By Brian Earnest
When it finally came time to let it snap and find the car he had been dreaming about for three decades, James Pantelis wasn’t taking any chances.
The Melbourne, Australia, resident had been fawning over the first-generation Ford Thunderbirds — the “Baby Birds” — since he first laid eyes on one. He isn’t sure, but he thought the red ’56 Thunderbird he first spotted on display — but not for sale — in a showroom back in the 1980s might have been the only one of its kind in Australia at the time. The car was way out of his league, and he knew it, but Pantelis never completely gave up hope that he’d have such a machine some day.
“I was mesmerized,” laughs Pantelis. “First, a car like that would have been selling for about $120,000 here back then. I just remember stopping late at night and thinking, ‘Wow, 120 grand for a two-seater that you’ll probably rarely drive.’ And second, ‘What must you do to be able to afford to add one of those to your collection?’”
In the years that followed, the now-55-year-old Pantelis did manage to enjoy his share of “toys,” including several Harley-Davidsons, a “few exotics” and a nicely restored 1965 Mustang convertible that had been converted to right-hand drive, per Australian law. Eventually, by 2010, the idea of finding and importing a Thunderbird seemed within his reach. He ultimately zeroed in on three cars in California, one in Arizona, one in Portland and a beautiful red ’56 in Vancouver, B.C. Pantelis had plenty of conversations with the various sellers — sometimes calling at 3 or 4 a.m. Melbourne time — and he was encouraged by what he heard. “After speaking with a few people here in Melbourne who had purchased cars ‘sight unseen’ and hearing of the disappointment in importing American Muscle or Classic cars only to find that they were duped by selective photo angles and shiny tar on the underside, I decided it was time to ‘bite the bullet’ and make my travel plans,” he said. He simply had to lay eyes on a car in person before he went through all the effort and expense of shipping it home.
Pantelis and his wife and youngest son traveled to Los Angeles, checked out several cars, and even shopped for prospects at the Fabulous Fords Forever Day at Knott’s Berry Farm, but had no luck. “Sadly, no ’56s were for sale and I knew then, that I had to make the trip to Vancouver,” he recalled. Without giving himself time to change his mind, Pantelis hopped a flight to Canada to check out a white ’56 convertible with Fiesta Red/White interior — “my preferred color combination,” he says. “I had spoken to the man that had owned this car [previously]. He owned it and restored it, and I had talked to him at length. He had sold it and only about six months into new person’s ownership it was put up for sale again because the guy’s marriage was falling apart and it had to be sold quickly, along with his other cars.”
Some bad weather on the first day prevented Pantelis from taking the car for a spin, but eventually everything checked out “and it drove as good as it looked and we did the deal.”
“We drove the car together to the shipping container yard, I went back to LA and enjoyed about 10 days of playing tourist … and then it took about two months for the car to get to Australia! I was praying nothing was [wrecked] in the shipping process. It got to Shanghai in two days and then it sat there for the next six weeks. Then it took about three days to get from Shanghai to Melbourne and about a week to get it out of Customs here. I was just hoping nothing got nicked or scratched. Fortunately, it was just the way I dropped it off, except for a little dust and moisture.”
Ironically, the ’56 that he had lusted after in Melbourne also came up for sale around the time he was Thunderbird shopping, but Pantelis passed. “They wanted $85,000, and there were a lot of cars in the United States with all the things I wanted going for $40,000 to $50,000,” he says. “It was just smarter to search longer and keep looking for cars that met those requirements that I wanted.”
Those criteria included the car being recently restored and high quality, automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and both hard and soft tops. And why did it have to be a ’56? “I always gravitated to that continental kit,” he says. “Out of the ‘Baby Birds’ it was always the continental kit on the ’56 that attracted me the most.”
The standard continental tire kit on the rear of the car was the most obvious new feature on the second-year Thunderbird. It was an add-on the year before, when the new T-Bird made one of the most anticipated debuts in the Ford product line in many years. A total of 16,155 cars were built for 1955, and that number actually dipped slightly, to 15,631, for 1956.
