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1955 Ford thundering into new century

- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

About 18 years ago, Bob Hartig loaned a friend enough money for him to purchase a 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Six months later, with bankruptcy looming over his friend, Mr. Hartig took possession of the Raven Black Thunderbird in lieu of the cash he was owed.

In the spring of 1991, he drove his prize to his McLean home. The odometer read 51,000 miles.

Ford Motor Co. was wildly successful when the first Thunderbird was introduced in 1955. A total of 16,155 cars were built that first year. The base price was $2,944 for the two-seater that was a mere 14-feet, 5.5-inches long.

Mr. Hartig believes that his low mileage T-Bird was originally sold in North Carolina. It weighs 3,232 pounds which is easily propelled by the 292-cubic-inch Thunderbird V-8 engine that develops 198 horsepower. Fuel from the 17-gallon gas tank is fed to the engine via a four-barrel carburetor.

The crankcase holds six quarts of oil and the capacity of the cooling system is 21 quarts.

To augment the view to the rear offered by the interior mirror, the car is equipped with a pair of outside mirrors. Mr. Hartig quickly points out, "You can't even see the right one."

The Thunderbird is much wider (71.3 inches) than it is tall (52.2 inches). With a 102-inch wheelbase it has a turning diameter of only 36 feet.

The 6.70x15-inch tires support the car with 5.5 inches of ground clearance. The low profile of the car necessitates mounting the apre tire horizontally inside the trunk.

There is a small door in the trunk lid which permits access to the gas cap without opening the trunk lid.

As on other more conventional 1955 Ford models the backup lights are directly above the taillights. The dual exhaust pipes exit above the rear bumper through the body.

With trunk space consumed by the spare tire, gas tank filler neck and the two exhaust pipes the cargo capacity is limited.

Extra cost accessories on Mr. Hartig's Thunderbird include:

• Fordomatic........$215.00.

• 8-Tube radio........105.00.

• Power steering......91.40.

• Magic-Aire heater...83.90.

• White sidewall tires..35.00.

• Fender skirts........26.90.

• Tinted glass..........23.13.

• Engine dress-up kit..21.50.

• Turn indicator.......15.26.

Evidently the original owner decided against getting power brakes, power windows, windshield washers or full wheel covers, thereby saving $128.08.

Inside the cozy cockpit is a foam rubber full-width black and white vinyl-covered bench seat sporting a pattern that suggests bucket seats. On the carpeted driveshaft hump is the automatic transmission gear selector. From the front to the rear the gears are Park-Reverse-Neutral-Drive-Low. "The car starts only in neutral," Mr. Hartig notes.

A two-spoke steering wheel with a 180-degree horn ring is attached to the telescopic steering column.

When in the driver's seat Mr. Hartig says forward visibility is superb through the wraparound one-piece windshield. The "see-through" speedometer can register speeds up to 150 mph. Unusual for American cars of that era, the T-Bird came equipped with a tachometer.

The odometer is approaching 58,000 miles -an average of less than 500 miles a year since Mr. Hartig acquired it in 1991.

"The car has been good in the 17 years that I've had it," the satisfied owner says.