Whether you liked it or not, the era of big personal luxury cars is largely behind us. In the early 1960s, however, the genre was building a big head of steam, and chief among the protagonists was Ford's Thunderbird. The '58 T-bird's new four-seat configuration was a radical departure from the car that debuted in 1955 as a two-seat blend of sport and luxury, but product planners felt they were headed in the right direction. Indeed, sales would soon affirm their decision, as production in 1960 alone almost doubled the entirety of the '55-'57 era.
"When they came out, we thought the big Thunderbirds were laughable," says Bob Collier, a youthful 16-year-old when the '63 he now owns was born. And why not? Besides propelling middle-aged fat cats to and fro in style, did the T-bird really do anything well? Was it quick? Did it handle? Even with its large-by-large size, could it really haul anything? The answer to all the above is a resounding "not really," but in the end, the market proved that style and luxury were all that mattered. The Thunderbird proved an undeniable success, and remains one of Ford's most recognized nameplates.
As the years have passed, Collier and others have softened their stance on the post '57 generation T-birds, particularly the leaner appearing '61-'63s. In fact, when looking for a car project in the early 1990s, Collier had actually come to find the big 'Birds of the '50s and '60s to be a rather appealing idea. The price was right, the style was there, and rather than a hard-core performer, Collier's desire was for a fun cruiser from the start. He found this '63 hardtop with help from a friend, and soon began the extensive rebuilding process.
While originally thinking of enhancing the performance of his new prize, Collier soon found himself caught up in restoration fever. In the end, he put the car back completely stock, featuring lots of N.O.S. and refurbished original trim, and a flawless PPG-based two-stage topcoat applied by Buffalo Restorations (Puyallup, Washington). Collier offered that the toughest parts to find were the aluminum dash trim pieces, which are so critical to the overall interior appearance. "The originals were pitted and oxidized, and it took a lot of searching to assemble a nice set," he said.
Once finished, the expected show competition followed, whereupon Collier realized the folly of his course. "I soon got really bored with it, and then when my buddies started calling me 'grandpa' whenever I got behind the wheel, something had to give."
What "gave" was any concern about originality, or what T-bird purists would think. Instead, Collier gathered his friends and family together, and vetted ideas on modifying the '63 into something more satisfying.
"We spent plenty of time in the garage just looking the car over, asking 'what ifs.'" In the end, the group decided there was nothing wrong with the basics of the car, both in what Ford had originally designed, and as it had been restored. That left traditional hot rod modifications as the chosen course, however, when applied to an early '60s Thunderbird, there was little tradition about it. You see, the aftermarket has never embraced the T-bird as restomod fodder, meaning Collier and friends were mostly on their own to figure it out.
Pat Skahan was called on to set up the '63's suspension, adapting an Air Ride Technologies airbag system in order to dial in the ride height at will. Skahan also modified the front spindles to accommodate GM-based rotors and calipers, and fitted Explorer discs to the rear. A 9-inch rearend housing was narrowed to accommodate the E-T Classic Five 17x10-inch wheels from Team III, and filled with 3.89 gears, Moser axles, and a Detroit Truetrac differential. Collier reports that a set of Quickor Engineering (Beaverton, Oregon) antisway bars made a big difference in cornering capability, and while still no canyon carver, the car handles very well compared to its original configuration.
In an effort to move nearly 5,000 pounds with authority, the original 390 was pulled back apart, and fitted with enough go-fast goodies to yield admirable muscle. Collier had Lyle Winters work over the engine, employing a 3.98-inch 428 crank and an 0.030 overbore to achieve 416 cubic inches. A Crane hydraulic roller cam lifts the valves in Edelbrock aluminum heads, while farther upstream, a Performer RPM intake greatly improves airflow. When we shot our pictures, the T-bird sported a Holley 750, but has since been fitted with FAST's EZ-EFI.
"The driveability of the car is phenomenal now," says Collier, sounding almost like a FAST pitchman. Assuredly, he isn't on the company dole, so we take his comment as a credible assessment of the new plug-and-play fuel injection.
We've photographed plenty of engine bays with a Ford FE, but seldom have they been as stunning as the one containing this 416-incher. Body colored paint is standard T-bird treatment, but little else is. Collier's godson, Rick Finch, spent some 40 hours filling and smoothing various holes, and reworking the area where the original battery once sat. With the preponderance of wiring hidden, there's little to distract from the well-appointed big-block.
After restoration of the factory futuristic interior, it was deemed difficult to improve on. Minor alterations come through a Billet Specialties steering wheel, and several well-placed Auto Meter gauges-including a tachometer in place of the original clock. Big changes are perhaps most evident in the trunk, what with the artful concealing of twin batteries, air compressors, and air tanks for the air bag suspension. Magnolia Hi-Fi gets credit for the quality workmanship, as well as installation of a stereo system featuring a Pioneer head unit, a 1,200-watt amp, a 12-inch subwoofer, and a smattering of Diamond speakers.
Collier is quick to thank friends such as Bud Mullen, Grant Brenneka, and others for their input and hands-on help, but even more the support of wife Robin. "Without her, I never could have pulled this off!"
In conclusion, Collier has no regrets in his decision to take a road less traveled with his Thunderbird, and he gets a steady stream of positive comments wherever he goes. Among many awards and accolades, few have more meaning than the First Place trophy he took at the 2005 International Thunderbird show in Portland, Oregon.
"This was a show utterly dominated by concours-quality restored Thunderbirds, and to tell you the truth, I was a little nervous to take mine. But the response was great, people loved it." Ditto here!
Bob and Robin Collier's '63 Thunderbird
- 416ci FE by Lyle Winters
- '63 390 block, 0.030-inch over
- 428 3.98-inch crank
- Stock connecting rods with ARP bolts
- Hypereutectic pistons
- Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum cylinder heads
- Edelbrock Performer RPM intake
- Edelbrock aluminum water pump
- Crane hydraulic roller camshaft
- MSD ignition
- FAST EZ-EFI fuel injection
- Metallic ceramic-coated headers by Ford Powertrain Applications
- 2-1/2-inch pipes, Flowmaster mufflers
- C6 automatic with shift kit
- 2,500-rpm stall converter
- Narrowed 9-inch with 3.89 gears
- Detroit Truetrac diff
- Moser 28-spline axles
- RideTech air bag, modified by Pat Skahan
- Quickor front and rear antisway bars
- Front: GM discs, two-piston calipers
- Rear: Explorer discs, single-piston calipers
- Front: E-T Classic Five from Team III, 17x8-inch
- Rear: E-T Classic Five from Team III 17x10-inch, custom offsets
- Front: BF Goodrich P235/45R17
- Rear: BF Goodrich P255/50R17
- Stock, Seats recovered by Tacoma Upholstery, Auto Meter gauges, Billet Specialties steering wheel
- Two-stage PPG Corinthian White by Buffalo Restorations