suicide doors.

Down the road in the rain and snow
The man and his machine would go
Oh the secrets that old car would know...

Many years later, I learned that Uncle Bob was more of a pistonhead than I'd realized--he had a collection of several Flair Birds. I never saw the collection, and I don't know if they were disposed of before he died or as part of his estate.

I also don't know that the theologians have ever figured out if motor vehicles are permitted on the Streets of Gold, but I tend to believe they are. If that's the case, I'm pretty certain of what Uncle Bob is driving now.

The white Flair Bird at the top of the page was captured on a Dutch street by one of the bloggers at Cars of Coolhaven. The burgundy promo model came from PromoCars.org. The other photos are from John's Old Car and Truck Pictures.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

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One of my dream cars is taking a 4-door Thunderbird, cutting it in half, and making it into a slightly-stretched limo.

At least I'd never pass myself on the road.

I've always has a soft spot for da'bird. When I went through my own $2500 challenge a few years ago a T-bird was not even on my radar. I wanted another Honda to share the garage with our '86 Accord (purchased new) with 180K. Anything in my price range had just as many or even more miles even though they were newer. My mechanic friend had a '91 T-bird that he was selling while clearing out his recently deceased father's estate. It had 111K but had an engine rebuild only 8K earlier (a bit early?). It had always been garage kept and was the typical old man car with a sheath of repair/maintenance paper work. I've put about 40K on it without a lick of trouble. I've gotten as high as 29.9 (3.8L V6) on a 400 mile freeway trip, and that was with the car stuffed to the top with camping gear. It's a bit soft for the twisties, but is a very comfortable freeway cruiser. It does handle better than a luxo-barge, but is no sports car. One blogger wrote that "it's as close to a Mustang as you'll ever get"...sadly he was probably right.

I mostly like the 1958-66 models myself. Well, and the 1977-79 and 2002-2005 ones, too. Weirdly, only the latter two generations really make me drool though. The other ones (even though I rather like them) just seem too. . . .heavy.

There's one (probably '64-'66) sitting two houses down looking terribly forlorn. It's never moved, and looks like a wreck but I've seen the guy working on it. . .well, I guess only once. It would be a long-term project but I think if he sold it for a reasonable price, I'd really think about going for it.

This is almost spooky. My name is Bob, I am an uncle (many times over) and I used to have a 1964 Thunderbird. In fact just like the one in the first photo. It was creamy white with the Landau top, palomino leatherette interior and enough handles and slides to entertain a distaff passenger for miles. It could make me feel like the pilot of a small plane getting ready for take-off.
Obviously, it was not a sports car or a muscle car or a faux GT car, but it could cruise the freeways and boulevards with the best of them. I only had the car for about three years, but, man what years they were. Great post, Cookie.

Boy, do I remember driving one of these around on a friday night and thought I was cool.

I had a '66 'bird many years ago, had the 429 big block in it, that thing could move pretty good for it's size.. gulped the fuel tho..

I remember the sideways-moving flourescent bar speedo instead of the needle sweeping in a circle.. and the steering wheel was 'swingaway' for easy entry and exit... very spaceship-like in my mind..

mine was old and worn, but I did love that car.

Excellent post and car. Reminds me of my Uncle Bill's 62 powder blue Tbird, a real gem. Since Uncle Bill married late, he had the opportunity to bring many girlfriends to family events in that beautiful car. I had always hoped he would tire of it around the time I could afford it, but it didn't last quite that long.

I remember the model well. I have never had the opportunely to relate this story before: When I was six, I went to the 1964 Pier 1 auto show in Boston Mass with my grandpa. He checked out every luxury car they had on display, even the big Mercedes. Went he got to the 'Bird he spoke a few words with the sales rep, pulled out the biggest wad of bills I had ever seen. When the show closed, grandpa had the snow white 'Bird. He also was one of those people who swapped rides every two years, but this ride was the exception. He kept this one for ten years. Had he kept it two more years, and I would might have been of age to snag it, but the new car dealer knew a cherry ride when he saw one, and by the time I found out grandpa was in the market for a new ride, that one was gone, gone, gone. Retired from the "MTA", nowhere much to go, the car lived in a heated garage and got about 2K a year on it. I'm not sure, but I think it had about 10 or 12K on it in 1973.

