Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Jack Williams has already had a Ford Thunderbird swiped from him by a family member. Twice in fact.
It’s a pretty good bet that after reviving his love affair with the 1966 Thunderbird that he bought new as a teenager, he’s not going to let it happen again.
The Neenah, Wis., resident began his long romance before he was even legal driving age and it endured through a harrowing 3-year combat tour in Vietnam. “I bought a ’56 T-Bird from a preacher that had wrecked it when I was 15,” recalls Williams. “I spent a year fixing that up. It had a 312 V-8, it was a Thunderbird and I really liked it. Then my brother stole in one night and took it out and wrecked it. He wrapped it around a pole.
“I fell in love with the Thunderbirds back then.”
A couple years later, Williams walked into a Ford dealership in Sandy, Utah, where the family lived and decided he needed a new Thunderbird. He was still a teenager and headed for a hitch in the Army, and the salesman at the dealership was apparently a little skeptical of Williams’ declaration that he wanted an expensive new pseudo-luxury car. “I was just bumming around home, waiting for my orders (from the Army). I was 18 I guess. I was just bumming around and I had the money in the bank. [The Ford dealer] had this car in and put it on the showroom floor and I saw it and looked at it and I said, ‘I’m going to buy this car.’ And he just said “Yeah, right!” and kind of laughed at me. He didn’t think I had the money. But I bought it right there. The car cost me $4,200 at the time.”
Williams says was only able to enjoy the car for about three months, however. Then his military career took an unexpected turn.
“I thought I was going to be stationed stateside. That’s what my commanders said at the time,” he says. “But I wound up going to Vietnam … so I gave the car to my dad. I grew up on a farm, we had plenty of room. I gave it to my dad. I said, ‘It will be the last present I buy you if I don’t come back. If I do come back, I want my damn car back!”
“Was I worried? Sure, there was a possibility, maybe 50-50 that I don’t come back. I knew. I was already a realistic person anyways [laughs].”
After surviving three forgettable years in combat, Williams made it back to the U.S. in one piece and says he was “in no condition” mentally to go back home and start enjoying his Thunderbird. Bitter about the reception soldiers received from the American public when they returned home and shell-shocked from his tour of duty, Williams just wanted to be left alone and took a job as a long-haul trucker. “I wasn’t sure of myself, or anything like that… I really didn want to talk to anybody,” he says. “It took me about 18 ½ years to get over it. But I finally did.”
Williams says he knew the car was in good hands at his father’s house and he would occasionally check on the car and take it in for oil changes. Finally, his father died in 1983 and he knew it was time to take the car back — this time to his new home in Wisconsin.
“I built a trailer for it and I went out one day and loaded it up and brought it home,” he says.
When I got it home I did a little work on it, changed the oil, cleaned it up. When I picked it up it had 87,000 miles on it. Dad had a place down in Arizona so he’d go down there with it. He really loved the car, and he drove it plenty.
“I greased it and changed the oil, looked everything over, changed the tires because they had dry rot. But I really didn’t do much with it for quite a few years … [Eventually] I took it in to an alignment shop, we saw one of the springs was cracked and I had to order new springs, so I decided to rebuild the whole undercarriage. That was $3,500 to replace everything under the car. Suspension, steering knuckles, shocks. After 40-some years sitting there it needed it.”
The Critics’ Choice
“The flying carpet-on-autopilot” is how Car Life referred to the Thunderbird that it tested. Their “flying carpet” was a Town Landau with Aquamarine Blue lower body paint, a pebbled White vinyl-covered top with aluminized plastic Landau bars at the windowless rear quarter panel, special tires with both red and white stripes, beige leather-like vinyl upholstery, a 428-cid V-8, air conditioning and a host of other good stuff. Car Life had nothing but praise for the Thunderbird — echoing the thoughts of most critics at the time — lauding its braking and lengthy list of cool features that marked it as the quintessential “personal luxury” car on the U.S. market.
Even though it used the body shell of the previous two years, the 1966 Thunderbird looked completely new. The grille was more sharply angled back and featured an eggcrate backing for a massive Thunderbird emblem that appeared to float in the grille. At the rear, a single, massive taillight stretched from side to side with a single back-up light being part of the Thunderbird emblem in the center of the lens. The name Thunderbird appeared, in script, just ahead of the taillights on the rear fender. Another Thunderbird emblem appeared on the roof ‘C’ pillar.
The base 390-cid engine that drank through a four-barrel carburetor was tuned to give 315 hp and more horsepower was available in the form of new optional 4280-cid/345-hp V-8. Another new option was a stereo tape player that was built into the AM radio. It provided up to 80 minutes of music per cartridge. Four speakers were included with the sounds system. A Safety-Convenience Control Panel was standard in “Town” models and optional in hardtops and convertibles In the Town hardtop and Town Landau it was incorporated into an overhead roof console.
