Mike Mill has the best possible reason for having held onto his 1965 Thunderbird for nearly four decades.
“It belonged to my dad,” he explained. “It was the last car he owned and so it was a memory. Back after he passed away, I missed him and I thought, ‘I’d like to have something of his.’ It was all deteriorated from sitting and I thought, ‘I’ll get it all fixed up.’ And I was looking for a car to fix up. I was still living at home and my mother said, ‘Why don’t you take your dad’s old car and fix it up?’”
Personal luxury evolves
Even without the family connection, the car would’ve been a good choice as the Thunderbird by 1965 had comfortably settled into its place the Ford lineup. That hadn’t happened overnight, of course, but the loosely defined group of personal luxury cars to which it belongs can be traced back to the immediate prewar era when Chrysler launched its 1941 Town and Country. Other woodies of the time took on a reverse status of sorts by implying that their owners must also have nicer cars for important occasions, but the new Chrysler wagon with its sedan-like styling instead qualified as “the nicer car.”
The Town and Country was continued for 1942, the model year that was cut short by World War II, but it returned for 1946. Still a woodie, it was now available as a sedan or convertible and even a few coupes were built, thus leaving little doubt as to the buyer it was targeting. Nash saw that, decided that a similar wood-bodied sedan of its own was the perfect response and introduced its 1946 Suburban, an Ambassador sedan with its four doors, quarters and trunk built of wood. Ford Motor Co. also was unable to resist and countered with its 1946 Sportsman, a convertible with wood in its doors, quarters and trunk initially available as a Ford or Mercury.
All were expensive and because of the very wood that made them so attractive, they were also maintenance-intensive. Also like conventional woodie wagons, they were gradually dropped. Only the Chryslers survived into the first true postwar bodies, but by the mid-1950s, automotive tastes were changing as performance grew more important. General Motors had begun that trend with its modern V-8s from Cadillac and Oldsmobile in 1949 and Chrysler had followed up with its 1951 V-8 with hemispherical combustion chambers. Chevrolet had taken a different tack with its six-cylinder Corvette of 1953. The Cadillac Eldorado that had been introduced in 1953 as a luxury-performance car found itself with serious competition from Packard’s Caribbean, now with a new V-8, as Chrysler reversed the priorities with its performance-luxury car, the 300. Even Studebaker had gotten into the act with its 1955 President Speedster two-door hardtop.
Ford saw things differently than all of them and introduced a two-passenger convertible available only with a V-8, the 1955 Thunderbird. Its competitor from Chevrolet added a V-8 option that year, but the two were less alike than their identical 102-in. wheelbases made them seem. Both were capable performers and certainly fun to drive, but the Corvette was a more Spartan sports car while the Thunderbird was a more civilized luxury car. The Corvette was redesigned for 1956 to better fight with the Thunderbird, but the two continued side by side only until 1958, when the Thunderbird became a four-passenger model.
Thunderbird inspires its imitators
Like its predecessor, the 1958 Thunderbird was undeniably a Ford product with its distinct family resemblance. It had its niche almost completely to itself. Later referred to as the “Squarebird” because of its angular styling, advertising called it “America’s most individual car,” a description that wasn’t totally wrong even if it did fail to account for the Studebaker Gold Hawk and its almost-twin, the Packard Hawk. The two were roughly comparable in size to the Thunderbird and seeking the same buyers, but the Thunderbird had Ford’s might behind it. The Packard Hawk wouldn’t return for 1959, and the Golden Hawk’s descendants would last only into 1964, two years before Studebaker ended production.
Studebaker’s personal luxury coupe was simply a Hawk when a new Thunderbird arrived for 1961 and brought clean, mostly rounded styling that broke completely from the previous body with the exception of a roof design that somehow translated perfectly from the old look to the new one. So attractive was it that a very similar design appeared on what was now the Gran Turismo Hawk in 1962. Ford had more to worry about, though, as GM openly entered the battle via Buick’s 1963 Riviera, a new model following the approach used by Thunderbird in 1958. The 1964 arrival of Thunderbird’s next generation helped it compete against the Buick and advertising made the accurate statement that “the look is new — yet the look is so typically Thunderbird.” It was, in fact, less like its predecessor than it was like a softened version of the Squarebird and was only mildly updated for 1965.
The Corvette, of course, had remained true to its original purpose as a sports car and was no longer a competitor, but the Thunderbird had remained equally true to the personal-luxury role it had assumed with the Squarebird. It was now a touring car with room for passengers, room for luggage and more than enough performance to handle a long trip. The original owner of Mill’s car bought it for just that reason at what was then Wayne Motors in Honesdale, Pa., not far from Mill’s home.
Falling for a Thunderbird
“He bought it brand new,” Mill said, “and he drove it to Florida several times. That’s how it ended up with quite a few miles.”
The first owner kept it for about five years before Mill’s father bought it.
“After he passed away,” Mill said, “it sat three years kind of half over a bank. I was looking for a hobby, an old car to fix up.”
At first, he wasn’t sure about his mother’s suggestion that he consider the Thunderbird.
“I said, ‘That needs a lot of work,’” he recalled. “I started in, putting spark plugs in it. I was thinking, ‘Do I even want to spend the money on spark plugs? Will this car run?’ And the rest is history. I think God was with me, helping me fix it up.”
The money spent on the spark plugs wasn’t wasted, as it did run, and the Thunderbird proved to have survived at least fairly well. Mill said the initial work included new brake lines and a new carburetor, as well as seals and weather stripping to address leaks. A parts car helped and minor bodywork and painting followed, he said, while the drivetrain needed nothing. But 39 years and the 129,000 miles now showing on the odometer bring up a point that might not come quickly to mind.
“That’s a long time to own a car,” Mill said, “and some of the things I’ve done? I’ve actually had to start doing over again.”
He’d just driven it about a half-hour to the Wayne-Pike Region AACA Show in Hamlin, Pa., but said there’s no reason that he couldn’t take it on a longer trip.
“It’s very comfortable,” he said. “The seats are the foam that they used then. It’s very comfortable, it rides nice, it handles nice.”
And it’s not likely to blend into the background. The car draws attention at a gas stop, Mill said, adding that a surprising number of those who see it easily recognize it and make a good guess on its year.
“A lot of people do know it’s a Thunderbird,” he explained. “I would say a percentage, maybe 60 to 70 percent, will come close, pretty close. Some will say is, ‘This a ’66 Thunderbird?’ A lot of them will say that. Same body style.”
He’s accustomed to that, given the time he’s been driving the Thunderbird, and there’s no reason that anything’s going to change.
“It’s just that it’s been in the family all these years,” he observed, “and having it this long is kind of extraordinary. People say, ‘I’m going to sell this and try to get a little money back out and try to get something else.’ But it’s a family car and then, too, all the stuff I did? I don’t want to just start over on something else.”
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