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True Classic

Written By: Bob Schmeichel

Growing up in the 1960s, even with all the cars out there, I always felt that the Ford Thunderbirds of the ‘50s and ‘60s were true classics in their own right. Ford designers thought that the introduction of the Thunderbird in 1955 would fare better in the market if it was designed and marketed as a personal luxury car rather than a sports car as the Corvette and European markets had labeled their cars as. As it turned out, the T-Bird was right behind the Corvette in sales from 1955 through 1957.

As they evolved in those early years, bigger more powerful engines came into the T-Bird options to promote sales. In 1958, Ford created a larger, new, bolder design and added a third seat to the T-Bird line making it a four-passenger vehicle. Because of the total new look, it took three months longer to get the tooling up and running before it debuted. Although the majority of the two-person T-Bird fans were unhappy about the changes, Ford doubled their sales with the new T-Bird body design selling to a larger market. As new changes were introduced through the Thunderbirds year after year, the allure grew as well as the market share. Ford’s innovative ideas were working. One of the ideas that the late ‘50s T-Birds had that I have always liked was the wrap-around rear seat. I believe this is something you must see to appreciate in regard to automotive interior design, even compared with today’s cars.  

As Gary Ohnstad told me about his T-Bird, I felt like I already knew why we were both on the same page with our feelings about T-Birds. A high school freshman growing up on a farm in Dazey, North Dakota, Gary was offered a job for a dollar an hour to help a neighbor with cultivating. The first time the neighbor came by to pick Gary up, he was in a new T-Bird. This was the first time Gary saw a ‘61 and fell in love with the car immediately. He expressed climbing inside the car for the first time felt like getting inside the cockpit of an airplane surrounded by all the fancy trim and upholstery, and felt like they were riding on a cloud when they were moving. This was a very impressionable time in Gary’s young life that he never forgot.

After graduating high school, Gary enrolled in a five-year architectural program at North Dakota State University and got married to Barb in his senior year. Six months later, after they moved to Sioux Falls, Gary was drafted into the Army and eventually spent a year in Vietnam. This was a pretty common disruption of lives among new families in the late 1960s. No male (18 to 26 years of age) was safe from this government-imposed lottery draft in 1968. Barb went back to North Dakota to live with her parents until Gary came back home. After Gary’s Army stint was over, the couple came back to Sioux Falls so Gary could establish himself as an architect and start their family.

Gary challenged himself with any new building project he chose to take on in the area until the not too distant past when he finally chose to retire. Over the years during his off time when he wasn’t busy with family, Gary played around with restoring old cars which included anything from the brass era cars, through ‘20s and ‘30s, to newer vehicles that are considered classics today. Back in 1985, a fellow Horseless Carriage Club member offered to sell his 1961 Ford Thunderbird to Gary because he knew Gary had a genuine interest in the car. On his way to see the car again in Mitchell, Gary mulled it over many times in his head what he would offer to get the car. As it turned out, the owner said Gary could have the car for a lesser price than Gary had talked himself into paying for it, but only if Gary took it home right then. Feeling the pressure, the owner’s wife spoke up and said Gary did not have to take it right away and could take a few days to make it happen if he wanted it. A couple days later the car was in Gary’s garage.

Now I personally think this car is a classic – not only because it is 1961 Thunderbird, but because of the few options that set it off from other vehicles in the same time frame. First of all, it has what is called a swing-away tilt steering column that enables a driver to get in the car with ease. It does look a bit weird to see the steering wheel towards the middle of the car when parked with no one in the car. Yet it can only be activated back to the normal “in front of the driver” position when the car is started from a park position with a driver. Another option was the floating inside rearview mirror that most every manufacture has added to their vehicles since. The other option that really sets the car off is also why the car is called a “Sports Roadster” model and underlines it as a true classic. It is the factory equipped fiberglass tonneau cover that goes over the rear seat and wraps around the bucket seats in front. This was an attempt by Ford to capture those T-Bird lovers back who wanted it to have only two seats without the third seat showing. The cover makes the car look long on both ends, while allowing the convertible top to come forward out of the reverse opening trunk. Long, low, and cool looking like a rocket ship ride from the side with lit up jet engine taillights out the back end. Do I sound like a kid?!


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