Jim and Diane Hatcher weren't looking for another '56 Thunderbird. They already had one and were quite pleased with it, but when another strayed into their path, they just had to take a look at it. It turns out this particular 'Bird was in the hands of its second owners and had been purchased as a birthday present when it was only a year old. Now, after more than four decades of service, the poor old thing was in need of some serious attention and, due to their ages (86 and 87), these owners weren't willing to invest the time or money. They had offered it to their daughter but she declined. So there it was-the one object that had been with them most of their adult lives, about to be turned over to total strangers. For the owners, it was like parting with a well-loved companion-a task not to be taken lightly. No, the buyers would have to be the right people, or the car would just have to stay.
It's no surprise that the first time the Hatchers talked to the owners face-to-face it was simply an audition to see if they were worthy of the prize. After making that all-important favorable first impression, the Hatchers were shown the car. They were quite taken with it; sure, there were some flaws, some things to be fixed, some alterations to be made, but for what they had in mind it was the perfect starting point. As with all automobile transactions, a deal was struck, money changed hands, the previous owners reluctantly parted with their old friend, and the Hatchers left with a coveted treasure and heads full of hopes and dreams.
Beginning The Project
When Jim and Diane got the car back to Kansas City, they became serious about the buildup process. Having built one '56 already, they decided this one would be a bit more aggressive in the mechanical department. As for the body, well, they really like the way these little 'Birds look, so only mild modifications were made. The big changes were underhood; this time the power on tap would match its handsome good looks, and, yes, this one would have the proper mix of power, handling, and sophistication required to impress the heck out of some of those snobbish European two-seaters. This one would be a superbird.
In Jim's mind, the 'Bird should have a lot of the traditional '56 feel but be enhanced.It was decided to keep the original steering, but the front springs were clipped an inch and 2-inch drop front spindles added. At the back, the leafs were altered to lower the ride height while maintaining adequate tire clearance. In addition, a pair of rear air shocks were fitted, along with a narrowed Dana rearend.
Of course, the brakes at all four corners were also enhanced to dramatically increase the stopping power, and large sway bars were added to control body roll. These changes, along with the addition of a front/rear 17- and 18-inch wheel/tire combination, significantly improved the car's handling characteristics without trashing the 'Bird's signature, down-the-road comfort. Then, to complement the upgrades, a Ford Racing Performance Parts GT-40 crate engine with fuel injection and plenty of other goodies fournd its way into the engine compartment. But the serious power increase came from a ProCharger supercharger that kicked out 7 psi of usable boost, turning the gentle rumble coming from the Flowmaster-equipped 3-inch exhaust system into the roar of abundant power. To finish the power package, a Ford AOD four-speed automatic overdrive, with a few internal tweaks, was installed to keep cruising rpm at a relatively low level.
Because the Hatchers were such enthusiasts of the '56 T-bird styling, body alterations would be one of the simplest tasks to be undertaken. To the untrained eye, there are barely any changes at all, but to those who know their '56s, there are several. The front bumper was smoothed and tucked in tight to the body, and the rear piece, with its continental kit and exhaust cutouts, was exchanged for a smoothed and fitted '55 "shorty" bumper with a hand-formed roll pan underneath. The grille was replaced with a simple billet insert by Carriage Works, while the taillight lenses were swapped for '63 Falcon pieces. There were only minor sheetmetal changes; the front cowl vents were welded closed, as was the gas-filler door, and a section of the hood right in front of the scoop was cut out, inverted, and welded back in place, giving the hood a totally unique look. Naturally, there was the standard removal of badging and chrome trim, but as noted earlier, for the most part the body stayed a pure, unmolested T-bird. For the final touches, Vintage Fab in Independence, Missouri, laid down a slick coat of DuPont black base/clear, and Tiny's Signs in Edwardsville, Kansas, applied the gold-leaf flame trim and red pinstripes.
The interior was handled much like the exterior; the factory instruments were refurbished, while the tach and the clock were converted from analog to electronic. The stock shifter was reused, and the original seatback was modified to mimic a bucket-seat appearance-all original items, but with a twist. The aluminum trim was removed from the dash and the door panels and replaced with paint and upholstery. The dash now houses a Custom Autosound audio system and some Vintage Air climate control outlets where the aluminum once resided, while the door panels have a really neat Thunderbird feather motif applied to them. When all the modifications were complete, a combination of black ostrich leather and Ultra Vinyl was installed by Vintage Fab and Bob Sipes in Independence to finish off the cabin in style.
When we first saw this car, it had just made a flawless 200-mile run. The whole package felt so good on the road that Jim could hardly wait to get the break-in period out of the way so he could really nail the skinny pedal to the firewall. We're sure that's happened repeatedly by now, and who knows-maybe the car has even made its way back to Indiana to visit those who, for decades, drove and took care of it. We wonder what they'd think seeing this '56 in its new guise.
Jim and Diane Hatcher's '56 Thunderbird
Ford Racing Performance Parts (FRPP) GT-40 crate engine
Pro Products Typhoon intake
Pro Products 70mm throttle body
Pro Products 70mm mass air meter
24-lb/hr FRPP injectors
K&N air filter
Crank trigger ignition
Taylor plug wires
Ford AOD four-speed automatic
Dana solid axle (4-inch narrowing)
3-inch dual exhaust
Front: '56 Ford with 1-inch cut springs and 2-inch drop spindles, Monroe gas shocks
Rear: Leaf springs moved into the frame for clearance, Monroe air shocks
Front: Granada disc
Rear: Large drum
Ford dual master cylinder, stainless brake lines
Front: Coy's C-5 polished five-spoke, 17x7 inches
Rear: Coy's C-5 polished five-spoke, 18x8 inches
Front: Hankook Ventus Sport K104, P225/45ZR17
Rear: Hankook Ventus Sport K104, P235/45ZR18
Refurbished gauges; tachometer and clock converted to electronic; Custom Autosound stereo, Kicker amp, and Polk speakers; Ron Francis wire harness installed by Jim Hatcher; Carriage Works steering wheel; original seat with seatback modified to look like bucket seatbacks covered with ostrich leather and Ultra Vinyl by Vintage Fab and Bob Sipes of Independence, Missouri; Vintage Air heat/cool unit