Car of the Week: 1965 Ford Thunderbird

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Ten years ago, Tom Willfahrt decided to buy himself a Christmas present. Sort of.

Willfahrt, a resident of Auburndale, Wis., wasn’t exactly sure if he was buying himself a dream gift for his retirement or a big box of headaches, but he swallowed hard and took the chance. In hindsight, buying a 1965 Ford Thunderbird limited edition Special Landau coupe that just needed a little attention and some TLC doesn’t seem to be too big of a risk, but the T-Bird was Willfarhrt’s first hobby car and came with a little trepidation.

The car had sat idle and untouched for more than 20 years. The previous owner had planned to restore it, but the project never really got off the ground.

“My concern was that this was the first [collector] car I ever bought. I didn’t want to overpay for it,” Willfahrt said. “The day before Christmas … the lady who had it said, ‘If you want it, you got to take it now.’ Her husband had it, and he was deceased. So the day before Christmas we picked it up and brought it home.

“The front bumper was off. Most of the chrome in front was off. From the doors forward it was in primer. The masking tape was on the stainless and stuff around the doors since 1980.”

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As far as Willfahrt could tell, the Thunderbird had not been parked due to any major mechanical issues. It needed some transmission work, but the T-Bird appeared to have been a nice, running car when it was put into storage. “It had not run since at least 1980. How long before that I don’t know,” Willfahrt said. “It wasn’t in their name. It was in another guy’s name. A guy I knew very well. The lady’s husband was going to restore it. He did one for another person and he was going to restore this one, but I think he had health problems and never got to restore this one.

“They had it in a garage when I bought it … Underneath the car it was very good. The interior is original on it. The back wasn’t bad. They had quarter panels for it, so we replaced one quarter panel.”

The fancy Ford had rolled up 100,000 miles during its daily driver days, which were apparently all in Wisconsin. The car was sold new in West Bend, Wis., to a family in Marshfield. It was apparently parked sometime in the late 1970s, then changed hands twice later on, but was never driven.

The Landau coupe was one of three body styles available on 1965 Thunderbirds. It was joined by a two-door hardtop and convertible. All were similar in styling to the 1964 models, which debuted Thunderbird’s fourth generation with a shorter roofline, longer hood and different front end appearance than previous years.

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There were no big changes between 1964 and ’65. Thunderbird lettering on the edge of the hood was replaced with a T-Bird emblem. Wide-spaced vertical moldings were added to the former horizontal-bars grille. The script plate with the model name moved from the front fender to the rear fender. There were dummy air vents (Ford called them “simulated waste gates”) on both sides of the body, just behind the front wheel openings. New emblems with a stylized Thunderbird partly encircled by a chrome ring adorned the roof sail panels. The center section of the rear bumper had a Thunderbird crest replacing the name spelled out across it.

The doors could now be locked without using a key and the keys went into the door locks with either edge up. A “fasten seat belt” light now went off when the driver’s belt was pulled out and latched. (In 1964, the light had stayed lit.)

Under the hood was a four-barrel 390-cid V-8 equipped with dual exhausts and rated at 300 hp and 427 ft.-lbs. of torque.

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The headrest-style Sports Tonneau cover was dropped. However, the ’64 Sports Tonneau fit the ’65 convertible and, for buyers who demanded one, a cover could often be obtained from some Ford dealer’s parts inventory. Red band tires, another new option, were $44 extra. Only 15-in. tires were offered in 1965. New disc brakes did not work with wire wheels, so that option was dropped. A vacuum-operated trunk release was a new accessory.

A limited-edition Special Landau was released in March 1965. It featured a special Ember-Glo metallic paint and parchment interior with matching vinyl top. Woodgrain trim inside was unique to the Special Landau, as was the numbered dash plaque that had the original owner’s name engraved on it. The instrument panel was inspired by aircraft design motifs, and the steering wheel pivoted and swung to the right for easy entry and exit by the driver.

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In back, new sequential taillights were featured. They operated through an arrangement of multiple taillight bulbs that flashed, in order, from the inner side of the broad red lens to its outer edge.

Among the other standard features were Cruise-O-Matic Drive, power steering and power front disc brakes, double-sided keys, keyless door locking, variable-speed hydraulic windshield wipers, electric windshield washers, padded instrument panel, padded sun visors, electric clock, individually adjustable shell-contour front bucket seats, full wheel covers, built-in armrests, 8.15 x 15 tubeless tires, full wheel covers and rear fender skirts.

The Special Landau package added about $50 to the $4,495 base price of the Landau coupe. Ford built 25,474 Landau models for the model year. The two-door hardtop Thunderbirds were more popular with buyers with 42,652 assemblies. A total of 6,846 convertibles were also built.

With a little bit of work, Willfahrt could have driven his 1965 Thunderbird pretty much “as is” when he got it, but he soon decided against it. “I could get it running. I got it running and ran it a little bit and said, ‘Nah, I’ve got to get it fixed up,’” he recalled. “I took it over to my buddy’s … he did the body work. I pulled the engine and had a shop do the engine. The transmission I pulled out. The interior is in really good shape.  The car was in very good shape, overall, I thought, considering how old it was. It came with a lot of receipts and stuff for work that was done on it. The original window sticker was there.

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“I always liked Thunderbirds. I had a vision when I bought it about what it would look like. My friend who does the bodywork, he could see it, too. My wife couldn’t see that,” he added with a laugh. “She just shook her head and said, ‘What did you buy?’”

In addition to paint, Willfahrt had to dress his Thunderbird up with a new top. He had to wait four months and eventually got a new one from SMS Auto Fabrics in Portland, Ore. “They are the only place I found that makes them,” he said. “The engine I had re-done and all dyno-ed out. Krings Motorsports [in Vesper, Wis.] did it and they really did a terrific job. It just runs great.”

Willfahrt had the problematic transmission rebuilt once, wasn’t happy with the results, then had it rebuilt again by Thunderbird guru John Draxler, who runs a T-Bird parts operation known as Thunderbird Ranch in Pittsville, Wis. Draxler had actually owned the car at one point.

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The end results of Willfahrt’s efforts are stunning. The glorious copper-colored ‘Bird is a fabulous-looking Ford as nice to look at as it is to drive. Last summer, Willfahrt showed off the car in the Blue Ribbon Coral at the Iola Old Car Show in Iola, Wis. He drove  it to the show, of course, and enjoyed every minute behind the wheel.

“What do I like best about it? The ride,” he said. “It’s a nice driver, and we do drive it. It doesn’t bother me to take it anyplace. That’s what I bought it for.”

Willfahrt picked up a second hobby machine not long ago, a 1959 Edsel. It might get some of his attention in the future, but it won’t replace the Thunderbird as Willfahrt’s favorite machine. That would be hard for any car to do.

“I was very happy with it. I’m never getting rid of it,” he laughed. “Somebody would have to offer me twice as much as it’s worth, and even then, I don’t know if I could let it go.”

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