1964 Ford Thunderbird - Reader Resto

By: Cliff Chambers , Photography by: Steve Nally/Chris Gleeson

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Rough blue paint hid a multitude of metal sins that had to be redeemed before the real beauty of Chris Gleeson’s T-bird could emerge

From Unique Cars #320, Jan/Feb 2011

1964 Ford Thunderbird resto

There can be no more descriptive name in automotive history than Thunderbird. Drawn from indigenous American legend, the massive winged creature was said to generate rumbling with every wing beat and shoot arcs of lightning from its eyes. What could be better for striking terror into Super Sport Chevy drivers or overwhelming the rumble of a mighty Mopar Hemi than a car called Thunderbird?

Chris Gleeson’s Thunderbird represents an era when Ford’s ‘personal car’ was king of its market segment and outselling Pontiac’s new GTO by three to one. One of those was a hardtop that during 2008 arrived in Australia and lobbed onto Chris’ front lawn in March 2009.

ford-thunderbird-resto-8.jpgRestos are never easy, but they’re worthwhile when they come up as well as Gleeson’s T-Bird

"My then fiancée – now wife – Allison and I started to learn rock ‘n’ roll dancing and with the movement and the music came the desire to own one of the fantastic cars from that era," Chris said.

"I was originally looking at a Landau but it had too many problems, then I found this one on eBay and bought it straight away."

Read next: 1957 Ford Thunderbird resto

ford-thunderbird-resto-5.jpgT-Bird looked decent from a distance, but shiny paint hid horrors that cost $40K to fix

At $14,000, the Brittany Blue ’64 looked like a pretty good deal – especially since the vendor had promised to fix a problem with the transmission.

"Once I got the car, of course, I discovered pretty quickly that the repaint was a shoddy job that hadn’t been finished properly and the tranny repair was a bodgie that cost an extra $1500 to fix," Chris said.

ford-thunderbird-resto-engine-bay.jpgThe 220 kW 390-cube (6.4-litre) FE V8 scored new cylinder heads with hardened valve seats, but performance was still lacklustre. A throttle gremlin was traced and the Bird now really flies

But having made their commitment to T-Bird ownership, Chris and Allison decided that the car deserved a complete and professional makeover that would ensure its survival for perhaps another 45 years.

Even passing a registration inspection required some work, including polishing scratches out of the massive windscreen and a front suspension rebuild. Rust was a relatively minor issue, with only a rotten battery tray and one section of the boot floor needing to be replaced.

ford-thunderbird-resto-4.jpgRust hadn’t munched too deeply into the body. Replacing shoddy paint cost $8000

However, as Chris explains, the need to check the car carefully for other hidden problems led to a welcome revelation.

"Hunting for further signs of rust made us realise just how rough that blue paint job was but also revealed sections of the original colour," he said. "Through the club we discovered that we probably had the only original Samoan Coral ’64 in Australia and Allison really wanted to have it repainted in the original colours."

ford-thunderbird-resto-3.jpgBoot lid paint job reveals complexity of big Ford’s solid structure and offers a clue as to why the weight of 1964 Thunderbird coupes exceeded two tonnes

After carefully removing a multitude of chromed and anodised steel parts, Chris sent the car to Lee Murdock Panels at Clayton in Victoria to have the paint taken back to undercoat and repairs made to the areas where rust had been revealed.

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The strip, repair and repaint process would take several months, allowing Chris the time to hunt down a range of replacement parts.

"Luckily, we’ve got a couple of excellent T-Bird parts suppliers in Victoria so replacing body rubbers, suspension or mechanical parts and small items of second-hand trim wasn’t difficult," he recalled. "Barry Haley was a big help and I also found several things I needed at All American Auto Parts in Ballarat."

ford-thunderbird-resto-boot.jpgThe massive but unkempt boot concealed the Thunderbird’s only area of serious rust

The rear bumper was beyond economic repair so a replacement was found and sent with a range of other items to be repaired and re-chromed.

The interior was in reasonable health, with seat trims and foam padding the only items in need of serious help. New vinyl was obtained from T-Bird HQ in the US, the seats revamped by a local trimmer and the original steering wheel tidied up. New carpets were also fitted but the original retractable seat belts were retained and additional rear belts installed.

ford-thunderbird-resto-paint.jpgWeeks were spent stripping body embellishments before rust could be repaired and more than $1000 worth of Samoan Coral paint applied

"I’m really happy that we can now fully register these cars left-hand drive instead of needing to have them converted like you did before the rules changed," a relieved Chris commented. "Working inside the car replacing and checking things, you realise just how complex the T-Bird dash is and with all of the electrical and power equipment, swapping to right-hand drive would have been a huge job."

