Week-end with a Ford Thunderbird
NOW that Britons are every day being more and more conditioned to the American way of life, notably through the media of radio, TV and strip serials, and with the U.S. Air Force ready to muster its supersonic aircraft to our protection at every flicker of its radar screens, what can we, mere motoring scribes, do but attempt to tell you bow America motors ? To do this we persuaded Mr. Dyes of Lincoln Cars that a week-end in the newest four-seat Ford Thunderbird wouldn’t come amiss.
A mere week-end it had to be, as this was a valuable demonstrator, which at any moment might bring about a sale valued at not far short of £3,800. But in that week-end, commuting to see the auto racing at Goodwood and English light ‘plane flying at Oxford City Airport, we gained a pretty shrewd idea of what motoring in a T-bird is all about.
The Ford Thunderbird loaned to us was the latest 1958 two-door, four-passenger hard-top with dual-range Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission, power steering, brakes and window lift, its oversquare (4 in. by 3½ in. bore and stroke) 352 cu. in. o.b.v. V8 engine developing 300 b.h.p. at 4,600 r.p.m. and 395 ft./lb. torque at 2,800 r.p.m., aided by a compression-ratio of 10.2 to 1.
Developed from the earlier two-passenger Thunderbird, the new four-seater version is still America’s idea of a sporting car. It is a veritable “eye-stopper,” vulgar in the extreme, especially to eyes acclimatised to dull little economy cars ! It is, too, a very big automobile, just able to squeeze through Goodwood’s new tunnel— it is over 17 feet long, almost 6½ feet wide, but commendably low, being but 4½ feet high.
The test car had left-hand-drive, which at least enabled us to tuck it well in when other vehicles approached. The Thunderbird certainly seemed very wide at first but it wasn’t long before we felt quite confident, even before we had realised how far inboard are the wheels and, in consequence, how far a kerb may be overhung to give others road space. In this, the driver is helped by the excellent visibility, both broad front wings in full view, the advantage of the big wrap-round windscreen, and tail-fins easily seen when reversing. Between the front wings the humped bonnet is imposing but inelegant. Incidentally, each front wing carries a species of bead-sight, which may be ornament or may be intended for gauging the car’s width, although we couldn’t see how—or is it for aiming at luckless pedestrians ?
After opening the wide door—the T-bird’s doors are sufficiently wide to give easy access in the back, as well as to the front seats—the driver appreciates a typically American refinement, in the form of electrical seat adjustment. A minute tumbler switch at the left base of the seat causes the driving seat to follow its movements, positively and quietly and over a sensible, not excessive, range. Move the switch forward and the seat slides slowly, irresistibly forward move it backwards and the driver moves away from the wheel. Push the switch up and the seat rises, push it down and the driving seat is lowered—obtaining all four movements from the same switch is distinctly clever. This, automatic adjustment is immeasurably superior to clumsy sliding of a seat manually and facilitates entry and egress as well as putting the driver in an ideal position to control the monster.
The facia is notable for two deeply hooded panels, the instruments being before the driver, the lid of the cubbyhole forming the matching panel in front of the passenger. The metallic finish here is not particularly pleasing and the cubbyhole is too shallow and its lid crude. There is a combination button-lock. Seen through a big three-spoke steering wheel carrying a half horn ring, the three dials consist of a combined fuel gauge and water thermometer, a 140-m.p.h. speedometer and a clock. For a car as costly as this Ford it is disappointing to find the fuel gauge calibrated merely with ” E ” and ” F,” the thermometer with ” C ” and ” H,” and the speedometer to lack a trip mileage indicator. The clock has a seconds-hand and is difficult to read. The central speedometer is flanked by T-bird motifs that act as indicators-for the direction-flashers, which, self-cancelling, are controlled conveniently by a stalk on the left of the steering column.
