American Avante-Garde: The Enduring Appeal Of A Jet-Age Ford Thunderbird
Story by Dan Kahn / Photography by Drew Phillips
I was first struck by the bug to own a 1962 Thunderbird while I was standing in the junkyard behind a famous restoration shop. This was nearly 20 years ago, and I was writing for Rod & Custom Magazine at the time and had gone to Mike Fennel Enterprises for a story. The late Fennel was a renowned hot-rodder and restorer, most notably known for his restoration work for the Blackhawk collection, a collection that racked up nearly 150 class wins at Pebble Beach over the course of a few decades.
I was there to cover something—I honestly can’t remember what—but got sidetracked and ended up wandering around the fantastic “junkyard” behind Fennel’s facility in Saugus, California. He called it a junkyard, but it was actually pretty amazing: old Indy car chassis, pre-war Italian engines, and dropped I-beam axles were stacked up like cordwood. To anyone other than Mike the place was a goldmine, and sitting in the middle of all this was a car that caught my eye: a 1962 Thunderbird, in a shade I couldn’t determine because it had two decades of dirt caked on the paint. Inside, I could barely see the carpet through the thick layer of detritus the creatures living in the car had left behind.
Mike and I had a chat about the car (it belonged to an elderly customer who left it for mechanical work years ago and never returned for it), and after some negotiating the Ford was mine.
I towed it home and after some power washing and (a lot of) vacuuming, the car turned out to be pretty nice. The color was a pastel yellow with a cream interior, and the original 390 big-block started right up after a tuneup with new belts and hoses. I slapped some new Coker whitewalls on the Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels, fixed the weird swing-away steering column that tried to swing away while you were driving, and used the low-slung cruiser as a daily driver for nearly a year. The plan was to turn it into a mild custom with a lowered stance, subtle body mods, and maybe a two-tone paint job with some ‘flake or pearl.
Then life—and another project car—got in the way, and before I could do much more than drive it, I sold it. Funny thing though, over the course of the next 15 years I ended up getting behind the wheel of some amazing cars (mostly for work but occasionally my own) and no matter what I drove, I couldn’t move on from that Bullet ‘Bird. For some reason those sleek, space-race lines always made me think of JFK’s “Moon Speech” (you know the one) and sitting in the interior with its sweeping console and brushed metal finishes made me wonder what it was like to be an American in a time of such forward looking futurism.
About the Design
In the early 1960s, as the popular psyche shifted from a focus on the fighter planes of WWII to the rockets of the future, car design swept forward to the new era as well. The result was a spate of amazing shapes, long and sleek machines with afterburner taillights and turbine grills. But by 1965, it was over. Cars were getting smaller with the now familiar three-box design, and new categories of vehicle were being hatched for every segment of the population. Compact cars, pony cars, muscle cars, wagons—the American automakers had a shoe for every foot and that meant the end to the war for full-size futuristic design supremacy. But in that brief window of time, some of the wildest and most iconic domestic cars were born.
The funny thing about the 1961-63 Thunderbird is that unlike other milestones from major automakers of the era—the C3 Corvette or Studebaker Avanti, for example—the history of the T-Bird’s design is both murky and confusing. Some credit Bill Boyer for the design, others Elwood Engel, some Ford design chief George Walker. First, it’s important to understand the backstory.
Ford exec Lewis Crusoe and VP of Design George Walker were walking the Grand Palais of Paris in 1951 when Crusoe pointed out a small European sports car and asked, “Why can’t we have something like that?”, to which Walker supposedly replied that he already had something in development. According to legend, that was a bit of a stretch and immediately thereafter Walker called Dearborn and had them begin work on the new car immediately.
That same year, Henry Ford II took delivery of a Ferrari Barchetta (that car currently resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum) and if you look closely at it you’ll see some familiar design elements. Bill Boyer was the lead stylist on the new Ford, and by 1953 when the Corvette debuted, the clay models for the Thunderbird were already approved.
The first T-Bird was a sales success, but bean counters at the top decided the car’s second generation for 1958 should grow from sports car to something a bit more family friendly, so the proportions expanded, seating increased, and so did sales. By the time that car debuted, the head of Ford division Jim Wright ordered that the next Thunderbird (slated for a 1961 model year) should be sleeker and sportier than the new-for-1958 model. Walker and Oros disagreed, but in the end the boss won out and the design team set to work on an all-new look for the Thunderbird.
