Texas City couple restores an American motoring icon
Ah, the T-Bird. There are faster cars, more manly cars, more powerful cars. But Ford’s Thunderbird occupies a revered place in the fleet of great American rides, and a reserved spot in the garage of my memories.
It was in a 1966 T-Bird convertible that I experienced the first intoxicating realization that the joys of adulthood might soon be within my grasp. And I wasn’t even driving. I was 15 and in a leather bucket seat beside my cousin, 18, the incorrigible son of my incorrigible uncle, on the way to a covert high school party, where there would be beer and girls.
Propelled by 428 cubic inches of by-god American V8, we hurtled along an arrow-straight road through South Texas cotton fields. The top was down. The night was dark. The stars were bright. The air was warm. Life was good, and getting better.
But I digress …
Barry Brannon may have been born to own a T-Bird. At very least, his infatuation began very early.
“The first word I ever said was Thunderbird,” he said. “I knew all the cars, but I’d get really excited whenever I saw a T-Bird.”
His desire went unrequited until 1976, when a man walked into Hi-Lo Auto Parts in Texas City, where Brannon worked, needing a Thunderbird clutch.
An offer was made and rejected; the car was not for sale. Perhaps fate, or whatever gods preside over the restoration of old cars, probably the same that rule Hades, intervened, because the second clutch failed and the man returned in a different frame of mind.
“Changing the clutch on one of these things is a real pain,” Brannon said.
For $1,650, Brannon became the owner of a 1956 convertible that someone had repainted candy apple gold.
“It was hideous,” Donita Brannon, Barry’s wife, recalled. “Truly atrocious.”
The T-Bird soon was installed in the garage at the couple’s Texas City home, where it sat for 30 years.
“It was the world’s most expensive fishing-rod holder,” Donita Brannon said.
It might still be sitting there today, covered in dust, fishing gear and that awful paint, except that Donita Brannon had a T-Bird hankering of her own.
“I was born in 1956 and wanted to drive it on my 50th birthday,” she said.
She got the ball rolling, but it was a slow roll, apparently.
“Nothing got done until we went on vacation,” Barry Brannon said. “My buddy came over and basically high-jacked the car. I got a call from him saying ‘Well, I got the body off it.’ I said ‘The body off what?’”
Then ensued about fours years of frame-off restoration, during which a few of the many joys of such work were discovered.
“I found out it had a fiberglass fender,” Barry Brannon said. “I couldn’t have that. I found one in Pennsylvania. It cost $1,600 — plus $100 to ship it … .”
The result, though, was the salvation of an American motoring icon.
Lore has it the Thunderbird was born in a fit of panic among Ford Motor Co. suits at the sight of Chevrolet’s Corvette, which rolled into the public domain in 1953.
The first production model Thunderbirds appeared in 1955. You could argue the Brannon’s ’56 marks the pinnacle of Thunderbird styling. It was the first model with the externally stowed spare tire and “porthole” windows that came to define the model.
The Brannon’s T-Bird has been restored to near original. It’s wearing the peacock blue paint that Ford intended and is powered by the original 312 cubic-inch “Y-block” V8. They’ve added an electrical fan to help keep the engine cool while it’s idling along on parade duty and a power inverter into which they can plug strings of Christmas lights.
There’s a lot to love about early model Thunderbirds. They look good from every angle; not a bad line anywhere.
“This is my favorite part,” Barry Brannon said, pointing to a subtle curve just inside the T-Bird’s understated tail fins. “I know it’s weird, but I love that curve.”
It’s not weird, of course, anymore than admiring the spot where certain necks meet certain shoulders or the backs of certain knees.
There are many things Thunderbirds are not, sports cars, for example. Ford marketed them as “personal luxury” cars. But what they are is beautiful, sleek, stylish and sexy; they are feminine power stamped out of sheet metal. When the Beach Boys sang about a girl out having fun on her own terms, they sang about a girl in a T-Bird.
When George Lucas in “American Graffiti” sent the goddess of erotic love off on a joy ride through Anytown U.S.A., he put her in a T-Bird.
Sadly, the T-Bird’s time of youthful beauty and sex appeal was, like our own, fleeting.
In 1958, Ford CEO Robert McNamara — who went on to design the Vietnam War — decided to cram a back seat into the T-Bird. The model continued to sell well and hung on to some cool for awhile, but its fate was sealed.
While the Corvette continued to evolve into the definitive American sports car, the Thunderbird underwent an uglification program that seems to have included input from the Soviet Union’s best designers to become a hulking behemoth commuter cube.
And thus, a rolling shrine to young love and beauty became a sarcophagus for teenage dreams.