Below the dials are, from left to right, a detachable ignition key which can be set to leave the radio and power windows operative with the ignition off, and which is tuned to start the engine, a pull-out lamps switch with setting that operates the interior lamps, and, one each side of the steering column, indicator windows for low oil pressure warning and generator not charging. This row of circular controls and windows is completed by a cigar lighter and the knob for the suction-operated screen-wipers, the speed of which can be controlled. Panel lighting is rheostatically controlled from the lights-switch.
As our Thunderbird had Cruise-O-Matic fully automatic transmission there was no clutch pedal, merely a treadle accelerator and a wide pedal for the Ford “Swiftsure” power brakes. A lever akin to a steering-column gear-lever extends front the right of the steering column and selects P, B. N, D2, D1 and L on its indicator when moved from top to bottom of its quadrant. The engine will not start unless N is selected, and thereafter you drive in D1 for maximum acceleration, D2 for more gentle motoring, L only being used if low gear is to be held in, as on mountainous descents or R for reversing. P is selected only after coming to rest, for parking. Besides these controls there is a thumb switch beneath the lower left-hand corner of the screen for the screen-washer—a useful if unusual location. The handbrake is T-handled, on the facia for left-hand operation, the handle being turned to release the parking brakes. It works quite conveniently. The lamps dipper is a normal foot-button and a small toggle on the facia opens the bonnet.
The driver of the Ford ‘Thunderbird is isolated from his front-seat companion by a broad transmission tunnel which extends all the way down the car and thus renders the deeply padded back seat a two-person affair, although no central armrest is provided. This tunnel between the occupants of the separate front seats houses the radio speaker, the control dial for the MagicAire heating, defrosting and demisting unit, the four finger-switches controlling the power-windows and two lidded ashtrays The three heater controls are sensibly labelled and the heater very effective. Air inlets can be opened by using the knobs at each end of the facia panel.
Before trying the Ford we had tended to scorn power-actuation of the windows, remarking that if you had the strength necessary to steer a car you should be able to wind a window up and down. But we confess there is undeniable fascination in the precision of the Ford’s power windows (four controls, to raise or lower two windows on each side, by two-way movement of the appropriate switch), and, in an automobile as wide as this, it would be impossible to operate the windows on the opposite side when in motion without power control. The action is smooth, efficient and, as has been said, fascinating, but there is power behind the raised window that could bruise a hand or trap a child’s head if abused.
After this automation it was depressing to find it difficult to open (manually) the quarter-windows, which have thief-proof catches hut no rain gutters; the handle of the driver’s quarter-window scraped the door trim. There is quite a good rear-view mirror and twin, unusually thick, side-swivelling anti-dazzle vizors, but no vanity mirror in the passenger’s vizor. The centre of the facia, between the two hoods, is occupied by the radio, with decidedly ” tinny ” push-button control. That modern America is decidedly jittery is surely confirmed by the passage in Thunderbird’s instruction book which reads : ” The two small triangular marks at 640 and 1,240 on your radio’s tuning dial are the CONELRAD (Office of Civilian Defense) station settings. If a national emergency should be declared, all other radio stations will go off the air, and only CONELRAD at 640 and 1,240 will broadcast information vital to your safety during the emergency.” As we turned the ignition key (the Ford’s keys go in upside down) and gunned-up the 300 horse-power motor it was not safety in a national emergency which worried us but safety while driving this powerful sports hard-top on English roads !
The Cruise-O-Matic transmission works well and the gears are automatically changed smoothly and quietly. The V8 engine rocks the car when revved in neutral but pulls smoothly and runs in commendable silence. It is scarcely necessary to remark that from zero m.p.h. to 100 m.p.h. or so acceleration is, to express it mildly, vivid. There is kick-down control of the gear-shift which increases acceleration when required by selecting a lower gear. In the D1 setting upward changes from bottom gear occur at about 10 and 20 m.p.h. in normal driving, but by kicking-down on the accelerator such changes are postponed to 45 and 72 m.p.h., respectively. In the D2 setting—changes from one to the other are effected easily just by moving the lever—the change into second takes place as soon as the Ford rolls and top is engaged at 20 m.p.h. Kick-down selection of second gear from top is available in DI or D2 between 35 and 65 m.p.h. and with D2 selected it is possible to get bottom gear from second at speeds below 35 m.p.h. In the L position the automation is confined to bottom gear up to 25 m.p.h. and second gear thereafter. The safe maximum in L is 35 m.p.h. but 50 is possible.
