Star Power - Reader Resto

By: Richard Onyon with Guy Allen

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Getting hot and bothered at a car show led to massive rebuild for this American beauty.

The story goes that Elvis Presley had one, and so too did the entire ‘Rat Pack’ including Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. It’s said that Elizabeth Taylor had one as well, painted metallic blue to match her eyes.

Ford’s Continental division hand-built these cars for just two years – 1956 and 57 – selling them to the rich and famous for $10,000.

That was more than the price of a decent three-bedroom house in your nearest capital city. There was one option: air-conditioning at an extra $600.

Some 3014 cars were made, all built by hand, with 67 in the metallic brown you see here, and just seven with the cream interior. Owner Richard Onyon decided years ago that was the colour combination he had to have and, incredibly, managed to find two examples.

"One allegedly once belonged to the Shah of Iran," he explains, "But they wanted too much money for it. 

"This car was in San Francisco and had been with the same owner for 25-26 years, who had documented all the work that had been done over that time."

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The car duly arrived and overall, Richard was pretty pleased with it. That was until it ran hot at a hotrod show back in 2012.

"It started off I was just going to change the coolant," he says. "Then I decided it needed a new water pump, so I got a gasket kit at the same time. Then repair creep took over!"

Next thing he knew, Richard was peering up into the sump area and spotted a worn-looking camshaft. That need to be fixed and he figured he’d remove the engine so he could replace the rear main seal.

Since the engine was out, it made sense to repaint the engine bay. With that looking nice and shiny, he started to cast a more critical eye over the rest of the car.

As the paint came away, he discovered a few horrors.

"It looked alright until you started to delve into things," he says. "Once you start to take off paint, all the ugliness comes out. There were bits of galvanised sheet held in with pop-rivets and then sculped over with filler."

Richard is one of those rare people who is able to tackle most of the work himself. "I started life as a mechanic and spent quite a few years in a panel shop." These days, he has his own paint booth at home.


The car choice of the stars.

This car was a test for his skills, needing some fairly big rust repairs and fabrication for areas such as the complex panels under the headlamps, and the rear quarters. All up, he reckons he put 1000 hours into the body – a task that would run well into six figures if charged out at commercial rates.

As for the driveline, he reckons another $15,000 or so was thrown at it, including a new cam from Wade before they closed down and lots of other gear.

The power train is a 368 Y-block V8 rated at 285hp and Richard says several of the parts are unique to the Continental, including the rocker covers and exhaust manifolds. Behind that sits a three-speed automatic.

Braking is by boosted hydraulic drums, which apparently work pretty well at pulling up the 2250kg car.

Overall, spares can be a challenge, though there is a supplier in the USA (Mark II Enterprises), which does used and reproduction parts. Richard says there are a very few bits from a Thunderbird that change over.

Among the hens-teeth parts are the correct hubcaps, which are generally fitted for show. He has an alternative set which is used on the road.

Richard was also fortunate to get a car that had its spare wheel and distinctive jack in place. Many owners tossed them in favour of having the extra boot space.

Hearing the Continental start is a bit of a revelation – it’s quiet and sounds new, which in some ways it is. What’s it like to drive? "Beautiful," says Richard who reckons it’s silent to the point of being a little deceptive as you can easily end up travelling quicker than intended.


After six years, Richard is proud of the end result.

The interior is luxuriously appointed, with power switches for all the windows, including the rotating front quarter vents, a comprehensive set of instruments, plus a valve ‘town and country’ style radio that still works. Oh, and there is the air-conditoning which unusually has a comprehensive venting system for the rear-seat occupants.

Of the original fleet, less than half are estimated to remain – in varying states of repair or disrepair. Some eight or nine are thought to be in Australia, with one collector accounting for half of those.

What’s the advice for buying one? "Buy the very best example you can afford," says Richard. He points out that when you look at the hours he put in, it would be easy to spend telephone numbers to get an ordinary example up to scratch.

So was it worth all the trouble and time?  Absolutely. Richard doesn’t regret a moment of the restoration and clearly this is a car that he’ll be hanging on to for a very long time.



NUMBER MADE: 3014 approximately

BODY STYLES: Steel on frame, two-door coupe

ENGINE: 6030cc, 368ci V8 16-OHV, single 4bbl carburettor 

POWER & TORQUE: 220kW, 545Nm

TRANSMISSION: Three-speed automatic

SUSPENSION: Independent front and leaf-spring rear

BRAKES: Drum (f), drum (r)

TYRES: 15-inch

From Unique Cars #489

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