George's Classic 1963 Bullet Bird: 'What to tell your wife before the Thunderbird arrives'
Is there another American car of the 1950s and 1960s as famous as the Ford Thunderbird? Many observers would answer in the negative: the Thunderbird, named for a Native American mythical bird said to bring thunder, has created its own powerful mythology. A white 1956 T-Bird – the most glamorous machine in a film full of gorgeous cars – is the stuff of romantic dreams in American Graffiti (1972), where it is represented as the American Dream, tantalising and forever just beyond reach.
George Tawadros, owner of the lovely 1963 model you see here, fell in love with Thunderbirds in childhood (initially the 1958 version, as indeed did I). Now, in early middle age, he has fulfilled his dream of ownership. This is his first classic car and what a sensational opening gambit! It had been the property of the owner of Old Skool Classics and was auctioned by Mecums.
‘At 45, I feel I am among the youngest classic car collectors, and am still early in my journey. My brother has a 1972 and a 1978 Mercedes.’ But now the bug has bitten: ‘I think that if we could find a two-bedroom, six-garage house that would be ideal!’
George’s Thunderbird spent its first half century in the US and he believes it has been garaged throughout its life. He imported it from California in 2013. Since arriving in Australia the car has been used sparingly. It was given a major body-on restoration not long before passing into George’s custody and, as the photos clearly show, is in pristine condition. He also had the engine reconditioned because the car had sat for a while and was leaking oil.
The renowned 390 cubic-inch ‘Thunderbird’ V8 is equipped with a four-barrel carburettor and delivers strong, smooth performance. The odometer reads 48,000 miles which, according to George is more likely 148,000.
From the outset, the original 1955 Thunderbird won the public over in a huge way. The Ford Motor Company had found an answer to the challenge posed by the Chevrolet Corvette, only unlike the Chevy marketing dudes they weren’t going to call the brilliant new Thunderbird a ‘sports car’; much more creatively they dubbed it a ‘personal car’, affixing the evocative name of the mighty bird. And with the optional V8 engine beneath that pretty bonnet, the T-Bird certainly offered more thunder than its six-cylinder Corvette rival. And sales? How about 16,155 versus 674 Corvettes in 1955!
The Thunderbird embodied a new concept, offering sporting motoring for just two occupants in a largish but very sleek car with a long list of optional extras to make yours even more personal – it was easy to add some 30 per cent to the list price by ticking a lot of boxes! While most European sports cars and the Corvette compromised on space and protection from the elements, the Thunderbird delivered a compelling blend of Euro sports and US-style comfort, which included a plush ride and lots of room for luggage. Tellingly, the optional factory hardtop was made standard equipment for 1957.
Clever as the personal concept car was, there were only so many American customers who were keen to purchase a two-seater car and after strong initial demand, sales slowed. The Thunderbird was threatened with extinction after just three seasons. But Robert McNamara, one of Ford’s famous ‘Whiz Kids’ of the postwar years (it was an initiative of Henry Ford II to recruit the brightest university graduates in engineering, economics and other automotive-related disciplines), who was by the late 1950s head of the Ford Motor Corporation – and would leave Ford in 1960 to become President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of State – gave the model a reprieve: reimagine it, decreed McNamara, as a four-seater.
So for season 1958, the Thunderbird was stretched and the ‘Squarebird’ replaced what became retrospectively known as the Little Bird. Where the 1955-57 cars had been body on frame per the US norm of the day, the new model was a monocoque.
The third-generation T-Bird appeared in 1961 and naturally acquired a nickname: Bullet Bird. These were suave, sophisticated cars – smoother, sleeker, longer, lower, wider and with a higher level of luxury. Air-conditioning was standard, as were fast glass, power steering and power seats. There was even a radical Swing-Away steering wheel for easier ingress and egress. How good were these Thunderbirds? Well, there was the guarantee that ‘she’ll have fun, fun, fun ’til her daddy takes the T-Bird away’! When the Beach Boys recorded ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ in 1964, it was perhaps a T-Bird just like George’s they had in mind.
The 1963 model was the most extroverted of the Bullets with its stylish chrome flash on the door. Indeed, chrome abounds but the use is always tasteful: consider those beautiful instrument surrounds! Every Thunderbird of these early generations was distinctive but the 1963 car is among the most memorable. One of Ford’s brilliant ads for that season is headed: ‘What to tell your wife before the Thunderbird arrives.’ George didn’t have this problem with his wife; she said, ‘Why don’t you just buy one?’
Amazingly, it was not until the 1963 season – the new models were as usual revealed in the fall of the previous year, so 1962 – that any other US manufacturer offered a personal car in the Thunderbird idiom, meaning its first genuine rival was the 1963 Buick Riviera. (To give readers an idea about how seriously General Motors took the threat posed by Ford’s celebrated personal car, the original idea was to launch the Riviera under the old La Salle brand, La Salle having been just below Cadillac in the GM model hierarchy!)
Fortunately for George, not only does his wife approve of the Thunderbird, but no-one is ever likely to take it away from him because it’s a keeper.