The Ford Thunderbird has Master-Guide power steering, which is finger light for parking and fast driving in spite of the wheel requiring 4½, turns, lock-to-lock. It is smooth, vibration-free but rather insensitive steering. The turning circle is commendably small for a car of this size.
After driving this modern American sports sedan for some time the outstanding impressions were :
(a) That in it you could do no wrong: you commanded awe and/or admiration as if you lived at the White House itself.
(b) That although a manually-operated gearbox is still first choice, this automatic transmission is very good.
(c) That there is disappointment in the acceleration expected when gunning the 300 horse-power motor, not on actual acceleration times, but because the T-bird gets wound-up with complete ease and silence.
(d) That the car is just too big for English roads, although feeling smaller than it is on the broader ones.
In driving rapidly there is considerable pitch and some roll from the very soft (and therefore shock-proof) suspension—Coil-spring and wishbone i.f.s., rigid back axle on coil-springs, located by trailing-arms, with anti-roll bar. The Goodrich tyres squeal on slight provocation but quite tight corners are taken faster than these symptoms suggest. Because of its very fine acceleration the Ford Thunderbird will reach 100 m.p.h. easily and show a speedometer 110 m.p.h. on the average English road. Given rather more room, in our case the Woodstock-Oxford road, an absolute maximum of 115 m.p.h. shows up.
Care is necessary when extending the Thunderbird towards its limit because the power brakes, very powerful normally and even fierce if carelessly applied at low speed, fade very considerably if rapid retardation from upwards of 90 m.p.h. is called for. Almost complete fade is experienced in a single application from 100 m.p.h. to a crawl, accompanied by the smell of roasted linings, added to which the car tends to instability when the brakes are applied firmly, wallowing to left or right.
Clearly, the American idea of a sports car is a comfortable, spacious vehicle to extend fully only along motor-ways and autobahnen.
Consequently, this big Ford is rather an expensive luxury in England, although its petrol consumption did not appear to be as heavy as we had expected. No opportunity arose of making an accurate check but the range appeared to he in the region of 170 miles, the engine stalling some miles before this after a sharp corner, with the very steady fuel gauge just off “empty.” This indicates a consumption, of the best petrol, of about 10-12 m.p.g., driving with verve, and mostly in D1. The tank capacity is given as 20 gallons but appeared to be closer to 16 or 17 gallons.
Acceleration is obviously the Ford Thunderbird’s most impressive feature, comfort and convenience apart. We had, unfortunately no opportunity to check the accuracy of the speedometer but Ford has a good reputation in this respect, so the following figures are of interest :
0-50 m.p.h. … 7.2 sec.
0-60 m.p.h. … 9.2 sec.
0-70 m.p.h. … 12.4 sec.
0-80 m.p.h. … 16.8 sec.
0-90 m.p.h. … 22.6 sec.
30-60 m.p.h. … 5.8 sec.
60-90 m.p.h. … 12.0 sec.
These figures were taken in normal circumstances, three up, with some 12 gallons of fuel, and indicate how splendidly the car hustles itself up for passing obstructions travelling at a mere 70 or 80 m.p.h. All this it does absolutely effortlessly, accelerating or cruising. 70 m.p.h. feels like 40 and at its maximum speedometer speed of 115 m.p.h., you might be idling at 70.
Our time with this most modern of automobiles (in the Detroit rather than the DS19 sense) was all too short, but a few further impressions were recorded.
The steering-wheel hub tears the T-bird motif and the words “Ford steering,” and each door has a long sloping armrest incorporating a metal “pull.” The doors are heavy and have rather indefinite “keeps.” Because one has to hold open a heavy door exit from the Thunderbird is apt to be undignified. Although the back seat is set well forward of the back of the body the usual parcels’ shelf is not provided behind it. The seats are very comfortable but the driver’s would be improved by a more upright squab.
