BRINGING UP BABY

THE EARLY THUNDERBIRDS WERE FORD’S SHORT-LIVED ATTEMPT TO BUILD A EUROPEAN-STYLE LUXURY TWO-SEATER SPORTS CAR

STORY GEOFF SEDDON PHOTO SELLEN DE WAR

THIS 1956 FORD THUNDERBIRD WAS TRANSFORMED FROM TIP-FILL TO A FINE-HANDLING 455HP ROAD ROCKET IN LESS THAN A YEAR

WELL, it looks pretty darn good in the photos, but this stunning turquoise 1956 Ford Thunderbird very nearly didn’t happen. “It wasn’t much of a car when I got it,” owner Vince Santoro says. “I was ready to send it to the tip on a tow truck.”

Vince has been into cars since he got a panel-beating apprenticeship nearly 40 years ago. In the time since, he’s owned a long list of muscle cars, all of them Fords. Until now, it was the Aussie stuff that caught his fancy, but he figured it was time to get into some American metal.

He wasn’t particularly fussed which model, but then this ’56 T-bird popped up on eBay. “I just like to find something that’s worth building, as long as it’s a Ford,” he says.

The ’56 is the pick of the Thunderbirds, he reckons. All the ’55-’57 ‘Baby Birds’ are special. They were Ford’s short-lived attempt to build a Europeanstyle luxury sports car, but were very expensive and not big sellers – just 50,000 over three years – prompting the factory to relaunch the model as a full-size four-seat roadster (aka the ‘Big Bird’) in 1958. Like many first models, the ’55 was a bit underdone, and by 1957 had added some fat, which makes the ’56 the one. It was cheap and close by, so Vince took a punt.

Vince owns American Graffiti Auto Body & Custom Garage in Clayton, Victoria. A close inspection of his new project revealed a deadly mish-mash of poor earlier body repairs. The sensible alternative was to cut his losses, but ego intervened. “It was a pretty sorry car when we got it and we weren’t sure if we were going to go ahead with it,” Vince says. “Then people said: ‘You won’t be able to fix that!’ And I thought, okay, we’ll show you how we can fix it!” It was like a red rag to a bull. Not only did he show them what he could do, he did it in record time – less than a year from go to ‘wow’!

The car was stripped and mounted on a rotisserie to expose all its bodily sins. Many of the replacement panels and other parts were sourced from the US, with the American Graffiti crew attending to the rest in-house, including line-perfect bodywork. “Panel gaps were all over the place when these cars were new,” Vince says. “We just did everything better to make it a better car.”

The key to such a quick build lay in tapping into the enormous US aftermarket industry. “You could practically build a new car from parts in the States,” Vince says. MAC’s Antique Auto Parts was especially helpful; an early Ford specialist selling everything from guards and doors to exterior trim and upholstery for everything from Model As to Falcons and Galaxies.

American Graffiti specialises in both restoration and custom work, and Vince’s baby is a combination of both. To offer up extra boot space back in 1956, the spare tyre was carried externally under a continental kit-style cover over the rear bumper, but Vince preferred the less cluttered rear styling of the ’55. This required cutting and extending the rear bumper, so Vince took the opportunity to also hide the front and rear bumper mounting bolts while he was at it for a much cleaner look. Similarly, the colour is from 1955 – the ’56 equivalent was more a dirty green, Vince says – but boosted to make it brighter during the day and to flip between green and blue at night. The car carries its full complement of badges and external trim, all reproduction parts sourced from the US.

T-birds came with a choice of collapsible soft- or removable hardtops, and Vince is no fan of either, as both are notorious for marking the paint behind the cabin. He has a soft-top stowed away but watches the weather like a hawk, with the intention of never having to use it. Apart from that, the car is regularly driven, including to local shows, where it’s making a habit of winning People’s Choice awards.

Wheels are REV Classics purchased from Canterbury Old School Wheels & Tyres in Bayswater, Victoria. “I just wanted to find the right wheels to suit the car,” Vince says. “I was looking to run 15s with bigger tyres and tried hundreds of different styles before I found these ones. Unfortunately they came only in 17s, but [with lower-profile tyres] they’re the same height and the rolling diameter is the same.”

Interior trim was also sourced in the US, including loop-pile carpet, interior brightwork and even the peacock vinyl seat upholstery, which came precut and ready to fit in-house. Subtle custom touches include a USB and iPhone-compatible 300W Pioneer stereo behind the OEM radio fascia and a 15-inch replica steering wheel in place of the 18-inch original. Baby Birds were targeted at women, Vince says, making the tiller a tight fit against a working man’s belly. The replica wheel solves the problem without detracting from the authentic 50s vibe.

