Car of the Week: 1961 Ford Thunderbird convertible

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Story and photos by John Gunnell

Tim Natarus’ 1961 Thunderbird convertible is one of five (or six, if you count a burned car) surviving special Anniversary Gold Indy 500 Pace Car Thunderbirds. This car took part in both the 50th and 100th anniversary celebrations of the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1961, it was one of the Indy 500 “Festival Cars” used in pre-race ceremonies and promotions. On the day of that race, actor Sebastian Cabot rode in the car. In 2011, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Bracket rode in it for the Indy 500 centennial celebration.

Natarus purchased the car about 22 years ago through an ad. The Thunderbird was painted red when Natarus found it, but experts say it was common for the gold Festival Cars to be returned to the Indianapolis dealers that supplied them and then repainted. After Natarus began restoring the car, he noticed that its VIN plate did not indicate a color. That helped him determine the car was an Indy 500 Festival Car, only the fifth such example to surface at that time.

During its restoration, the car was put back to its Festival Car colors and a sign shop was hired to faithfully reproduce the Indy 500 graphics. The car turned out to be in excellent condition throughout. Natarus has since gathered extensive documentation of the car’s Indy Festival Car status, as well as memorabilia to go with the car.

The car is a unique piece of Thunderbird history and a genuine piece of Indy 500 history. Festival Cars are highly regarded by a select group of buyers interested in collectibles related to the race and the ceremonies promoting it. The 50th Anniversary of the legendary Indianapolis 500-mile race was celebrated in May 1961, and Ford’s completely restyled Thunderbird was picked as pace car.

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The ‘Bullet Bird’

Instead of corners and angles, the new ’61 Thunderbird had smooth, curving lines. The downward-curved hood seemed to be moving forward, while the rest of the car seemed to be standing still. Two headlamps appeared on each side of the body and were integrated into the upper edge of the grille. A swept-under grille smoothly blended in with the pointed nose of the torpedo-shaped body. Decorative sculpting of the 1960 Thunderbird design was gone for 1961, because it added nothing to the new design.

The new Thunderbird coupe and convertible did retain some traditional T-Bird design elements, such as the sloped nose and hood scoop. It remained a four-place personal luxury car with bucket seats and a center console. Short, outward-canted rear fins and round tail lamps continued while unit-body construction remained a T-Bird benefit.

Like the new 1961 Lincoln Continental which it was built along side, the 1961 Thunderbird’s frame and body components were welded into an integral unit, rather than being bolted together. Ford actually built the 1961 Thunderbird with two unitized sections featuring a rigid, box-sectioned joint at the cowl area. There was a fully new chassis and a larger, more powerful engine. For the first time, the T-Bird hood was hinged at the rear. The 1961 hood was also wider than the 1960 hood, while the 1961 fenders were narrower and were now bolted on to simplify body repairs.

A new, thin-pillared “straight line” windshield was seen for 1961, along with the new idea of gluing the rearview mirror to the windshield. Ford offered 19 “Diamond Lustre” exterior colors and 30 two-tones (including seven reversible combinations). The “luxury lounge” interior came in 16 different upholstery combinations and six colors. A smaller console added legroom.

The 1961 Thunderbird convertible featured a fully automatic top-retracting mechanism operated by the turn of a switch on the inside of the left-hand door. The lifting mechanism and pump assembly were relocated to inside the rear fenders, instead of behind the seat. To raise the top, the trunk lid opened at the rear and powerful motors lifted the top, extending it nearly straight up until it lowered over the passenger compartment. This isolated the top-riser mechanism from the passengers and made raising or lowering the top a quieter operation.

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Standard equipment on ’61 Thunderbirds included a 300-hp, 390-cid V-8 with dual exhaust, a fuel filter and an oil filter. The interior featured a “Lifeguard” padded instrument panel and cushioned sun visors; an electric clock with sweep second hand; automatic courtesy lights; turn signals; a deep-center steering wheel with a horn ring; individually adjustable front seats; a Safety-Swivel day/night tilt-type mirror; double-grip door locks; built-in armrests; floor carpets; full-width foam rubber seats; all-vinyl upholstery; and ashtray and a cigar lighter.

Other Thunderbird equipment was comprised of full wheel covers; an air cleaner; five black 8.00 x 14 tubeless tires; Cruise-O-Matic transmission; power brakes; power steering; two-speed electric windshield wipers; undercoating; safety belt anchors; coat hooks; a parking brake lamp; a glove box lamp; an ash tray lamp; back-up lamps; and a fully lined and illuminated luggage compartment.

Setting the Pace

On Indy 500 Festival cars such as Natarus’ Thunderbird, white convertible tops set off a special shade of gold metallic paint. Since Firestone Rubber Co. was sponsoring the 1961 Indy 500, Thunderbird pace cars were fitted with that brand of tire. Ford provided a total of 34 convertibles for the race, which included a single official Pace Car, an alternate Pace Car and 32 Indy 500 Festival Cars.

The 32 Festival Cars fulfilled their official capacity by appearing in the parade the week before the race. They also carried the race car drivers around the track during introductions held before the race. The 32 festival cars plus the alternate pace car represented the 33 drivers that would start the race.

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The festival cars all featured black leather or black vinyl interiors. Specific markings appeared to identify these cars, including a large blue square frame about an inch wide, the center of which displayed “OFFICIAL CAR” in large black block letters at the center top of the door. Below, “500” appeared in large red numerals, just above the crease on the door. “FESTIVAL” in black script outlined by white was just below the crease, and below that, “MAY 30, 1961” was applied, again in black lettering with a white outline.

On all of the Festival Cars’ rear fenders, centered above the rear wheel opening and above the body side crease, appeared the words “COURTESY OF” in black script, followed by the name of the Ford dealer sponsoring that car, in black block lettering, just below the body side crease.

After performing their assigned duties at the Indy 500-mile race, the 32 Festival Cars were returned to the sponsoring dealers who, in turn, presumably sold them. As stated, some were repainted to hide signs of the decals that had been affixed to them, likely in order to sell them. Of the 34 cars, six have been located and documented. It is believed that the Official Pace Car was given to A.J. Foyt as part of his winnings; some believe he later gave the car to his mother.

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The documented Indy 500 1961 Thunderbird Festival Car destroyed by fire was in a blaze that devastated the Dick Tarnutzer collection in Lake Mills, Wis., in December 1999. Tarnutzer collected Indy 500 cars and memorabilia and exhibited his collection at his former car museum in Wisconsin Dells. The remains of the Tarnutzer car are believed to survive, and the possibility exists that it might be rebuilt. Two other surviving cars are in Indiana, one is in Arkansas and another is believed to be in Iowa. The sixth is Tim Natarus’ Wisconsin-based car featured here.

The odometer of Natarus’ 1961 Thunderbird indicates it has gone just 69,645 miles. The car has been restored and refinished in the correct Indy Gold color (Rinshed Mason J56949) and has a black vinyl interior. It has VIN 1Y73Z137951, and the original engine, C1AE6015C. It has a unique PAO 8479 SPEC Paint tag. The car’s interior trim is No. 86 black vinyl. The car’s “born on” date is 1A13 (Jan. 13, 1961). It has the factory gray plaid trunk trim and fender skirts, and was retrofitted with a Sports Roadster tonneau cover. It has also been documented by the Vintage Thunderbird Club International.

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