- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

When introduced to the motoring public, the two-seat 1955 Thunderbird was an immediate sales success.
About the only complaint Ford heard regarded blind spots when the hard top was in place and, more importantly, the trunk could not hold two sets of golf clubs.
Those two consumer woes were quickly addressed with the 1956 Thunderbird featuring a hardtop with a round porthole on each side. To make space in the trunk the 6.70x15-inch spare tire was hung off the rear of the car a la Continental style. The dual exhaust pipes were redirected from exiting through the trunk and out the valance above the rear bumper as on the 1955 model to exiting through slots at the corners of the rear bumper, avoiding the trunk altogether.
Both visibility and cargo capacity were improved in the 1956 Thunderbird.
Not long after the 1956 Thunderbirds were on the street a motorist in a fiesta red 1956 Thunderbird drove up to the used car lot in Arlington, Va., owned by Bill Burnette. He wanted to trade his T-Bird in on a 1955 Cadillac. Mr. Burnette accommodated the customer and then drove the red Thunderbird as his personal car for several years, eventually selling it in 1965 much to the dismay of his daughter Karen.
Sixteen years passed before Mr. Burnette saw an ad offering a black 1956 Thunderbird for sale in Potomac.
"It looked OK," Mr. Burnette said, "but it was a sad case." Despite its shortcomings he bought the car in the summer of 1981 with 96,000 miles on the odometer.
Mr. Burnette drove the black Thunderbird for about a year while evaluating what to do with the strikingly handsome car.
Only 15,631 thunderbirds were built in 1956. Each one weighted 3,038 pounds and carried a base price of $3,151. The car has a 102-inch wheelbase.
After removing the body from the frame and disassembling everything down to the last nut and bolt, he changed his mind. "I'm going to make a new car out of this," Mr. Burnette determined.
Once that was settled, it was only a question of how long it would take.
The 312-cubic-inch engine was pulled and overhauled so it could once more generate 225 horsepower.
The Ford-o-matic transmission and rear axle also were overhauled, returning to "like new" condition.
After inspecting all the various body parts, he suspects the car had been hit from time to time. Additionally, the floor of the trunk was rusted away.
Mr. 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. Both rear quarter panels were replaced.
"I held every nut and bolt on the car in my hands," Mr. Burnette said. "If it weren'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, kept clear by a pair of vacuum-operated wipers, is the see-through speedometer, which records speeds up to 150 mph. A tachometer and a clock anchor both ends 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 Town and Country, 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 controls are 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 he 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.
As Mr. Burnette reassembled the Thunderbird, he electrically welded each piece to or exceeding Ford's specifications and then leaded the seam.
Mr. 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 been. "Black is the way Ford made it. That's the way I did it," he said.
The finished product fairly glistens.
"I rubbed on the paint for three months to achieve this sheen," Mr. Burnette said.
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 regal 1956 Ford sedan with backup lights above the taillights. Likewise, the wheel covers are the same ones used on the Ford Fairlane models.
On a recent 500-mile trip to Roanoke Mr. Burnette reports that his car handles well at 70 mph. "It's a good cruising speed.," he affirms.
With the mileage recorded on the odometer nearing 103,000 miles Mr. Burnette conceded, "I guess I've put together a good package."

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