Adventures in Mom’s ’57 Ford Fairlane 500 “Thunderbird Special”

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Frank Peiler

No one should ever drive while too young for a license, but I confess: as a car-nut kid of 15 in suburban Cleveland, I joy-drove my mom’s “Thunderbird Special” 1957 Ford convertible nearly every Friday night of my junior year in high school. Driving was a drug to me, and her sexy Ford was the vessel that delivered it. And despite some very close calls, I somehow got away with it.

Why is that car behind me flashing its brights? Flash, flash, flash! I’m cruising in the third lane (of four) on my side of an eight-lane suburban highway. Should I move over? There’s plenty of room to pass. Flash, flash, flash! What does he want?

Is he a cop? Is he pulling me over? This could mean jail! And no driving ‘till I’m 21… my dad’s dire warning if he ever caught me driving before I was legal. I had my own keys to Mom’s super-cool ’57 Ford Fairlane 500 convertible, and he knew that I knew how to drive it.

A year short of car-pilot legality, I actually had a license… for the Vespa scooter parked in the middle of our garage. It was my daily transportation since turning 14, Ohio’s legal scooter age at the time. And if both Mom’s Ford and Dad’s Buick were in the two-door garage, one of them had to be moved out to extricate the scooter, which is why I had a key to the Ford.

Oh, no! It is a cop, and he is pulling me over! I’m doomed! Twenty miles from home on a major road, in traffic, at night, with a friend on the passenger side and my little brother in back. This was not going to end well.

He said I was speeding, slightly over the 35-mph limit. He asked for my license. I handed him my scooter license, lamely explaining that I had passed a test for that so knew the rules of the road and how to operate in traffic. I also knew how to safely drive a car. After all, I had sat on my dad’s lap and steered his big Buick when I was still small enough to do that.

He stared at my scooter license, then at my friend and brother, then back at me. He didn’t know what to do. He had seen me driving safely, if a fraction too fast. He knew we were far from home. He knew I was legally licensed to drive a small two-wheeler. Could he really ticket a non-licensed driver for driving without a license? What would he do with my friend and brother if he hauled me in? And, to be sure, there were more and better tickets to be written that shift.

He stood there a while, turning this all over in his mind. “Where are your parents?” he demanded. “Bowling,” I replied, “in a Friday night league.”

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner Interior
The ’57 Fairlane 500 that belonged to Gary Witzenburg’s mom wasn’t exactly like this one, but it was close. Mecum

He handed back my scooter license. “Drive straight home! And when your folks get home, you’d better tell them about this! If you don’t, I will. GOT IT?”

“YESSIR!” I stammered, exhaling for the first time in minutes. I couldn’t believe it! I put the Ford in gear, flipped on the signal and pulled carefully away. I don’t think I had ever been that scared… or that relieved… in my 15 years. But my interesting evening was not yet over.

At the next red light, breathing hard, sweating bullets, thanking Heaven that he had let me go on the promise to tell my parents (yeah, right!), I casually glanced at the car next to us. There in the back seat sat… a good friend’s parents! The two most conservative parents I knew; he a preacher, she a righteous nag. Oh, no!

They looked right at me before I could turn away. They had surely recognized me! They knew I was too young to drive. I knew that lady would be on the phone first thing in the morning.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner Front Three-Quarter
Mrs. Witzenburg’s 1957 Fairlane 500 was white with green interior, but it sported that same signature gold side trim that expanded from the front fender through the door to the crisp chrome strip sweeping up over the graceful fin. Mecum

I waited for that life-altering call. But somehow, some way, unbelievably, it never came. I had miraculously escaped the awful consequences of my too-young driving foolishness. Not for the first time. Or the last.

Because I was a year ahead in school, all my friends got their licenses a year before I could, which seemed patently unfair. But my parents’ Friday night bowling league provided weekly opportunities.

