Thundering into Battle: the ’57 Ford ‘Battlebirds’

John Gunnell |

Editor’s note: During a recent visit to the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pa., John Gunnell took the accompanying photos of a car known as the “Battlebird.” Having done some extensive research on this car back in 1995, he couldn’t help getting inspired to review this interesting part of Ford history.In the spring of 1957, auto racing buffs were treated to a battle royal when Thunderbirds and Corvettes went head to head in straight-line racing and sports-car competition. That was the year that Chevrolet and Ford were running remarkably close in showroom sales. It appeared that Dearborn might have a chance to unseat Flint as America’s No. 1 automaker. In addition, after four years, Chevy’s Corvette seemed to be “on the ropes” and Ford was eating this up.

In 1957, Ford created four special Thunderbird race cars that
became known as “Battlebirds.” The car in the AACA Museum is
part of Ross Myers’ 3 Dog Garage in Boyertown, Pa.

Many car magazines of that era were filled with stories highlighting the T-Bird as a success and the Corvette as a failure. Needless to say, Ford was poised to pull out all stops on the racing front to outperform the competition Corvettes.

Ford decided to create four special Thunderbird racers that became known as the “Battlebirds.” They were prepared by Peter DePaolo Engineering, a Long Beach, Calif., firm named after its owner. This was the same Peter DePaolo who had raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as on classic board tracks, way back in the 1920s.

Gil Baumgartner, the authenticity chairman of the Classic Thunderbird Club International in 1995, noted that the Peter DePaolo team was selected by Ford Motor Co. to conduct an all-out assault on the Daytona Beach Speed Week Trials in February 1957. Baumgartner did three years of extensive research to unravel the true history of the Battlebirds, including DePaolo’s role.

Baumgartner wrote an article that was published in the CTCI’s club magazine in September/October 1994. It was based upon documented data, months of research and Baumgartner’s actual restoration of the sole remaining, highly modified ’57 Battlebird. Historian Dean Batchelor was also familiar with the cars.

Baumgartner had discovered that the first two Battlebirds were shipped to DePaolo Engineering on Dec. 18, 1956. They had consecutive VINs that ended with “265” and “266.” Two other cars were shipped soon thereafter, but their VINS were not consecutive with the first pair.

All four cars started out as ’57 Thunderbirds with the base C-code V-8 and all were painted Colonial White. Sheet metal wizards Dwight “Whitey” Clayton and Dick Troutman used hand-formed aluminum hoods, doors, trunks, firewalls and belly pans to heavily modify the cars. They had faired-in headrests and were lightened and streamlined. Each Battlebird was unique and all four cars had different degrees of modification from mild to wild.

The car with the lowest VIN largely retained its stock appearance. It was built to compete in the stock sports car racing class at Daytona Beach. Documentation indicates that it received a specially built 312-cid Thunderbird Special V-8 that was stroked to 348 cid. It also had a supercharger installed.

Batchelor told OCW, in 1995, that this engine was reworked by Jim Travers and Frank Coon prior to the time the men formed their famous Traco Engineering Co. Batchelor stressed that DePaolo Engineering did the supercharger installation. The suspension and brakes were modified for better handling and stopping. The body and interior remained stock looking.

The second car (VIN ending in 266) is one of two heavily modified cars, and the one that Baumgartner restored. It was turned into an all-out racing car with major modifications done to the body by Clayton and Troutman.

The second car’s engine was another 312-cid Thunderbird Special V-8 with extensive modifications. Batchelor remembered that a Jaguar four-speed transmission and Halibrand quick-change rear end were used. The chassis of this second car was also heavily modified. When completed, the car raced in classes for experimental and modified sports cars.

The third car — VIN ending in 333 — looked exactly like the second car, but had a highly modified 430-cid Lincoln V-8 installed. This engine was also prepared by Travers and Coon.

According to Baumgartner, both of these modified Thunderbirds passed “the point of no return” when converted from stock to racing cars. The frame cross members were removed and replaced with a tube. Some areas of the frame were boxed to compensate for the strength lost by removing the heavy cross member. The bodies were lightened by drilling large holes everywhere, except on the exteriors. The outer skins of the doors, hood and deck lid were fashioned from aluminum, as were the vent doors, bezels and splash pans behind the grilles. The firewalls were cut out and replaced with aluminum panels. The tonneau covers were formed from aluminum and small windscreens were made out of Plexiglas. Streamlined headrests were added behind the driver compartments.

The fourth car was built to have a stock appearance and to race in the regular sports-car class. It received the same treatment as the “265” car (the other stock-appearing Battlebird). It was fitted with a modified 312-cid Thunderbird Special V-8 and a Phase 1 supercharger. The suspension and brakes were also modified. No VIN information for this car turned up in Baumgartner’s research.

