Cushenbery Custom: 1956 Ford Thunderbird


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You know that phrase, “A face only a mother could love?” Well, this custom Ford Thunderbird here on eBay may qualify for the type of vehicle where that phrase is immediately uttered at first glance. To be fair, when I spotted the side profile of this car, I thought it might have been a Ferrari California spyder – seriously. So I can’t claim to be completely repulsed by the thing, which is the ultimate expression of 50s-era radio promotions and California surf culture. Special thanks to Bryan K. for this tip!


That image of it in storage is one thing; the full-on frontal view of its stacked headlights and angry snout is quite another. This is an interesting-looking car. I wouldn’t call it ugly, no – but I would call it challenging. I do love the way the body cascades down to the rear quarters, and the low ride height is visually pleasing. The car does look angry and powerful, but beautiful it is not.


The story of the converted Thunderbird is this: a California radio station commissioned a local hot rod / body shop called Cushenbery Customs to create a tempting convertible for a radio giveaway promotional program. Lots of custom bits were incorporated, from the Pontiac headlights, Mustang seats and taillights, and a drivetrain claimed to be “Cobra-powered” in the original advertisements. However, it now makes do with a 292 from a ’56 Thunderbird and a 4-speed manual transmission.


See, this is the photo that got me. That’s a pretty sweet profile, and the car appears to have a hard-top in other photos with no folded top in sight. I actually think proportionately the rod shop nailed the design, but that front end is a very personal decision as to whether you consider it attractive. Bidding is over $3,000 with the reserve unmet, and the car still runs and drives. Does anyone remember the original contest or rod shop?

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  1. MH

    Wow is that nasty! Thunderbird aren’t that good of a car anyway, but they found a way to make it worse.

    Like 0
  2. michaedo

    Here’s a pic of one of Bill Cushenberry’s better known,
    better looking projects from long ago.

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  3. Frankie Paige

    The front end reminds me of the Monkee’s GTO.

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  4. michaedo

    And another. The Silhouette.
    Hotwheels made a version and I believe
    AMT also made a model of it back in the old

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  5. JW

    Pontiac stacked headlights, Mustang taillights and the nose looks like a bent down Corvette front end. Too bad because the 50’s & 60;s Thunderbirds were nice looking cars and like the Cougar were more luxury than the Mustang.

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  6. Vince Habel

    I would call it ugly.

    Like 0
  7. Scott Allison

    Nothing a Sawzall can’t fix!

    Like 0
  8. DolphinMember

    Disjointed, messed up, and ugly are a few thoughts that come to mind. I guess I can understand that a local custom shop would promote their business this way, especially in L.A., but that is one real bad hodgepodge of stuff on that poor ‘Bird.

    I’m with JW. The custom shop ruined a pretty good looking car, and at still under a $5K bid they probably ruined its value forever.

    Like 0
  9. Mark S

    As I’ve herd on this site before there’s a butt for every seat. This car looks ok from the side and back, although I’d have gone with a round tail. The front has some good in it I could live with the stacked head lights but that ugly eagle beak would have to go. The builder should have kept the nose closer to stock. Just my opinion, Great find.

    Like 0
  10. Mike D

    to say the least, this must have been a looker of a car when it was given away in a contest . the color combo was interesting, I’d like to see somebody bring it back to the way it was , possibly put a “Cobra” 5.0 in it w/ a 5 spd overdrive . I am not a big fan of the tri 5 T-birds , but this would garner some attention! The pic in the ad from when it was given away looks much better than the current condition

    Like 0
  11. David R.

    That looks like the Monkee’s GTO got into front end collision with a train.

    Like 0
  12. Bernardo

    Here’s an album with a few other pictures of the car and also a brochure of the radio contest

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  13. 64 bonneville

    Bill Cushenberry was a very talented metalworker/customizer. As reference, the above pictures of his work. What needs to be remembered is that the custom touches on this T-bird was what was in style, or “forward thinking” at that time. the fact that it is just about all very talented metal work, with probably a skim coat of filler to smooth out the welds, it a testament to his craft. Personally I would have canted the quad headlights, and reduced the protrusion of the “snout” to give it a more Italian Sports Car look. all in all, a well designed (for the time, and probably what the radio station wanted) custom. the early T-birds don’t really lend themselves well to customizing.

    Like 1
  14. bcavileer

    That is bad. Sorry.

