I’m On Fire (Again): 1956 Ford Thunderbird

By Jeff Bennett

In a previous story, I wrote about a former teacher who owned a 1955 Thunderbird.  A ride in her yellow Thunderbird is probably the root cause for my desire to own one of these two seat beauties, and, thanks to loyal reader Steve Tankersley, another one has appeared on the radar.  This particular 1956 Ford Thunderbird, found on Craigslist for $13,000 or best offer, looks like the perfect project car.  Located in Grass Valley, California, this iconic automobile will require a lot of work, but it seems to be pretty solid and complete.

Every car has a story, and this Thunderbird has a story that is becoming all too familiar.  It seems that this Thunderbird was owned by the seller’s grandfather, and it is part of an inheritance.  Unfortunately, the seller does not wish to keep it and placed it on the market after trying to clean it up a bit if the picture above is any indication.  It is sad to see situations like this, as a two seat Thunderbird should be an appealing heirloom.  I sometimes run into people who can tell you in great detail about a neat car a deceased relative owned that they ended up selling at the first opportunity.  They cheerfully tell you about the car, but they recoil at the thought of taking over as caretaker.  I guess caring for an antique is pretty daunting for some people, but I have always considered the task to be a labor of love.  This hobby has provided me some great experiences, and has allowed me to meet some wonderful folks along the way.  I just wish we could help more people feel comfortable with the prospect of putting an old car in their garage.  We definitely need to do something to keep the hobby afloat.

Anyway, back to the Thunderbird.  While it appears in the picture above to be a light pink in color, the other pictures make the car look white or maybe a light tan.  Looking at color chips from 1956, my guess is that it was originally painted Colonial White with a red and white interior.  The interior red that year seems to have a fair amount of brown in it though.  Otherwise, the car seems to be rather plain in style and set up to be a comfortable cruiser.  Looking at the color options for 1956, there are a few possible color, trim, and top options that would simply be amazing together.  If I had the chance to order one, I would have selected Nocturne Blue Poly (a royal blue) for my exterior color, peacock (dark blue) and white for an interior, and a black canvas top.  With a manual transmission, of course.

In the engine compartment, everything seems to be there.  Dirty and rusty, but there.  The owner states that it was parked due to some oil issues he doesn’t understand, which could be anything from a locked up engine to a leaky oil line.  It looks to be the original Y-block engine, but we have no idea whether or not it was the base 292 cubic inch V-8 or the 312 with the single four barrel carburetor.  If it is a 292, then it packs 202 horsepower, and if it is a 312, then it would be rated at 215 horsepower.  There was a third option, a twin four barrel carburetor setup that delivered 220 horsepower, and was installed by the dealer.  These kits are fairly rare on 1956 Thunderbirds, as they were an option only offered late in the model year.  A chrome dress up kit for the engine was also offered as an option, and this one may have that option under all that grime.  The photo quality doesn’t help much, but it does allow us to see that the car is equipped with a heater.  Believe it or not, heaters were an option on Thunderbirds, and it is not totally unheard of for one to pop up every now and again.

As I’ve lamented before, I just cannot understand why two seat Thunderbirds are not valued higher.  This one, at $13,000 or best offer, is one of the lowest priced ones I’ve seen in this condition.  For what looks to be a fairly rust free and garaged example, this one is hard to pass up.  My guess is that the car could be purchased for less, as the owner doesn’t seem to be all too attached to it.  My wallet is grateful that this car resides on the left coast.  If it were any closer, I’d probably be taking a look at it.  At this price, I’d treat it like a blank canvas.  It would need a full restoration anyway, so why not paint it like I mentioned above, hot rod the existing Y-block, and install an aftermarket six speed and a built rear end.  You can’t order a new 1956 Thunderbird today, but you can build one up yourself!

What would you do with this one?

 

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Comments

  1. Oingo

    I can remember not too long ago drivers went for 15k.

    1+

  2. Meeto

    When I looked at the first photo that showed the front bumper, the first question that came to mind was, “Does he have the Dagmar’s stashed somewhere? Would they be hard to replace if he does not?

    0

  3. 86 Vette Convertible

    I like the 55-57 Birds. Ironically they are the reason the Corvette wasn’t killed off by GM but that’s another story.

    Someone needs to get this one back on the road doing their best Suzanne Sommers impression (yes I know it’s not the right year but it’s close enough).

    4+

    • Vince H

      It is the same year she drove.

      0

    • Meeto

      Someone offers you that the T-Bird or Suzanne Somers. They both age, but the car at least is restorable.

      1+

      • Kevin

        Actually, I think Suzanne has been through a couple of “restorations” Lol.

