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.

As did the Mustang a decade later, Thunderbird outsold its predictions. Ford planned to build 10,000 units for 1955 and sold 16,155. The car was so popular that Ford received 3,500 orders in the first two weeks-unheard of for such a narrow-niche automobile. And what a terrific package Thunderbird was with its 292ci V-8, a choice of stick or automatic, an auto-adjust driver seat, a telescoping steering wheel, a removable hardtop, full instrumentation, and more.

Ford's first-generation classic Thunderbirds are a study in beauty, grace, and the American spirit. They represent our postwar greatness during the '50s when America was on the rise. As Motor Trend reported, "Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Ford Thunderbird is the clever wedding of sports-car functionalism and American standards of comfort." We couldn't have said it better.

Bill and Judy will tell you their classic Thunderbird is a wonderful journey back to a time when they were much younger (both are now in their 60s). All they could do in 1955 was admire the car and dream. Today, owning a Goldenrod Yellow Thunderbird is a dream achieved.

The Details

'55 Ford Thunderbird
Owner: Bill and Judy Rodriguez, Wells, NV

Engine
292ci Y-block V-8
3.750-inch bore, 3.300-inch stroke
Cast-iron crankshaft
Mechanical-lifter camshaft
Cast pistons
Holley "Teapot" four-barrel carburetor
Open-element air cleaner
Single-point ignition
Finned cast-aluminum Thunderbird
valve covers
This 292 is factory original-never rebuilt

Transmission
Cast-iron Ford-O-Matic

Rearend
Integral carrier
3.21 gears

Exhaust
Factory dual exhaust

Suspension
Front: Conventional coil spring between control arms
Rear: Leaf-spring live axle
Master-Glide power steering (Eaton pump)

Brakes
Front: Factory drum
Rear: Factory drum
Power-assisted

Wheels
Front: Kelsey Hayes wire wheels, 15x5-inch
Rear: Kelsey Hayes wire wheels, 15x5-inch

Tires
Front: Bias-belted wide whitewall, 6.70x15-inch
Rear: Bias-belted wide whitewall, 6.70x15-inch

Interior
Black and yellow vinyl, telescoping steering wheel, Custom Autosound cassette stereo

Exterior
PPG basecoat/clearcoat urethane in '55 Ford Goldenrod Yellow