Seems like most of the people who care about authenticity in restoration are in the clubs built around the brand. That's where I heard the push-back to restomodding. But that's a relatively small part of the enthusiast hobby in general. And even within the Tbird clubs, most people have said hey it's your car - make it yours. I just felt I had to justify it! 😉
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“That’s a rare car” they said. “Don’t touch it, that’s a piece of history” they said. It’s true, a ’59 Tbird with a manual transmission is rare - only 2% of total production. Those with overdrive, which this car had, were half of that, maybe 800 units. And in a convertible? Who knows. But oh was it clunky to drive. Second took so long to engage you’d lose 3-5mph during the upshift. First wasn’t synchronized at all. Transmission oil was leaking right through the overdrive solenoid and dripping on the exhaust (how much longer will that last?). And my rotator cuff is shot, making that 1-2 shift a challenge. But I’ve said it myself “if we don’t save some of these, millennials will never know what a 3-on-the-tree is”. So I added the $800 for a full rebuild to the budget. The old 352 FE ran okay after rebuilding the carb and throwing in a Pertronix ignition. But I was so concerned about originality that I carefully preserved the little carburetor heat tube that warms the choke with heat from the exhaust manifold even though I’d replaced the choke with an electric one. But the engine was tired. Several cylinders had low compression and the blow-by from the ubiquitous draft tube was basting the entire underside of the car with greasy funk. When I parked the car, smoke curled up from the grimy crank case breather. There was a vibration at 1250rpm and again at 2500. It would rev beyond that, but not happily. Ford didn’t have “matching numbers” until later into the ‘60s, however it seemed pretty clear this engine was original to the car and had never been out. So I called the two FE engine experts in the area for overhaul estimates. I found the car on Hemmings in Marietta, OH with less than 70k miles and trailered it home in January of 2020. I spent the 2020 Covid lockdown fixing myriad electrical and mechanical issues so I could enjoy it through the summer. The unit body was perfectly solid from floor pans to the new top. It has manual brakes and steering in addition to the manual transmission, yet it has power windows. If that’s not strange enough, the original owner added a continental spare kit on day two! (Don’t you wish we could go back to ask the original buyer what they were thinking?) A collector friend offered to sell me a 390 he had fully rebuilt for a concours ’59 restoration he started but had to abandon. I said no thanks, some of my favorite car shows require unmodified original cars, so I’ll rebuild the 352, thanks. Then both rebuilding estimates came in around $6000. He wanted half that for the 390. And he said (correctly) you can’t tell one from the other without measuring the stroke - the blocks are identical. And it was 30 more horsepower. And it was sitting there ready to drop in, instead of waiting “oh, 6-8 weeks depending when we can get the parts...” I asked a friend who had driven many 3-speeds to drive mine to get a second opinion if it shifted normally or not. His assessment was “yup, that’s what they were like.” And the limp noodle column shifter? “They were never made for speed shifting.” I tried to find out if the antique Borg Warner designed in the ’40s would take another 30hp from the 390. “Oh it might” was the foggy reply. So, I could spend the $800 to rebuild it, only to have it still shift like a truck and potentially implode? I started poking around for 5-speed Tremecs, “just in case” you know. I found a ’94 T5, the last year with a mechanical speedometer drive and the longer pilot shaft to better mate with the old FE. My fabricator guy determined it would fit in the transmission tunnel perfectly, and he could make me a custom adapter plate from FE to T5. It was less than half the cost of rebuilding the old 3-speed, and I knew how nicely they shifted. But I’d have to punch a hole in my center console! And how would I get into those shows? I decided I could drape my Thunderbird cap over the console shifter as I drove in, and the rest of the time it would enjoy rowing a modern 5-speed. I can’t wait to drive it this summer. Fabricator guy made me a custom shifter that will accept the original T-bird shift lever off the column, which of course matches the dash knobs, etc. So my hope is that someone who doesn’t know that Squarebirds never came with a console shifter could look at it and think “gee, it sure looks original”. But am I done? Well, I should add power disc brakes to keep up with the added displacement, right? And there’s a guy who has installed rack and pinion steering...
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