Repairing non-functioning air-conditioning was a $2000 specialist effort and fitting the correct electric aerial also involved sourcing a different centre console. Then there were cold, frustrating nights spent encouraging the power windows to work.

ford-thunderbird-resto-1.jpgAnodised steel grille needed hours of careful fettling before being polished to gleaming glory

"Then I realised the heater wasn’t working, so before winter I’m facing the prospect of getting at the heater core without having to rip out the entire dash."

Mechanically, the 390-cube V8 (6.4-litre) came with the appropriate degree of rumble but less than expected performance.

"I’d had the cylinder heads reconditioned with hardened valve seats so I can run the car on premium unleaded and fitted electronic ignition, but it still wasn’t right," Chris explained.

ford-thunderbird-resto-seat.jpgCrumpled vinyl and sagging seat padding were easily replaced with US-sourced parts and the attention of a local trim shop. Carpets were renewed and steering wheel refurbished to arrive at the very neat interior we see today

"I took it to Jason Maros who’s a specialist in these engines and he found out that it was only getting half throttle and the air filter hadn’t been fitted correctly."

A new alternator was installed after the T-Bird barely made it through one of Melbourne’s daunting freeway tunnels on battery power alone.

ford-thunderbird-resto-interior.jpg

"The prospect of being stranded in that tunnel with cars and trucks whizzing past was very scary," Chris admitted. "Once I’d stopped there wasn’t enough charge left in the battery to even put the window up.

"It cost a lot of money, probably more than I needed to spend, but everything has been done properly and I know the car will deliver years of enjoyment," Chris said.

"If I’ve got any advice for someone buying one of these cars it would be to join the club before you go looking for a car. Talking to other owners I realised the heaps of mistakes I made and won’t make with the next one."

ford-thunderbird-resto-2.jpgThe final bill to re-chrome and refurbish the rear end climbed to in excess of $3000!

That "next one" is likely to be a 1957 ‘Baby’ Bird, but not the car Chris travelled to the US to inspect.

"It looked great in the pictures on the Net but when I got to see it up close, it was rough so I’m still looking," he said.

The trip wasn’t a complete waste of time. Chris and Allison’s car will soon be sporting a shiny set of Kelsey-Hayes wire spoke wheels which Chris thinks will make the T-Bird look "very smart".

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WHAT IS IT?

A styling revamp put Ford’s 1964 Thunderbird back on the top rung of the sales pedestal. During the first year of the re-worked car’s model cycle, 92,465 were made.

Nicknamed Jet Bird, the new shape replaced the rounded contours of 1961-63 cars with rectangular design cues and scalloped sides that eliminated forever the fins that characterised preceding models.

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The revised rear accommodated new light clusters and their nifty sequential turn indicators within an all-enveloping bumper. For 1964, the T-Bird was without a 7.0-litre engine option (1966 cars had the optional 428 cubic-inch V8) and a three-speed automatic transmission was mandatory, as were power-assisted drum brakes.

Options were crucial to the new ‘Bird’s success and heading the list was air-conditioning, which added a hefty $415 to the $4486 that Detroit charged for a basic coupe.

Leather seat trim added $106 and power windows $108 but the ‘swing-away’ steering wheel that allowed easier access for well-rounded owners was included.

ford-thunderbird-resto-6.jpg

OWNER SNAPSHOT

Name – Chris Gleeson
Age – 58
Occupation – Property renovator
Best part of the resto – Getting the paintwork finished and seeing people’s reaction to the unusual Samoan Coral and white
Worst part – Sitting in the driveway on dark, cold nights trying to get the power windows to work  
Next project – A 1957 T-Bird, once we find a decent car and building a bigger garage so I’ve got room for two big cars!

COUNTING THE COST 

1964 Ford Thunderbird

  • Paint and panel $1700 (materials)  $6000 (labour)
  • Rechroming $2500
  • Air-conditioner repairs $2000
  • Re-conditioned heads $1400

(Prices from 2011)

 

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