Don McLean’s 1964 T-Bird features a longer, more prominently scooped hood and shorter roofline than the previous model, giving an even lower and longer appearance. (Photos by Larry D’Argis / Winnipeg Free Press)
For 1964, Ford unveiled the fourth-generation Thunderbird. New styling separated the Thunderbird not only from its “bullet bird” predecessors, but also the growing number of other personal luxury car models being introduced into the market. Completely restyled for 1964, the Thunderbird featured a longer, more prominently scooped hood and shorter roofline than the previous model, giving it an even lower and longer appearance. Side panels were now highly sculptured with feature lines at the beltline and lower side body. In back, tail lights were large and featured the Thunderbird logo, all encapsulated within a large chrome bumper.
The Thunderbird was the top seller in the personal luxury class and even with internal competition from the new Mustang, Thunderbird sales were still three times higher than the other manufacturers’ offerings. Convertible sales were up 32 per cent over 1963, with 9,188 new convertibles finding buyers. While some buyers lamented the loss of the factory-built Sports Roadster model, buyers could still opt for the $269 dealer-supplied tonneau kit that turned the T-Bird into a two-seat open car. Riding on a 113.2-inch wheelbase and loaded with standard equipment, the Thunderbirds were some of the most opulent cars to come out of Detroit.
In June 2016, Don McLean and his wife, Gladys Bryer, of Ste-Geneviève, were looking for a highway cruiser that was a bit older and larger than their ground-up-restored 1972 MGB roadster. Located in Brandon, they found a partly restored 1964 Thunderbird convertible. Originally a California car produced in the Ford San Jose assembly plant, the car had been well looked after and was in very good condition. Originally finished in Wimbledon White, the car had a complete professional colour change to the popular Vintage Burgundy.
“We knew right away that this was the car we wanted,” McLean says. Presentable, and in drivable condition, the Thunderbird came with a current Manitoba vehicle-safety certificate.
The previously rebuilt 390-cubic-inch Thunderbird Special V-8 is equipped with 10.0:1 compression, a four-barrel carburetor and stainless-steel, dual-exhaust system. It produces 300 horsepower at 4,600 r.p.m. and is backed by a Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission and a highway-geared rear axle, keeping the Thunderbird in the highway fast lane.
While the car did require some work to correct an engine intake manifold leak and full tune-up, the balance of the powertrain is solid.
In 2017, McLean felt the Thunderbird’s paint was losing its lustre, so he turned it over to the crew at Southside Auto Body for a full repaint.
Optional equipment abounds on the Thunderbird and includes swing-away steering wheel, electric trunk lid, power steering, power brakes, power windows, fender skirts, AM/FM CD player with trunk-mounted amplifier, tinted windows, air conditioning, power windows, power seats, dual side-view mirrors and the optional fibreglass tonneau cover.
Inside, the Thunderbird passenger compartment is finished in luxurious red crinkle-pattern leather, with the optional reclining passenger seat and the swing-away steering wheel. Once the gear selector is placed in the park position, the steering wheel and column can be slid approximately eight inches to the right for easier entry and exit. Rolling stock on the T-Bird are a reproduction set of 15-in. Kelsey Hayes chrome wire wheels, turning Hankook whitewall radial tires.
In the past two years, the Thunderbird has logged 10,000 miles travelling to several shows in both the U.S. and Canada.
McLean, president of the Manitoba Street Rod Association says, “We have a lot of fun with the car going to various shows, so we’re just going to keep driving and enjoying it.”
Today, the mid-60s Thunderbird convertibles are highly sought-after collector cars. Their personal luxury heritage and bold styling ensure their value in the collector car market. With their richly appointed interiors and powerful V-8 engines, the Thunderbird is also an extremely comfortable vehicle to travel in.