Each door has a sill interior lock and separate external locks. The boot lid has a lock beneath a hinged weather flap. Once unlocked it rides up on sprung hinges, its area a super sail for a blowy day ! The capacity of the boot is really tremendous, so that the spare wheel, inclined centrally therein, is lost within it. The dainty upholstery could be an embarrassment when stowing a soiled wheel with flat tyre. The bonnet top also props up automatically. Open it and the quite neat “Thunderbird Special” 5.7-litre o.h.v. V8 engine is disclosed, topped by the biggest drum-type (Interceptor) air-cleaner, of all time. There are two oil dipsticks, one for the engine, the other for the transmission. The battery lives very accessibly at the front off side of the engine compartment and there is a sort of hot water bottle for the See Clear screen-washer. The fan has four blades.
In spite of all its automation the Ford radio aerial had to be extended by hand and on full lock the front wheels fouled the chassis. In some 350 miles we added a quart of engine oil. Coat-hooks are provided behind the front seats, set rather too low on the body-side.
Those, then, are our impressions of a brief encounter with a very popular and rapid modern American automobile. The Ford Thunderbird costs £2,133 10s., which purchase tax inflates to £3,201 12s. Various extras, as on the test car, further increase this to a total of £3,792 13s. 6d.— W. B.
THE FORD THUNDERBIRD MODEL 63A TWO-DOOR HARD-TOP
Engine : Eight cylinders in 90-deg. Vee formation, 101.6 by 88.9 mm. (5,769 c.c.). Push-rod-operated overhead valves. 10.2-to-1 compression-ratio. 300 b.h.p. at 4,600 r.p.m.
Gear ratios : First, 5.88 to 1; second, 7.44 to 1; top, 3.1 to I.
Tyres : 8.00 by 14 Goodrich 2-ply ” Silvertown ” Tubeless on balanced bolt-on steel disc wheels.
Weight : Not weighed. Maker’s figure : 1 ton 12 cwt. 67 lb. (kerb weight).
Steering ratio : 4 turns, lock-to-lock. Power steering.
Fuel capacity : 20 gallons. (Range approximately 170 miles.)
Wheelbase : 12 ft. 5 in.
Track : Front, 5 ft. in.; rear, 4 ft. 9 in.
Dimensions : 17 ft. 1 in, by 6 ft. 5 in. by 4 ft. 4½ in. (high).
Price : £2,133 10s. (£3,201 12s. inclusive of p.t.). With extras as tested : £3,792 13s. 6d.
Concessionaires : Lincoln Cars, Ltd., Great West Road, Middlesex, England.
SOME TECHNICALITIES OF THE FORD THUNDERBIRD
Compressive pressure : 180 lb./sq. in. at cranking speed at sea level.
Taxable horse-power (U.S.A.): 51.20.
Oil capacity : 5 qts. plus I qt. in filter.
Water capacity : 20 qts. plus 1 qt. in heater.
Cooling system pressure : 13/15 lb./Sq. in. Lubrication system pressure : 45/50 lb./sq. in. hot at 2,000 r.p.rn.
Valve timing : Inlet valves open … 21 deg. B.t.d.c.
Inlet valves close … 51 deg. a.b.d.c.
Exhaust valves ppen … 67 deg. b.b.d.c.
Exhaust valves close… 9 deg. a.t.d.c.
Tappets : Hydraulic.
Valve seat width : Inlet : 0.060/0.080 in. Exhaust : 0.070/ 0.090 in.
Valve-seat angle : Inlet : 30 deg. Exhaust : 45 deg.
Valve head diameter : Inlet : 2.022/2.032 in. Exhaust : 1.551/1.561 in.
Sparking plugs : Champion F-II-V, 18 mm.
Cruise-O-Matic transmission oil capacity : 10 qts.
Power steering reservoir capacity :2¼ pts.
Back-axle oil capacity : 5½ pts.
Vintage postbag, February 1965
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