I loved my grandfather's bird -- seems he went from an MGTC to a Jaguar XK 140 to the bird -- marriage and prosperity does that, I guess.
Imagine my surprise when I saw a Chrysler Turbine, which seems to have been the inspiration for the 'Flair,' but both appeared in '64. Which is the chicken, which the egg?

My T-Bird memory comes via a Rambler.
My father really liked cars but for some reason (probably 4 kids) by the mid-60s he ended up with two Rambler Classic 770s. One was a 1963, the Motor Trend Car of the Year, which we all liked. Based on that experience, he traded a 1957 Ford two-door Ranch wagon (red & white with the T-Bird engine option) for a 1965 770. Despite the mundane nature of the cars, he always bought V-8s with the then rare factory AC. And as a nod to his car loving side, he always had the wheels painted red.

Back to the T-Birds. Circa 1965 we did our annual summer vacation to his hometown in western Wisconsin. One of his childhood friends was the Freddy the Ford dealer (back then a small town with a population of less than 1000 could support a Ford and Chevy dealer thanks to the outlying farms. Dad would spend part of his day hanging out in the one car showroom talking to his Freddy and his two person staff. Jack was the parts guy and bookkeeper while Adolph was the mechanic. The overhead was low, with Freddy once telling my dad that the sale of one Fire truck or milk tanker chassis (based on the Ford COE) would ensure a profitable year.

I always liked going there to see the cars and lust after wooden picture frame mounted chrome plated dealer promos (like Cookies’ Galaxie mentioned above) that Ford presented as sales awards.

Occasionally Freddy would try to talk dad out of his Rambler and let him drive something fun. On this trip it was a white 64-65 Thunderbird convertible. It sported a red interior and, as mentioned above, had enough instruments to probably remind him of his day job as an Air Force officer and pilot. Wow!
This was the time of the Beach Boys singing about cool cars, AMT 3 in 1 plastic models, new Mustangs, E-type Jags, mid-year 'Vettes, and George Barris being a household name for building "Kustoms" in California.
With all this going on, I was stuck in Missouri in a two Rambler family. Yes, I was ready for some fun with a T-Bird. The fact I was only 10 didn't bother me, I just needed to be in the presence of a neat car.

Dad drove us around all afternoon with the top down. Being back home was good for his soul and a way for him to get away from his high pressure job. For me, it wasn't a car I was in driving across the county; it was nothing less than a jet. Maybe it was an F-104 Starfighter or perhaps that new tiny passenger jet Bill Lear was making in Wichita. Whatever it symbolized, it was clearly cooler than a Rambler four door. When we drove down the main street, I felt like an astronaut going down Broadway in a ticker tape parade.

Now I'm an adult with some neat cars...but none have ever struck me as modern as that Thunderbird.

The only 4-pack 'birds worth owning are the '59 and the '63. Owned one of each!

Got out of the Air Force in July '66, went to university, needed a car, bought the banker's wife's used 58 T-Bird with 40K on the clock. $600. 352 4bbl (I dunno if it came that way). In a straight line it was fast. On the curves tended to sway, a lot. But it was fun.

Blew the engine some 5 years later with 160K on it, mostly trouble-free. Boy, I wish I had it again. Lots of fun in that car.

"While the early 'Vette was a single-minded sports car,"

with a straight six and and a 2-speed automatic, right.
The 2-seat 'birds raced at Sebring. They scared Ferrari bad.
Until the opera-window barge, T-bird was real close to a sports car. 'Personal luxury' was like a venereal disease to American performance cars. They kept getting a fresh outbreak of it.

I wanna buy one of this beauty for me i m frm india can any one help me ? ? ?

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