May 31, 2005

Racers and race fans owe a great thanks to the builders of this fabulous '55 T-bird.

The brightly painted and ghost-flamed machine was prepared with the same hands that built the Mecca that is Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey.

The Bird is the creation of Mike Napp and his father, the late Richard Sr., who began the restification in 1997 to complement the lineup of T-birds already in the Napp fleet.

JDM Engineering prepared the four-Cam Cobra engine and dialed in thefactory EEC computer. That's a Novi 2000 on the far side; it producesabout 8 psi.

But this story begins long before 1997.To understand the true meaning behind this fab Ford, you must look back to the early '60s when Richard Sr. and his younger brother, Vinnie, raced another '55 T-bird at Island Dragway in Great Meadows, New Jersey. The T-bird was a gift from Richard's father, and it was quite effective on the track and with the ladies.

At the time, the family business was construction, and it was very successful. But the Napp boys were more interested in drag racing. Richard Sr. and Vinnie Jr. proposed to their father, Vincent Sr., that he sell his portion of the business and help them open a dragstrip. Amazingly, he agreed, and they began an exhausting search for a piece of land, finally settling on a property in the middle of nowhere. That place was called Madison Township (known today as Old Bridge Township).

Madison Township Raceway Park opened on July 4, 1965, and it was a hit. Racers flocked then and they still do today. In fact, the facility has grown to be quite a jewel, combining drag racing with motocross, drifting, karting, music concerts, and more. Most notably, RP is host to the NHRA's K&N Filters Nationals--but in some circles it's equally as popular for its Ford and other specialty events.

The huge motorsports facility absorbs a great amount of time, but the Napps never tired of building their own cars, namely early Fords. Through the years, their penchant for T-birds grew, as did the amount of Birds in the garage. Actually, Richard Jr. still drives the original '55 that Richard Sr. and Vinnie Jr. raced at Island.

The stereo is compromised of an Alpine head unit with six-CD changer, an XM radio, two 4-inch in-dash speakers, two 6-inch woofers, twin tweeters mounted in the doors, and an amp and crossover mounted behind the seat. There's also a box in the trunk with two 10-inch speakers for added kick. Thanks goes to Zippo's Custom Car Audio Centers for help with the tunes.

The '55 before you is one that Richard Sr. dreamed up long ago. He had a few restored T-birds and a heavily modified '53 F-100 (which was featured years ago in MM&FF), but this one was to be built with a modern flare. It was the quintessential basket case, but that was OK, says Richard Sr.'s second eldest son, Mike.

"My dad wanted to build a modified T-bird, but he refused to cut up a good one," he says. "This car looked like it came from the bottom of a pond. It was totally rusted out. The best thing about it was that it had only small dents; it was never hit hard."

The '55 was torn down and completely stripped by Quick Strip (Carteret, New Jersey) using a media blaster. Then Richard Sr. and Mike began to address the frame. Mike narrowed a Lincoln Mark VIII IRS by 6 inches, while Richard Sr. cut the rails and welded the IRS to the frame. They modified the X-chassis to fit the large Explorer transmission, and they fabricated mounts to fit a '97 Cobra four-cammer.

"The Cobra engine needed to sit low in the chassis to fit under the stock hood," Mike says, "so we had to do some serious work to the frame, reconfigure the steering, and relocate the oil filter. My dad also bolted up a Paxton Novi 2000 blower and installed a Griffin radiator."

With the driveline in place, Richard Sr. built custom headers. Sadly, that's as far as the project got before his untimely passing in 2001. Fortunately, he got to hear the Cobra mill purr, and that was enough to motivate Mike to complete the project.

Working in the same garage in which the project began, Mike and his pals replaced just about every part of the floorpan. "I ended up replacing most of the floor and trunk one section at a time. The doorjambs and all the lower metal were gone, and the hood, decklid, and trunk all had rust holes."

Richard Napp Sr. fitted an IRS rear suspension from a Lincoln MarkVIII. It's polished and sports 3.55 gears. Mike built the trickmufflers, while Mufflex (Mercerville, New Jersey) supplied the pipesthat are routed through the X-frame. Polished A-arms are controlled bycoilover shocks.

With the body once again looking straight, it was attached to the frame and prepped for paint. But first Mike bolted on new disc brakes up front from Stainless Steel Brakes (the stock discs on the IRS were used in the rear). A rebuilt front suspension then went into place, and he fitted Billet Specialties wheels that were wrapped in BFGoodrich rubber.

In keeping with his father's original plan, Mike selected a unique House of Kolor hue called Tangelo Pearl Metallic. Dave Sano of Sano's Auto Body (Dayton, New Jersey) laid on the wet stuff, but it wasn't completed until he spiced it up with ghost flames, plenty of clearcoat, and shiny chrome.

There's not a spot on this car that doesn't catch your eye, and the interior is no exception. Mike restified the cockpit by working some magic on the T-bird's dash. Rather than sticking with the original blacked-out-style speedometer, he painted the background white and laid some white paint on the dash to match. The effect is awesome, as the light blasts through to make the speedo come alive. He then modified a Haneline tachometer and a clock to match the white-faced design.

"The T-bird uses different size gauges than most aftermarket [gauges]," Mike says, "so I had to disassemble and fit the clock and the tach into the T-bird [gauge] cans. I fit custom curved glass and moved the numbers from the stock '55 lenses to the faces of the new clock and tach."

Ken Barnaby of E-Decals.com was a big help in this department. The result mixed the modern look of the gauges with the classic style of the '50s. Mike also added a Grant steering wheel and some "cool" by way of a Vintage Air A/C system.

Leo Barnaby Sr. of Superior Custom Interiors (South Amboy, New Jersey), slathered the factory bench seat and door panels in orange and white two-tone leather, and Mike added a killer stereo to bounce the tunes around. "I wanted to keep the stock look on the dash, so the entire stereo is remote," he says.

With the help of Superior Custom Interiors, Mike finished the interiorwith style and class.

The trunk was fitted with cabinetry that holds the Alpine receiver, along with 10-inch subwoofers and a six-CD changer. An electronic eye in the dash picks up the signal to get things pumping, and a barrage of speakers surrounds the driver and passenger. Other audio equipment--including the XM radio--is located behind the seat.

With the T-bird nearing completion, Mike turned to Jim D'Amore of JDM Engineering to dial in the electronics on the engine and trans. Jim calibrated the 4.6's computer to run in top form with the addition of the Paxton Novi 2000 and the Explorer automatic transmission. Now this T-bird purrs to tune of 8 psi--and at least 400 hp.

Mike's '55 T-bird is a handsome machine with slick lines. Note the '59Buick taillights, the '56 T-bird reverse lights, and how the exhaustexits through factory holes in the bumpers.

The final touches were put on the car in the summer of 2004, and ever since then, Mike has been tooling about with his modded Bird. "I first brought it out to a Ford car show we had at the track" he says. "As soon as I parked it, people started coming over. First some noticed the IRS, but when I opened the hood, people freaked. Most of them had newer Mustangs. They were the modular crowd and they really loved the car."

For Mike, the T-bird represents the past and the present. It will serve him well as he plans to cruise it back and forth to work for years to come. Mike was sure to thank the many people who chipped in, especially Andy Caraballo; Andrew Hinckley; Eddie Krawiec; Richard Jr.; his wife, Dee; and anyone else who came within 50 feet and got put to work.