Car of the Week: 1959 Ford Thunderbird

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By Brian Earnest

Kevin Zollars admits he wasn’t a Thunderbird guy. He wasn’t even a Ford guy. But loyalties and allegiances can change in a hurry when a genuine “barn find” trophy car comes along, and Zollars wasn’t going to pass up his chance to have a great story to tell, and a great vehicle to reintroduce to the world.

Zollars’ beautiful yellow 1959 T-Bird looks pretty much as it did six years ago when he spotted it in a barn for the first time not far from his home in Earlville, Ill. It’s a lot cleaner and better mechanically, but cosmetically, it is still an unrestored survivor.

“I was definitely not looking for it,” chuckles Zollars. “I’m a veterinarian and I was on a call and I was just driving by and I saw the nose sticking out of this barn. To be honest, I was never that interested in the ‘Square Birds,’ but as luck would have it, the owner of the car came into the clinic the next day. His name was Steve Moyer and I asked him about the car and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m thinking about selling it.’ It had been his father’s car. He was elderly and he got in a car accident and had passed away. It was a pretty tragic thing, and the family never wanted to do anything with his car so they just let it sit for 10 or 12 years.

“So I went to look at it and I brought my tools and a battery with me and I was able to get it started right away. I could tell it had a push rod bent or something… It was making a noise and that’s what I thought it was. But I got the top down and looked it all over and just fell in love with it. [laughs]. It’s like a little rocket ship. My wife [Jane] always loved the T-Birds, but the ones that were a little earlier. I thought I better bring her over to look at it and she looked and she fell in love with it and that was it.”

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Zollars already had a 1954 Cadillac and 1953 Chevrolet pickup, but he said he had plenty to learn about the second-generation Thunderbirds. It wasn’t long before he began giving himself a crash course in the care and maintenance of such machines as he began methodically replacing a litany of mechanical parts that the car needed to be road worthy and reliable again. He gives a lot of credit to friend Bruce Kain for helping make the car mechanically sound again.

“He’s an old school mechanic and he went to GM school and the whole nine yards, and he’s helped me before when I’ve been stumped on my cars,” Zollars said. “I really like to work on my own cars, but I really didn’t have the time this time. Bruce, he’s so knowledgeable and runs his own shop, but does a lot of side jobs on old cars … We had gotten to be really good friends, so I towed it to his shop and we stuck it in the back in must have been April of 2006, and I said, ‘When you have time to work on it, go ahead, but I’m in no hurry.’”

In the fall, Zollars was able to retrieve the Thunderbird, which by then had gotten new brakes and a master cylinder, carburetor and fuel system, water pump, generator, electricals and “just about anything that was gonna break or wasn’t working completely. We’ve done a lot of mechanical stuff to it. We put a lot of work into it.”

Zollars didn’t want to change the way the car looked, however. On the contrary, he loved the original state of the car’s black leather interior, the imperfect Casino Cream paint and all its other aesthetics. He has no plans to do anything to alter the car cosmetically.

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“My thought process was just to fix it up mechanically and get it on the road,” he said. “I’ve got a few cars and I like to drive them. I don’t want to ever be afraid to drive it. It’s got a few dings and scratches, but I’m gonna leave them alone … We’ve driven it for a few years and there are a few things breaking on it … but nothing major. We just have a lot of fun with it. I don’t think I’m going to paint it … I like it the way it is. And that black leather interior, it’s got a lot of patina. There’s a lot of character in those seats and the leather is well-worn.”

The Casino Cream paint was not common on the ’59 T-Birds, he says, which only reinforces his desire to leave the paint alone. “It’s considered a rare color … I had two other guys that said if I didn’t buy it, they wanted it… From what I understand there were just two years of that color. Most of them are white.”

The 1959 T-Bird didn’t change much from the previous year, but the 1958 T-Birds, of course, were among the most dramatically changed cars the U.S. auto market has ever seen. The iconic “Baby Birds” from 1955-’57 were two-seat sport cars with dimensions similar to the Corvette and Jaguar XK-120.

The 1958s were much larger and featured a back seat and unit-body construction. A two-door hardtop was the only model offered at first, but a convertible was introduced in mid-year. The new profile of the 1958 Thunderbird earned it the nickname “Square Bird,” which stuck for three years until another significant redesign came along in 1961. The new Square Bird had angular, sculptured lines on the front fenders, body side “projectiles” and the twin “jet-pod” rear end. There were two headlamps on each side up front and a sculpted hood scoop. Chrome decorations for 1958 included Thunderbird scripts on the front fender sides with bombsight ornaments atop both fenders. The integral bumper-grille had twin guards mounted on the lower part of the bumper.

