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