Batchelor recalled that the Battlebirds arrived in Daytona Beach to run the speed trials on the beach course, plus an airport race at nearby New Smyrna Beach. Drivers Troy Ruttman, Danny Eames, Chuck Daigh (an employee of Depaolo Engineering), Marvin Panch and Curtis Turner were selected to drive them in different events. They first raced on Feb. 9 in the two-way Flying Mile. A few days later, they took a shot at the standing-start mile. From there, the cars went to New Smyrna Beach.

They were also scheduled to compete at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, but the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association’s ban on factory involvement in racing kicked in before that happened. Ford pulled the plug on all factory-backed competition. After that, the Battlebirds were shipped back to California, with no side trip to Sebring.

The car that Baumgartner restored carried the number 98, which is how it appeared at New Smyrna Beach. In that event, Panch qualified it at 77.419 mph and drove it to a second-place finish just behind Carroll Shelby’s 4.9 Ferrari. The qualifying mark had been set with an aluminum belly pan on the car, but the pan hurt engine cooling and was removed for the race.

In restoring the car, Baumgartner had to reproduce some components. The tonneau cover and Plexiglas windscreen were missing, as was one of the headlamp bezels. These parts had to be fabricated. In addition, the fin behind the driver had been crushed and repaired in such a way that it would not fit on the deck lid. The rear portion had to be re-fabricated. As he worked, Baumgartner made the following careful notes about some of the modifications made to the Battlebird and some things he discovered during the restoration:

ENGINE: Modified 312-cid Thunderbird V-8. Baumgartner configured it with the fuel-injection system used at Smyrna Beach in February 1957.

HILBORN FUEL INJECTION: A Battlebird also ran with the injectors pressurized using a Phase 1 supercharger. This combination was used at the Daytona flying mile with unsatisfactory results. The compression ratio was too high to supercharge the engine, and this resulted in an engine failure. Although Chuck Daigh’s one-way run topped 200 mph, the speed could not be duplicated on the way back and it did not go into the record books.

TANKS: The car has two fuel tanks. One is larger than the normal tank mounted under the rear of the car. The second tank is installed in the trunk. It feeds into the lower tank and receives bypassed fuel from the injectors.

SHOCK ABSORBERS: There are two shock absorbers per wheel, front and rear, for a total of eight.

BRAKES: The 2-1/2-inch-wide brakes are air-cooled. The rear brakes have electric fans for additional cooling. The front brakes are ram-air cooled.

WHEELS: Halibrand quick-change magnesium knock-off wheels. For high-speed runs in the sand, 15-inch wheels were used on the rear with 16-inch wheels on the front.

INTERIOR: The stock interior was removed. One lightweight seat was installed. The instrument panel was replaced with a small gauge cluster. An oil cooler tank was installed near the right door.

The more highly modified cars, including “266,” could not be returned to stock condition, due to the extent of the changes. They were purchased from Ford Motor Co. by Andy Hotten of Dearborn Steel Tubing Co. (Hotten built many experimental Fords). Hotten told Baumgartner that he had purchased both “266” and “333,” as well as the truck and trailer that Ford used to haul them to races.

These cars were privately and successfully raced in the Midwest, and several pictures of the Battlebirds in action have surfaced over the years. Most show them leading Corvettes to the finish line. The “333” car with the Lincoln engine was ultimately destroyed. The “266” car with the Thunderbird engine wound up with Parnelli Jones, who owned it for several years.

Gerald Popejoy purchased the “266” car in 1975 and took it to Dallas, where it was displayed at the 1978 CTCI convention in unrestored condition. Popejoy moved to Springfield, Mo., and the car remained in storage until 1992. Robert “Bo” Cheadle then purchased the car and had it restored by Baumgartner. This appears to be the car recently displayed at the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pa.

After its restoration, the car appeared at the CTCI’s 1994 convention in Dearborn, Mich. At that time, Chuck Daigh and Danny Eames, who had driven it at Daytona in 1957, were able to see the car.

The “Battlebird” in the AACA Museum is part of Ross Myers’ “3 Dog Garage,” a facility in Boyertown, Pa., that Myers plans to turn into a museum open for group tours by appointment. The collection’s Web site can be viewed at www.3Dog.org.

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The Battlebird’s interior was removed. One lightweight seat was installed. The instrument panel was replaced with a small instrument cluster.

One Response to Thundering into Battle: the ’57 Ford ‘Battlebirds’

  1. Joe Lineberger says:

    I remember one of these Thunderbirds sat for a long time at Hollman-Moody race shops in Charlotte, NC.

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