Me & My Car: Pleasanton man owns first-, last-generation Thunderbirds

Ford’s response to Corvette with 1955 model was an immediate hit, created whole new marketing segment

Looking back, I believe it’s fair to say that the American auto industry was pretty boring up until 1953-1955.

General Motors was clearly the market leader, selling roughly twice as many vehicles as Ford, and Ford sold roughly twice as many vehicles as Chrysler. All three companies produced nice family cars — sedans and wagons, with convertibles being the most glamorous.

Then, in January 1953, General Motors upset the apple cart by introducing the first Chevrolet Corvette at GM’s Motorama Show in New York. It sparked a lot of excitement and interest all over the world, and I’m sure it caused some panic at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. For the 1955 model year, Ford set a goal of producing a true sports car.

George Walker and Louis Crusoe conceptualized the Thunderbird. Their idea was to build a two-passenger car with a convertible top out of off-the-shelf parts. It was not to be a radically styled car, but rather one with the Ford look, so that car buyers would immediately recognize it as a Ford product.

What to call a new model is a common problem when it is released. Beaver, Detroiter, Runabout, and Tropicale were among the thousands of names that were correctly rejected. Louis Crusoe proposed a name contest and promised the winner a $250 suit ($2,882 in 2023 dollars). Ford stylist Alden Giberson won with “Thunderbird” and went on to become one of Ford’s best dressed men.

The Thunderbird made its public debut on February 20, 1954, at the first postwar auto show in Detroit. It was priced between $2,695 and $4,000 ($30,836 to $45,768 in 2023 dollars), and it was an instant success. It was nothing like a Corvette, but rather a personal luxury car that spawned a new marketing segment distinct from Corvette.

From 1955 to 1957, this was the first generation of T-Birds. There have now been 11 generations of Thunderbird, according to automotive experts, but I disagree. Only the first and eleventh generations are true Thunderbirds in my opinion. The Thunderbird is only available in two seats in the first and last generations. The rest are nice cars with the Thunderbird name on them, but they are not true Thunderbirds in my opinion.

Ronald Wacek of Pleasanton, who owns both a first and a last-generation Thunderbird, would probably agree. He’s been a T-Bird fan since he was seven years old. He was living with an aunt and uncle who owned a café/gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway at the time.

“One day a cool car drove in, and a Navy officer got out and went in for a bite to eat,” Wacek told me. “I went over to look at the car. It had no back seat and a large black phone inside! It had to be for military communications. “I just thought to myself, ‘Wow,’ and wondered if one day I could have a car like that with a phone in it.”

He never forgot the dream. Wacek borrowed $1,200 from his stepmother while in high school in 1967.

“I purchased the first early ‘Bird I saw.” It was a dull red car with a stuck driver’s door, but heck, I could call it mine, so I slid in through the passenger door and drove it home.”

It featured the standard 292-cubic-inch V8 engine, a three-speed floor-manual transmission, and overdrive.

“But I was tired,” Wacek admitted. “It required painting and interior work.” It was in need.”

The owner had his fair share of mechanical issues. The self-taught mechanic did the majority of the work. He completed about ten transmission jobs before discovering a flaw in the bell housing. It has four different colors on it.

“I went with a GM light yellow paint color in the 1980s.” I also installed a porthole kit and kept it as my daily driver. In the 1980s, I also had a new wife and a mortgage, so my car activities were limited.

“Over time, the car evolved into a ’55-’57.” In addition to the ’57 engine and transmission, I purchased a ’57 soft top with ’56 sun visors and backup lights. “I switched to front power discs for (brake) safety.”

Wacek estimates that he has invested an additional $25,000 in this T-Bird over the years, not including sweat equity, and believes the current market value is around $35,000. He believes he has the car as close to perfect as it can be. He drives it about 2,000 miles per year just to keep it running. For eight years, it was his daily driver, but the total mileage is unknown.

“In 2013, I retired, and my retirement gift to myself was a 2005 Thunderbird.” I wanted to have the first-year and last-year Thunderbirds — a 50-year span. What a difference in manufacturing processes and technology!”

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