The Blue ( Thunder ) Bird Of Happiness

A visitor – a welcome visitor – to the 2018 Victorian Hot Rod Show was this imported 1955 Ford Thunderbird. It would have been equally at home inside the hall, but by being in the car park it meant we could get much closer to see the details. And all for free.

You can think what you will and say what you might about the way that the Thunderbird evolved over the years – how it got bigger, and lower, and heavier, and ultimately indistinguishable from the sedans that took over the personal car market. And how Ford tried to wind back the clock when they restarted production to match two-seater modern cars…But you cannot deny the impact and the style of the first models.

They were never sports cars…nor were Corvettes or Studebaker Hawks. They were personal luxury cars for a market where the average Joe or Jane might just be able to afford one – and to do so while they were young enough to appreciate it. They had a big enough engine and adequate suspension and reasonable brakes, and the rest was just style and salesmanship…and quite frankly that was a reasonable answer to what people wanted.

The Europeans who decried the style or the weight or the handling fell into two classes; those who had enough old-family money to buy faster, better handling cars with astronomic price tags, and those who had enough money to buy an Austin A40 but were jealous of the Yanks. Their children and grandchildren are still echoing their shrill sentiments now, but paying 10x the price tags for modern sedans tricked out with spoilers and LED lights to do the same thing that the Thunderbird drivers did; cruise the beach strips on warm nights. They might cruise more expensively but they don’t cruise in better style.

Note the wire wheels. They are real and simultaneously unnecessary  and cool. Likewise the chrome bumpers…though I might say that the chrome and over-riders probably does a 200% better job of actually protecting the bodywork than the plastic parts of today. I note any number of dangling things on the freeway every time I drive into town – either the plastic pans are not attached very well or the people who snag and smash them cannot afford to have them ripped off and replaced. That’s not surprising considering the price of spare parts.

Note also the porthole. This is one of the last cars to have one and actually get away with the style. It is design folly, of course, but we wouldn’t be without it on a T Bird. The bird is also one of the few cars past the 1930’s that has made a wheel arch cover look good.

You might bemoan the standard look of the tail light assembly as well – it’s the style of the Fordsedan cars of their time – but remember that Ford was a reasonable-price manufacturer and any use of standard parts would have made good sense. You never had to complain about not seeing a Ford tail light when it lit up.

Is the interior luxurious enough for you…in a spartan sort of way? There is much less of the sculpturing of the dash area that you see on other North American maker’s cars, while still not retreating to the woodwork and flat panels of the European marques. It’s not padded – so you can expect to bounce your head off that dash if you stop quick.

The seat, however is pure romance, and I am willing to bet a number of them got started on those T Bird benches. Washable vinyl, too…I think the cup holder’s a later addition but the radio and the heater controls look pretty standard for the period. Is that a tape deck? Does it have Conelrad? Do you know what Conelrad was? And look at the wheel – ribbed for your pleasure.

Finally…consider the statement that the paint job makes in these days of grey and black. This is a car for people who want to have fun and colour. Truly Happy Days.

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The Edsels From Mandurah

 

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I do love a car show. No matter where you go there always seem to be new vehicles on display. And by the very nature of the thing, their owners want you to take notice of them. Oh I met one very odd lady at the Big Al’s show who forbid me to take pictures of her Ford pickup truck – a ban I promptly ignored – but by and large they love having photos taken of the cars.

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Edsels are not that common in Western Australia – I’ve seen two of them at Big Al’s on separate occasions – the red and white seen in the background here is one of them – and now two more at the Whiteman Park show. All of them have been preserved/restored well with little evidence of any hot rodding or customisation. I think the seat covers and valve stem trim on the white vehicle seen here is the wildest that they have gotten. And I can’t say I blame the owners, either – they have something in their hands that stands out from the motoring pack without adding extra accessories.

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Here in Australia we have also had cars that have been treated like Edsels – in my youth the Lightburn Zeta, the Goggomobile, and the Hillman Imp come to mind. They were small and cheap and horrible. I am thrilled to be able to say that the Imp was on my short list for my first car. Eeeek. I came thaaaaaat close to stepping into one…

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Okay, all that aside, and at a comfortable interval – over 50 years – since the ex/implosion of the publicity campaigns for the Edsel, we can look at the actual vehicles. Remember that you are seeing a late 50’s American product and the styling is going to have all the signatures of the time. Apart from the suggestive oval grill work, there are flattened fins on long rear decks, hefty, heavy chrome bumpers, and cavernous boots. In the case of the two-door there is a very large side window space once the glass is down and in both instances there are solid doors.

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Folks, these are features I would love to have in a car right now. I can’t get them because they don’t make them on things I can afford. In some respects I am worse served by modern design over that of 57 years ago. Of course, when I fill my little car up with petrol and buzzle about for a week on one tank, I am validating a number of those design decisions…but not when I try to take four people for a ride with a holiday’s worth of luggage.

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Is it better built than a new Bentley? No. Was it better built than a ’59 Bentley? No. Could more people afford to buy it than could afford Bentleys? You know the answer to that one. I know at least four Western Australians who have opted for the Detroit iron…