A full-width rear end treatment had the back-up lights in the middle of the sequential tail lamp lenses. The tail lamps had a series of side-by-side square segments, but the individual squares no longer had chrome moldings. New pentastar wheel covers with a “mag” wheel look and color-coordinated sections that matched the body color were used on some new models.
The Town hardtop and Town Landau were new models with roof featuring wider sail panels and no rear quarter windows. Both carried Thunderbird insignias on the roof sail panels, while the Town Landau carried S-shaped Landau irons in the same location. The Landau hardtop was dropped.
Standard equipment on the ‘66s included: built-in dual exhausts with aluminized stainless; steel mufflers; fuel filter; oil filter; Cruise-O-Matic Drive; double-sided keys; keyless door locks; retractable front seat belts with reminder light; color-keyed rear seat belts; font and rear folding center armrests; padded instrument panel; padded sun visors; clock; courtesy lights;, sequential turn signals; dual horns and horn rings; adjustable front bucket seats; carpet; full-wide foam rubber seats; power front disc brakes; power steering; variable speed hydraulic wipers; undercoating; map light; glove box light; MagicAir heater and defroster; Swing-Away steering wheel; 8.15x 15 tubeless tires; Silent Flo ventilation system (except convertible); and full wheel covers.
The new Town Landau model, with its special ornamentation on the sale panels and vinyl-covered roof turned, turned out to be the most popular Thunderbird for 1966 with 35,106 built for the model year, including the car Williams bought out of a Utah showroom. It carried a base window price of $4,552, which was slightly more than the base hardtop and Town hardtop, but almost $300 less than the convertible.
“It’s got the console on the roof and the flashers for stuff like the fuel light,” Williams notes. “It’s got power windows, power brakes. It’s fully loaded: tilt, cruise, one power seat. The steering wheel pulls away from you so you get in and out easier… It’s got everything.”
According to Williams, the car carried the 428 under the hood because it was destined to be a California cop car. “I’ve heard people say they didn’t come with a 428, but some of the did,” he says. “This is a limited edition and there was actually 300 made for the California Highway Patrol by Shelby and Ford. It’s supposed to be a sleeper patrol for the California Highway Patrol. The took possession of five of them, but after 6 or 7 officers wrecked them they decided not to accept the other 295, so the cars were shipped to dealers in the Western United States … It’s got a bunch of stuff on that other Thunderbirds don’t have. At the time there was rack and pinion … it’s not supposed to have that. It had power steering, but not the rack and pinion part. It’s got 14½-inch disc brakes on the front, it’s got the bigger [brake] booster. California wanted to have a sleeper car to catch the hot-rodders and the [muscle cars] out there.”
A Stellar Survivor
Williams’ ‘Bird looks for all the world like it’s been nicely restored, but it is in fact almost all original. He has re-covered the upholstery on the driver’s seat, and the hood had to be repainted, he said, because “my sister laid a towel full of brake fluid on it, which ate the paint completely off it.”
Beyond that, the only work on the car has been basic maintenance and some mechanical work. The black vinyl top is in spectacular original shape, matching the Wimbledon White paint and all-original interior. “Dad kept in a the garage and it’s never seen winter,” Williams says. “He took good care of it. There were a couple nicks but I took them out. Just minor things. I kept it covered up and used the proper kind of wax for the vinyl [roof]. A big thing is keeping the sun off it. It was never just parked out in the sun… I haven’t done anything with the motor. It’s at 96,000 miles. I think I might have a lifter going out, but that’s normal for Fords.”
“There aren’t that many places will even touch this car or even know where to get parts. I do take it places and I trailer it, and I get a lot of people see it and ask if the car is for sale, and I say now.”
Williams still shows up a few local car shows, but he’s happier driving his beautiful ‘Bird than he is showing it. He has no reservations about throwing open the four-barrel carburetor and letting Thunderbird stretch its wings. Roaring down an onramp and galloping around and between cars on the interstate, the ’66 Thunderbird is still a very impressive machine.
“I do get a kick out of driving it,” he says. “I have been pulled over by police who want to just look at the car, and when they see the size of the motor … they can’t believe it!
“But I guess what I love most is just the style of it. That’s what caught me. The style, and the ride is so comfortable.”
During the holiday season, Williams, who is a dead ringer for Jolly Ol’ St. Nick himself, often dresses up and plays the part of Santa Claus. He’s even got wallet-sized photos of himself in the suit to hand out with the words “I met the REAL Santa Claus” on the back.
Most people are under the assumption Santa still pilots a big red sled with reindeer. Williams likes to think otherwise. “Yes, it’s true,” he says. “Santa drives a Thunderbird!”
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