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Cruising Memory Lane With the Top Down

. . . And she'll have fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes the T-Bird away. --the Beach Boys, 1964

March 20, 1997|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

And didn't we have fun.

When we were in Vietnam, my fighter-pilot buddy talked with more passion about the white 1961 Thunderbird convertible he left back home than the girl he left behind.

Could be that's why the marriage crashed and burned, and 30 years later he is sometimes sleepless in Torrance--and rebuilding a second white, 1961 Thunderbird convertible.

I also knew this bloke in England who considered a 1956 T-Bird his mechanical love object. He built a fleet of glue-nubby Birds from plastic kits by Revell. He knew that once upon his future in America, he would own one.

Bing Crosby cut early Thunderbird commercials. Suzanne Somers and a T-Bird cruising "American Graffiti" stretched beyond our wildest acne fantasies. Humphrey Bogart bought a T-Bird because Clark Gable owned one because it looked great parked alongside his Jaguar XK120.

Barbie drove a 1955 T-Bird in peach blossom pink before switching allegiances to a Chevrolet Corvette, Jeep Wrangler, '57 Chevy Bel Air and a Mustang. Convertibles all, because kids would have great difficulty cramming her mile-long legs without knees into a Chrysler Cordoba. (Barbie also went through a Jaguar phase, avoiding the UAW's wrath by driving her XK120 only in Canada and Europe.)

And wasn't it Bob Seger and his Silver Bullets yodeling about them days when we wuz making T-Birds?

Clearly, among all compulsive-obsessive romances Americans have suffered with their automobiles, only the Corvette, Barbie's Mustang, certainly Volkswagen's Beetle and maybe Cadillacs with fins and mammary bumpers, share the hots we hold for the Thunderbird. At least in its early, sexier and mostly two-seater years.

Now we are estranged.

Big Daddy Ford has announced that after 42 years, 11 generations and 4 million cars, he is taking our T-Bird away. Sales are stuck in reverse. The car has gone from roadster to sedan, from coupe to land yacht, from tweed-upholstered mid-size to leather-lined luxury car, always chasing market twitchings until it drowned in identity crises.

Yet all may not be lost.

Ford is hinting that after a short breather to regain its senses, the Bird will fly again. Bet that the 12th iteration will not be aimed at the eroding luxury market. Be assured--and as assuredly as no car will ever wear the name Edsel--the T-Bird will be reduced to its original size and returned to inaugural agility, sportiness and ragtop mischief.

And more fun, fun, fun.

Such as the short list of a long roster of 5,000 suggestions for first naming the car: Hep Cat, Fordster, Coronado and Roadrunner.

Or the winning entry from Ford stylist Al Giberson, who once worked in Arizona and knew his Navajo lore and the mythology of an enormous bird delivering thunder, lightning and rain. The early Birds sprung severe leaks in sales of Chevrolet's competing Corvette, which might explain the rain bit. Giberson, meanwhile, won a $95 suit with two pairs of pants from Saks, and the rest of the day off.

(It may be quite beside the point to mention there also are Thunderbird badminton racquets, pool tables, clocks, dinghies, guitars, overcoats, linoleum and an inexpensive wine sometimes known as Chateau Skid Row.)

One of the first Thunderbird owners--actually purchasing the fourth roadster off the line--was Ford's former district manager in Philadelphia: Lee Iacocca.

And the executive who made the decision to dump the two-seater and go for size that eventually bloated the T-Bird into a four-door barge? He left Ford to make even riskier calls on mightier strategies in Vietnam: Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

*

Frankly, losing the last of the Thunderbirds is no great loss. For in such numbers--and by their undistinguished modern styling--the Squarebirds and Bigbirds stirred no more lust than a Chevy Corsica. But the 1955-'57 two-seaters and the larger, dramatic, even more radical machines of the early '60s were to drool for.

Such as the white, 1961 Thunderbird convertible owned by my pal Dave Elliott, now an aerospace engineer with Rockwell.

"I don't think that it was a matter of the car being so damned special in 1961," Elliott says. "It was more that I was so damned special in 1961.

"Sheese. I was a hot-blooded, steely-eyed, beer-drinking fighter pilot and everybody knew that hot-blooded, steely-eyed beer-drinking fighter pilots drive convertibles."

He bought his T-Bird in June 1961 and was married by January 1962. The two events may well be related.

Then Vietnam. The dream Elliott flew with, the freedom he might have been protecting, he says, was all mixed up with that convertible and once more cruising Main on summer nights with a beer and Betty Alice.

Elliott subsequently traded the T-Bird on a Mustang, and was divorced soon afterward. And those two events may well be related.

Now there is a new Bird in his life. It was a chassis and an engine and parts in boxes bought for $4,500 from a classic car peddler in Richmond, Ill. Last week, the T-Bird was back on its wheels, 85% restored and drivable.

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