Car of the Week: 1966 Ford Thunderbird

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By Brian Earnest

Bob Potter has tried to get rid of his 1966 Ford Thunderbird a few times over the years. For some reason, he was never all that sentimental about the car, and even though he bought it new in the fall of 1965 and the car has followed him all over the country, he was never determined to keep it for good.

At one point, he couldn’t even get $1,000 for the wonderfullly preserved “Jet Bird.” Heck, he couldn’t even give it away — at least not permanently — to his own daughter.

Sentiments can change, however, and these days Bob and his wife Donna are having more fun than ever with their handsome Ford, and they realize now how much they would have regretted losing it. “Now, we wouldn’t even consider selling it!” Bob laughs. “We like the car too much.”

It’s doubtful there is another 1966 Thunderbird anywhere that has been more well-traveled than the Potters’ car. It has lived all around the United States, moving with the couple through every job change and relocation. “I worked for defense contractors for 35 years, so we moved a lot,” Bob said. “When we moved to the house we’re in now [in Deming, N.M.], I think it was our 34th move since we’ve been married. But somehow or another we’ve kept that car all the while.”

After all those moves and 109,000 miles on its odometer, the T-Bird remains very original. It was repainted its original Sapphire Blue a few years back and given a new beige Landau top, but beyond that it “it’s all just the way Ford built it.” The car’s leather interior is original and the 390-cid, 275-hp engine has never been apart. Potter said he will gladly fix whatever goes wrong with the car, but he sees no need to ever give the lovely ‘Bird a thorough restoration. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “To me, cars are meant to be enjoyed. I like to drive them. They aren’t meant to be trailer queens, and I’m not interested in that. We drive this one all the time.”

The Potters had previously owned a 1962 T-Bird convertible when they ordered their blue Landau hardtop new from Ford. At the time the couple lived in El Paso, Texas, and the closed car with air conditioning seemed like the wiser choice. “I had gotten sent back to  Houston and then to El Paso and we didn’t have any A/C in that ‘62 convertible, and El Paso gets warm in the summer,” Bob laughed. “So we ordered a new one — Sapphire Blue Metallic — and my wife didn’t want the white with it, she wanted the beige, so we got the beige top and the beige leather interior.”

The car was the couple’s primary driver for many years, up through most of the 1970s. “I got loaned to Boeing in ’78 and we were still driving it then as our primary car in the Seattle area,” Potter said. “Then I went to work for a  Dallas company, and in Dallas I had a workshop because I was always into antique cars and we just kind of put it in the back of the shop. When I retired in ’90 we moved to Almogordo, N.M., and we just kept it in the shop over there.”

Following that “first” retirement, Bob turned his part-time business fixing and refurbishing old carburetors into a full-time gig. The Thunderbird was mostly in mothballs during those years, and when Potter retired for a second time and decided to sell his carburetor business, he figured it was time to find a new owner for the car. “We decided to go full-time in our RV and we were roaming all over the country,” Potter recalled. “We had to get rid of some stuff and I had several other cars that I had to get rid of, too. I actually offered [the Thundebird] to a friend of mine for $1,000 and he didn’t want it. Of course, he’s kicking himself now!”

“Then our daughter [Renee] said she would take it and put it into storage, so we gave the car to her. She grew up in that car. We brought her home from the hospital in it.”

It should have been no surprise, though, that the car that had been with the Potters for almost four decades and followed him all over the country would find its way back into their garage. “About two years ago, I told [Renee] on the phone that I was thinking of getting and old car again, and she said, ‘Dad, take the Thunderbird. We’re never going to get to it.’ So I got it back!”

That was actually the second time his daughter gave Bob a car back. “In 1982 I restored a ’67 Mustang for her, and she drove that all through high school and college,” he said. “She eventually gave that back to me … so I got that, too!”

If you were going to pick a car to get permanently attached to in the mid-1960s, the Thunderbird was certainly a good choice. By the time the completely redesigned “Jet Birds” came out in 1964, the T-Bird was already four generations into its life cycle. Gone were the “Bullet Birds” of 1961-63, replaced by a car of similar dimensions and purpose, but with very different body lines and sharper angles and creases. The grilles were more sharply angled and had an eggcrate background behind a large Thunderbird emblem. The bumper was a wrap-around “blade” design — a first for the nameplate.

In back, new full-width tail lamps were introduced that would eventually become a T-Bird styling fixture. The single back-up light was part of the Thunderbird emblem in the middle lense. The light assembly was all encased in a chrome bumper surround that made the T-Birds instantly recognizable from behind.

The Town Landau model with a vinyl roof covering was a new offering for 1966 and it was by far the most popular choice among buyers. More than 35,000 were built for the year — more than the hardtop, town hardtop and convertible combined. The Town Landau and hardtop Landau, which was also new, had no rear quarter glass. Instead, the roof “C” pillar was widened and stretched all the way to the edge of the door windows.

The 390-cid base V-8 was highly regarded and added 15 hp for 1966 to bring its output to 315. A new 428-cid/345-hp Thunderbird Special was also available as a $64.77 upgrade. Standard equipment included dual exhaust, Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission, power front disc brakes, power steering, Swing-Away steering column, retractable seat belts, padded instrument panel and sun visors, electric clocks, courtesy lights and AM push-button radio. A roof console ran overhead from front to rear and housed warning lights for the seat belts, fuel level, emergency flashers and door ajar.

Base prices for the ’66 ‘Birds ranged from $4,395 for the hardtop coupe to $4,845 for the convertible, but there were plenty of add-on goodies that could inflate those prices significantly. Popular options included the 428-cid power plant, six-way power seats, power windows and antenna, limited-slip differential, cruise control, leather seats, air-conditioning, reclining passenger seat, AM/FM radio, 8-track stereo, whitewall tires, two-tone paint and rear fender skirts.

The Potters’ car came with the fender skirts, A/C, reclining passenger seat and leather upholstery, which remains in splendid condition considering the car’s age. The Thunderbird had some minor bodywork done when it got a roof and paint job. Beyond that, there has been little work done to the Ford.

“About a month and a half ago, I saw a trailing puddle under it and I thought, ‘Oh geez, I’ve got an oil leak,” Bob said. “I wound up taking the fuel pump off, and it was the original fuel pump. It had never been off. It had the original Ford clamp on it and everything. I went to NAPA and bought a new one for $30… We re-did the brakes when we did the paint. The old bake lines were kind of rusty, so I replaced the brake lines and put new cylinders in the rear.

“The top was in decent shape, but it was starting to flake. There was a little rust on the lower part of the front fenders. We patched that, and in the back over the wheel well, we did a little patching. Back in 1981 I bought a pair of rear quarter panels from an outfit in Michigan. They cost me $300, and I used them for the pieces of metal. That was all about three years ago.”

At one point, the Potters had another Thunderbird to go with their ’66.  That car came and went long ago, but the blue and white Town Landau stayed. “At one time I thought about selling it because we had another Thunderbird, a ’76,” Bob said. “We were leaving Minnesota to move to Seattle, and I looked at the ’76 and thought, ‘Gee whiz, it’s got more rust than our ’66!’ So I sold that and kept the ’66 and drove it to Seattle and used it there.”

Above all, Potter says he still likes the 1966 Thunderbird because it does exactly what it was intended to do, even 46 years later. It is a wonderful driving machine with an irresistible combination of power, creature comforts, road manners and good looks.

“The Lincolns and the Thunderbirds and the Cadillacs were all in that heavy class. They were all good road cars,” Potter noted. “The Thunderbirds from those years were really nice-driving cars. And they still are.”

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