        3+

      • Mike P

        Thigh master man think thigh master …LOL

        2+

  4. leiniedude

    In the second photo it looks like a driveway radiator flush going on. As a side bar, my niece lives in Grass Valley, California. She says they grow so much weed around there it affects her allergies.

    0

    • Mountainwoodie

      Makes her allergies better? 🙂 On a side note…back in the mid eighties my sort of BIL had a PERFECT down to the nuts and bolts original (sea foam green Ford analog) 55 T Bird. I mean it was eerily spotless. Ran like a top. He wanted 11K and I was too cheap to pony up, yet again!

      2+

  5. Bbuz

    White, porthole top, blonde bombshell, then its the perfect American Graffiti boulevard cruiser.

    3+

  6. boxdin

    As Barrett Jackson quantified buyers of these Tbirds have basically “aged out” in that the market buyers for these are no longer active in maintaining a special car.
    BJ tracked many cars prices and age of likely owners and came up with this theory. Makes perfect sense to me. Other cars have also reached peak prices and since declined since their owner base has aged out.

    4+

    • mtshootist1

      boxdin, you are absolutely correct. I have Harleys, and just read an article that the HD Motor Company is trying to figure out what to do, their buyers are dwindling. These are the guys who grew up with Easy Rider. Most I see on the roads appear to be retirees. there are scads of Harleys for sale.

      4+

      • boxdin

        HD is looking for overseas growth. Even my father in law in phillippines wants a harley, even w his towns roads are more suited for a dirt bike, not a harley.

        3+

      • Meeto

        I recently read that they are completely changing their line to appeal to younger riders, especially women. But you are right. A lot of Harley riders seem to be older men. I live in Kingman AZ and it seems whenever there is a motorcycle accident, 9 times out of 10 the rider is not young. And this town is a big retiree community. At some point a person really should hang up the leathers and get themselves a tricked out golf cart.. Just like telling great grandpa he has to quit driving a car, the same holds true for motorcycles, but at a much younger age. There is too much skill, attention, and awareness of surroundings needed to ride safely. By the way, I am 65 and would no longer consider riding at my age.

        4+

  7. Bruce

    Actually the interior looks to be Buckskin and white. If you can get the vin number. Original colors and engine size are readily decoded. Parts are very available including upgraded brakes, cooling, and alternator conversion to make them great drivers!

    1+

  8. Puhnto

    I thought the ’56s always had porthole tops. That it was the ’55s that didn’t. This one doesn’t. Can any of you TBird guys clarify that?

    0

    • Kevin

      Owners of the 55s complained about the “blind spot” Ford rectified the issue by adding the porthole window. Although it didn’t totally solve the problem, it definitely added to the appearance. However, it was an option, not standard. Hence, some 56s have them, and some don’t.

      0

    • Mike P

      you are correct about the blind spot first time I drove mine with the convertible top up it was a shock as to how blocked you are. The response came half way through 56 and in 57 I dont think it was even an option they all had them

      0

  9. Will
  10. Mike P

    the engine options of 312 and twin coffee pot 4bbls did not come until 57 along with a drop from 15 in wheel to 14 in, they also had a version in 57 with a supercharger top with no porthole would usually indicate early 56 but never know

    0

  11. Mike P

    Oh yeah color is called Coral

    0

  12. Alford Pouse

    Friend of my Dad’s had one that had a rumble set instead of a trunk. Said it came from the dealer or company like that. Don’t recall which.

    0

    • Mike P

      the rumble seat was an aftermarket kit called a birds nest , I have a 57 I think it might work for a double amputee but thats about it

      0

      • Meeto

        Now THAT’S funny.

        0

  13. TouringFordor

    The “oil issue” is probably the rocker arms. Y Blocks were notorious for have the oil passages to the rockers sludge up. There were aftermarket kits to run an external oil line to the rocker covers.

    0

  14. 64 bonneville

    The rumble seat on the “little birds” was called a birds nest, and an aftermarket or dealer installed option. Very few were produced, but I don’t have exact figures. An older gentleman in the Classic Thunderbird Club (1955-1957 models) who lives in Tulsa, has one. I had talked with him many years ago at a show, and he told me that there were less than 200 made all together. I don’t know where he got the numbers.

    Heaters were an option on just about all cars prior to about 1960, as anti-freeze was developed during WW II at the militaries request. before that you drained the water from the radiator in freezing weather.

    Nice ‘bird, but not for that price, I’m thinking with what all needs done, somewhere in the $8-10K range would be a good selling price.

    2+

    • Alford Pouse

      Thanks for the info on the rumble seat!