Running gear is anything but stock, with a lusty 337-cube 455hp Ford Y-block V8 built from the original 312ci 225hp mill and brimming with go-fast gear from Californian Y-block specialist John Mummert. “The engine was built by my good friend Enio Marrocco at Martello Automotive Services in Ferntree Gully,” Vince says. “We spoke to John Mummert in the States and went with what he suggested.” This included Mummert aluminium cylinder heads, alloy intake manifold, performance conrods and tuned close-fitting extractors.

Carburettor is a 750cfm Holley double-pumper, the solid camshaft is from Isky, and Performance Ignition supplied the sparks.

“It’s a bit of a sleeper,” Vince says. “We haven’t had a problem since Enio

THE EARLY THUNDERBIRDS WERE FORD’S SHORT-LIVED ATTEMPT TO BUILD A EUROPEAN-STYLE LUXURY TWO-SEATER SPORTS CAR

put it together, and it starts first time. It cruises well, but put your foot down and you know about it!”

There was no way the hoary ol’ two-speed Fordomatic transmission was going to cope with 455hp so, on John Mummert’s recommendation, Vince went with a kitted C4 with 3500rpm stall using a Mummert bellhousing and ring gear. The stall speed sounds high until you remember that’s the lock-up revs on full noise at the drag strip; it operates much lower on the street. Diff is a locally sourced nine-inch driven by a custom-fabricated tailshaft.

We asked Vince if, with that much stomp on board, he was tempted to race it.

“They wouldn’t let me because it doesn’t have a rollbar,” he says of the one time he fronted the scrutineering bay at Calder Park. But drag racing wasn’t why he built it, so no big deal. More important is how it steers and handles on the road.

Front springs were cut two inches and re-tempered before being matched to Pedders SportsRyder dampers, while the rear leaf springs were remanufactured and damped with Bilstein gas shocks. A stabiliser bar was also added to the front end, and front brakes replaced with Wilwood four-spot calipers and rotors, sourced directly from Wilwood as a specific conversion kit to suit Thunderbirds. Rear brakes are XF Falcon drums.

Vince contemplated converting the steering to rack-and-pinion but found a simpler, equally effective solution. “I got rid of the power steering and the standard box is beautiful,” he says, aided by the Thunderbird’s mid-engine design, which locates the engine between the axles rather than over the front.

“I thought I’d see what it was like. If it was no good, I’d convert it, but it’s great the way it is. It rides and corners really well.”

Vince is thinking about a ’55-’56 Ford pick-up next. “I’ve seen them around, I think I could do something with one of those.” But for now, you have to love how this Thunderbird came together: Find (by chance) an iconic model ready for the tip. Make the decision – do I or don’t I? Hit the internet to connect with specialist suppliers in America who know these cars and engines better than their mothers, then put it together with quality Aussie craftsmanship. Give the engine more stomp than it will ever need, then ensure it handles and stops like a bought one. Priceless. s

VINCE SANTORO 1956 FORD THUNDERBIRD

Paint: De Beers Turquoise Solid

ENGINE

Type: Ford 312ci Y-block Capacity: 337ci Builder: Enio Marracco Inlet manifold: Mummert alloy Heads: Mummert aluminium Carburettor: Holley 750 Camshaft: Isky, 302 duration, .520 lift Pistons: Forged flat-tops, 60thou over Conrods: Mummert with ARP Wave-Loc bolts Valves: Mummert 1.94in inlet, 1.54in exhaust Crankshaft: Standard Cooling: Externally stock, modified with four-core innards and thermo Ignition: Performance Ignition, MSD leads and coil

TRANSMISSION

Gearbox: Ford C4 with shift kit Bellhousing: Mummert Stall: 3500rpm Tailshaft: Custom Diff: Ford nine-inch

BENEATH

Up front: Lowered springs with Pedders SportsRyder dampers; stabiliser bar Down back: Remanufactured leaf springs, Bilstein gas dampers Brakes: Wilwood four-spots (f), XF drums (r)

ROLLING STOCK

Wheels: REV; 17x7 (f), 17x8 (r) Tyres: Summo; 205/50 (f), 235/50 (r)

IT’S A BIT OF A SLEEPER; IT CRUISES WELL, BUT PUT YOUR FOOT DOWN AND YOU KNOW ABOUT IT!