Car of the Week: 1962 Ford Thunderbird convertible

Keeping "Big Bird's" legacy intact, second owner remains faithful to 1962 Ford Thunderbird's original owner's special connection.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Nell Richmond really loved her 1962 Thunderbird. She bought it new right off the car carrier back in ’62, and the Bay Area socialite and car enthusiast kept it as long as she could — 57 years to be exact.

She finally sold the car two years ago at age 92, and she made sure it went to a guy who loved the car just as much as she did. Fellow T-Bird lover Garry Grainger, of Modesto, Calif., became the lucky second owner. Grainger has since moved to the Midwest, to the tiny town of Iola, Wis., and he brought Richmond’s prized ’62 with him. He ordered “Nell 62” collector plates for the car as an ongoing salute to Richmond, who passed away earlier this year. The two shared a love of nice cars — especially the gorgeous Deep Sea Green T-Bird convertible.

“I was not looking for a car [in 2019],” admits Grainger. “At the time I was chapter president of the Northern California Vintage Thunderbird Club… I first saw this car at a West Coast regional met in Carson City, Nev., in June of 1994 and fell in love with the car. It was then as you see it now. I thought it was the most gorgeous ’62 I had ever seen. And I was talking to Nell and her husband, who owned the car, and I was kind of talking out of my hat, and I said ‘If you ever want to sell the car, let me know.’ And of course we both belonged to the same chapter of the club and we crossed paths many times over the years and we had several mutual friends also.

“In June of 2019 I got a call, ‘It’s time to sell the cars. They’ve got to go. Would you be interested in the ’62 or ’56’? — they also owned a ’56 T-Bird — and said I’d be interested in the ’62. I gave her fair market value and we were both happy because I waited a long time and I finally got my dream car!”

The tail light surrounds scream 1960s.

The tail light surrounds scream 1960s.

Grainger chuckles when he notes that he didn’t get a lot of documentation or records about the car when he acquired it. He figures he didn’t need anything — he knew about the car for so long that he had its history memorized.

“I’ve got first-hand knowledge from the original owner, because I knew her for 35-plus years,” he says. “The car was purchased new in Oakland in October of 1961, very shortly after it was built. It was built on Sept. 20th. The story I got is that she bought the car right off the carrier… and they traded in their problem-plagued ’59 Ford that was a convertible or Skyliner, I’m not sure which one. So it was a one-owner car. It was her daily car up until the late ’70s. Then when she remarried, she and her husband basically freshened the car back up: New paint, the dash pad was dyed, new carpet, the front seats were upholstered. I don’t know what else went on because there was no paperwork. This is the way it was when I first saw it in 1984.”

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Grainger has been a long-time T-Bird aficionado with some pretty high standards for the breed. He likes them all — the original two-seat “Baby Birds” from 1955-'58, the “Square Birds” from ’58-’62, and pretty much everything that came after them. But knew there was something special about the “Bullet Bird” ’62 that he just couldn’t forget.

 “I just loved the car, and I really do think it’s the color more than anything,” he says. “Deep Sea Blue … The color was what made me fall in love with it. The interior color was called Metallic Turquoise. It’s a vinyl interior, and it was basically the standard interior. But the [exterior] color is what did it for me.”

The huge calling card taillight surrounds are pretty cool, too. They scream 1960s and make the ’62 T-Birds easy to spot from almost any angle. 

“They look like afterburners when you are pulling away from a stop sign!” Grainger jokes. “They really glow at night, with the bumper chrome and everything.

“It was good enough for Perry Mason, it’s good enough for me! Perry Mason had a ’62, so did Paul Drake, the detective. They both drove them on the TV show.”

The odometer on the car shows 64,000-plus miles, and Grainger doubts the original 390-cid/340-hp V-8 and automatic transmission have ever been out of the car, although he can’t be sure.

The odometer on the car shows 64,000-plus miles, and Grainger doubts the original 390-cid/340-hp V-8 and automatic transmission have ever been out of the car, although he can’t be sure.

1961-’63: The ‘Bullet Birds’ take flight

The 1961 T-Bird was all new. Instead of corners and angles, it had smooth, curving lines. Ford’s personal-luxury car had a new chassis and a larger, more powerful engine. “To many Thunderbird owners, the greatly restyled 1961 model will look like a bird from another nest,” said Science and Mechanics magazine in December 1960. “Because this is an age of aerodynamics, high speeds and rockets, we must keep in tune with the times,” said George Walker, Ford’s vice president of styling.

