Ann Arbor, Michigan, may be best known as the home of the University of Michigan and its nationally ranked football and basketball programs—and maybe also, of course, for Car and Driver's magazine and website—but it's also the location of a great car show: Rolling Sculpture. The annual event, now in its 25th year, brings together some 300 vehicles of all descriptions to Ann Arbor's closed-off downtown streets and draws thousands of spectators. And every year, we choose one cool vehicle that captures the eclectic essence of the event. This year, the C/D Editors' Choice award went to this gorgeously restored 1956 Ford Thunderbird owned by Tom and Marianne Watson.
Given the variety and quality of vehicles at Rolling Sculpture—you could see everything from a perfect 1911 Ann Arbor touring car to a 1978 Aussie Ford Falcon Cobra muscle car—how did the 'Bird rise to the top? It was a combination of car, color, and transmission. Whether the two-seat T-Bird evokes a simpler, more optimistic era is up to you, but the two-seat T-Bird absolutely does capture a postwar moment when U.S. auto companies ruled—and were expanding their model lineups with cool new and powerful cars.
The Watsons' two-seat T-Bird expresses that time perfectly—especially in that euphoric Fabulous Fifties color, which reminded us of a tall, cool glass of limeade. (Maybe we were just getting thirsty in the summer heat.) The color is actually called Sage Green, according to Tom. It's the original factory color, too, something the Watsons discovered during the restoration process. The interior was upholstered in a combination of white and Sage Green that matched the paint perfectly. It was stunning.
We also love the Watsons' T-Bird because . . . manual gearbox! We're proponents of shift-it-yourself transmissions for the driving involvement they bring; witness the Save the Manuals! campaign C/D started back in 2010. This T-Bird had the three-speed manual gearbox that the car originally came with.
Like many of the vehicles at Rolling Sculpture, the T-Bird had undergone a thorough and loving restoration. In tatters and painted black when the Watsons purchased it, the 'Bird required three and a half years of work to return it to its factory-fresh condition. It was in such bad shape, says Tom, that "When we took it apart we found that the body was supported on the frame by a pair of two-by-fours." Tom, a former Ford engineer now working at Tenneco, rebuilt virtually all of the mechanical components himself, including the 202-hp 292-cubic-inch V-8, the transmission, and the differential. He handled the extensive bodywork and paint with his checkbook. We didn't dare ask how much.
The two-seat T-Bird, manufactured from 1955 through 1957, was a stylish cruiser at a time when the first-generation Chevy Corvette was quickly evolving into a serious sports car, with a heavily revised body and a fuel-injected V-8. But that was then. Viewed from today's perspective, the 1956 T-Bird is a boulevardier and a show-stopping machine. It reminds us that great design always was—and always will be—something that moves people as much as horsepower and handling. Mr. and Mrs. Watson, thanks for preserving that message—and the car that it's wrapped in.
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