Six decades later, the next step in the process is still unclear. By all accounts, Walker and Oros’ design studio set to work on a new car and after several rounds of renderings and models, two of the lead designers—Bill Boyer and Jim Powers—developed a mockup of the basic design they wanted to present to Ford leadership. At the same time, Engel (who was Lincoln’s head of design at the time) decided to submit his own competing design for the car. According to legend (and an interview Engel gave to the Henry Ford Museum before his passing), after repeated visits to Ford’s German HQ, he asked his boss Walker for a studio and some time to develop his own car in the basement of the Ford Styling Center.
Engel claimed his design was based on several of his past renderings along with the Continental Mark II model and the Quicksilver concept. However, other designers in the department at that time also note that Engel was very inspired by his recent trips to Germany, and if you study the grill and nose of the compact Ford Taunus of the time you’ll see a striking resemblance, along with the Ford Corsair compact that came out in the UK market a few years later (but was already in the studio at the time).
Engel wanted his Thunderbird design to be “clean, with no garbage on it,” and he told his designers that he wanted their proposal to be similar in design to the Continental Mark II, but “taken to the extreme.” Engel asked design analyst Bob Thomas to prepare a package layout for the car, which included blade sides and a Mark II-style greenhouse (including curved glass) set on top of the area between the blades.
Engel and Thomas laid the entire design out on a blackboard, using Ford’s prescribed cowl width (the only solid measurement they were given as a starting point) and designing outward from there. The greenhouse and roof shared similar lines to the Continental Mark II, with curved glass and a sloping windshield. The car had a wedge shape, with curved blades marking the tops of the fenders and the greenhouse sitting on top for a futuristic look.
After months of work, Engel and his team (who were technically assigned to the Lincoln design team) completed a Thunderbird proposal by June 1958, with a a rear fascia featuring large round taillights reminiscent of a jet aircraft’s exhaust. The grill featured prominent metal blocks suspended on a grid that was referred to as the “Schick razor,” and the front edges of the fenders were capped by a narrow band of chrome.
Around this time, Ford design chief George Walker came in looking for ideas for the Ford studio’s competing Thunderbird proposal. He liked one of the renderings in the Elwood studio (penned by John Orfe) with a distinctive “shovel shape” grille and pointed fenders, so he took the drawing; it became the Ford Studio’s Thunderbird front end and grille proposal. Engel, meanwhile, vetoed all of Orfe’s pointed-fender ideas for his alternate 1961 Thunderbird in favor of the squared-off front fenders that would eventually become a part of the production 1961 Continental.
Two design proposals—those from the Elwood team and the Walker team—were presented at a Product Planning Committee meeting in late July 1958. One of the first people to comment on Engel’s design was William Clay Ford, who said the proposal was “too nice for a Thunderbird,” and it “should be the new Continental.” Henry Ford II agreed, and Engel’s design was sent back to the basement.
In the meantime, the Walker team’s design adapted some of the Engel team’s more interesting ideas, from the pointed front end conceptualized by Orfe to the chrome blades borrowed from Ford of Europe’s compacts, to the large afterburner taillights, which, after the “too nice to be a Thunderbird, should be a Lincoln” comment, Engel ordered removed from his design in favor of a more traditional Lincoln rear grill at the back of the decklid with horizontal taillights.
Engel’s slab-sided, sleekly understated model that screamed of jet-age modernity was so handsome that when McNamara saw it upon returning from a trip (he had missed the planning committee meeting), he asked that it be stretched to accommodate two more doors and another row of seats, thereby creating the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
(Interestingly, Lincoln sales were suffering at that time and McNamara considered killing the marque alongside Edsel, but sales for the new Continental were so strong the car saved the entire brand. McNamara went on to became Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, where he had a long and pivotal role in the Vietnam War. As we know, Kennedy would go on to have his own tragic connection to the Continental.)
Upon Walker’s retirement, Engel jumped ship to Chrysler where he became the head of design (going to work almost immediately on the new-for-’64 Chrysler Imperial, which bears a striking resemblance to the Continental) as well as one of the most seminal design studies of the era: the Chrysler Turbine. Engel went on to have a hand in some of Chrysler’s most famous designs of the muscle car era, albeit by that time the “jet age” cues were long gone.
