For $25, this 1963 Thunderbird was a great starter car

John L. Stein

Everyone remembers their first car. This was mine.

In the 1970s, I was mostly a motorcycle guy, but in 1975, a friend told me he’d found a car I needed to buy. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go see it.” On an L.A. side street, neglected beside a stucco house, sat a toothy-grilled ’63 Thunderbird Landau. Last of the “Bullet Birds,” it wore a textured vinyl roof bearing elegant “landau bars” (recalling ancient carriage hinges) on the rear pillars, and inside featured simulated walnut interior trim. Intended for 1960s social climbers, the Ford cost $4548 when new.

A middle-aged man answered the doorbell, and my friend demonstrated how to buy old cars for cheap. “Hello, we’re students,” he said respectfully. “It looks like your Thunderbird has been sitting for a while. We were wondering if it might be for sale.”

“What do those boys want?” a woman’s voice called from elsewhere in the house.

“They want to buy the Thunderbird,” the man said to her over his shoulder.

“Give them the car, Harold,” commanded the woman.

Just like in The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Harold knew that he’d been beat. All that remained was the price. “I just put in a new battery,” he protested, weakly. “It cost $25, so if you’ll give me that you can have the car.” I had $25. He had the pink slip. We traded paper, I walked over to the Thunderbird, climbed in, fired it up with some effort, and drove away. Shockingly, this magnificent, 4354-pound luxury hardtop that Ford advertising had called “a bold thrust into tomorrow,” had depreciated to nothing in just 12 years.

Harold swore the T-Bird had had gone only 25,000 miles, but it ran on seven cylinders and the tailpipes were sooty, making 125,000 miles far more plausible. And that once-elegant vinyl roof? Ripped to smithereens. The Heritage Burgundy paint and chrome were dull as well.

No matter, though. We dove into polishing the brightwork and muscling rubbing compound and Turtle Wax into the paint. After fitting new ignition parts and setting the timing, it ran better.

Installing a new vinyl top, purchased along with a quart of contact cement, was harder. The demanding and exacting process ideally required two people, but I somehow managed it alone on a nearby vacant lot, finishing the T-Bird off beautifully.
Later, as I squired to junior college in my first car, I felt proud, successful even, and on the way up. Ford got the Thunderbird Landau right—even the $25 ones.

How cheap was your first car?



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    I bought my first car, a 1934 Ford Tudor for $150 in 1964. It came with a 1960 Pontiac engine lying on the floor where the back seat had once been. No engine under the hood. My first daily driver was a ’57 Ford Fairline I bought for $50 in 1966.

    My first car was a 1968 Pontiac Catalina, bought from my girlfriends family for $75 in 1978. She aptly named it Thumper after the sound it made when running. I didn’t discover it was because the nylon timing gear had slipped a tooth until the week before I sold it.

    Mine was a ’50 Ford sedan fitted with an Olds 324 engine and 3-speed on the column. The thing was bright yellow and looked like a big lemon, but it started faithfully and only cost me $50.

    A ’55 Chevy, six years old: Delray post (hot 265, 3-on-floor, lowered, pinstriped with moons and lake pipes. I didn’t build it, and it was too much for my income as a 16 year old, so after 18-months of car payments, it was sold for college money. Then I got an automotive education of another sort, with two 1951 Fords (at $50/each!) but they were fun and easy to work on — I could tell you tales…! And to think the ’51’s were only 13 years old at the time! Like a 2010 car now would be! “They laughed when I sat down to play…”
    That Bird has many nice aspects; but it would never have done for me because of no clutch-pedal option, and far to heavy. My favorite ’63 ‘ Birds are all AMT 1/25 model kits; a great blank canvas indeed!
    PS/ the car cost me $800, and with half-down (all my savings at $1.25/minimum wage in 1961) the payments were $26.61 per month. All my pals wanted to ride, but none ever pitched in gas money!

