American beauty: inside a gorgeous 1956 Ford Thunderbird
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If you’ve seen the film American Graffiti, this car will need no introduction. A cream 1956 Ford Thunderbird was seen cruising past just out of reach, disappearing tantalisingly around corners or through changing traffic lights, glimpses of exotic blonde beauty at the wheel.
Apart from the car, Cardrona retail manager Jennifer Langton is a different breed of Thunderbird driver and the mum of two says the car’s advantages include the fact ”it doesn’t fit the kids”.
“Driving around in this car for a bit is just so good for the soul,” she says.
Strictly speaking it’s a “family car”, originally bought by her father-in-law.
“Until I was part of the family I hadn’t driven many cars and the first time I drove this was about five years ago.”
Mind you, she wasn’t entirely new to motoring. Her dad’s a mechanic. “We grew up with Dad having a service station, car yard and panel shop in Dominion Rd, in Auckland, and my earliest memories are of playing in piles of tyres, and sitting in cars and pretending to drive. So, I learned vehicle appreciation from an early age.”
She already loved American cars, having owned a Ford F150 — a large ute. “I love, love, love big trucks, and when we sold that one I think I was hanging on to the back as it drove down the road.”
This Thunderbird was bought in America, in 2008. The Colonial White paint “we think original” needed a touch-up the cabin dash pad had new fabric and the interior paint was redone.
They splashed out on new rear springs and door rubbers, and the cross-ply tyres were changed to radials, but otherwise little needed to be done. This car is fitted with the 5.1-litre (312ci) V8, with a slightly unusual soundtrack as the exhaust comes out through the corner of each bumper, at a 45-degree angle.
It also has a radio — no longer working — with what seems an unusual control.
The Town/Country button will either cut out all the faint wavebands when you’re driving in urban areas and prioritise the strong ones, or cut the strong connections and search for fainter stations when you’re driving crosscountry.
This Thunderbird is left-hand drive, and Jennifer’s husband, Blair, often tells her she drives too far to the left.
She says: “I think that is naturally what you do, you get used to it and I’m happy with being on the left. It’s a really easy car to drive, and I love that you can put your foot down and hear that sound.”
She illustrates this and as the V8 picks up, it sounds like some nightclub crooner gargling whiskey over gravel — an engagingly naughty soundtrack that’s as hard to resist as the car’s looks.
But Jennifer says you can’t get too leadfooted until you’ve got used to the power brakes, that aren’t as effective as modern ones.
“If you have to brake in a hurry you have to put your body behind it.”
And it’s surprisingly comfy. Settle in — window and seat adjustments are electric — and you feel almost cosy. Yet between the curved windscreen and the portholes, there’s an excellent view out.
Apparently aficionados call this model a “wee bird” — along with the 1955 and 1957 variants as they are the smallest of the breed, built to compete with the Corvette.
To put that into perspective, it’s 4.7m long — the last five-seat Ford Falcon sedan was 5.9m.
Still, says Jennifer, “It’s such a femme car, and I guess we have Marilyn Monroe [who owned a 1956 Thunderbird] and Suzanne Somers [the mystery Graffiti blonde] to thank for the glamour it oozes.”
It’s not just the glamour that appeals. “I love the fact it’s got a Yblock V8 under the hood and you’ve got to love that it’s got grunt as well,” says Jennifer.
She rarely drives the Thunderbird on the open road, and so far has driven it only with the roof up, although she plans to drive it more this summer, top down. That does mean taking the roof off and leaving it at home, with the black soft-top in reserve.
Like all old cars, there are stories around many model changes. This one goes that the 1955 Thunderbird had its spare wheel in the boot, but one day when Henry Ford II wanted to golf with a mate, he took the T-bird and found the golf clubs wouldn’t fit without leaving the boot open, so the wheel was moved outside.
This car’s been spotted all around Otago, as far as Twizel and even Invercargill, though Jennifer mainly sticks to home roads, around Wanaka and out to Arrowtown. “My favourite local drive would be out to Cardrona hotel, there’s a bit of town, a bit of freeway, views and the garden bar at the end.”