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The Rocket Car: Ford, the Space Race and Why I Love the 1962 Thunderbird

A Diamond In the Rough

I was first bitten by the bug to own a 1962 Thunderbird when 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 and had gone to Mike Fennel Enterprises for a story. The late Fennel was a renown hot rodder and restorer, most notably for his restoration work for the Blackhawk collection, which racked up nearly 150 class wins at Pebble Beach over a few decades. 

1962 ford thunderbird
The unmistakable space-age lines and afterburner taillights of the 1962 Ford Thunderbird. (Photos by Drew Phillips)

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 Saugus, California, facility. 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, and to anyone other than Mike the place was a goldmine.  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 car was mine.

1962 ford thunderbirdI 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 and 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.

1962 ford thunderbirdThen life – and another project car – got in the way, and before I could do much more than drive it, I sold the car. 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 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.

1962 ford thunderbirdAbout 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 designs, long, sleek creations with afterburner taillights and turbine grilles. By 1965 it was over – cars started getting smaller with the now familiar three-box design and new categories of vehicle were hatched for every segment of the population: compact cars, pony cars, muscle cars, wagons. 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 car designs were born.

1962 ford thunderbirdThe interesting thing about the 1961-63 Thunderbird is that unlike other iconic designs from major automakers of the era – the C3 Corvette or Studebaker Avanti, for example – the history of the car’s design is both murky and confusing. Some credit Bill Boyer for the design, others Elwood Engel or Ford design chief George Walker. First, it’s important to understand the backstory.

1962 ford thunderbirdFord 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 had 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 (which currently resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum), and if you look closely at that Barchetta, you’ll see some familiar design elements. Bill Boyer was the lead stylist on the car, and by 1953 when the Corvette debuted, the clay models for the Thunderbird were already approved.

1962 ford thunderbirdThe new 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 debut) should be sleeker and sportier than the new-for-1958 model. Walker and Oros disagreed, but in the end the boss won out and a Ford’s design team set to work on an all-new look for the Thunderbird.

1962 ford thunderbirdSix decades later, the next step in the process is still unclear. By all accounts, Walker and Oros’ design studio team 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.

1962 ford thunderbirdEngel claimed his design was based on several of his past renderings along with the Continental Mark II model and the Quicksilver, a Ford concept that evolved into the 1960 Ford. 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 grille 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 U.K. market a few years later (but was already in the studio at the time).

1962 ford thunderbirdEngel wanted his Thunderbird design to be “clean with no garbage on it,” and 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 out the entire design 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 the blades for a futuristic look.

1962 ford thunderbirdAfter 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 rear fascia featuring large round taillights reminiscent of a jet aircraft’s exhaust. The grille featured prominent metal blocks suspended on a grid that was referred to as the “Schick razor,” and front edges of the fenders were capped by a narrow band of chrome.

About 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.

1962 ford thunderbirdTwo 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 for the Engel car 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 grille at the back of the decklid with horizontal taillights.

1962 ford thunderbirdEngel’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 and went to work almost immediately on the new for 1964 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” design cues were long gone.

1962 ford thunderbirdBack 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 e-blast 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 an indefinite 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 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.

1962 ford thunderbirdFirst, 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 that I was afraid it was going to leave a pan-load of gear teeth and ATF in a pile on the floor. I called the once effervescent seller to find he was a little chillier than our last conversation (keep in mind this is a few weeks later), claiming the car was “perfect” when it was loaded on the trailer. You’ve heard (or lived) this story before.…

At that point I decided to dig in and just make it the car I wanted. We put it up on the lift at my office normally reserved for undercar 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.

1962 ford thunderbirdThe 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 he 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 it was ready for the road.  

1962 ford thunderbirdOn 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 or just better – 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 – and 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 suspension and customs featuring more subtle paint and static ride height.

On this car, apart from the two-tone paint, we also shaved most of the emblems and metal trim, dropped the right height 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, kicked 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.)

1962 ford thunderbirdWith 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 driving around in 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.

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.

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