      1+

  15. Mike P

    The top oilers on the y block series were legendary, My dad was a ford mechanic I grew up on old fords not sure I saw one without them until I got my 57 bird

    1+

  16. Black Cat

    Jeff, your observation on family heirloom cars is sound. Even “car guys” have to make tough choices on those. My late grandmother passed her 1960 square bird to me when she could no longer drive. I had great memories of riding in it as a kid, and the sentimentalist in me wanted to keep it. But I assessed what it needed by then, accepted that I was midway into restoring my Jaguar XK-140 and didn’t have the time, space or extra cash flow to add a project. So, I let it go to someone who was in a better position to act as steward for the car. As car karma goes, I returned the favor a few years ago buy buying a survivor XJ6 series 1 Jag from the daughter of its original owner when her Mom could no longer drive. What goes around, comes around. Make every mile count!

    5+

  17. Kevin

    First Tri-Bird I’ve ever seen steel valve covers. That’s a mystery. Definitely not a 312. Very strange to me. As far as the external oil line get up to feed the rockers, that was just a cheap and half-assed way to fix a simple problem.

    1+

    • Mike P

      The alternative to the top oiler was to yank the engine strip it and cook it out , you couldnt rod it out so ,not a siimple problem on this engine anyone who worked on them knew that, an hour fix that worked and looked bad was a very reasonable alternative for a daily driver. The t bird Aluminum covers were part of the dress up kit an option

      0

      • Kevin

        Well, you may have proved me wrong on that one, sometimes I comment without stopping to think lol. But in response to an earlier comment about 2 4barrels not being available till 57 is not quite accurate. They were available in 56. And they weren’t coffee pot carbs lol, they were affectionately known as Holley teapots.

        0

    • Mike P

      I have the ford mechanics spec books I can check and be sure have t dig them out one set of books I got from dad technical data is great

      0

  18. Jim Morris

    In ’56, the dual 4’s were a dealer installed option not shown on the VIN.
    I believe this color is a really faded Buckskin Tan.
    Standard was black valve covers w/decal, argent air cleaner, black fan.
    Optional dress-up kit was finned valve covers, chrome air cleaner, chrome fan.
    Price is great for a rust-free body, the price of body panels will bring tears to your eyes.
    These cars are a unit-body mounted on a frame. No panels unbolt, all are welded, so all patches have to be structural, so no pop-rivet and bondo patch panels in the rockers and floors.
    The 292 & 312 are visually the same, so you have to look at casting codes to be sure.
    Would be a nice car to restomod, these are useless as daily drivers as they came from the factory. Hot interior, mediocre power, flaky handling, connie kit makes them butt-heavy & prone to oversteer, scary brake fade when driven hard, etc.

    0

    • Mike P

      Not 100% but believe the dress up package also had steering column. fan shroud and heater box chrome . Thought i had the book on 56 I dont , general info , 292 and 312 were externally the same 312 engine prefix is ECJ all others were 292

      0

    • Kevin

      Mediocre power? The 312 was the hottest motor on the road in it’s day, next to the Chrysler hemi. They dominated NASCAR in 57. There’s a long list of performance parts available for the y-block, including aluminum heads, they can easily be built to push out 400+hp. Don’t believe it, do some research. I just recently built a quite healthy 292 myself, which will go in my 56 F100. As far as brakes and handling, there’s upgrades available

      1+

  19. Steve

    Jon Kaase’s Insanely Customized Ford Y-Block Makes Nearly 600 hp!

    http://www.hotrod.com/articles/jon-kaases-insanely-customized-ford-y-block-makes-nearly-600-hp/

    2+

  20. Stephen Dycha

    Meeto. Nice spot you live in. Drove from Detroit to San Diego to San Francisco and home. Stopped in your way. Fun trip. Sorry. Off topic. Did offer a guy cash for a base rust free 67 camaro by way of a note. Never replied.

    0

  21. gaspumpchas.

    The 2 seat birds never took off in value- you can buy one in good shape for 20k-30k on flea bay. Had a 55, sold it and want another!!

    0

  22. Righteous Bob

    How to fix the top end oiling, Remove rocker assy, Tap oiling oil in head for a grease fitting, insert grease fitting, grease with a low temp grease, you’ll feel it when it clears out the sludge, reinstall rockers and adjust valves after you clean out the shafts and oiling holes.. Start and drive. 15 minutes of drive time should melt the grease and oil should be flowing.. Course I have not done one in 30 years…

    0

  23. Leon

    I worked for a Ford dealership in the Y-block era. When we got one in with the rockers rattling, Ford sent out a special drill bit, &we were shown how to remove the rockers on the non-oiling side &drill thru the oiling hole thru the cam bearing with this flat tipped drill bit, then fire up the engine on the “other” bank & watch the oil come flowing up then replacing the rockers & done.

    0

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