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...

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