Back to the ‘Bird
In early 2016, I was digging through old boxes of art and found a rendering Canadian artist Jeff Norwell had done for me of my old T-Bird, decked out with chrome-reverse wheels, spider caps, lakes pipes, and not-so-subtle metal flake scalloped paint. A few days later I opened my email and there, in an mass-message from a classic car site, was an ad for a lowered ’62 Thunderbird. In Canada. It was a sign. I called the seller, who in classic Canadian fashion was the nicest and most down-to-earth guy I’d ever chatted with, and a few weeks later the car was mine. Sort of.
I say sort of because as it turns out, getting a classic car out of the Great White North and into the ‘States is harder than I expected. First you must hire a company to get it from Canada across the border (in my case into Michigan), then it has to sit in a customs lot for a seemingly indiscriminate period of time, then it can be picked up by a second trucking company and transported to your location in the lower 48. By the time the car arrived it had been several weeks, and I was climbing up the walls. When the truck driver lowered the rear gate, I was expecting a glorious gem of aerodynamic jet-age perfection. That’s not what I got.
First, the car wouldn’t start. At all. When we tried to crank it, the starter solenoid caught on fire. The body was covered in small chips and dings the seller never disclosed, and the trans slipped so bad once we did get it started I was afraid it was going to leave a payload of gear teeth and ATF in a pile on the road below. I called the once-effervescent seller to find he was a little chillier than our last conversation (keep in mind this is only a few weeks later), claiming the car was “perfect” when it was loaded on the trailer. You may have heard (or lived) this story before…
At that point I decided to dig in and just make it the car I wanted it to be. We put it up on the lift at my office normally reserved for underside car photography and tore it apart. All new steering, suspension, and brakes were added, the 390 FE big-block was torn down to a long block, cleaned up and fitted with fresh induction and ignition parts. The transmission was rebuilt by a local shop that also fitted it with a shift kit so it will chirp the tires going into first and second. New Coker radial whitewalls were fitted on chrome reverse wheels with spider caps, just like the last car. Once it was in safe, reliable running and driving order it was delivered to Back Alley Restorations just a few blocks from my office in Moorpark, California for finishing.
The crew at Back Alley couldn’t believe how perfect the sheetmetal on the car was – especially considering its snowbound heritage. The pans are literally perfect, as are the rockers and virtually every other square inch of steel on the car. They re-bushed and aligned the doors, did some minor bodywork and then resprayed the car in baby blue with a white roof covered with a touch of white pearl. They also pulled the massive bumpers and had them re-chromed, and the stainless spears running the length of the car were straightened and polished. About the only thing left untouched on the car from its prior owner is the white interior, which the prior owner did himself with an impressive level of fit and finish. We rebuilt all the power window motors and switches (not easy parts to come by), replaced the carpets and floor mats with plush berber, and soon enough it was ready for the road.
On the Edge of Lowriding
So what differentiates a mild custom from a full custom (or “kustom”)? A full custom typically has significant body mods to make it look cooler, lower, sleeker; chopped tops, bodies channeled over the frame, even sectioning pieces out of the middle are common. Mild customs were the more usable, affordable, and accessible versions of these cars; typically built on ‘50s and ‘60s platforms, they share many common traits with lowriders. Essentially lowriders and mild customs are the same type of build that reached a fork in the cultural road and diverged, with lowriders featuring wilder paint and hydraulic suspensions and customs featuring more subtle paint and static ride heights.
On this car, apart from the two-tone paint we also shaved most of the emblems and metal trim, dropped the right height by three inches and added factory-style fender skirts to give the illusion of an even lower stance. Bellflower pipes were fitted below the quarter panels, kicking up a few degrees to parallel the car’s fins and “rocket exhaust” tailpipes. If you’re curious, Bellflower pipes (where the exhaust pipe flares out and runs parallel to the bottom line of the quarter panel from the rear wheel well opening to the bumper) that are the standard on both mild customs and lowriders are generally believed to have been first formed out of ’36 Ford driveshaft tubes at either Gene’s Muffler or Collins Muffler in Bellflower, California.
With all that done, the car was finally ready to come home. My wife loves driving it, both for its smooth ride and the fact that it looks like you’re piloting an Easter-egg-colored cruise missile. After a brief debut at the SEMA Show, the car usually ends up cruising around locally, including to my daughter’s first grade sock hop, where it looked pretty out of place among a sea of hybrids and minivans.
After 20 years, a trip to a magical junkyard, a long haul from Canada, some light restoration work and a lot of weird history, I finally got to own my Bullet Bird. It was worth the wait.