What exactly is the American Dream? Was it easier to answer that question fifty years ago? If you were seven years old, and had just arrived from Austria at the same time this 1961 Thunderbird first appeared, the answer is definitely yes. What more was there to aspire to then this? Seeing fifty of these convertibles in Kennedy’s Inaugural Parade only cemented the image. In America anyone could realistically aspire to own a car that actually looked like a Dream Car in a car show, one that would glamorously jet you away from the humdrum of ordinary life, if not exactly rocket you to the moon. Yes, in the fall of 1960, Ford was building my dream. But it was short-lived.
Just three years later, both the stunning “Bullet Bird” and Kennedy were gone. The squared-off, fussy 1964 T-Bird confirmed my defection to the Church of St. Mark of Excellence, and my brief childhood love affair with Ford was well over. In my dream driveway, the ‘61 Falcon Futura (my practical side was already showing) and T-Bird now were replaced by an ever changing palette of GM’s finest. The American Dream has never been a static affair.
Was 1961 Ford’s finest hour, at least for a very long time to come? In my book, yes. My feelings for Ford’s late fifties styling has been well documented here, and that extended to the 1958 – 1960 “Square Bird”, regardless of how revolutionary a car it was. They impressed me on some level, the interior, mainly, but I though their front ends looked like a hideous creature from the depths of the ocean. I guess the public didn’t quite agree with me, because the Square Bird outsold the Bullet Bird, right through its last year. There’s no accounting for taste.
The highlight of my fling with the 61-63 T-Bird came when we were on vacation in NY, and I saw a Sports Roadster in the flesh for the first time (there were none in Iowa City). Available for 1962 and 1963, the fiberglass cover over the rear seats was meant to evoke the original two-seat T-Bird. Of course it was a bit ridiculous, but don’t tell that to a nine year old agog, or the proud driver.
Has anyone thought about how the poor Mercury dealers felt during the T-Bird’s heyday? What was Ford doing selling such an upscale and exclusive car anyway? Sucks to be them, then and now. Mercury was doomed anyway; Ford just didn’t do the multiple brand thing well, and at least they’ve embraced that reality now. But where’s today’s Dream Car by Ford? The Edge?
The 1961 Thunderbird might well have looked very different than it turned out. Elwood Engel’s design proposal (above) lost out to the winning one by Alex Tremulis. Look familiar? Ford President Robert McNamara ran into it by accident, liked it, and had it turned into the 1961 Lincoln. That was convenient for production reasons too, allowing both cars to share substantial aspects of their unibody innards, as well as the Wixom production facility.
Just as well it turned out as it did; I deeply admire the ’61 Lincoln Continental, but it somehow lacks the pizazz and Dream Car quality of the ‘Bird. I might have been happy enough if my Dad drove one (perish the thought), but it never found its way into my own fantasy driveway.
I have vivid memories of gazing into the T-Bird’s engine room as a kid hanging out in the work bays at the Ford dealership. I always felt sorry for the mechanics that had to work on them; they were the most crowded of any car back then. The giant flat air cleaner and the separate tank for the side-flow radiator were distinctive, and concessions to the tight clearances around the 390 CID FE motor. Rated at 300 (gross) hp, it moved the ‘Bird well enough, but hardly with any real thunder. This was a porky fowl (4,000+ lbs) , several hundred pounds more than a bigger Galaxie. Unibodies didn’t necessarily save weight.
And no one is going to accuse these Thunderbirds of any actual sporting qualities; any pretensions to that were fully abandoned when the format went to a four-passenger personal luxury coupe. Their dynamic qualities were best left to the realm of dreams. And watch where you drive that thing: these cars probably set an all-time low for clearance, which only got worse as the springs sagged in old age.
Who cared about such mundane matters, when you’re ensconced in that cockpit and piloting down that glassy smooth new pavement of the just-built interstate? The Thunderbird’s interior was at least as enchanting for me as the exterior. When you’re used to being packed into a ’54 Ford sedan with too many siblings with whom skin contact was not exactly desirable, just the idea of of bucket seats separated by that huge expanse of chrome console was dreamy.
Now that I really think about it, that may just have been the biggest attraction of the Thunderbird to me. It represented true freedom… from being sandwiched between a pesky big brother and a sweet but sticky little one. All my dream cars back then had bucket seats, even the lowly Falcon Futura. My brief infatuation with a neighbor’s ’58 Impala coupe ended with the front bench seat; what! no buckets? I arrived in America exactly at the right moment: the beginning of the bucket seat era. And the T-Bird played a key role in ushering it in.
Finding this particular convertible Bird was a dream fulfilled (they become more modest with age). I’d seen it on the road this summer, piloted by a guy in his early thirties or so, and obviously driving home from work. I was going the other way with a huge load of compost in the back of my old Ford truck, and I just had to abandon any hope of giving chase, especially since he’s a spirited driver. But rarely have I been more eager to find a car after I first saw it; it fulfills the highest aspirations of CC: a significant historical car being used as daily driver. Plenty of patina, and the baby seat in the back just cements it.
I finally found it sitting in front of this garage, in need of some attention as a result of its age and daily use. What a crappy background for shooting such a visual delight; not one good angle to be had without the distraction of something behind it. I could have held out and eventually found its home base; maybe. But I couldn’t wait anymore. And maybe its just as well; the dream driveway of my youth has long evaporated. Mr. Appliance it is; the American Dream is a bit tarnished these days.
The interior is a little worse for wear, and the rain shower that started minutes after I took these shots probably didn’t help. But vinyl was built tough back in the day, and what’s a little dust and grime on the console to keep from enjoying this beast, rain or shine?
Someone is living out their dream with this car, even if it isn’t the same one I once had. It certainly isn’t the American Dream anymore, but then what is? We can’t agree on anything anymore, never mind a collective dream. But as long as folks like this T-Bird owner are tooling home from work with the top down, rain or shine, the Dream is alive, if a bit grimier than in 1961.