The downward-curved hood seemed to be moving forward while the car was standing still. Two headlights appeared on either side and were nicely integrated into the upper edge of the grille. Gone were the “eyebrows” that shielded the 1958-1960 headlights. A swept-under grille blended in smoothly with the rest of the torpedo-shaped car. Walker said that sculpturing was dropped from the T-Bird because it added nothing to aerodynamic design.

The flip-up deck and “accordion” top mechanism

The flip-up deck and “accordion” top mechanism

Despite its departure from earlier T-Birds, the new model did have some traditional design elements, like a sloped nose and a hood scoop. The roof was fairly flat. The rear roof pillars had a “formal” T-Bird-like appearance. Although updated inside, it remained a four-place automobile with bucket seats and a center console. Short, outward-canted rear fins and round taillights were continued.

Unit construction remained a T-Bird selling point. The frame and body components were welded into an integral unit, rather than bolted together. Ford actually made the car of two unitized sections with a rigid, box-sectioned joint at the cowl area. For the first time, the T-Bird hood was hinged at the rear. It was wider than the 1960 hood, while the fenders were narrower and were bolted on to make body repairs simpler. A new, thin-pillared “straight line” windshield was seen.

Ford offered 19 different “Diamond Lustre” exterior colors and 30 two-tones (including seven reversible combinations). The “Luxury Lounge” interior came in 16 different upholstery combinations and six colors. The 25-percent-smaller center console added legroom. One new idea was gluing the rearview mirror to the windshield.

A look at the Swing-Away steering wheel moved 10 inches to make getting in and out of the car easier.

A look at the Swing-Away steering wheel moved 10 inches to make getting in and out of the car easier.

The convertible featured a fully automatic top-retracting mechanism operated by the turn of a switch on the inside of the left-hand door. The lifting mechanism and pump assembly were relocated to the quarter panels, instead of behind the seat. To raise the top, the trunk lid opened to the rear and powerful motors lifted the top, extending it nearly straight up until it lowered over the passenger compartment. This isolated the top-riser mechanism from the passengers and made top operation quieter. A drawback was a noticeable lack of storage space in the trunk when the top was folded and stored there.

The rare “M” code V-8 had a $171 dealer cost and added $242.10 to the retail price. It was truly hard to get, with a reported total of just 120 M-Code Sports Roadsters being put together.

For 1962, both T-Bird body styles carried over with the same “projectile” front end and twin-jet-tube rear design. A reworked radiator grille featured four rows of shiny metal “drawer pulls” between thin horizontal bars. Replacing the four moldings stacked on the rear fender of the ’61 model were horizontal “dashes” of ribbed chrome. Late in the spring, some cars were built with a horizontal chrome accessory strip on their body sides. The trademark large round taillights changed from 1961 and also had more chrome to dress them up. The hardtop model’s roof was again slightly on the formal side.

Replacing the four moldings stacked on the rear fender of the ’61 model were horizontal “dashes” of ribbed chrome.

Replacing the four moldings stacked on the rear fender of the ’61 model were horizontal “dashes” of ribbed chrome.

The convertible had a flip-up deck and “accordion” top mechanism that Tom McCahill joked about in "Mechanix Illustrated." 

“The first time I lowered the top, I thought the car was about to eat itself,” he said. “Deck flips open, panels unfold, the top shoots up, all to the accompaniment of a whining noise similar to launching a guided missile.”

A new Landau or Landau hardtop model featured a black or white vinyl top that looked like a leather-padded carriage top. To further this impression, it had Landau irons on the sides of its rear roof panels. Another new model called the Sports Roadster had a tonneau cover over the rear seats and Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels. The tonneau cover could be added or removed in less than three minutes. The headrest section was horseshoe-shaped and fit over the Thunderbird’s bucket seats. A quick-release catch secured it to the transmission tunnel between the front seats. Sliding it under the deck lid secured it at the rear. It was possible to raise or lower the convertible top with the tonneau in place. The seat back recessed into the headrest for a smooth, aerodynamic fit. A gap between the bottom edge of the tonneau and the rear seat let you could slide small items under the cover and onto the rear seat cushion for storage after folding the front seat forward.

The downward-curved hood seemed to be moving forward while the car was standing still.

The downward-curved hood seemed to be moving forward while the car was standing still.

