- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

The first of what would become known as "baby birds" burst upon the 1955 automotive scene in the form of a two-seat Ford Thunderbird.
Ford's response to the Corvette, started in 1953, had a long engine hood and a short deck. The 1955 Thunderbird attracted buyers by the droves. Thunderbird designers maintained the Ford imprint on the new "personal car" by using standard Ford taillights and backup light assemblies as well as headlight bezels. Inside the cockpit standard Ford hands, knobs and gauges were used in abundance.
There was no doubt this car was a Ford, but a Ford like no other that had come before.
Since the dual exhaust pipes exited through the body above the bumper, and the spare tire was in the already small trunk, complaints were received about the lack of trunk space.
The 1956 Thunderbird addressed those problems by having the dual exhaust pipes exit through slots at the corners of the bumper and hanging the spare tire off the rear in a Continental kit.
In autoland, improvements come each year. The third and final "baby bird" differed from the first two. The 1957 Thunderbird received a front bumper/grille combination. The trunk-space/spare-tire problem was solved by placing the spare back inside the trunk and enlarging the trunk by extending it to the rear. Canted tail fins, mimicking those on standard Fords accented the lengthened deck. The dual exhaust pipes still exited through a restyled bumper for 1957.
The next year, when the four-seat "square birds" were introduced, the "baby birds" thundered into history.
A decade later Eileen Triplett's mother, Pat, bought the first of her 14 "baby birds" and brought it home to Bonita, Calif.
Mrs. Triplett, an elementary school-age girl at the time, remembers her mother's Thunderbirds. "The first one was white," she said, "followed by a bronze one."
After her mother joined the local Thunderbird club, regular Thunderbird outings became a part of Mrs. Triplett's girlhood experience.
The trips in Thunderbird caravans became commonplace, as did the parade of Thunderbirds in her mother's life. Her mother became quite adept at restoring the old Thunderbirds.
"One of those Thunderbirds," Mrs. Triplett recalls, "was the first car I drove over 90."
Mrs. Triplett's mother stayed in Southern California with her Thunderbirds when her daughter married John Triplett. The Tripletts now call South Riding, Va., home.
In 1990 Mrs. Triplett's mother bought a red 1957 Thunderbird that had seen better days. Without hesitation, she pulled the Fordomatic transmission and 312-cubic-inch V-8 sent them out to be overhauled.
Everything that was bent was straightened, and anything that was rusty was cut out and replaced with new steel.
By 1996 the old red T-bird was a gleaming white with a black and white interior. Out of sight was a rebuilt 245-horsepower engine and a rebuilt transmission.
It wasn't on the maiden run, but soon thereafter, that Mrs. Triplett's mother, driving the fresh T-bird bent the right front corner.
After much gnashing of teeth she decided to do a frame-off restoration. It wasn't that difficult since the drivetrain had already been done.
A year and a half later the Thunderbird was better than new. Of course the restoration cost more than the $3,408 base price it sold for in 1957.
The 15-foot, 5-inch-long car weighs 3,145 pounds and rides on a 102-inch wheelbase supported by 7.50x14-inch tires.
Ground clearance is 5.9 inches, and the car stands only 2 inches more than 4 feet high.
In those pre-alternator days a generator kept the 12-volt electrical system charged.
Atop the mighty Thunderbird V-8 engine is a four-barrel Holley carburetor drawing fuel from the 20-gallon gasoline tank to feed the thirsty engine. The engine temperature is kept under control by the 21 quarts of coolant circulating within.
The canted tail fins, which end over the 8-inch-diameter wagon-wheel taillights with a backup light in the center, actually start on the door with the leading edge of the fin, wrapping around the door handle.
All the "baby birds" sported fender skirts, a feature not normally associated with sporty cars. Without them, however, the cars seem incomplete. A chrome gravel guard on the leading edge helps protect the paint on the skirt.
In the black-and-white cockpit in the black, padded dashboard is a upscale town and country radio with five push buttons in addition to the sixth "off" button.
Turning the black deep dish safety three-spoke steering wheel is made easier with the power assist option.
Bringing the sleek Thunderbird to a swift, sure stop is guaranteed because on the brake pedal is inscribed "Swift Sure Ford Power Brakes."
The happy surprise for Mrs. Triplett came last Christmas when she opened the gift from her mother. Inside were the keys to the white 1957 Thunderbird.
A few months elapsed while making transportation arrangements. The 18-wheel truck pulled up in front of Mrs. Triplett's suburban Loudoun County house one midsummer evening about 6:30.
Mrs. Triplett didn't know how popular she was until the 1957 Thunderbird was rolled off the truck. The car is a people magnet, especially when that distinctive rumble comes tumbling out the exhaust pipes once the engine is started.
The rebuilt car is essentially new. The rebuilt engine has yet to be driven 3,000 miles. So far it has been driven to a few local antique automobile shows, although it's difficult for many people to envision such a modern-appearing car being an antique.
Additionally, on sunny days with absolutely no clouds in sight, Mrs. Triplett will drive her mother's handiwork to her job at E.Y.T., a systems integrator, in nearby Chantilly.
The downside is that productivity suffers on such days on the side of the building overlooking the parking lot with her Thunderbird.

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