Thunderbird’s full circle



This is a story of renewal. It starts with a trip in a very special car and finishes 30 years later with the same trip in the same car, a highly modified 1957 Thunderbird I’ve owned and loved for 50 years. I remember the night I first saw it; it was 1965 and it looked like all the other T-birds I’d been shopping for as gift to myself for graduating from Columbia University. It wasn’t! The Colonial White paint was a little oxidized and the convertible top a bit ragged but it had a decidedly different rake and rumble. The test drive clinched it. The click-clack coming from the differential as the gymkhana-champ owner backed out of the driveway with me buckled into a 3 part racing harness was followed by a blistering blur of G-forces and tire screams turning us into human slingshots, ending in a 180 degree racing stop. I practically threw up and slinked away mumbling holy s—t,what was that? I was too scared to buy it then, and settled for a plain vanilla (actually chocolate brown) stock bird with a transmission leak.

A year later when my brother Ron wanted a 57 T-bird for his graduation, I gave him mine and returned to the scene of the crime. The beast was still there and I got it for $2500. That’s when I discovered how different it really was. It had a 389 Pontiac Tri-Power under the hood coupled to a Muncie 4 speed, a Ford 4:11 posi limited slip differential, traction masters, anti roll and anti sway bars, Koni shocks, quick steering gears; 2 1/2 flow through exhausts; oversize station wagon brakes;15 inch Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires on reverse offset wheels, a custom pod of Stewart Warner gauges and a gorgeous blood red oversize Tachometer built into the dash to top it all off.

Weeks later I was heading to Houston to work on the Apollo project, my dream job. We were going to the Moon and the T-bird and I would be part of it.

NASA was a great place to work, both for me and the bird. I parked it nearby Wally Schirra’s steel gray Maserati; Alan Shepherd’s 427 Corvette and a 62 E-type and 56 Jag XK 120. We had a great run there and following Apollo 11, NASA sent me to grad school at UC Berkeley. I decided to drive there in the T-bird and the trip started auspiciously. Less than a hundred miles outside Houston, a metal hook anchoring a mosquito net I’d rigged to keep pebbles from flying up to damage my brand new burgundy paint job came free and did a Woody Woodpecker on that beautiful bonnet. Heartbroken, I choked back a tear and motored on. The rest of the journey was uneventful, thank goodness, probably because I never pulled more than 4 grand on the tack (that was 60 mph with that 4:11 posi, and 12 mpg.) The highlight was the final leg, a jaunt down Highway 1 with my 12-year old genius cousin Marc by my side. I’d picked him up in LA with his mom and dad’s encouragement and it was the first time he’d ever been away without them.

Anyone who’s ever driven Highway 1 in a sports car knows how spectacular it can be, doubly so the first time. We stopped in Cambria, the Hearst Castle, Esalen Hot Springs, Big Sur, Nepenthe, Julia Pfeiffer Beach (the one with the legendary From Here to Eternity love scene,) and of course, Pebble Beach’s fabled 17-mile drive before splurging our last night at the Highlands Inn in Carmel. Heading into Berkeley on the last leg, I recall thinking as that as wondrous as those sights were, the best part of the trip was the feel of the road under those Blue Streaks and the surge of that Tri-Power as we twisted and turned with the windows open and the Pacific Ocean crashing below us.

Thirty years later, Marc and I decided to reprise the trip. By then, I was in the twilight of my NASA career and Marc was a successful entrepreneur and aviator starting several companies, marrying his wife, Barb and having 3 wonderful kids. A little business was in order before we could leave. For much of the 30-year interval, the T-bird had languished undriven and it needed attention. I chose Dick Guldstrand to do it, who’d earned his stripes developing and testing racing tires and suspensions. He swapped the Blue Streaks for 17-inch tires on Halibrand wheels, changed the 4:11 posi for a 3.10; the Muncie 4 for a Richmond six speed, rebuilt the engine to a 421 and we were on our way.

The reprise from LA to Berkeley was a midlife gift to Marc and I and the T-bird. The photographs below show the 3 of us retracing our steps coming full circle. Highway One was just as wonderful the second time, with the memories of thrills gone by resurrected. Thirty years from now we hope to do it again.

image from the reprised road trip (images from original trip available on request)

more images available upon request