    Like 1
  15. Karl

    If it could be bought cheaply enough, I would say do it, and then start looking for a T-bird nose clip. The rear isn’t too bad, and the interior was not altered too much, but the front end is horrendous. It might be a good idea to hack off everything between the headlights right away, since nothing in that area is worth keeping anyway, and you can look at it without weeping or becoming very angry.

    It almost seems like the stylist was anticipating the grille shape of the ’70 Camaro, which is a very attractive design and might have looked very good here. In fact, the thing to do might be to graft in a more attractive grille and keep the Pontiac stacked headlights. It’s already lemons–make some lemonade.

    Like 1
  16. MikeW

    It would have looked better with the Edsel boomerang tail lights. They were several T-birds built using them.

    Like 0
  17. tirefriar

    Good thing I was viewing this on an empty stomach. Probably the only thing that kept me from puking all over my keyboard – never thought I’d say this about any car but….

    Like 1
  18. JohnnyT

    Back in the ’60’s this would have been the perfect custom car to cruise to the beach with its namesake song blasting from the radio.

    Like 0
    • JW

      OMG after listening to a portion of that song all I can imagine is Peter Griffin singing it. I’m going to be sick.

      Like 0
      • starsailing

        That Peter Griffin version of Surfin Bird was just on last night….I had just gotten it out of my mind finally when I fell asleep…I hope you don’t get the ELVIRA …or the VIVA LOS VEGAS song stuck in your head now!

        Yes 60’s customs….did look like this TBirdstangponti…..It’s living proof!

        Like 0
      • Mike W H

        This song was the epitome of surf punk culture. It was on heavy rotation on KHJ and KRLA here in So Cal. LSD was in the water cooler then. At least at these guys garage. It was a groovin’ summer with epic surf. This song was adored by us because it provoked such a reaction from mom and dad.

        Like 1
  19. Ed P

    Cushenberry took a good looking T Bird and turned it into an atrocity.

    Like 1
  20. Barry T

    Proof that one can make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. I understand that not everyone feels the same way but I think the 56′ Thunderbird is a quite nice looking car.

    Like 1
    • Duffy

      Have to agree.

      Like 0
  21. Duffy

    They forgot to mention the car was built for a blind man.

    Like 0
  22. skibum2

    It is amazing that those that were not there have the most caustic comments..Go ahead, pay ungodly amount for your treasure, me, I am happy to be able to say I bought most of these “treasures” at a reasonable price…Drove them hard and put them away wet.. Hahahahaha…

    Like 1
  23. George

    I agree that from the side it looks nice. But the mustang tail lights are a definite eyesore. If the nose wasn’t canted down, it might have had a nicer look. But yes, I prefer the original T-Bird look.

    Like 0
  24. George

    In the context of the mid 60s, the nose isn’t far off. Look at many of the kit cars of that era.

    Like 0
  25. DREW V.

    Reminds me of the “ThunderCougarFalconBird” from “Futurama”

    Like 0
  26. Dave Darby

    Its not the most elegant treatment, but its not so bad. It looks pretty decent in the radion station flyer. I seriously doubt it ever had anything other than a 292 in it tho. I’m sure it was built on a budget. Keeping in mind thatwhen it was built, it was just another old car, it doesnt make me lose any sleep.

    Like 1
  27. Kevin D Bennett

    Not liking the car is understandable. Most of which comes from a lack of understanding regarding the custom car scene or the time period. Take a look at this with the same eyes as the Monkee Mobile. This was the exact same timeframe.

    The car was built by KHJ Boss Radio during their summer of the Big Kahuna promotion in 1966. This was an historic time in radio, and the summer of 1966 was epic. The Kahuna promotion was only supposed to last a few weeks, and it exploded and lasted several months. Famous customizer Bill Cushenbery was contacted and fully involved in the promotion, doing live radio spots discussing with the Big Kahuna as to the work that was being done on the “Surfin’Bird”. Callers were to listen for the Kahuna’s Cockatoo and they would win a Tiki Charm necklace that entered them in the contest to win the car.

    Seeing the car in this state doesn’t give a true picture of what it actually looked like. The only photo I have located to date, is the promotional photo used by the radio station for weekly Top 30 bulletins. The car was supposed to have everything but the kitchen sink, including dual Hobie surfboards and a hibachi grille and cooler in the trunk.

    This Thunderbird was a 10 year old used car when this promotion was undertaken. It was a battered old toad that wasn’t worth much as it was. It is now a one of a kind custom by one of the foremost customizers of his generation. There are plenty of restored 56 Thunderbirds. There is only one KHJ Surfin’Bird.

    Like 1

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