Car of the Week: 1955 Ford Thunderbird

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By Brian Earnest
Photos by Tom Strongman

He’s modest about it, but Ron Portland has all kinds of cool stories about his 1955 Ford Thunderbird. He can start with how it was one of the first 1,000 Thunderbirds ever built. Or he can recount how he actually got a ride in the car from Lee Iacocca the first time he ever saw a Thunderbird, or how he coincidentally wound up buying what he believes is the same car years later. Or he can just start with how he wound up parking the car in his parents’ garage for 30 years while he crisscrossed the country in a series of job moves.

Somehow, Portland and his Thunderbird never parted ways, and together they have quite a history.

“When I bought it [in June of 1965], I don’t know if I was really planning on keeping it, but it was fun and at the time it wasn’t all that unusual,” recalls Portland, a resident of Kansas City, Mo. “But I had a feeling that it was sort of iconic right from the beginning. Did I know that I was going to keep it this long? I didn’t even think I’d live this long!”

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Ironically, it may have been the years of separation that ultimately kept Portland and his T-bird together. The car was simply resting up until the time came to be permanently reunited with its owner. Since he was probably one of the first people — certainly one of the first kids — to ride in the car, it’s probably appropriate that Portland still has his black ’Bird.

“It was originally delivered to the Ford Philadelphia Zone Office,” Portland said. “In 1954, my father was transferred from Dearborn, Mich., to Philadelphia. Although he did not work for the Ford Motor Company, many of my parents’ friends and neighbors did.

“On a warm weekend day in November of 1954 a friend of my father’s, who had also been recently transferred from Dearborn to Philadelphia, came to visit. He was driving a new 1955 Thunderbird. After the usual socializing with my parents, he took me for a ride. I was 10 years old. I remember thinking: ‘Someday I’ll have one of these.’ My father told me that the person who took me for that ride was Lee Iacocca.”

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About 10 years later, Portland was ready to make good on his plan to be a Thunderbird owner, but he even didn’t expect to come across that same black ’55 that he had ridden in with Iacocca. “We moved to Lancaster, Pa., and we wanted to get another car, and I said, ‘I think it would be fun if we get a Thunderbird, an original Thunderbird,’ which at the time would have been about a 10-year-old used car… So that’s what we did.”

Portland insists that he wasn’t looking for the same car that Iaccoca had taken him for a ride in a decade earlier, but he believes the car that he found in Lancaster, Pa., was the same machine. A friend of the family who had worked as Ford executive did a little digging and told them that he believes it was the same Philadelphia fleet car that Iacocca had driven. Portland wound up buying the used car, which had 67,000 miles on the odometer, for a grand total of $1,511.25, and he’s had it ever since.

“I took it off to college and actually drove that car back and forth to Iowa and then from Lancaster, Pa., to New England. When I got out of college, I drove it for some initial training to Chicago and then to New York City, but I didn’t keep it there very long. It didn’t take long to realize it wasn’t going to work for me in New York!” he said.

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Portland’s parents eventually moved to North Carolina, and since he was looking for a place to store the car, that’s where the T-bird went. The plan wasn’t to keep it there indefinitely, but the years went by quickly and Portland never seemed to have the time or space for the car. He moved about nine times, and “at a lot of those places, storing a car was pretty expensive for the money I was making at the time. I would visit my parents, and I’d drive it. My father would drive it a little. He said he raced a Porsche in it!”

“When I came to Kansas City [for a second time], I decided I was either going to sell it or bring it here. I decided to ship it here and it’s been here since 2001 — something like that.”

The fact that it was a first-year Thunderbird, and one of the first 1,000 ever built, certainly hasn’t hurt Portland’s enduring affection for the car. It was built in October 1954 — the second month of production for Ford’s groundbreaking new sports car.

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The car’s dimensions were modeled after the Chevrolet Corvette and the Jaguar XK-120. A used Ford sedan served as a designers’ “mule.” It was cut down with a torch and re-welded to fashion a small Ford with a 102-inch wheelbase. Those involved with it called the car the “Burnetti” after Ford Chief Designer William Burnett. The first plan was to call the production version the Fairlane after Henry Ford’s estate in Michigan. Finally, a contest was proposed that would allow FoMoCo employees to suggest names. The winner was offered a prize of $250, but actually won a suit worth $75-$100. Designer Alden “Gib” Giberson came up with the name “Thunderbird.”

The buying public had a few peeks at the T-bird early in 1954, it wasn’t until Oct. 22 that the production version was officially unveiled. Its introductory retail price was $2,695, less federal taxes and delivery and handling charges. This compared to $2,700 for a 1955 Corvette. Later, the price was increased when a fiberglass hardtop became standard equipment. Looking very much like a scaled-down Ford, the Thunderbird was trim, though not sub-compact.

