To the editor:

A milestone is approaching that the local public may consider with greater interest than a passing glance.

Friday will mark the 50th year I’ve owned a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, black with white porthole top, that has through time morphed it’s status to that of a mobile community landmark.

Forgive me for strutting a little.

Although the theme here is a privately owned car, a random selection of details involving the classic Thunderbirds is appropriate and within the parameters of this presentation.

The Thunderbird name almost didn’t happen. Ford attorneys hesitated in applying for the trademark application and narrowly beat General Motors, which settled for Firebird for a new Pontiac.

The Thunderbird was Ford’s response to the Chevrolet Corvette. The single-seat 1950s Thunderbirds, now rare classics, were produced only three years — 1955, ’56 and ’57.

The first T-Bird, a 1955 model, appeared on Sept. 9, 1954, and the final T-Bird, a 1957, saw completion on Dec. 13, 1957, for a total three-year production of 53,166. Statistics are evasive concerning the number still registered. The production figures are indeed rare when compared to the 1965 Ford Mustangs’ output of 559,000 units.

The 1955 T-Bird electric system provided six volts positive ground while the 1956s and 1957s were 12 votes negative ground. Automatic transmission models only start in neutral, not park. Porthole tops were first available in 1956, but would fit the ’55s.

The 1956 T-Bird is readily identified by its exposed spare tire while the ’55 and ’57 models are trunk stowed.

Increased horsepower was available in 1956, along with sun visors, windwings and rectangular side vents.

Passing through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 13, 1969, a 1956 T-Bird displayed a $1,600 sign beckoning for takes. In the interest of great human relations, the details are somewhat justified. Admiring the car but proceeding with caution, I delicately probed the rationale for selling with initial impression the owner appeared murky and slightly reluctant. (“Parting was such sweet sorrow.”)

Newly married with a pregnant wife, the owner required a sedan. The impact of the 1956 T-Bird’s future value was not realized in 1969. The “for sale” sign remained steady for six weeks, and I was the first to approach. With meager resources, my offer in writing an $800 check (wrecking my savings) followed by a monthly $50 money order for 16 months to complete payment was accepted. He agreed to that contract with a handshake and signed over the title. Trust of that degree of intensity between strangers in this modern age is beyond comprehension.

Arriving at my Maryland naval station, several shipmates indicated my sanity was somewhat suspect for investing that kind of money for a 13-year-old car.

The vehicle identification number and data plate reveals my T-Bird was assembled on April 5, 1956, and was the 30th car. Not all Thunderbirds — not all Thunderbirds built up to that point that day and whipped to a Washington, D.C., dealer with a suggested retail price of $2,960.

My early abuse of the T-Bird indicated a complete lack of rational thought toward its future longevity. I couldn’t let reality intrude, causing it to deteriorate from my less-than-stellar conduct. It possessed great water-tight integrating when driving in the pouring rain, top down. Floorboard rust was the ultimate result, with holes developing — convenient for discarding empty beer cans.

Returning to Indiana in 1982, Straley’s Garage allowed space to commence the long humbling struggle for resurrecting the Bird from the ashes. “Project Phoenix” endured from Oct. 25, 1954 to June 27, 1987, with many challenges during the 32-year endeavor. Parts flowed from an outlet in Coshocton, Ohio. Dick Baldauf overhauled the engine, and The Tire Center installed the exhaust system. Larry Brinkerhoff painted it raven black (original color). At the time, Coker Tire Company, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was the only supplier of proper-width white sidewall tires.

My car show participation has dwindled from 20 to 30 per year to only a few. Twice monthly at a minimum, people, some of them strangers, ask if I still have that “little black and white car.”

Roy L. Leverich

Portland