Here it is, the season of the Rose Parade. And as you watch the dignitaries roll by in classic cars, it occurs to you that it would be more fun to be in the parade than watch it. Maybe you should drive the kind of classic that appeals to parade organizers everywhere, only scaled for mayors, prom queens, and Cub Scouts, not astronauts on Fifth Avenue. Not the 1952 Chrysler Imperial Parade Phaeton built for President Eisenhower, now a $100,000 car owned by the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, but something elegant yet affordable, like this 1965 Ford Thunderbird convertible.
In 1958 Ford designer Bill Boyer and his team transformed the original, two-passenger 1955-1957 T-bird into a four-passenger “personal luxury car.” The heavily styled 1958-’60 “Square Bird” was a modest sales success, as was the 1961-1963 “Bullet Bird” that followed, but Ford executives believed the car still wasn’t reaching its full sales potential. So the 1964-1966 “Flair Bird” introduced Ford’s new, more formal design vocabulary. It was a huge success. The Flair Bird’s minimal ground clearance and rear fender skirts convey the illusion that it’s floating just a bit off the ground, along the lines of Luke Skywalker’s X-34 landspeeder as seen in “Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope.” (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”)
As a parade car, the Flair Bird convertible is so wide and substantial that it won’t get lost among the marching bands. It’s also optimal to have the rear-seat honoree at eye level with the crowd, and this car, at just 53 inches from the road to the top of the windshield, does the trick. Meanwhile, it’s only 22 inches from the rear deck—where the posterior of a notable might plausibly be resting—to the cushion of the rear seat below, so feet can be planted quite firmly during a parade’s stop-and-go pace.
Our quest for the ultimate parade car led us to Palm Springs, California, where we found A.J. Wilson’s ’65 Thunderbird convertible, a nicely preserved car in Rose Beige. Wilson is the third owner of this car, which his brother Ron found not far from the Ford dealership in Auburn, California, where it was first sold a half century ago. The 1965 version is the first T-bird with front disc brakes, and we really love the ’65’s sequential rear taillights. When you indicate a turn, six bulbs per side blink in succession from innermost to outermost. This display of directional incandescence is joined by rear-facing “gun sight” indicators on the front fenders, parking lights tucked away on the front bumper, and, of course, indicators on the dash. The proto-psychedelic light show draws quite a bit of electrical current, as confirmed by the pulsations of the ammeter needle. It’s amazing that with just over 70,000 miles on the clock, the Thunderbird’s convertible fabric top is the same one it wore in the showroom, and it’s even more amazing that the top’s crystal-clear plastic rear window is also
Thanks to much the same mechanism as used on the Lincoln Continental that was employed as the Kennedy presidential parade car, the T-bird’s power-operated top stows in the trunk. The rear-hinged trunklid first raises, the fabric top folds as it retracts, and then it collapses into place before the lid snaps shut. Top down, the car’s profile is totally smooth; there’s no bulge of folded canvas under a tonneau cover to compromise the design’s horizontality. It also leaves a nice, broad, flat seat upon which a parade princess can spread her full skirt and wave to the crowd.
The interior is, in a word, fantabulous. Ford designer John Najjar gave something of a NASA vibe to the overall interior package, and why not, since the advertising slogan for the Flair Bird initially went “Flight plan cleared—Proceed to Thunderbird.” The ribbon-type speedometer threads along a path under backlit plastic numbers that recall the buttons of a 1960s jukebox. The Swing-Away steering wheel with its column-located gear selector swings about 10 inches to the right, making it easy for the driver to get out from under while leaving the car. The Thunderbird also has a kind of slow-motion ejector seat for the driver, and it tilts the bottom cushion to the left, helping milady to gracefully exit by gently spilling her out of the seat.
Aside from a repaint of the hood and trunklid, this ’65 T-bird has been brought up to date by Wilson only in ways that don’t meet the eye. Unless you open the hood, you wouldn’t know that aftermarket air-conditioning has been installed, and the V-8 has been rebuilt with hardened valve seats. Wilson is happy with the car’s performance and notes that it “flies like a bird.” True enough, but this is one heavy fowl (a full 1,000 pounds more than the bulky Galaxie 500 LTD), and our drive time revealed that some wing flapping is needed to gather momentum for takeoff. But once at speed the car has a wonderful, assured feel.
We’re convinced the T-bird of the mid-1960s is parade perfection, but even without accompaniment by a brass band, a car with this kind of presence is certain to draw
- Years Produced 1964-1966
- Number Sold 21,093
- Original Price $4,639 (NADA)
- Value Today $16,335-$36,885 (NADA AVG)
Mid-1950s to mid-’60s Fords had an expressive style unlike the eras that came before or after, and the fourth-generation Thunderbird nicely represents the period, combining space age flamboyance with a little bit of landau roof formality. Sitting on a 113.2-inch wheelbase, this car’s scale suits our modern eye. It also drives in a surprisingly modern way thanks to unibody construction and a trouble-free powertrain, although the disc brakes of the 1965 and 1966 models are a must-have feature for safety. Average values for the 1964-’65 cars are very affordable, and excellent examples go for about $24,000, while the few examples of the 1966 car built with the limited-
production 7.0-liter V-8 go for double that money, climbing to $60,000 for concours-perfect examples.