The astronaut and the ’55 T-Bird

Back in ’55 came my first ’Bird coupe,
The headlights had hoods and the hood had a scoop.

“’55 ’Bird” — The Astronauts

On May 12, 2013, Commander Chris Hadfield became the first person to record a music video in space. His cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was an instant hit, garnering millions of views. Bowie himself was impressed, calling the video “the most poignant version of the song ever created.” While the fate of the song’s Major Tom remains a mystery, Commander Hadfield’s fate doesn’t. He would would return safely to Earth… and then he’d drive home in his 1955 Ford Thunderbird.

Freshly restored in Snowshoe White, that same T-Bird was on display at the 2019 Cobble Beach Concours D’Elegance in Owen Bay, Ontario. Driving interviewed Commander Hadfield about his T-bird and about his car history growing up on a farm in Milton, Ontario.

Hadfield learned to drive tractors at age 12 before graduating to a 1962 Oldmobile Delta 88 with (what else) a Rocket 88 V-8 underhood. He owned a ’62 Oldsmobile, then a ’64 VW Bug in university. Then came marriage and family and the very John Glenn choice of a 1983 Mercury Marquis woody wagon. But the boy who became the first Canadian to walk in space and command the International Space Station had always had a differently wheeled dream. We caught up with him by phone, en route to an astronaut conference in Montreal.

“Absolutely I wanted to hold out for a ’55,” Hadfield says. “The ’57 was bigger, and the ’56 with the Continental back and opera windows was different too. Basically my whole life I’ve thought the ’55 was the perfect combination of design, power, and size.”

1955 Ford Thunderbird
Elliot Alder
1955 Ford Thunderbird
Elliot Alder

1955 Ford Thunderbird
Elliot Alder

The Ford Thunderbird debuted in 1955 not as a direct rival to the Chevrolet Corvette but instead as a slightly different take on a two-seater. Inspired by a 1952 Ferrari Barchetta gifted to Henry Ford II—in the days before the two companies went to war—the Thunderbird was sleek, low, and powerful for its day. However, it was intended as a personal car, luxurious and convenient to drive. The engine was a 192-cubic-inch V-8, which made 193 hp with the three-speed manual, or 198 hp with a Ford-O-Matic three-speed auto.

Hadfield had to wait until 2001, but he finally got his ’55. He bought the car over the phone from Star City, Russia, where he was working as Director of Operations of NASA. A couple of years later, he and his father Roger had repaired the T-Bird’s flaws and a new job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston beckoned. A normal person might have shipped the car down to live in a garage. Hadfield and his then-16-year-old son Evan loaded the T-Bird to the gills and made a road trip out of it.

“We hit every world’s biggest ball of string on the way, even stopped off at Graceland and got Elvis glasses. The car was pretty full—maybe we could have used the Continental back that trip,” Hadfield laughs.

Then, between 2003 and 2013, NASA’s Chief of Robotics and later Chief of the International Space Station Operations daily-drove a 50-year-old Ford to work every day.

1955 Ford Thunderbird
Elliot Alder

“My commute was only about 10 minutes, and no highways,” Hadfield says, “I didn’t drive it if the weather was bad. But they don’t really have winter down there. Every single time I drove it, I was delighted. It was fun.”

“You don’t want to risk a car unnecessarily,” he adds, “But you do want to honor it. Everything about it is within my ability to fix, and I bought the car to be involved in it.”

According to the Commander, his Thunderbird wasn’t a unicorn in the NASA parking lot. Astronauts have a tradition of being interested in cars, with most of the Apollo teams driving Corvettes. But it’s not just about speed.

“All astronauts are pretty hands-on kinds of people,” Hadfield says. “You have to be pretty self-sufficient—there’s nobody to call in space.”

Now retired at the age of 60, Commander Hadfield seems busier than ever. He’s written several books, including one for children, and is a popular speaker at events. He’s also very active on Twitter. Pressed on whether he’d like to add anything to his garage, Hadfield responds with a laugh.

“At this point, I feel like I only have the time to be faithful to one car,” he says.

However, his father Roger has a varied collection that includes Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts and McLaughlin-Buicks. And Chris is interested to see whether his children will share a generational interest, spurred by the Thunderbird. The car is something of a bridge across the years, worked on by Hadfield with his dad, and shared with his sons and daughter.

Now, restored by Dave Harrison of Straffordville, Ontario, over 14 months, Hadfield’s ’55 T-Bird stands ready for years of faithful service. It is a dream come to life, grounded to the earth, ready for the next sortie. Commencing countdown, engines on.

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