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