One of the most iconic cars to come out of the 1950s is the Ford Thunderbird. From the year of its release in 1955 to current day, it the T-Bird has had an immense impact on that automotive industry and youth pop culture, even landing itself the spotlight of one of the Beach Boys’ most famous songs, Fun, Fun, Fun. The classic T-Bird design draws folks from every aspect of the automotive community where we see Thunderbirds restored to concourse level original condition, drag race cars, pro-street T-birds, and even all out custom builds like this 1956 Thunderbird custom owned and built by Dan Wilkins of Shoreline, Washington.
These early Thunderbirds had easily some of the coolest instrument panels of the era. The open window glass back is such a unique design.
Dan has had his Thunderbird since 1973, and when he bought it, it was a much different car. “It took 12-years of T-Bird Tuesdays to finish this car,” Dan told us. “A bunch of the guys would come over every Tuesday and help me work on it. I probably spent more on beer than the car.” The restoration was done down to the core of the car as they did a complete, frame off build.
The emblems on the bumperettes are actually the rear speaker emblems off of a mid-‘60s Thunderbird. The headlights are off of an Indian motorcycle and the taillights are off of a Honda 1800 cruiser motorcycle.
A few of the custom touches you may notice right away are the aluminum front and rear bumperettes, the frenched front driving lights and taillights, and the unusual headlights on the car. Something you may not notice right away is that the car does not actually have any emblems, trim, or door handles on the exterior. Unlike most shaved cars, this one is done in a way that’s almost stealth—While they have all been shaved, Dan had them airbrushed back on.
If you're looking at the car from the side, it looks like the handles, locks, and accents are really there, but looking at the car straight down from the front or back makes it look like a completely shaved build.
The airbrush work was done by Mike Lavallee at Killer Paint, and it’s a really nice custom touch added to the build. We can’t stress just how cool of a feature that is, and until you’ve seen that in person it’s hard to really appreciate the affect that it has on the car. The rest of the paint and bodywork was done by Dan in his own garage. You’ll also notice that the side vents have been removed and were replaced with an inset bodyline to keep the accent look. “I still needed something for my flames to come out of!” Dan said.
More than just a show-car, Dan’s T-Bird is also built to fly. The powerplant Dan used is a 312 cubic-inch Y-block Ford police interceptor motor—and it’s supercharged. “They didn’t supercharge these from the factory until 1957,” Dan said. “But this 1956 Paxton supercharger is the same that they would have used from the factory the next year.” So even though the car wasn’t originally supercharged, this is a cool addition because it’s correct to the build and to the year, someone back in 1956 could have feasibly added this to their own car the same way Dan added it to his.
The factory superchargers were piped all the way around the back of the motor and back to the front for air intake, Dan just modified the air intake system to suck air directly from the hood scoop. It's a much more attractive look under the hood.
Fuel is supplied to the engine by way of a 600cfm Edelbrock carburetor, and all the power is then pushed through a 3-speed manual transmission with overdrive. The power is then put to the wheels through a positraction rearend. Dan also added front disc brakes, rack and pinion power steering, and 1-inch sway bars front and rear. “Some of these cars would sort of bath tub down the road,” Dan explained. “Not this one.” For sound quality, the exhaust is piped through glass-packs to the back, but if you take the cap off the side-pipes it goes straight out. “It’s loud,” Dan explained with a smile.
Why the Ford Thunderbird? Dan has always liked these cars. “These have always been my favorite car,” Dan said. “A friend in high school had ’57 Thunderbird, and that was cool, but I always like the ’56 better.” There is definitely something alluring about the Thunderbirds, especially these early years, and when it looks as good as Dan’s does and it has the motivation of a supercharged Y-block, it’s hard not to love it.
The black walled tires and black wheels give the car a more aggressive look than the gentler and more tame look of the white wall tires and hubcaps a car like this would usually have.