The standard telescoping steering wheel allowed large T-bird drivers to get reasonably comfortable inside the car. The styling of the car was a hit. Its “frenched” headlights gave it a forward-thrusting look at the front, while the crisp tail fins gave the car personality from behind. For a 1955 American car, the Thunderbird offered excellent driving characteristics. Vision over the hood was exceptionally good, as the cowl stood just 37.2 inches above the surface of the road, but the wraparound windshield created some distortion at the corners.

Inside, the operator was greeted with a modern-looking dashboard featuring a tachometer, “idiot lights” to monitor oil pressure and electrical output and a clock with a sweep second hand that was great for rallying. A firm ride made the first Thunderbird feel like a sports car. Still, it was somewhat prone to understeering and would break loose in a tight turn before drifting around it like a competition racer. However, it hung in the corners well enough to take them at 10 to 15 mph faster than most contemporary, full-size American cars.

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Standard equipment included Ford’s 292-cid Y-block, four-barrel V-8, rated at 193 hp with manual shifting or 198 hp with Ford-O-Matic. The shifter was mounted on the floor. Dual exhausts exited in back. Suspension included ball joints in front and five-leaf springs in back. Other standard equipment included the removable fiberglass hardtop, power seat, vinyl upholstery, a 150-mph “Astra-Dial” speedometer, illuminated control knobs, parcel compartment with locking latch, inside hood release, dual horns and 6.70 x 15-inch tubeless tires. The cars were originally offered only in Raven Black, Torch Red or Thunderbird Blue, but promising early sales prompted the addition in spring of 1955 of Snowshoe White and Goldenrod Yellow as additional color choices.

The options list included overdrive transmission ($110), Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission ($178), radio ($99), heater ($71), power brakes ($32), power seat ($64), power windows ($102), white sidewall tires ($27 exchange) and convertible soft-top hardtop ($290, or $75 as a substitute for the hardtop.).

Overall length was 102 inches and shipping weight was about 2,980 lbs.

Portland’s Raven Black Thunderbird was equipped with automatic transmission, both tops and power brakes, a radio and whitewall tires. “And it had an engine dress-up kit, too. I think that was an option — the chrome three-bladed fan, polished valve covers … and a chrome oil bath air cleaner. Most of them had it.”

Rear fender skirts were another popular option, but Portland’s car isn’t wearing them these days. “I threw one of them coming back from a show,” he laughed. “I just haven’t gotten it repaired. Now it doesn’t have the skirts, but the wire wheels look great without them.”

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Aside from a repaint in 1993 and new upholstery in 2004, the 1954 Thunderbird is very much the same as the day Portland first rode in it. He has added an electric fuel pump to help combat a vapor lock problem he says is caused by modern gasoline, converted the ignition to 12 volts to make it more reliable, and installed an under-dash air-conditioning unit to make trips more comfortable on hot days.

“It was in decent shape when I got it, and I never thought it needed to be restored,” Portland said. “The good news in Pennsylvania was they didn’t use salt on the roads, so when they stripped it down 20-some years later to have it painted, they found just very minor rust to repair and did a great job on paint. They skimmed it, and the paint just turned out great. I don’t think it needs repainting again. I’ll probably never have it repainted.

“The undercarriage and everything is all original. That’s not necessarily a good thing [laughs]. I probably have to replace all the rubber doughnut things that are part of the suspension.”

Eventually, Portland figures he is going to have to do something about the disintegrating foam in the T-bird’s headliner. The convertible soft top is in his basement and needs to be recovered at some point, too. “The biggest problem with the convertible top is that the design of the frame is such that if you are not extremely careful when you are putting it up, it will rip the top right where the C pillar would normally be in a car. That happens very easily, so I just decided I’m not going to deal with it. I keep the hardtop on and run the A/C.”

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Portland has been a member of several Thunderbird clubs and has shown the car frequently over the years. He still drives the car to events when he can, but “I won’t drive it great distances. I’ve got a show in Springfield, Mo., in July, and I won’t drive it that far. But I used to drive it across the country.

“Having Coker radials on it makes an incredible difference in the way it drives. If I was going to go on a really long trip with it, I’d probably put the steel wheels back on it and regular radials, and take it on Route 66 or something… I used to put maybe 1,500 miles a year on it. Now it’s probably around 1,000 a year.”

One of the events Portland makes sure to attend is the Art of the Car Concours in Kansas City, which benefits the Kansas City Art Institute. “They just get the most amazing cars from all over to come there,” he says. “[The Thunderbird] might be the only car to get an award twice at the concours. It’s gotten a People’s Choice award there twice, which is pretty amazing.”

Portland didn’t hang onto the car all these years to try to collect trophies or bragging rights, however. He simply loved the car’s looks, style and charisma, and selling the car go to someone else never seemed like a good idea. In hindsight, he’s grateful he never let it go.

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“Everybody needs a hobby, and this is mine. I like taking care of cars,” he says. “I’ve had other cars and I’ve had sports cars. I’ve had a Triumph TR6, and an Alfa Romeo Spider, which I still have.

“But what I have found is people really seem to like the car, and that’s what I like about the Thunderbird. I like that other people like it. I like seeing other people enjoying it.”

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