- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

When Ford Motor Co. announced that the 1957 Thunderbird was to be the last two-seater, the orders poured in, a total of 21,380. The last of the “baby birds” was about a foot longer than the first one in 1955. Each one had a base price of $3,408.

One of those 1957 Thunderbirds left the factory wearing a coat of Colonial White with a complementary interior of Star Mist and Dresden Blue. It was sent to San Diego, where a woman there found it so appealing that she decided she had to have it. It came with a relatively rare “E-Bird” package, which included a twin four-barrel carburetor arrangement atop the 312-cubic-inch V-8 engine.

After about a dozen years in the rust-free climate of Southern California, she sold her Thunderbird to her nephew who was a pilot for Eastern Airlines. In the mid-1970s he, in turn, sold the car to an Allegheny Airlines pilot. A decade later, in 1986, yet another pilot entered the picture. The owner of the car asked Bob Hartig, then a pilot for US Airways, whether he would be interested in the Thunderbird.

“It was an opportune moment,” Mr. Hartig says. “I couldn’t get my money out fast enough.”

When he purchased the car, it had been painted a Midnight Blue Metallic. He took it home to McLean, Va., where it sat under cover for about 10 years.

Eventually, Mr. Hartig retired from flying DC-9s and found the time to devote to getting his Thunderbird back on the road. He saw that the blue paint was cracking so he had the car stripped down, happily finding no body damage or rust, and resprayed it in the original white. While that was being accomplished, both bumpers were sent off to be replated with chrome.

The Thunderbird rests on a reinforced X-frame. “You could plow snow with that thing,” Mr. Hartig says.

When he acquired the 3,324-pound car, it had only a single four-barrel carburetor. But Mr. Hartig has had it restored to the way it was first manufactured, delivering 270 horsepower. He explained that the two carburetors work in tandem, which means his gas mileage is 10 mpg or less. “The Arabs must love me,” he says. The gas tank has a 20-gallon capacity.

Mr. Hartig’s Thunderbird came well-equipped with power assisted:

• Seats.

• Brakes.

• Steering.

• Windows.

In the late 1950s, Ford was aggressively promoting safety features but the motoring public at the time was not buying. Consequently, Ford installed a lot of the safety items on the cars as standard equipment. The “Lifeguard Design” features on Mr. Hartig’s Thunderbird include:

• Double-door lock.

• Padded sun visor.

• Padded dashboard.

• Deep dish steering wheel.

The car did not come with the optional seat belts but it does have an adjustable telescopic steering column.

Riding on a 102-inch wheelbase supported by 14-inch wheels, the Thunderbird has only a 5.9-inch ground clearance. The short wheelbase makes a 36-foot turning diameter possible.

The car was delivered to Mr. Hartig with no convertible top, only a hardtop without the portholes that so many T-bird tops have. The removable hardtop has a “Bone White” headliner. The 72.8-inch-wide car stands 51.6-inches high.

The 1957 Thunderbird has the same canted fins on the rear fenders as the standard Ford sedan. The fins conclude in the big, round taillights with a backup light in the center of the lens. Below the tail lights are the slots in the bumper where the exhaust escapes.

On the right side of the low, wide trunk the spare tire stands, almost upright.

External wind vents help ventilate the cockpit as well as vents on the sides of the front fenders.

The Thunderbird was once more roadworthy in June 2006. “It’s a bird,” Mr. Hartig says, “it’s got to fly.”