BIRD OF PREY
A ’55 T-bird as a gasser?
Jim Jard, proud owner of Bird of Prey, is a true hot rodder whose tastes run to cars a little less show and a little more go. Period-correct and understated. He likes his cars to be real and likes them fast. Real fast? That’s even better!
In early 2016, Jard, who resides in Texas, contacted John Tinberg and Randy Schmitt at the Nickey Gasser Shop in Illinois to discuss building a first-gen T-bird gasser in the old-school theme. Jard and the Nickey guys had worked together on other car builds, so Jard knew they spoke the same language when it comes to what works and what doesn’t on a period gasser. After a few phone calls a plan was in place, and in just a matter of days Tinberg and Schmitt landed a ’55 Thunderbird that was a perfect starting point for the project. The car had a solid body with a nice (but not too nice) older paint job and perfect patina that helps turn back the clock to create that authentic look Jard strives for.
Once the Bird arrived at the Nickey shop, the body came off. The first order of business was for the Nickey boys to have custom 2x4-inch front framerails mandrel bent, critical to achieving the correct height of the car when it’s completed. The rails had to be grafted into the factory frame for a clean, factory look. After the new framerails were in, the rest of the straight-axle components could be added. Larry Seabert of Tech-ni-kolor Autocrafters in Dwight, Illinois, painted the frame and related components satin black to help with the period look. To stay true to 1960s fads, the fiberglass roof got a spray-on “vinyl” top by Nate Bissey to copy those real vinyl tops pouring out of Detroit at the time.
Metalwork was done to the bone-stock frame to assure it would hold up to its new role as a powerful gasser. Gussets, fish plates, and a couple of added crossmembers made the frame race-worthy. Next came a 9-inch Ford housing with 35-spline axles, heavy 3⁄8-inch-wall axle tubes, and 4.56 gears with the latest Wave posi unit from John’s Industries. Torino drum brakes in the rear and 11-inch Wilwood disc brakes in front handle braking. Coilover shocks with ladder bars keep everything in place. Jeff Collins of Midwest Muncie supplied the single-disc, 11-inch clutch and built the bulletproof M-23 transmission with a Hurst Super Shifter.
The next call was to Jard’s go-to engine builders, Keith and Jeff Dorton of Automotive Specialists. The decision was made to build a 312 Y-block motor. This father-and-son team is always up to a challenge. The Dortons chose a new electronic fuel-injection system for its dependability, but since they wanted to retain the old-school look of mechanical injection, not just any injection unit would work. The injection unit they chose was an eight-port Hilborn system made for a small-block Chevy engine. No simple task, indeed.
He likes his cars to be real and likes them fast. Real fast? That’s even better!
Starting with a set of aluminum cylinder heads, the plan was to convert the horizontal Ford-style ports to a vertical Chevy configuration. This could only be achieved by cutting out the entire area of the intake ports and a portion of the surrounding cylinder head material with a Bridgeport machine. After that, Keith Dorton spent hours of TIG welding to fill the void and provide a clean palate to machine the new, bigger ports. After all that machining, the Dortons fabricated a spacer block between the cylinder heads and the intake to make all surface heights match.
The original cast-iron Y-block was bored to mate with the 12:1-compression forged pistons and remains one of the few original parts used from the Ford engine. Due to the Y-block’s history of inadequate oiling, the Dortons had to do some major plumbing with stainless steel lines to assure oiling to the cam bearings and valvetrain parts. The rest of the engine received the same attention to detail, and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. From its smooth idle to 6,000 rpm, this engine makes 450 hp and torque to spare.
When the engine arrived at the
Nickey shop, Tinberg and Schmitt wasted no time dropping the beast into the car to start final assembly. Custom-built clutch linkage, motor mounts, and a radiator shroud were fabricated and relocated to compensate for the engine’s 6-inch setback into the firewall. These components were already made and waiting thanks to a mockup Y-block motor that was on hand.
Kyle Fuoss of Fuoss Fabrication in nearby Piper City, Illinois, built the custom headers that were sent to Bob Buckley of Coating Specialties in Chicago Heights, Illinois, for the white ceramic coating, another detail associated with that popular mid-1960s look.
Every piece of the original six-volt electrical system was stripped from the car. Jerry Emmons made the electrical system come to life by changing to a more contemporary 12-volt system with the help of an American Autowire harness. That meant the gauges, lights, and starter had to be switched over to the 12-volt system, too.
Since the car had been repainted some years before, the brown interior just didn’t cut it anymore. The original bench seat was sent to Vos Upholstery in Lansing, Illinois, for a clean, vintage look. Black with white Naugahyde pleats in the factory pattern did the job. Randy Schmitt created the pleated aluminum dash panel and door panels for a slightly custom flair.
The 6.00-15 Bfgoodrich Silvertown bias-ply reproductions from Coker were mounted on a set of 15x4.5 ET Vintage V five-spoke wheels. The tires on the business end of the ’Bird are 10.00-15 Radir slicks mounted on 10-inch-wide Wheel Vintiques steel wheels.
Once the interior was finished and the tires and wheels were on, attention shifted to the car’s exterior. It was agreed that the 20-year-old repaint had withstood the test of time and, though not a perfect paint job, it was perfect for this ’Bird. A scratch here and a ding there weren’t a bad thing; instead, they were more like the finishing touches to a period drag car.
The only thing left was lettering the car for that “real” gasser look. Steve Connor of Conman Painting was the man to call. Connor knows all the subtleties for graphics on a vintage gasser, as his work attests.
The Bird of Prey is on the hunt, so watch out! This bird can fly!
> Bias-ply tires are a must for any Nickey-built gasser, and Coker has the right, skinny BFG Silvertowns. The aluminum wheels received a special coating to mimic the true “mag” look. > Radir piecrust slicks mount on 10-inch-wide Wheel Vintiques steel wheels. The two-tone paint on the wheels helps identify wheelspin at the starting line. > There isn’t one place on this ’Bird that doesn’t scream “Gasser!” This shot shows the Con Man’s vintage-style lettering, fenderwell headers by Kyle Fuoss, the dashmounted tach, and Hilborn stacks.
> The T-bird’s old-time graphics were laid down by Steve “Con Man” Connor. > Paying homage to the drag cars of yesteryear, the staggered fuel injection stacks also add to the wild race car look.
> A 13-inch Grant steering wheel and Stewart-warner gauges replace the factory pieces. Radio/heater delete is mandatory. Randy Schmitt fabbed the “pleated” door and dash panels. > A 15-gallon fuel cell and vintage-style battery with cutoff switch complete the trunk area. > The ’Bird got a best-of-both-worlds interior: Saturday at the beach or Sunday at the strip. The rollbar and racing harnesses, along with the disc front brakes and driveshaft loop, are just some of the things the Nickey crew considers as standard for their builds.
> Stance matters. This T-bird has the look of an all-out gasser that was born to race, though the fact is the car was built mostly for street use.
> Jim Jard came to John Tinberg and Randy Schmitt at the Nickey Gasser Shop with the idea of turning a first-gen Thunderbird into a 1960s-era gasser. Running with the idea, the guys at the shop found a great build candidate in a solid ’55 ’Bird with a...
> What’s a gasser without a straight axle? Hanging the front suspension was no simple matter; custom boxed framerails were fabricated and grafted to the factory frame. > The Nickey guys used this Y-block mockup motor to suss out all the details...