Car of the Week: 1957 Ford Thunderbird

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Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart

Tom Saelens has had several T-birds — two-seaters and four-seaters alike — but he never guessed his latest, a ’57, would wind up his favorite.

“My first was a 1956 (Thunderbird),” Saelens said. “My second was my favorite, a ’62 coupe in Wimbledon White with a red interior. The third was a ’73 with a 460 V-8 that I bought in ’74.”
Saelens was hoping to relive the good old days with another 1961-’63 Thunderbird when the 1957 shown here flew onto his radar. That was about seven years ago.

“We had looked at a ’63 the day before, because I remembered my ’62 was such a nice-driving car. We drove somewhere out west and the car was supposed to have very little rust. I think what (the seller) meant was there was very little left that wasn’t rust.

“Then my wife saw an ad for this ’57. It had been sitting and was covered with dust. The minute he opened the door, Marian lit up like a Christmas tree. We took a ride and she said, ‘I want this car.’ It was music to my ears.”

Although he’s owned vehicles from General Motors, Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co., Saelens is a Ford man. Fords are the cars he experienced as a kid, and the cars that always brought him home. That’s especially true of Fords of the 1950s.

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“Growing up in Wisconsin, I was told to own something that will get you there and get you home, and I could always depend on Fords,” Saelens said. “In ’63, I bought the first of my 13 ’56s.”

Before any of those ’56s, Saelens was surrounded by other Fords. His father’s friend collected, restored and sold Thunderbirds and Saelens said, “I loved them back then.” Another friend had a hot 1957 Ford Fairlane and if just being around those old ’50s Fords wasn’t enough for Saelens, riding in that ’57 Fairlane made him a Ford man through and through.

“Where we grew up, there was a high, steep hill, and back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, people used to race up it to see how fast they could go by the top,” Saelens said. “About 1959, I was 14 and riding in the back seat of a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 with an E-code 312 (with dual four-barrel carburetors) in it. Nothing every got close to it — it would be going 107 mph by the top of Brickler’s Hill on Sunny Slope Road in New Berlin. I was impressed at that point.”

When Saelens finally found a 1957 Ford of his own, it wasn’t a Fairlane and it wasn’t equipped with  dual four-barrels, but he didn’t plan on racing it. He just wanted a nice, solid driver and that’s what he got with his ’57 Thunderbird.

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Unlike the ‘63 Thunderbird he had looked at the day before, the Wisconsin’57 T-bird didn’t have rust. It was offered by the previous owners’ son in an estate, and aside from an older repaint, it remained a good original.

“He thought in 1968 his mother had had it repainted as a birthday gift for his dad,” Saelens said.
A few other maintenance items had been replaced on the Thunderbird: the tires, battery and fuel pump among them. After being parked for so many years by the second owners, the car needed more than a bath to make it look and drive well.

“The paint was pretty dusty and dull looking, so I washed the car and pulled it in the garage and waxed it with Meguiar’s. When I backed it out of the garage, my neighbor walked over and asked when I painted it,” Saelens recalled.

“It ran fairly well, but it needed some loving attention. One of the first things I did to it was brakes. About three years ago, over winter, I refurbished the front end.”

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Whenever possible, Saelens uses new-old-stock FoMoCo parts to keep the Thunderbird flying. One of the parts he had to find was a power steering bracket, which went missing when the fuel pump was replaced.

Inside, the Thunderbird’s interior was in good condition with very minimal wear —j ust the way Saelens likes it.

“It’s a cruiser,” he said. “I take it to car shows and every once in a while I will get lucky and get a trophy for it. Last year, I was fortunate to get two ‘best of shows,’ one ‘best of class’ and two seconds so I felt really good about that. I took it up into Michigan and I took a second so I was real happy about that.”

“I think people are beginning to appreciate the patina of old surviviors. It has the original chrome and you can see where it is starting to wear off where it’s been polished through the years.”

Not only are car show spectators appreciating the originality of Saelens’ intact driver with their votes, at least one expert has spent some time crawling around the T-bird, and he was impressed.

“An employee at one of the restoration companies that is known for doing Thunderibrds in this state said, ‘We have heard about this thing and that it is supposed to be unrestored,’ and he crawled underneath it and he was down there for a while. When he came up, he said ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’”

The ’57 Thunderbird is well-optioned with the D-code 312, a four-venturi version of the V-8 and one step up from the standard 292-cid V-8 Thunderbird engine. It’s also equipped with power steering, the trunk carpet kit, convertible top, engine dress-up kit, tonneau cover, Town & Country radio and backup lamps.

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However, one of the car’s most unusual options is part of its drivetrain. The T-bird came equipped with optional 3.91:1 rear end gears and a Borg-Warner T-85 three-speed manual transmission with overdrive. Saelens calls it a “3 percent car” because that small percentage reflects how many of the 21,380 1957 Thunderbirds were built with that transmission. Since purchasing the car, Saelens replaced the steep 3.91:1 gears in the 9-inch rear axle with the optional 3.56:1 gears, because “When not in overdrive, you had to shift before you even entered the intersection when leaving a stop light.”

Saelens is quick to note that his car lacks is a continental kit, a popular accessory among today’s 1957 Thunderbird owners. “Ford actually gave a directive not to install a continental kit on a ’57 Thunderbird,” Saelens said. “The ’57 had a well for the spare tire, whereas before, they laid flat and took up most of the room in the trunk. Besides, the ’57 is already 7/8 inches longer than a ’56 with its continental kit.”

Saelens notes his Thunderbird was built early in the 1957 model year, a model year that extended into the production period of the new 1958 passenger car line. Saelens, who has become well-versed in 1957 Thunderbird history, noted the extended 1957 T-bird production season was due to Ford Motor Co.’s late decision to build four-seat Thunderbirds for 1958. As an early 1957 T-bird, the power steering system of Saelens’ car has a different ram-and-valve set-up than later units, and the firing order is not cast into the intake manifold.

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Since the car is a driver, Saelens has updated the chassis with radial tires, a six-blade fan to help cool the engine in parades and a dual-brake master cylinder from a 1966-’71 Mustang with manual disc brakes for safety. Otherwise, he’s happy to say the car wears FoMoCo logos on its other parts, and those parts get their share of use. Not only does it cruise, he put it through the paces at Elkhart Lake’s Road America vintage race day a few years ago. And he’s still not done having fun with it.

“Someone asked me if the car was for sale the other day and I said, ‘No, I am still alive.’
“It’s a keeper. It’s just a fantastic car to drive.”

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