Jim Smart
September 1, 2007
Photos By: Steve Turner

I will never forget the year 1959. I was only three years old, yet I remember it vividly. My newborn sister came home from the hospital that year. Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, and Make Room for Daddy were all primetime network television shows-none of them in color. Supermarkets were a growing phenomenon, as were jet airplanes. John F. Kennedy was still the young senator from Massachusetts. Space travel was something we had not yet accomplished. We were a post-war America with a lot of promise and hope, embracing the future with passion and vision.

I've never forgotten the things I saw back then, including the finned, futuristic '58-'60 Thunderbird. At that time, it was something my family could never own because we were a family of five and didn't have much money. My father drove automobiles that never left much of an impression-utilitarian sedans from Ford, GM, and Chrysler. He was driving a '54 Ford Custom sedan when the Thunderbird grew to four-people capacity in 1958.

When Thunderbird was introduced in the fall of 1954 as a softer, more luxurious answer to Corvette, it quickly became loved by many, but without a rear seat, it wasn't practical for growing families. Ford President Robert McNamara recognized this fact after studying sales figures and market demographics. He understood Thunderbird's potential was not being fully realized. It would evolve into a larger ,four-place personal luxury car for 1958-eclipsing '55-'56 sales figures by a wide margin.

Known affectionately as the "square 'Bird" by Thunderbird lovers everywhere, the '58-'60 model is an automobile that two-seat fans grew into quickly. What I remember most about square 'Birds is their distinctive sound, on a par with big Lincolns of the era. Their FE series and "MEL" big-blocks gave them a soft yet rotund voice as they cruised down the street. Their style, massaged to perfection by late Ford stylist George Walker, was unmatched anywhere in the world. Inside, there was plenty of room, dazzling chrome, and distinctive upholstery. Square 'Birds cruised close to the ground, making them easy to get in and out of, with extraordinary handling for such a spacious luxury car.

It isn't surprising restomod has found a home with classic Thunderbirds. As with a Mustang, Falcon, Fairlane, Cougar, or Comet, your approach with a classic 'Bird should be tasteful. Steer clear of the outrageous and stick with basic common-sense car building. This is what investment banker Joseph Hooper had in mind when he planned his '59 Thunderbird restomod project. His collection includes an array of collectible Corvettes, which shouldn't be surprising considering Chevrolet builds these fiberglass wonders in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he lives today. His collection also includes a '57 Ford Skyliner retractable-one of the most memorable Fords ever.

When Joseph bought this Thunderbird 23 years ago, it was an original numbers-matching car. Living in Southern California, he never thought twice about driving the car daily as San Diego enjoys well in excess of 300 sunshine days a year. He drove it to work and church. It was fiercely reliable, ready to go anywhere. His kids loved it. Because it was such a striking classic T-bird convertible, it never took long for someone to stop him, complimenting an automobile he has long treasured.

Through the years, there have been facelifts and repaints, but Joseph wasn't always happy with them. You can imagine the horror stories. There were shops that tore the car apart then went out of business. There were shop owners who wigged out and didn't finish the job.

When Joseph hauled his Thunderbird to D&D Specialty Cars in pieces, he quickly realized he had finally found home. The car was professionally cared for, with each part properly stored in preparation for a full-scale restoration. When we say "restoration," it has to be addressed in loose terms. This isn't a restoration at all, but a restomod project that infuses new luxury into a state-of-the-art '50s Thunderbird.

Located in {{{Van}}} Buren, Arkansas, D&D Specialty Cars worked the body and laid down a PPG/Ditzler basecoat/clearcoat in Arizona Beige. Not only did these folks refinish the body, they weaved new life into everything attached. All the stainless was worked and polished to a rich luster. The chrome die-cast was replated to look like new.

Joseph also chose to slam his T-bird close to the ground for better handling and a striking appearance. He got there with an Air Ride Technologies suspension system that allows him to "stage" the car any way he pleases. Because he's never certain how many people might be along for the ride, nor where he's going to display the car, Air Ride was the best solution for his classic cruising needs. Those are big Boyds-18 inches in front with whopping 20-inch guys in back. This is especially startling when you consider Ford installed 15-inch wheels 50 years ago.

Joseph had all kinds of options when he was planning propulsion. The 32-valve modular V-8 has become the restomod mill of choice with a lot of car builders, loved for its smoothness and high-rpm twist. The mod motor wasn't for Joseph, however. Square 'Birds were factory-fitted with Ford's venerable FE-series big-block as well as the MEL {{{Lincoln}}} fat-block. These engines gave Thunderbird a dominant, big-car sound as they cruised through town. This is what Joseph was seeking when he fitted his Thunderbird with a 428 Cobra Jet FE big-block built by Precision Engine in Houston, Texas. Because Ford built the Cobra Jet to perform and endure, Joseph went with stock 6.490-inch {{{CJ}}} rods fitted with ARP bolts. Riding the bores are Speed-Pro forged pistons with a 5/64-5/64-3/16-inch ring package.

Those are CNC-ported Edelbrock Performer RPM cylinder heads with 2.09/1.66-inch valves. The stopcocks get a lot of help from 9.620-inch-long, one-piece pushrods and Melling stamped-steel 1.76 rocker arms.

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