Jim Smart
June 1, 2007

The Central Pacific Railroad founded Wells, Nevada, in 1869. Little more than a wide spot in the road, the town was a whistle-stop along tracks connecting the North American continent. After more than a century, not much has changed-and locals like it that way.

Wells is an integral part of America's classic Western history, and it remains faithful to its roots. Walking through the heart of town on Front Street yields mental images of cowboys on horseback firing weapons into the sky, the whinnying of horses, and the cries of testosterone-pulsing manhood. Some of the buildings have been standing since 1869. It's a rare place where the 1800s meet the 2000s. The spirit of America's past still blows through the streets on the wind, yet the silence says so much.

One of the greatest attractions here isn't necessarily an old Western show or rodeo; it's the Wells Classic Car Fun Run. The event draws car enthusiasts and vehicles from all over the Western United States every July. You can imagine the turnout and the atmosphere-a western block party that gets the whole town involved.

Bill Rodriguez and his wife, Judy, call Wells home. More than 20 years ago, they took possession of this Goldenrod Yellow '55 Ford Thunderbird. What immediately endeared us to this classic car is its factory original demeanor. It has the nostalgic sound of a solid-lifter 292ci Ford Y-block V-8 and the visual stimulation of the continental kit: the yellow and black vinyl, the cast-aluminum Thunderbird valve covers, the wide white-sidewall tires, the short deck, and the long nose. It's a timeless silhouette that can only be associated with America.

Bill and Judy's Thunderbird can't be described as a concours-restored weekend trailer queen. They drive it. Although the car is accurate in detail and exceptional in quality, they don't mind getting dust in the wheelwells. For them, a car like this isn't to be hidden under a car cover, but driven as a reminder of America's midcentury charm and promise.

When Bill and Judy found this car, it belonged to the Wachtel family, owners of a large ranch in Star Valley outside of Wells. It was only a matter of chance that Bill spotted this T-bird parked in a barn on the Wachtel's property. "It was dirty, but not too bad," he says. "It ran great. I asked Carol Wachtel if she'd be interested in selling. She said, 'Yes.'" More astounding was the car's status as Carol's high-school graduation present-class of 1955.

After Carol signed over the title, Bill hauled the car to Reno, where a full-scale, body-off restoration took place, including conversion to a 12-volt electrical system to make the going easier. The Restoration Shop in Reno performed a complete restoration, including PPG basecoat/clearcoat in Goldenrod Yellow urethane. No detail was missed the rest of the way, ensuring a solid, reliable, go-anywhere classic 'Bird people love.

Going places is what the Thunderbird was designed and built for. It entered production at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, assembly plant late in 1954, ready to take on the American road. The Thunderbird wasn't a sports car by any means, but a personal luxury car with room for two and a weekend's worth of luggage. The Thunderbird wasn't intended to take on the Corvette. It was born and bred to faithfully serve those with the time, money, and personal clout to want more. It was all about being spoiled and being proud of that fact-no apologies necessary.

Thunderbird was the brainchild of four men: Lewis D. Crusoe, George Walker, Frank Hershey, and Henry Ford II. The idea was conceived in France in 1951 during a conversation between Crusoe and Walker. They theorized that America built great cars, so why not sport-luxury cars? Thunderbird's name was decided upon amid others such as Detroiter, Hep Cat, Runabout, Tiger, and Coronado. In the end, it was Ford designer Alden Gibberson who conceived the name Thunderbird. He received a $95 suit and trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue for his suggestion. Ford management loved the name and so did buyers.