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Full house: 1960 Ford Thunderbird

24 February 2015


The most in-your-face Ford Thunderbird wasn’t always destined to be that way

Growing up in the rotary scene in Tauranga, Kelvin Keleher was living the dream. Summer days were spent cruising the beaches, and life couldn’t be any better. Or so he thought.

About five years ago though, that all changed. The 1960 Ford Thunderbird sitting in his dad’s garage started to get his attention. Its faded blue paint, small steel wheels and an engine bay that appeared to contain more old oil and wires than it did actual engine was a far cry from what he was driving at the time. But where his friends saw a pile of junk, Kelvin could see potential.

He talked to good friend and long-time car builder Adon Pickard, who agreed the car had potential. But the fact that they couldn’t find any that looked good on the internet perhaps should have served as a warning of how difficult the build would end up being. At the time though, it was purely a matter of cosmetics, and the plan was simply to give the metal a new coat of paint and get it rolling on some bigger rims.

Of course first of all Kelvin and his dad had to agree on a price, which eventually they did, before the car was sent off to Adon’s shop, Gasoline Alley. With the body starting to be stripped for panel work, the ugly truth about the car’s history came to the surface … literally. Badly fitted patch panels and rust lay hidden under layers of bog, and would require some serious craftsmanship to repair. The work included full, new custom-made lower quarter panels, rolled up by Adon to sit slightly wider than the originals to allow more room for the wheels Kelvin intended to fit, as well as various other rust repairs.

Despite the time and cost involved already being far beyond the initial expectations, Kelvin hatched another plan that would see it spiral even further, and that was for the car to be air-bagged as well. As a general rule it’s a job most competent fabricators have no trouble with. But when Kelvin said he wanted it so that the sills sat as close to the ground as possible, and that the car must be drivable at that height too, the difficulty level massively increased. Throw in some parts that weren’t what they were supposed to be, and you can see how it rapidly turns into a giant headache. Adon wasn’t deterred though, as he too liked the idea of the car cruising with its sills millimetres above ground level, and was prepared to put in the effort to see the plan come to life.

aving built various cars before, Adon knew that to do it right, the entire rear end of the car was going to require a major work over, and the wheels would be required before work could begin.

With a set of 18×8- and 18×10-inch American Racing rims wrapped in 245/35R18 and 275/30R18 Kumho tyres sourced, Adon set about mini-tubbing the rear wheel wells to suit. Not only were the new inner guards wider, but significantly higher than the originals. A four-link was constructed to hold a substantially narrowed nine-inch diff in place, to which a set of six-inch-diameter airbags were attached. It sounds simple enough, but the rear floor area of the car needed to be lifted, as did the area over the diff itself. Next up came the issue of items that hung too low under the vehicle, which would hit the floor before the car was sitting as the guys wanted it. This problem saw the tyre well removed, and various other sections of floorpan reshaped, as well as the creation of a custom streamlined gearbox cross-member. Plenty of care and attention was taken to ensure nothing under the car could catch the road. A set of heavy-duty skid plates now mounted to the chassis rails are what hit the tarmac first … in theory.

uring this part of the build, Adon convinced Kelvin that the stock motor was never going to cut it, and what he needed was really a big block … and Adon just happened to have one. The 1968 Lincoln-sourced 460ci mill had been rebuilt with flat-top pistons, and larger-port ’69 heads for a bit of added power. But that was not enough on its own, as Kelvin decided it needed to be sticking out of the hood to add to the massive impact the car would already have. While the idea of a supercharger was discussed, and is still on the cards, a Weiand tunnel ram was fitted for now, at least. Atop that are twin 525cfm Demon carbs fed by a Holley fuel system and a bunch of braided lines. For the ignition, the guys decided to run with a full house of MSD components.

Before the engine could be fitted, though, the trans tunnel was modified, and a custom brace built to give maximum strength to the firewall area in preparation for the pressure it would receive, not only from the suspension, but from the massive torque of the motor.

hile fitting the engine into the bay was simple enough, the task of building an exhaust that could vent enough to not strangle the motor, without hanging lower than the chassis and while keeping the car under the required decibel limit required some serious creativity. A set of two-inch mandrel-bent headers was constructed to weave their way out of the engine bay and into four-inch collectors. From here three-inch pipes head rearward. The clever part is that within those three-inch pipes hide 2.75-inch tube mufflers, the theory being that in that way any sharp corners that could catch on the road are avoided. It’s clever thinking, and not only works well, but gives off enough sound without drawing the wrong type of attention.

Another unexpected issue with the car’s new ride height was getting the brake system to work without fouling on anything. The solution was a set of Falcon front calipers, mounted on opposite sides from stock, and fitted to XF Falcon stubs. With a booster hiding under the dash, and stock drums on the rear, the set-up hauls up the big car with ease.

With all the engineering work finally out of the way, the paint, which Kelvin wanted to begin with, could finally be applied. House of Kolor Kandy Red was the chosen colour, which was applied over a silver base to give the amazingly deep look that only a true candy can achieve. Four-and-a-half years after the build began, the car made its first public appearance at Beach Hop 2012. The trip wasn’t without its dramas though, as you’d expect from a major build such as this. But with those initial teething issues now sorted, the car can regularly be seen cruising around Mount Maunganui, and as you can imagine, it creates a stir wherever it goes, just as Kelvin always thought it would.

Despite loving the car and the attention it gets, he did mention that for the right price he’d probably let it go. Exactly what he’d replace it with that could be cooler than this we have no idea, but we’d sure love to find out.

1960 Ford Thunderbird

Engine: 460ci big block Ford, flat-top pistons, stock crank, stock rods, ’69 large valve 4V heads, port matched, Weiand tunnel ram, 2x 525cfm Demon carbs, Holley pump, 3/8-inch lines, Holley regulator, braided lines, MSD Ignition, MSD Pro Billet distributor, MSD Blaster 2 coil, 8.5mm leads, custom two-inch headers, four-inch collectors, custom mufflers

Driveline: Ford C6 Ridgeback transmission, shift kit, narrowed nine-inch diff, custom gearbox cross member

Suspension: Custom A-arms, custom four-link, Monroe gas shocks, seven-inch front airbags, six-inch rear airbags

Brakes: Under-dash booster, XF Falcon stubs, Falcon calipers, slotted rotors, stock rear drums

Wheels/tyres: 18×8- and 18×10-inch American Racing Wheels, 245/35R18 and 275/30R18 Kumho tyres

Exterior: House of Kolor Candy Red over silver base

Chassis: Modified floor pan, custom skid plates

Interior: Custom leather re-trim

Performance: Untested