Bird Flies North: An heirloom Thunderbird passes from state to state and from generation to generation

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Photo by Ashley Shoemaker

My husband, Sean, and I officially took over ownership of my family’s 1956 Ford Thunderbird in May of last year. The T-Bird has been in my family more than 50 years, and rather than truck it from my parents’ home in Gilbert, Arizona, we decided to embark on a road trip along the West Coast to bring her to our place in Bothell, Washington.

As with many classic cars, our T-Bird has a story. While my dad was serving in Vietnam, he shipped home to Seattle a ’56 T-Bird that he found in Germany. His dad, my grandpa, drove down with a friend from Lynden, Washington, to pick up the car. The Bird proved to be in fairly rough shape once they got it back up to Lynden. My grandpa did a bit of searching and found a local ad for another 1956 T-Bird in better condition, so he bought that car and used parts from the T-Bird my dad had shipped back to the U.S. to restore this “new” Bird.

The car was completed by the time my dad returned home in 1969, with fresh paint, a new dash, and mechanical improvements. My grandpa then changed the title over to my dad’s name, and the T-Bird has been in my family’s care ever since. The car was always prominently parked under the carport at the Bellingham, Washington, home in which I grew up. Several years ago, my parents moved the car down to their home in Arizona, where they now reside full time.

I’ve always known that one day I would inherit the T-Bird; it was just a matter of when. Sean and I moved into a new home last March, and in moving from Seattle to Bothell, we gained both a driveway and a three-car garage. My dad agreed it was a perfect time for us to take the car. Sean just barely fit behind the wheel, but I fit perfectly. We borrowed a small cooler from my parents to put between us to double as an armrest. And since the trunk isn’t huge, we used soft luggage so it could all be stuffed in. We also bought small pillows for our lower backs for the long driving days.

1956 Ford Thunderbird Owner Behind Wheel Driving Action
An old Ford that may fit a little tight on the modern man looks just about perfect on the car’s new owner as she drives the family T-bird to its new home. Ashley Shoemaker

We left early on a Monday morning from Gilbert and took I-10 west, straight out to California. Our first memorable stop was in Cabazon, California, to visit the World’s Biggest Dinosaurs. We then continued west on Los Angeles freeways, making our way to Hermosa Beach and Sean’s sister’s apartment. Staying with family worked out wonderfully, and the T-Bird fit perfectly in their single-car garage next to the surfboards and beach cruisers. After breakfast with my sister-in-law, we went up the California coast through Santa Monica, Malibu, Ventura, and Santa Barbara, up to Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Morro Bay. We made it to San Simeon just in time to catch one of the last shuttle buses of the day up to Hearst Castle. Neither Sean nor I had been to William Randolph Hearst’s never-finished mountaintop retreat since we were kids, and the Spanish-style house, with its huge art collection and exquisitely tiled pools, has not lost any of its ability to drop a jaw.

1956 Ford Thunderbird Owner At Dinosaur Museum
World’s Biggest Dinosaurs in Cabazon, CA Ashley Shoemaker

We continued on up to Monterey, through 10-mph curves overlooking the Pacific that squealed the tires. Every other car we passed in the opposite direction, or that passed us along straight stretches, was a newer Mustang rental car, a testament to the road’s tourist draw. We watched the sunset along the road through Big Sur, then pulled up to our hotel on Cannery Row in the dark.

1956 Ford Thunderbird PCH Foggy Road
Ashley Shoemaker

Just before we left my parents’ place, the T-Bird had a major tuneup from an Arizona Thunderbird club member who works on many members’ cars as a hobby and for a little side money. The car ran flawlessly until we noticed on the second day that whenever we stopped and put the shifter in park, the engine revved. If we shut off, the engine then dieseled for as long as a minute. It wasn’t the ignition switch, so lacking the tools and expertise to diagnose it, we carried on.

We spent the morning of day three, my birthday, exploring the Cannery Row made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name before hitting the road. We hugged the coastline through Santa Cruz, making our way to San Francisco, where the old Bird got a lot of honks and thumbs up. I haven’t been to the Golden Gate Bridge since I was young, so driving over it in the T-Bird was a huge moment for me on our trip—I had the biggest grin on my face. From there, we drove through Bodega Bay and channeled Alfred Hitchcock, director of The Birds, which was shot here, and up through Fort Bragg and California’s Lost Coast to end the day in Eureka.

The next day we entered the mighty Redwoods. We drove through the famous Klamath Tour-Thru Tree and said hello to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. We made several stops for photos within the forest of giant Redwoods, many of which measured more than 300 feet tall. In Oregon, we stopped in coastal Bandon for lunch at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. An avid golfer, Sean takes an annual trip with friends to play golf all weekend at this course, but it was my first time visiting the beautiful links on the coast. We continued north all afternoon and just made it before closing to the Sea Lion Caves in Florence, Oregon, which claims to be the nation’s largest sea cave. As advertised, it’s filled with sea lions sheltering from the crashing waves of the Pacific.

1956 Ford Thunderbird Owners At Pacific Ocean Overlook
Ashley Shoemaker

We arrived safely in Seattle, only having to deal with the revving problem and a trunk latch that decided to loosen. A hasty fix with some wire kept it closed for the rest of the trip. It took five days to drive home. My husband and I got to enjoy our first long road trip together in the “new” classic car we just acquired for our household. The trip also allowed us to visit some places together that we each hadn’t visited since we were kids, and it forced us to figure out a classic car and its quirks together. I’ve been on the other side of this scenario for years, working in the collector-car industry, listening to owners wax joyously about their cars. But this time, it was me having the fun and getting the thumbs up in my own car—and that is something different entirely.

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