I truly loved that Ford. My dad, a farmer’s son and closet car enthusiast who had circle-track raced as a youth in his native Nebraska, had purchased it used for my mom to replace her old, boring ’51 Chevy. I think the Fairlane was his secret second-childhood car. White on the outside, green on the inside, it sported that signature gold side trim that expanded from the front fender through the door to the crisp chrome strip sweeping up over the graceful fin. About as cool as an affordable car could get, and a strong “chick magnet” at a time when I really needed one.

It didn’t pack Ford’s rare 300-hp supercharged “Thunderbird Special” engine, but I nick-named it that anyway. Its 212-horse 292-cubic-inch V-8 felt strong enough and (by my watch) was good for 10-second 0–60 bursts, decent for its day. A year later, when I was legally driving it, I challenged a Corvette at a light and… got badly blown away. But it was quick enough to be fun and once won me a trophy at the local drags. My parents were not pleased about that. Or that I had painted its steel wheels green to match its interior, a cool thing to do at the time.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner Rear Three-Quarter
Mecum

Like most domestics of its day, it was a softly sprung barge on skinny tires with barely-there drum brakes and steering remotely connected to the front wheels. It was noticeably lighter and tighter than Dad’s Buick, but who really cared? All I wanted was to cruise it invisibly and bring it home intact every time. I could explore its agility once I was legally licensed.

High-school basketball also happened on Friday nights, so I sometimes took dates to those games. Then had to get them home and Mom’s car back in the garage before my folks got home. When it snowed while I was out, I swept the driveway to hide my tracks. When a friend got sick and puked in the car, I cleaned it up before they returned.

One fun Friday, I parked the Ford in front of a date’s house, slid across the front bench to get out of the passenger door (in case her parents, who knew I was too young to drive, were watching) and walked up to her door. Her dad asked whether my dad—who he assumed was waiting in the car—would like to come in. I said he was not feeling well. When she was finally ready, I walked her out, held the door for her to get in, slid in after her, then climbed over her to the driver’s side. She seemed OK with that.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner Lettering
Mecum

Another narrow escape came the night I picked up my friend Mark down the street from his house (so his parents wouldn’t see me driving) and traveled 25 miles northeast to Painesville, Ohio, in hopes of seeing a couple of girls we knew who lived there. We visited with one of them briefly outside her house as the Ford’s muffler developed a growing, growling hole that sounded great to teenage ears. We ran low on gas driving back and couldn’t find an open station. We were down to fumes when I dropped Mark at his house and hurried home to mine, just in time to beat my parents. The engine was still crackly cooling when Dad’s Buick pulled into the garage.

Mark called the next morning: “Get over here, now!” I asked my mom to drive me there, and when she cranked up the Ford, it sounded like a dirt-track racer. Then she saw the gas gauge below empty and looked hard at me through accusing eyes: “Have you been letting your friends drive this car?” “No, Mom, I would never do that.” Thankfully, she didn’t ask if I’d been driving it.

Mark’s father was furious. A friend of his down the street had seen Mark get into my car, and his folks had worried about his riding with me all evening long. His dad chewed me hard up one side and down the other, then made me promise I would never do that again… or he would tell my folks. “YESSIR! YESSIR! I will NEVER, EVER do it again.” At least not with Mark.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner Side Profile
Mecum

That glorious day when I finally turned 16, passed the test, and earned my license to drive a car was among the finest of my life. But somehow driving legally took a bit of the fun out of it. No more excitement and drama of stealing Mom’s car every Friday night, cruising it wherever I chose, then rushing back to beat them home and covering my tracks as needed.

I drove the Ford to my girlfriend’s house that first legal night. On my way home, I tossed it sideways just for fun on a snowy neighborhood street… and bounced it up over the curb when I couldn’t straighten it quickly enough. This wannabe future-famous-racer still had much to learn.

Fearing losing their trust, I never, ever confessed to my parents about my too-young driving adventures. And doing it legally has been great fun (most days) ever since.

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