Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Tuna Boat Turns 50

My 1961 Bullet Bird

This is a repost. I felt compelled to put it out there again now that my old Thunderbird can officially celebrate its 50th birthday.

Update June 2013
My T-Bird just returned from a major rebuild of steering and suspension (including new leaf springs). The car once again glides just like when I got her in 1972!

When I first saw it I knew it was something special. It was low to the ground. It was uber curvy. It was the color of desert sand. I had to look to find the door handles (they were sculpted right into the door). It was just plain bodacious.

To a 16 year old boy, in an era of boxy 70's era mustangs, it was love at first sight.

The Thunderbird was already 11 years old and had a little over 34,000 miles on it. It was in darned good shape except for missing a back seat. 

When I asked about the seat the little old lady who was selling it told me she raised show dogs and had the back seat removed (and filled with plywood to better accommodate the cages she used for transporting them). I had visions of the back seat resting in perfect shape covered up in her garage. 

Nope, she had thrown it out.

My 1961 Thunderbird
(Cars from the Era of Sputnik)

When I asked about the missing jack she wistfully said "Oh, I have triple AAA, I don't need a jack!"

There's some logic in there somewhere.

When I asked where I might find a back seat to replace the one she threw away, she rolled her eyes to let me know I was really starting to annoy her. She just said "these are sports cars, they get wrecked every day, go to a junk yard!"

It also needed tires. I also knew full well that (powered by Ford's legendary 390 V8 with a 4 barrel carb) it would pass anything on the road except a gas station. But, back then gas was 34¢ a gallon, came with a free box of dishwasher detergent, and a complimentary car wash.

I took it.

Ahhhh! Fins and Chrome

First stop was a junk yard and I'll be damned if the first T-Bird I came to had a back seat in the right color and the jack. It was pure joss.

The Famous Back Seat

While most of my travels today are by plane, in those days Roadboy's ticket to freedom was this very car. I drove it to high school every day. I drove it to Lake Tahoe about once a month. I drove it camping in the Redwoods. I drove it to Death Valley.

This is the car that moved me to Coeur d'Alene Idaho and then saw me through all of my college years. In fact it was at college in Moscow Idaho where my friend Darryl christened it the "Tuna Boat". A title that stuck.

I spent the stupidest night of my life in it, driving drunk. That was the same night I rolled it right over a couple of those fold-up signs with flashers. Never saw em. But I dragged them for blocks and only decided something was wrong when my car sounded like a North Idaho logging truck. Yep those signs had ripped off both mufflers.

We made quite an impression on all the diners at Moscow's Country Kitchen that night.

I was lucky. No one got hurt and the noise my car now made affirmed one of the most important lessons of my life. Never mix alcohol with driving. Period.

The Very First Swing-A-Way Steering Wheel

When I graduated from college, it drove me to Seattle (right through the fallout from the eruption of Mount Saint Helens - there is still that grey ash under every panel).

The Invisible Door Handles

But when I moved to Alaska the Thunderbird went off to live with mom and dad back in Idaho. Dad took good care of the Tuna Boat for me. After my five years in Alaska she was waiting for me in Seattle.

Amazingly, after a few minor fixes it drove like a champ all the way back to where it started - California. Over the next decade I finally had to have it painted and was only able to drove it once in awhile.

Sixteen years ago when we moved to Arizona, the tuna boat carried me, my then 4 year old son, and our huge golden retriever Charlie. My son sat in the passenger seat with Charlie carefully straddling the space between our seats looking out the big windshield and panting the whole way. Charlie was a big gentle soul with an epic case of doggie halitosis.

In Arizona the car had a proverbial melt down one day losing all of its ability to cool itself and, me being cash strapped, I had to leave it parked for about three years. Then I met the god of Big Birds and old Falcons, Jim Dottling. Jim took my car for about a month into his Thunderbird Connection shop in Sunnyslope. There in his old car spa he methodically brought her back to life. Over the years he rebuilt the transmission, replaced all of the rubber parts, added an AC, new upholstery, new dash, and a modern sound system. While Jim has since retired, his son Darren now runs the T-Bird Connection and provides the same thoughtful TLC.  

In many ways she looks better now than when I was in high school. The engine has never needed to be rebuilt and (at the present rate of usage) probably never will.

Except for one night when I played jackass, it has safely carried me and my loved ones, friends, and canine buddies for 39 of its 50 years.

Now when I drive it I get lots of honks, big smiles, and a whole bunch of thumbs up. Mostly from old guys without teeth driving old beaters.

My son ducks down and tries to hide.

Best $700 I ever spent.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011


coco said...

She's a beauty, glad she's held up so well. They sure don't make them like that anymore!


Roadboy said...

She an amazing old boat. I go weeks between uses. Yet when I do get chance to drive her. I just go out, give her four pumps of gas and off we go! Happy as can be!

Cassieopia said...

I remember the tuna boat! Good times!