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1955 Ford Thunderbird - Heaven Can Wait
David Craig Has Been Having Fun With This First-Gen Thunderbird for more than 50 Years
When a teenage David Craig asked his Mom to co-sign a car loan in 1959, she might well have wondered if she was making the right decision. Was this just a passing fancy? What would be the risk? Would the car be reliable? Half a century later, all those concerns have been laid to rest. Now 72 years old, David still has his car, the loan has been repaid, and the car is better now than it ever was!
"I was 19 years old when I found this 1955 Thunderbird listed for sale in our local paper," David recalled. "The price was $1,850—and that was a lot of money back in those days. The T-bird was my daily ride and then a drag car on Sunday. This was my life until 1962 when my friend Robert Dearing and I started watching this TV show about two guys traveling the country in a Corvette."
That show was the iconic Route 66, which initially starred George Maharis and Martin Milner and aired in the early '60s. David and Robert figured they could do the same thing in a T-bird, so they hit the road for six months working odd jobs as needed to pay their way before finally returning home. Living in a two-door coupe during a cross country trip can make life long memories—and that was the case with these two as they eventually joined the National Guard together.
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Viewed by many as Ford's answer to the Corvette, the T-bird was actually positioned more as a personal luxury rather than a sports car. Even so, the '55-'57 Thunderbird's styling appealed to a younger generation. With power from a 292 cubic inch Y-block V-8, this small lightweight two-seater was relatively quick in its day, but didn't really approach musclecar status until the 1957 model, which sported a centrifugal supercharger and well over 300 horsepower. That blip quickly disappeared off the radar screen, however, when a redesigned larger four door T-bird debuted in 1958. With sales of 53,166 automobiles, the First-gen '55-'57 Thunderbirds outsold the Corvette from the same era 5 to 1.
"After I got another vehicle that could be used as a tow car, the T-bird became more of a drag car in 1963—and, yes, we really did tow race cars back then," Dave said. "This is the first time we were able to run slicks, because we never had any room to carry them before."
"We began running in Modified Production, which was a class that NHRA began in 1964," he continued. "A good friend of mine, Sonny LaPrad, and I decided to go with a 289 so we could run D/MP. We had already taken the original 292 out of the car and swapped in a larger engine from a '40 Mercury that I had before. A Boss 302 came later. With the my wife, Edith, as my main crew chief—and the help of people like Ronnie Sink and Billy Vineyard—we raced until the fall of 1996 when children and health issues forced me to leave racing."
Dave didn't have to wait long to find a reason to get back into racing. His son, Lynn, graduated from high school in 1993 and had gotten into racing. They both developed interest in an organization called Classic Gear Jammers (www.classicgearjammers.org), which is a North Carolina-based group that runs full body, manually shifted four- and five-speed race cars with no electronics. Dave turned the car over to noted racer, Sonny LaPrad, who worked on it as time away from his regular business allowed. Rather than building just another e.t. bracket car, every move was made with the intent to keep the car as close to original as possible—both in and out. During this time, only two things were farmed out. Former IHRA Pro Stock racer, Terry Walters, did the machining on the block while Horn's Upholstery re-did the removable top.
"My son, Lynn, is a certified welder—and that was a huge asset for us," Dave said. "They turned all of the easy jobs like sand blasting over to me. With the understanding and patience of my wife, Edith, it took four years to get everything into its present form, but it was done right. Other than changing the rear suspension over from ladder bars to a four-link and replacing the Nash five-speed with a G-Force, everything has remained essentially the same now on the car for more than 15 years."
Dave and his son currently compete with the car at local Classic Gear Jammers events and at a few nostalgia races. With Lynn behind the wheel, the T-bird's best elapsed time in the eighth mile is 5.61 seconds at 125 mph, which works out to about an 8.90-second pass in the quarter.
Fifty-plus years ago, Dave's Mom would probably have never guessed how co-signing that loan would positively affect the lives of her son and grandson, but sometimes a mother's intuition just knows. With the active involvement that this car bring to this family, that investment just keeps paying off!
David Craig's '55 Thunderbird
'01 Ford SVO block
Crower titanium connecting rods
CP forged aluminum pistons
Bullet roller camshaft
Australian Muscle Parts 3V 260CNC cylinder heads
Sherman Sleigh sheetmetal intake manifold
Twin Holley 750-cfm carburetors
MSD 7AL-2 ignition
14.2:1 compression ratio
Estimated 790 hp at 8,200 rpm
Estimated 530 lb-ft of torque at 6,900 rpm
L&H Race Cars long-tube headers
G-Force GF-5R five-speed manual
McLeod clutch and pressure plate
Mark Williams spool and axles
Front: Weld Alumastar, 15x4.5
Rear: Weld Alumastar, 15x13 or 15x12
Front: Goodyear 25x4.5x15 front runners
Rear: Goodyear 30x12.5x15 slicks
Front: Alston Mustang II with Chassis Engineering Springs & Afco Shocks
Rear: Chassis Engineering adjustable four-link
Front: Wilwood disc
Rear: Wilwood disc
Auto Meter Ultralite tachometer and shift light, removable steering wheel, RCI harnesses, Long Engineering shifter, Kirkey racing bucket seats
Exterior Bodywork by Sonny and Judy LaPrad, K&K Decals & Signs; Pro Stock-style hoodscoop; factory hardtop; wheelie bars; external cut-off switch in tailpanel