Cars built before Nov. 14, 1955 had their continental spare tires raised for added ground clearance. Later, Ford dealers had to recall these cars to change the height of the continental kits by 1 3/8 inches. The 1956 frame had to be modified for this feature, since the original 1955 frame couldn’t tolerate the “cantilever” effect of the heavy continental kit at the extreme rear of the vehicle.
Other changes included the gas filler door losing the checkered flag emblem used to dress it up in 1955. Slight modifications were also made to the Thunderbird’s tail lights. Though still large and circular, the rear red lenses had a wider center protrusion with more elaborate chrome trim. The arch-shaped area above the round red lens was also restyled. A small, circular reflector was added to the chrome molding right at the top of the arch. Back-up lamps could again be ordered in place of the metal filler plate. Offered again was the same fiberglass hardtop used in 1955. A new version with “port” windows in its side panels was also available for 1956.
The hardtop in matching body color (with or without port windows) was optional at no extra cost. Having the top finished in a contrasting color did cost extra, though. Some Ford dealers added the porthole windows to the standard-style hardtop when buyers found their Thunderbirds claustrophobic or complained about blind spots. The hardtop version carried a base price of $3,158, while the convertible was priced at $3,233.
The 1956 Thunderbird’s interior door panels had new “stitching” embossments molded into the seams in the vinyl. The patterning on the seats, supplied by McInerney Spring & Wire Company, was also changed. In 1955, the vertically ribbed insert sections of the seats were separate from each other. The 1956 design brought the ribs across the center of the backrest. They ran nearly the full width of the seat back and gave the visual impression that the seat had been widened.
Standard equipment included the 92-cid Y-block V-8 engine rated at 202 hp; 12-volt electrical system; dual exhausts; three-speed manual transmission; dual horns; half-circle steering wheel horn ring; and glass-fiber hardtop. The option list included a four-way power seat; power brakes; power steering; power windows; overdrive; wide sidewall tires; radio; heater; wire wheel covers; and fender skirts. Three optional engines were also available: 215- and 225-hp versions of the 312-cid Thunderbird Special V-8, and a 260-hp version with dual quads.
For Pantelis, it was critical to find a car that was “done” and wouldn’t need much attention once it landed Down Under. He simply didn’t want to deal with the headache of tracking down parts on distant shores, or try to find a shop that specialized in fixing American basket cases.
Above all, Pantelis wanted something he could drive often that was still nice enough to wax up and take to shows. “I take it out very regularly and I do get to enjoy it,” he says. “It’s not a daily driver, but I drive it a lot. You do always treat them with kid gloves, but too many people are scared to take their classic cars out and drive them… They’re afraid of them overheating or afraid of the brakes or the way they run or handle. I guess I’m just lucky that I got a good car to begin with.”
Fortunately, Australian laws have changed and now allow cars 25 years or older to remain left-hand-drive, so Pantelis hasn’t had to have it “engineered.” The only changes he has made to the T-Bird are the addition of a thermatic fan to help with the engine temperature, aftermarket front and rear sway bars to bolster the handling, and an extra leaf spring in back to beef up the suspension. “The sway bars have been the single best investment as I can now truly enjoy driving it and not just enjoy being seen in it,” he says. “I would say that it drives and corners more like a ’60s or even ’70s Ford rather than a soft marshmallow ’50s classic.”
Any Baby Bird will be a conversation piece pretty much anywhere it travels, and Pantelis said the reception the car has gotten in Melbourne has been a little overwhelming. “I make so many friends at traffic lights,” he chuckles. “You hear, ‘That’s American, what is it? It’s so great. It’s a ’56? Oh, that’s the car from ‘American Graffiti!’
“I would say that people with salt and pepper in their hair recognize it as a T-Bird, and people 30 and younger recognize it as an American classic, but they’re not all sure what they’re looking at. One thing is the port hole. They know the car with the port hole.”
Pantelis has been to plenty of car shows in the past three years and collected some nice hardware for his trophy case. It was also selected by Old Cars Weekly for the cover of the annual OCW Reader Rides Calendar.
His ’56 is still one of the only first-generation Thunderbirds around in his corner of the world, but Pantelis wouldn’t mind having some more company on the road, which is where he likes to be.
“I drive my Baby Bird very frequently,” he says happily. “So long as there is no rain on the radar I am still keen to get this car out and show it off.”
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