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There were a few tweaks to the 1959 models. A new horizontal louver pattern filled the “air scoop” grille and was repeated in the recessed tail lamp panels. Instead of hash marks, the body-side projectiles had a chrome arrowhead at the front of the bulge. Thunderbird nameplates were moved from the front fenders to the doors and decorated the projectiles. The round medallion seen on the rear window pillar of the 1958 hardtop was replaced by a sculptured Thunderbird medallion. The convertible’s top was power operated and folded completely into the trunk.

The base 352-cid/300-hp V-8 had ignition improvements for 1959 and a new Holley Model 9510 four-barrel carburetor. A 430-cid Thunderbird Special V-8 was optional, but only with SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic transmission. This V-8 did not have a conventional combustion chamber in the cylinder head. The valves seated on a flat head surface and the combustion chamber was formed between the tops of the pistons and the top of the block, which was milled 10 degrees from perpendicular to the cylinder bore. Dual exhaust was standard with both V-8s. Other technical revisions in 1959 T-Birds included a new radiator fan, a new auxiliary coolant tank, a relocated windshield washer system, an “Angle-Poised” ball-joint front suspension, 4-foot-wide doors, 20 cu. ft. of trunk space and individually adjustable front seats.

The T-Bird bucket seats had a rounded and overstuffed look. The front passenger seat folded to permit entry into the rear from the curb side of the car. The 1959 instruments and gauges had white faces, instead of the previous black ones. The T-Bird’s unit-constructed body had the floor pan, sub-frame, body side panels, front and rear fenders, roof panel and cross braces all welded together into one durable unit of double-walled sculptured steel. There was a new leaf-spring rear suspension with longitudinal springs on either side that gave a more evenly balanced ride with slightly less lean in the corners.

The Zollars’ car carries the base 352 V-8 with the Cruise-O-Matic, along with power steering and brakes, original six-tube radio, outside mirror, Aqua-Matic windshield wipers, optional leather interior and Magic-Air heater and defroster. It also has the optional Sun Ray wheel covers, although Zollars had to dig around to find one of the covers when he adopted the car.

“It had old tires on it and it was missing a hubcap,” he recalled. “I had to search around the barn for about a half hour before I finally found it. It was real dirty and it had a lot of equipment in there with it. I think they had tried to move it around a little a couple times in the past.”

The T-Bird had less than 50,000 miles on it when it was parked in the barn originally, so it had probably never been a year-round daily driver. The Zollars have added “between 500 and 1,000” miles a year to the odometer since then and the total has grown to more than 53,000 miles.

Although they have always played second fiddle to the first-generation Thunderbirds in the collector world, the Squarebirds were actually much more popular than their predecessors. The 57,195 coupes and 10,261 convertibles built for 1959 were far more than had ever been assembled before. After getting a chance to own one himself, Zollars isn’t surprised the second-gen Thunderbirds were so popular when they were new. “It’s just got a great look to it,” he said. “With the top down, it’s got that trim panel that you put the top in, and it looks like a retractable. It’s real, real stylish. It’s long and low and I always say it looks like a little rocket ship.”

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As a car that helped establish the “personal luxury” segment, the four-seat Thunderbirds were never intended to be hot performance cars or true sports cars. They were somewhere in between, and carried their own sense of style and personality. “It’s real smooth and you sit very low,” Zollars said. “You actually step up to get out of it. My Cadillac is a whole different animal. This is definitely a luxury sports car. It’s a quick car, but it definitely isn’t light. And it’s a smooth-running car. It’s a blast to drive in the summer time.”

The car has officially become Jane’s car, which is OK with her husband. That was his idea all along. “We’re keeping it. There was very brief thought that we could fix it up and sell it, but once my wife started driving it, there was no way,” he laughed. “It’s her car and we’ve taken it out a couple of times [to some old car events] where I’ve taken my Cadillac and she’s taken her T-Bird and we have a lot of fun.”

As much enjoyment as he had from the whole “barn find” experience, Zollars says he won’t feel bad if lightning doesn’t strike twice. Bringing an old car out of the darkness required a lot of time and effort.

“It’s a true barn find, and when cars sit for that long, things go wrong,” he said. “Even when they sit for six months, things go wrong, let alone 10 or 12 years. If I didn’t have Bruce, I don’t know what I would have done. We’ve done a lot of work on the car. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I would do it again.”

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