T-Birds had about 45 lbs. of sound-deadening materials, including aluminum insulation, fiber or mastic felt, undercoating and fiberglass applied to the hood, wheel well housings, dashboard, passenger and trunk floors, roof panels, package tray and quarter panels. On the underbody, the zinc-coated metal had better rust-proofing including a zinc-rich coating, three coats of primer and two finish coats of “never wax” enamel. The aluminized muffler was improved and stainless-steel parts were used in some critical places in the exhaust system, such as the resonators. T-Bird engines featured revised manifolding.

There were 15 improvements to carburetors alone, plus a disposable fuel filter designed to function for 30,000 miles. A larger master cylinder was said to increase braking efficiency, while reducing pedal pressure. For better durability and fade resistance, new brake lining materials were used. T-Bird seats were low and soft. As in 1961, heater controls and a glove compartment were incorporated into the center console between the seats. A Swing-Away steering wheel moved 10 inches to make getting in and out of the car easier. It functioned only when the gear selector was in Park. In addition to the 390-cid/300-hp base V-8, a limited-edition option M-Code option was available with three progressively linked Holley two-barrel carburetors.

An “M” Roadster could move from 0 to 60 mph in approximately 8.5 seconds and hit a top speed of 125 mph. That kind of performance came with a hitch, however. Some magazine scribes gave a thumbs-down to the Bullet Birds’ brakes, accusing them of brake fade when they heated up and taking a long time to cool down and come back.

The Thunderbird emblem takes center stage on the downward sloping hood.

The Thunderbird emblem takes center stage on the downward sloping hood.

Still, the combination of good looks, advanced styling, many creature comforts, luxury appointments, and reliable performance was a winner in the early 1960s. “Ford’s plush style setter has its share of faults and shortcomings,” said "Motor Trend" Technical Editor Jim Wright. “But, it’s still the classic example of a prestige car.”

Preserving ‘Nell’s ‘62’

Nell Richmond apparently bought her beautiful ‘Bird on the spot when she first saw it at the local Oakland dealership back in the fall of ’62. Grainger isn’t sure if she knew it at the time, but there was one quirky thing about the car that still remains a mystery ’59 years later, although you can’t tell anything by looking at it.

“It’s got the cornering weights front and back, which were reserved for the Sports Roadster,” he says. The 50-lbs. steel weights were located under the bumper in front and in the corners of the trunk in back. A lot of owners wound up removing them. Convertibles typically didn’t have them. “Nobody knows why they are on there,” Grainger added. “Maybe the car before this was a Sports Roadster and hers was a mix-up. Nobody knows, but they’re on there and they are from the factory. She did not order the car. It was sent to the dealership this way and this is what she bought.”

“It’s got power steering and power brakes, which are standard; the automatic transmission and radio. The power windows and seats were extra … and I believe the fender skirts were extra. The body side molding was an option. There weren’t a whole lot of them that had it. They didn’t do it ’63 because of the body lines. Then in ’64, ’65 and ’66 they had it again.”

The odometer on the car shows 64,000-plus miles, and Grainger doubts the original 390-cid/340-hp V-8 and automatic transmission have ever been out of the car, although he can’t be sure. At some point in the late 1970s or early ’80s the T-Bird had some restoration work done to it, “but I don’t know how extensive anything was. I know the car looks wonderful underneath and under the hood looks really good, too, so I don’t exactly know how far they went. I know all the body was stripped and all the trim was removed. They had new rubbers put in I’m sure at that time, I’m sure.

“She didn’t drive the car all that much. She got a ’56 probably in the ‘80s, which she preferred. When I went over to talk to Nell, she had new tires put on it and had it tuned up and then parked it. And at that point it sat for 2, 2 ½ years …”

So far, Grainger says he hasn’t had to do anything to his beautiful ’62 other than keep it clean and give it exercise. He doesn’t view either job as a chore. 

“You don’t go for a Sunday drive, you go motoring. It’s just a joy to drive,” he says. “I went to a show just this last week, and I was on the highway, and the car just floated. It’s just a fun car to drive. The thumbs up from people … it’s something that catches people’s attention and a lot of people enjoy.”

Grainger with "Big Bird"

Grainger with "Big Bird"

Before he left with her car, had made sure Richmond knew he had no plans to ever re-sell it. 

“I did tell Nell when I picked it up that I hoped to have it as long as she did, but I know that’s not possible. I told her I plan on keeping it as long as I can possibly maintain it.”

He made one other promise, too.

“She called the car ‘Big Bird.’ Her ’56 she called ‘Little Bird.’ And she said, ‘I don’t know if Big Bird is going to like the snow.’ I said, ‘Trust me, that car is never going to see the snow.’”

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