Right now, I’m thinking the ’61 Ford Thunderbird may just be the most beautiful car in the world. Me and photo-journo Jay Groat are loitering on a chilly Sunday morning, in a warehouse district that could be used for any Hollywood bad-guy movie you could think of. And along the deserted street, the odd Checkers packet caught by a gust of wind, rumbles past this magnificent T-Bird, its bright red paint catching brief rays of sunlight between the old buildings due west of old Jo’burg.
The car eases to a stop and settles easily on its springs, and there’s just a faint heat tinkle from those magnificent Kelsey Hayes chromed wire wheels, which were a factory option on the ’61-through-‘63 Thunderbirds. But hold on a second. This car also has the Sports Roadster option. Just over 1 400 of these were ordered throughout the Thunderbird’s life, and this makes this car not only the most beautiful, but the rarest of birds.
The Sports Roadster option consists of a fibreglass tonneau that instantly turns the 4-seater T-Bird convertible into a machine that is 50-50 Batmobile and Porsche 550 Spyder (yes, the one that ended up killing James Dean). The Spyder evocation comes from the double-bubble fairing treatment that streamlines the rear sections of the front seats, just like the Le Mans racers of the 1950s.
The Batmobile bit comes from the fact that the rear deck has now been lengthened to the point where you feel you could land an F15 fighter plane on it. All it needs is a central bat-like fin to complete the comic-book connection, but in the meantime, both Batman and Robin could lie out there catching a tan, to make up for all the time they spend in the Bat Cave.
Yeah okay, the imagination tends to run a bit on the riotous side of things when a car this dramatic makes its appearance. And that’s before you’ve clocked out those huge round rear tail lights that glow like twin after-burners when the driver hits the brake pedal.
The car has just been delivered here by Corber Viljoen and his wife Nadia, the young couple that run the dynamic old-car emporium out Pretoria way called Wat Swaai Jy (that’s Afrikaans for What Moves You, you buncha rooinekke!). Corber was organising a few final tweaks to the car for its new owner Leon Wannenberg, including a brand-new four-barrel Holly carb and some switches connected to the gear lever.
Leon is no stranger to classic cars. He has been restoring and re-building them at Leeway Auto Body Repairs, the firm in Industria North that he has owned for the past 20 years. “I found I was never getting the time to work on my own projects, and I decided I needed a special car that needed no restoration, and was ready-to-go.
The car he finally sourced from Wat Swaai Jy, is believed to be just one of two 1961 Thunderbird convertibles in the country, and as already mentioned, the Sport Roadster option is the cherry on a very tasty cake. It is also worth remembering that the convertible top folds into the vast tail section automatically, accompanied by some amazing gymnastics regarding panels and hydraulics that once again remind you of old 1960s comic books. Actually, the mechanism works perfectly.
Another piece of unusual mechanism that works is the steering column that folds in towards the passenger area to enable easy entrance and exiting from the ‘Bird. You may surmise that this was a feature introduced on these T-Birds because they were largely bought by older guys with big boeps. But even relative skinny guys will find that this car has a somewhat NASCAR-like driving position, with the steering wheel very close to your chest.
Leon was kind enough to let me drive his car, but first I wanted to drink in its drama. Just looking at the T-Bird, you can see that it has been extremely well preserved and it is achingly original. Open the bonnet and you notice that the big 390 cubic inch V8 motor still wears its original tappet covers with the Thunderbird logo pressed into the metal. The air-cleaner is original too, and various under-bonnet original stickers are present.
The upholstery is all according to original spec, and a neat feature is that the Roadster tonneau cover can be stowed away to free up the rear seats. The dashboard and door panels are highlighted by finely-ribbed aluminium panels, and there are three big dials in front of you, none of them being a rev counter, as the T-Bird was considered a “sporty” rather than a “sports” car.
The big old V8 rumbles to life with a surprisingly smooth sound, and there is almost no vibration to be felt through the seats, pedals or steering wheel on start-up. Then you stand on the brake pedal, draw the column-mounted gear level towards you and down to hook drive, and when you release the brake pedal and tickle the accelerator, you are off.
I was stunned at what a smooth driving experience this was in a car that is almost 60 years old. The second big surprise was how well the suspension works. Sure, there is some body roll when taking a corner, and some squat and dive when accelerating or braking, but it’s all beautifully smooth and predictable.
And as for that big 390 V8, which is 6,3 litres in metric terms, it has all the torque you would expect from such a big hunk of Detroit metal. The Thunderbird was only delivered with a 390 cubic inch V8 in the years of this slope-nosed T-Bird, and I think it’s the perfect engine for it. Potent enough to give it effortless 100 miles-per-hour highway hauling, and un-fussy enough to tootle through the suburbs in the sedate-but sporty way that its makers intended.
You know what I like the most about this Thunderbird? It’s the fact that it’s not a Mustang! Don’t get me wrong, Mustangs are lovely cars, and fully deserve their cult status (unless you expect them to handle like Porsche, in which case you have missed the whole point about Mustangs and American cars in general).
But this is a car that was built years before the Mustang broke cover, and it was more of a toe-in-the-water exercise for Ford, as far as moving into the Total Performance era that was soon to follow.
And in any case, driving a 1965 Mustang in today’s world will soon make you aware that in those days, a definition of sportiness is not what we tend to accept as the norm today. So why not settle for just a little more comfort, stomp on the throttle when the road ahead is both straight and clear, and for the rest just burble along to that beautiful V8 beat.
As I swished past all those warehouses and panel shops in Industria North, one of my favourite song lines came to mind. It was written by Mark Cohn, the guy who penned Walking in Memphis, which was a huge hit for Cher in the early ‘90s. This one is all about Mark’s father, who owned a T-Bird, and it goes:
Don’t you give me no Buick. Son, you must take my word. You can keep your Eldorado. And the Foreign Car’s absurd. If there’s a God up in heaven, he drives a Silver Thunderbird.
By Stuart Johnston