    1st car was a nice, crappy Mazda 626 that my Dad had first and handed down to me, so the first car was free! I blew up the transmission within two months and then went and bought an Acura Legend Coupe with a 6 speed manual for $3k that had 160k miles on it. The car was almost $50k new in 1994 and 15 years later it had also depreciated that much. They are back on the upswing now and I always regret getting rid of it. Easily one of the best cars I have ever owned

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    Gary, you lucky dog! Driving to school at that age! I just bought a ’51 Ford Crestliner (2-dr sedan) to commemorate my ‘second, third, and fourth cars’ which were ’51s — and I put Portawalls on the new radials, too! The low-rider crowd keeps them available, and mine came from — get this — Turkeye! Looks very right, really! I liked the Club Coupe body best, tho! A stock flathead could hold it’s own against Corvairs and Volvos in N/Stock!

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    My first car was an ’88 Jeep Cherokee owned by my grandfather. It needed a fair bit of cash to get roadworthy, but was left to me in his will when I was 15.

    I loved that little Jeep. Every week something else went wrong that needed tinkering, but I pounded the miles to it. I learned how to do a lot of stuff because I couldn’t afford to pay someone to fix it.

    I unfortunately got in to an accident with it when I was 19 years old. It felt like I’d killed the last part of him. But I did walk away from it, so maybe it was his last hurrah at keeping me safe.

    In 1973 I bought my first car, a ’67 GTO, for $200. The clutch was slipping, the owner confessed, but my fellow high school buddies and I had replaced more than one clutch disc (including on my mother’s ’62 Chevy Biscayne wagon) in our time, so I did the deal and had a cool new ride. My only other mechanical expense over the years was replacing the timing chain. I eventually traded it in (they gave me $450 for it) for a ’69 Camaro, the rare LM1 model, although I didn’t realize it at the time, and another 4-speed of course.

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    My first car was a faded red Bugeye Sprite for $400 in 1969….when I got it home my father pulled back the floor mats to expose the gaping holes in the floors….ughhh I drove it for three years with it losing cylinders at idle from fouling plugs, finally the rear springs broke loose from the body tub, I took cables and hauled them back up and drove it until spring and gave it to a friend….he called to let me know when he had the engine apart that the rings fell apart in in fingers…..I had a LOT of fun with that car and the girls loved it!

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    I was 15 and had $50 burning a hole in my pocket in the late ’60’s.
    Spent it on a 56 Packard Clipper Custom 4 door with 60,000 on it. Clean car, good engine, tires and brakes. Ultramatic was acting up, and power steering only worked going right. I had no license, so my future brother in law drove it home.
    I then bought a rusty ’56 Patrician for $25, non runner, poor repaint, partially dismantled engine. I can’t remember how it made it home.
    I knew little about mechanics, but I took the Clipper apart “just to see”. I was going to fix the fancier (though ragged) Patrician. That plan quickly went sideways.
    A Packard guy gave me $50 for both; I had bought a ’60 Falcon for $25 that only needed a starter, that was done and it was my transportation after I got my license.
    If I had it to do over, I would have put the Patricians’ Ultramatic into the Clipper, figured out the bad power steering valve me had a decent running car.

    52 years ago, my very first car was a beloved, used, low mileage red 1963 Volkswagen Beetle in mint condition. Not so big on the power, but for $1000. CDN in 1972, the freedom and smiles it brought to my then girlfriend, now wife and still girlfriend were huge. We both still chuckle just thinking about the adventures we had together with that little jewel.

    My first car was a 57 Ford Retractable Hardtop when I was 16 that I bought for $150. I restored it, new seat covers, carpet, and paint. It was a 312, automatic. I found a complete original 57 Thunderbird 2×4 intake and carbs that I put on. I never could get it to run right. My first pickup was a 41 Ford with a flatbed, flathead V8, 3-speed floor shift. It came with a set of headers and Offenhauser aluminum heads. I paid around $150 for that one, and sold it but kept the headers and heads.

    ’55 T-Bird found at the local Dodge dealer’s back lot back in 1967. Too young to drive or negotiate so the dealer owner “Bud” called my dad and made the deal over the phone for $500. Needed lots of work but it kept me out of trouble for quite a while.

    First car, ’62 Thunderbird. I was 17. Today it looks and drives better than new. I drive it every day the roads aren’t sloppy. My days start with a cup of coffee, a country road and an old car.

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