By Niki D’Andrea / Photos by Kimberly Carrillo
Craig Curtis’ 1956 Ford Thunderbird
When Craig Curtis starts his 1956 Ford Thunderbird, it sounds like a big, beautiful beast growling in his driveway. The pitch-perfect rumble is the sound of a modified muscle car flexing its specs – 427 Cobra engine with 450 horsepower and 520-foot torque at 4,500 rpm. Its Ford racing engine is so powerful Curtis’ stepson Brent won’t drive the car. “I’d drive it on the track, but not on the street,” he says. “Put the gas pedal halfway down and you’re flying.”
Curtis is the car’s sole driver, which is the way he likes it. He’s put a ton of time and money into the T-bird, and it’s all been a labor of love. The 1956 Ford Thunderbird has been in Curtis’ family for 50 years. “My father bought it literally from a little old lady in Pasadena in 1968,” he says. His family lived in Ohio but frequently traveled to California for his father’s construction work. Whenever they were there, Curtis says they would cruise around Pasadena in the T-bird. “It was my dad’s rental car,” Curtis says.
Upon graduating from Kent State in 1983, Curtis moved to California, where the car was in storage. After he moved to Arizona, he acquired the Thunderbird (with about 130,000 original miles), and it sat in storage at his Paradise Valley home from 1995 until 2014. “It wasn’t running. It was beat up. It was an ugly pea green,” he says. “The body was rock solid, but it needed new tires, engine rebuilt, upholstery – everything needed to be redone. It was shot.”
The car underwent an extensive, three-year refurbishment and modification by Squeeg’s Kustoms in Chandler. The extreme makeover was finished near the end of last year and includes billet wheels by Budnik, custom-built back bumper and stainless steel radiator hoses, AODE/4R70W Len Tech Automatics Street Terminator transmission, 4-wheel independent suspension, and a Bluetooth-enabled sound system that looks like a 1950s vintage AM/FM radio.
“The only original part is all the metal, the outside framework for the seats and dash… Everything has been refurbished or given a new replica,” Curtis says, noting the car’s original tire kit is an exception. It was removed, to the dismay of Curtis’ father, who Curtis says still gives him grief about it. The car body was painted gloss black, and the chassis and engine were painted black to match. There is a hard top for the car (also black), but Curtis says, “I’ll never put that top on the car because I don’t want to scratch the paint.”
Curtis is semi-retired from the homebuilding business (he sold his company in 2005), so he can focus more time on his passion for restored and modified rides. His 1956 Ford Thunderbird has already won two car show accolades this year, nabbing Builder’s Choice Awards at the Goodguys Del Mar Nationals in San Diego and the Goodguys 9th Spring Nationals in Scottsdale. His next goal is to get and refurbish an old two-door Bronco. But he’s still beaming about the T-Bird.
“I still can’t believe it’s mine, it’s done and it looks so beautiful,” Curtis says. “I told (Squeeg’s Kustoms owner Doug Jerger), ‘I can’t drive this car, it’s a piece of art.’”
But he does drive it. He hasn’t taken the Thunderbird on any long road trips yet, but says “I’m looking forward to taking it out,” most likely on a cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway.
“I’ve always loved the car,” he says. “This is like a sentimental thing to me.”