By Vern Parker
When introduced to the public, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird was an immediate sales success. The only negatives that Ford heard were the blind spots when the hard top was in place and a trunk that wasn’t large enough to hold two sets of golf clubs.
Those woes were addressed with the 1956 Thunderbird featuring a hard top with a round porthole on each side. To make space in the trunk, the 6.70×15-inch spare tire was hung off the rear of the car. The dual exhaust pipes were redirected from exiting through the trunk and out the valance above the rear bumper to exiting through slots at the corners of the rear bumper, avoiding the trunk altogether. Only 15,631 Thunderbirds were built in 1956. Each one weighed 3,038 pounds and carried a base price of $3,151.
Not long after these new models were first on the street, a motorist in a Fiesta Red 1956 Thunderbird drove up to the used car lot owned by Bill Burnette. The Ford owner wanted to trade his T-Bird in on a 1955 Cadillac. Burnette accommodated his customer and then drove the red Thunderbird as his personal car for several years. He sold it in 1965.
Many years later Burnette saw an ad offering a black 1956 Thunderbird for sale. “It looked OK,” Burnette says, “but it was a sad case.” Despite the shortcomings, he bought the car with 96,000 miles on the odometer and drove the strikingly handsome black Thunderbird for about a year while evaluating what to do with it.
After removing the body from the frame and disassembling everything down to the last nut and bolt, Burnette changed his mind. “I’m going to make a new car out of this,” he decided.
Then it was only a question of how long restoration would take. The 312-cubic-inch engine was overhauled so it could once more generate 225 horsepower. The Fordomatic transmission and rear axle were overhauled, too, returning to “like new” condition.
Additionally, the floor of the trunk had rusted away. Burnette replaced the trunk floor with healthy rust-free metal along with a new 16-gallon gas tank. The front fenders, with vents on the sides, were laboriously straightened and both rear quarter panels were replaced.
“I held every nut and bolt on the car in my hands,” Burnette says. “If it wasn’t chrome or stainless steel, I painted it.” While he was restoring the mechanical and body parts of the car, the chrome parts were sent off for replating.
Behind the wraparound windshield is the see-through speedometer, which records speeds up to 150 mph. A tachometer and a clock anchor both sides of the speedometer, along with a turn signal flashing light. The sun visors are padded, as is the dashboard, although the black padding is paper thin.
A signal-seeking AM radio is mounted in the dashboard. The carpeting is black while the door panels and bench seat are black and white leather. The seat is a power four-way unit with controls on the door. The power window control is positioned lower on the door. The deep-dish three-spoke safety steering wheel is telescopic. Around the hub is the legend “Master Guide Power Steering.”
Before reassembly, Burnette had the frame dipped in a chemical bath. He then washed and scrubbed the double-box X-frame before he painted the entire unit black. Reassembling the Thunderbird, he electrically welded each piece to meet or exceed Ford’s specifications and then leaded the seams.
Burnette painted the Thunderbird using enamel paint because that’s what Ford used in 1956 and he wanted his car to be authentic. There was no question as to what the color had to be. “Black is the way Ford made it. That’s the way I did it,” he says. “I rubbed on the paint for three months to achieve this sheen,” Burnette adds.
If there were not a small door in the trunk lid, filling the gas tank would require opening the trunk. Tilting the Continental-style spare tire rearward exposes the door in the trunk lid for the gas cap. The taillight units are identical to the 1956 Ford sedan with backup lights above the taillights. Likewise, the wheel covers are the same ones used on the Ford Fairlane models.
Burnette says the car handled well at 70 mph during a 500-mile trip. “It’s a good cruising speed,” he affirms. Burnette concedes, “I guess I’ve put together a good package.”
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