Monday, April 3, 2017
1958-1960 Ford Thunderbirds
If you're a fan of cars from the Fifties and have long admired Ford's popular Thunderbirds, take a close look at the 1958, '59 and '60 models. Affectionately known as the "Square 'Birds" due to their fairly blocky shape, these T-Birds offer the best value for today's collector-car dollar. With their wide, imposing grilles that take up practically the entire front end, sculptured sides, fashionable fins, striking tail-end treatment and cozy, racy-looking interiors, these low-slung cars are full of character. And, best of all, not only do they seat five, thus adding extra enjoyment if you enjoy cruising with your family and friends, but they remain downright affordable.
Compared to the smaller Thunderbird, sales of the '58 model nearly doubled from 1957, with 37,892 built in contrast to 21,380. This is almost certainly why Motor Trend named it Car of the Year. For the 1959 model year, production increased some 78 percent, to 67,456 units; Ford saw another sizeable increase for the 1960 model, with sales reaching 92,465. With so many cars produced, their abundance helps them remain within reach of most collector-car enthusiasts. Fifty years ago, purists complained about the redesigned Thunderbirds--when the '58s debuted, they asked, "What? A sporty car with a rear seat?" Yet that very feature is one of the reasons so many Thunderbird enthusiasts find them so desirable today. In short, we believe the 1958-'60 Square 'Birds represent a great alternative to the earlier, more expensive smaller models. They're reliable, durable and easy for the home hobbyist to maintain and restore. Most importantly, all the requisite mechanical, electrical, body and trim parts needed to restore one to show-winning standards are readily available, with prices that won't break the bank.
For the 1958 Thunderbird, Ford introduced its 352-cu.in. V-8. This 300hp engine sported a 4.00-inch bore and 3.50-inch stroke with a compression ratio of 10.2:1; torque measured 395-lbs.ft. at 2,800 rpm. The early engines had solid-lifter camshafts, and those produced later in the year used quieter hydraulic cams and lifters. The engine carried code H and was offered with two four-barrel carburetors, a Holley B8A-9510-E or Carter 2640-SA-SC. For 1959, the same engine got the name Thunderbird 352 Special V-8, and was still rated at 300hp. About the only change was the switch to a Ford four-barrel carburetor, with two versions available: Models 5752304 or 5752305. A Holley also could be ordered. The big news in 1959 came with the introduction of the Thunderbird 430 Special V-8, a monster of a block with a 4.30-inch bore and 3.70-inch stroke. Compression measured somewhat lower than a 352 at 10:1, but had 50 more horsepower, with torque at a stout 490-lbs.ft. at 2,800 rpm. This engine carried code J and had a single Holley four-barrel carb, Model 4160-C. When considering a Thunderbird 430, there are several ways to verify the engine's authenticity. The radiator expansion tank is positioned at a right angle on top of the engine. The rocker covers are blank and do not have a "FORD" inscription; the fuel pump is located on top of the engine next to the expansion tank. The last telltale sign is that you can see the valley of a 430 engine, as opposed to the solid intake manifold on a 352. Larry Gardner, the technical advisor for the Vintage Thunderbird Club International, said that T-Bird engines are "bulletproof," with few internal problems. "If there is a mechanical caveat to be aware of, it's the cooling system. It was a poor design with no shroud and a four-blade fan positioned six inches from the radiator. Those cars overheated even when new. The air-conditioned cars had five blade fans, but it didn't help because you had the extra strain of the compressor," he said. To alleviate problems on his '58 T-bird, Larry installed a four-core radiator and seven-blade clutch fan. "I can drive across the desert all day and it never gets hot," said Larry, who has lived in Arizona since 1962. "The 352 is a workhorse. The valves are huge and they came with 3/8-inch fuel line. I never had any problems with a 352." In the Square 'Bird's last model year, 1960, Ford offered three Thunderbird engines: the reliable old 300hp 352, the 430 and an Interceptor Special, a 352-cu.in. V-8 with 360hp, 10.6:1 compression and dual exhaust with special header-type exhaust manifolds, aluminum intake manifold, dual-point distributor and Holley four-barrel carburetor. One word of caution regarding a 430-equipped Thunderbird centers on replacing the starter motor. The horror stories vary, depending on whom you ask, but some experts say the engine mounts must be removed, the engine jacked up, and both transmission and carburetor linkages removed, as well as both exhaust manifolds. Larry said the problem lies in the drive, which extends out about six inches. "I've never had to jack up the engine, but have had to remove the idler arm and some brackets to get them out. It is not an easy job," he said. Another minor nuisance is the fuel filter. In 1958 and 1959, Ford used a sintered glass-type filter that could only filter out large particles. In 1960, Ford switched to an inline canister-type filter that screwed into the carburetor. Even with a more efficient filter, Ford still recommended the filter be changed every 15,000 miles.
