Ford’s nonsports car: The T-Bird
April 19, 2013
Although a hot rodder in high school, Lanny Netz got out of the hobby for a couple of decades.
When Lanny first got back into fixing up and souping up cars, his first was a Triumph TR-6.
He liked the feel and handling of this sports car, but most other hot rodders had (and have) a prejudice against foreign cars, so he looked around for an American sports car.
He settled on the '55-'57 Ford T-Bird, which he then thought was a sports car, and in 1985 found a '57 up in Paradise, Calif.
It was unrestored, in rough condition, with rotted upholstery, a dent in the front fender and ugly, gold paint. Still, it did start and run, so Lanny drove it home.
Lanny tried to keep it very stock, overhauling the original drivetrain with a 312 CID V-8 and Ford-o-matic auto trans.
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When it came to repainting it the original color, however, Lanny balked.
The VIN number showed that it had originally been what is known as the "Jayne Mansfield Special" (so termed because she was into pink and drove the only pink Cadillac in California one time, a convertible 1959 Eldorado Barritz with white interior and steering wheel).
The T-Bird had originally been like Jayne's Caddy, pink with a white interior and steering wheel, but that was not exactly a manly, hot-rodder combination. He kept the upholstery white, but pink just wouldn't do for the exterior.
Lanny's favorite color is red, so decided on Torch Red because it was a stock Ford color for 1957. When he opened the can, he balked again. After some mixing and blending, he finally had a color he liked.
After his T-Bird was restored, he took it to a car show down in the valley. A woman came up to him and said with a sneer, "You know those tires aren't correct for that car."
Lanny had used better-handling radials instead of the stock bias-ply ones.
He shrugged. "Yes, I know that."
"Well," she continued, her nose so high in the air it hit the stratosphere, "what do you call that color?"
"Torch Red," Lanny replied.
She glared at him. "I know Torch Red. That is NOT Torch Red."
However, since she had asked Lanny what he called the color, not what Ford called the color, he was quite correct. Kindly, he did not point that out to her.
To add insult to injury, Lanny won a three-foot tall trophy for best in his category. He said he "hightailed it out of there" afterwards so the car snob could not chastise him for accepting a trophy for such an incorrect car.
Over the years, Lanny found the T-Bird less and less fun to drive. He wanted to keep it looking stock, but improve its roadability.
He swapped the four-barrel Holley carb for a modern Edelbrock. In place of the old auto trans, Lanny put in a Borg-Warner T-5 5-speed manual transmission with overdrive, which improved gas mileage.
While the car came with an oft-leaking power-assisted steering, Lanny replaced it with modern power steering. Overheating is often a problem in these cars, so he replaced the radiator with an aluminum one that eliminated that problem.
For comfort, he installed a Vintage Air air conditioning system. To improve stopping power, he changed the single master cylinder all-drum system to a dual master cylinder, front-disc one.
Lastly, he swapped out the vacuum-operated wiper motor for an electric one. While that may not seem a big deal, if you are trying to get across a busy street on a rainy day, the vacuum ones slow to a crawl when you hit the gas, just when you need them most.
Lanny has driven his '57 T-Bird, with wife Christina, on runs with the Roamin Angels and to Hot August Nights, but says it is "better for a few hundred miles than a few thousand miles."
He has other cars he has restored and modified since, that are better for the long hauls. Read about his '57 Ford Fairlane at http://www.rlcherry.com. Still, he does like his T-Bird for shorter runs.
Oh, for you trivia fanatics, Lanny now knows that Ford never called the Thunderbird a sports car. When it came out, they called it a "personal luxury car."
For more about Ron Cherry and his writing, see http://www.rlcherry.com. For more information about the Roamin Angels Car Club, go to http://www.roaminangels.com, call 432-8449, write to Roamin Angels, P.O. Box 1616, Grass Valley, CA 95945, or just stop by IHOP on Taylorville Rd. on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.