The base transmission was a column-shifted three-speed manual with optional overdrive. While the automatic transmissions in these cars are fairly reliable, there is one area of contention: the detent plate, which constantly failed and led to sloppy shifting. A reproduction is available, made on a CNC machine; it offers a more precise fit than the original. When replaced, this leads to the car being more secure in park and makes gear selection less vague. The automatic had three forward gears, a torque converter and the following ratios: 1st- 2.37:1, 2nd-1.84:1, 3rd-1.00:1 and reverse-1.84.1. The three-speed Cruise-O-Matic replaced the two-speed Ford-O-Matic, used in the small T-Birds. Larry stated that a C6 is better, but a Cruise-O-Matic was a reliable transmission if serviced regularly by a competent mechanic. These transmissions do not have replaceable filters, he advised.
In 1958, coil springs were used in the rear, which caused wheel hop. In 1959, the system was re-engineered to incorporate parallel leaf springs. The rear suspension also had a solid hypoid axle with semi-floating axles and tubular shock absorbers. Out front, the Thunderbird rode on independent A-arms, ball joints, coil springs, tubular shocks and a link stabilizer bar. The wheels were pressed steel discs. Tires measured 8.00 x 14 inches and were of four-ply tubeless construction. The wheelbase spanned 113 inches, overall length was 205.3 inches and curb weight came in at 3,897 pounds. A recirculating ball and nut power steering system came standard.
The braking system included four-wheel drums with power assist. The drum diameter measured 11 inches by 2.5 inches, with a total lining area of 175.32 square inches. Larry said there is a rear brake concern with all Square 'Birds that really isn't a problem if backyard mechanics read the service manual. "For whatever reason, Ford used a reverse thread on the adjustment or 'star' wheel on the left-rear wheel. Guys would adjust the brakes the wrong way and the shoes wouldn't work; they'd just push out brake fluid. If you read the shop manual, the problem is solved."
The interior of the Square 'Bird featured front bucket seats and a console; it was one of the first American cars to do so. This interior choice came about due to an engineering problem. The Thunderbird sat so low to the ground--lower than most cars at the time--that a solution was needed to cope with the placement of the driveshaft tunnel. The center console was a welcome addition to house switches, buttons and ashtrays, but in reality was designed to conceal the driveshaft tunnel. The quality of the original interior components was top-notch, said Brian Jaquish, general manager of Concours Parts in Carson City, Nevada, which carries complete interior kits. In 1959, leather seat covers became optional. Ford offered a standard clock and, although a radio was listed as an option, few T-Birds were delivered without one. The polished aluminum door sills had a stamped Thunderbird motif. A plastic two-piece shroud was used at the base of the bucket seats and, while the seats are interchangeable, the two sides of the shroud are not. Factory air conditioning first became available with the 1958 model.
Like most cars of the late 1950s, the Thunderbird featured welded steel panels, but instead of the common body-on frame construction, used on the earlier 1955-'57 models, the 1958-'60 models had a unitized structure. And the '58 models were the first T-Birds to have a rear seat; as a result, the car gained more than 18 inches in length and added nearly 1,000 pounds. The 1960 Thunderbird became the first post-war American car to have an optional sunroof. Numbers vary, but we learned 2,536 had this option. Cars with a sunroof were called Golde Editions and were named after the German company that held the patent for the sunroof. Larry said the Square 'Bird bodies are very stout. "They weighed more than two tons. The glove compartment door alone weighed more than five pounds. They are like a tank, except for one area: the dog-leg in front of the rear quarter panel. There is a drain there, and if it's not kept free of debris, that area rusts. I even have a California car that rusted there because water sat in there."