Ford Thunderbird #98 Battlebird

Ford’s Thunderbird series, which debuted in 1955, was designed more as a stylish and fast boulevard cruiser than an out-and-out sports car. However in late 1956, perhaps sensing the early V8 Corvette’s potential as a track weapon, Ford decided to build and race two Experimental Class 1957 T-Birds.

Peter De Paolo Engineering, a Long Beach, California based race shop subsidized by the Ford Motor Company, got the job of preparing two T-Birds, later dubbed “Battlebirds” by the media. Famed racecar constructors Jimmy Travers and Frank Coons were in turn retained by De Paolo to carry out most of the actual modifications.

Extensive use of aluminum to replace standard T-Bird steel components in order to save weight was employed. This included the door, hood and trunklid skins, head- and tail-lamp housings, side-vent doors, passenger side tonneau cover and a beautiful streamlined full length driver’s side head fairing. Heavy duty stock car type suspension, steering and brakes were adapted as well as a dual exhaust system, with tail pipes being faired into the rear of the rocker panels. The lightweight Halibrand magnesium road wheels with 3-eared knock-offs were fitted with Firestone racing tires. The original interior was completely removed and replaced with a single lightweight racing seat located behind a small six-gauge instrument pod that replaced the original dashboard layout.

The #98 “Battlebird” was powered by a highly modified Hilborn-injected 312 Ford Y-Block V8 with magneto ignition. No suitable American 4-speed transmission existed in 1956, so a Jaguar XK120 unit was adapted, as well as a Halibrand Quick-Change rear end. Removal of bumpers and liberal hole-drilling in steel components was also undertaken by the De Paolo team. Weight distribution was improved by moving the engine back six inches and placing it four inches lower. The end result was essentially a “full-race” American automobile that still looked like a 1957 Thunderbird but had very little in common with its normal showroom relative.

A Sports Cars Illustrated (July 1957) article entitled “Ford’s 400 Horse T-Birds” said it best: “Performance wise the ’Birds were little short of being domestic Ferraris. On second thought they should have been – for each of these finely engineered cars must have cost more than $20,000!”

Specifically constructed for the highly publicized Daytona Beach two-way flying mile speed runs, the two cars made their first appearance on February 9th, 1957.

Driven by Chuck Daigh, this T-Bird, numbered as “98” and fitted with injection and a McCullough supercharger, reportedly made a 200 plus mph run before “ventilating” its block and preventing a return run, which disqualified it from the record book. After that, the blower was removed, and the new engine took Daigh to a third place at 93.312 mph in the standing mile acceleration class. #98 was then entered in the local airport road course races where stock car driver Marvin Panch placed second to Carroll Shelby’s 4.9 Ferrari. When the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association decreed that its members were to withdraw from racing events in 1957, the Ford Motor Company sold off the two experimental “Battlebirds” to the private sector.

Both cars – the #98 car (#170 266) and #99, powered by a 368 Lincoln engine – were sold by FOMOCO to Andy Hotten in July of 1957 who campaigned them briefly in the Midwest with a partner. The Lincoln-engined car was destroyed and no longer exists, making the #98 “Battlebird” the only Factory-built example to remain.

Later Hotten sold #98 to Parnelli Jones, remaining in his museum until 1975 when it passed to Gerald Popejoy of Dallas, Texas. In 1991 Popejoy, now in Springfield, Missouri, advertised in Hemming’s for someone to help restore the car.

Californian Gil Baumgartner, Authenticity Chairman of the Classic T-Bird Club and a skilled restorer, replied to the ad but received no response. In 1992, when Popejoy decided against a restoration in favor of a sale, Baumgartner caught the ad and talked his friend Robert “Bo” Cheadle, a well-to-do racecar collector, into the purchase. By this time (1993), the car was still quite original but missing the Hilborn injection, tonneau cover and Jaguar transmission.

Gil Baumgartner, a perfectionist if ever there was one, did a lot of “Battlebird” research before turning a wrench, but once started, the project came together in less than a year.

The next and current owner, a noted East Coast Ford collector and vintage racer, managed to acquire the remaining “Battlebird” in the early 2000s after some negotiation. In July 2004, after many updates to the restoration, he was awarded a permanent AACA Class 24-A certification as a “modified racecar.” After much national show success and vintage racing participations, including the Monterey Historics, this consignment presents a rare and unrepeatable opportunity for an acquisition of what is surely the most famous 1957 Factory-built racing T-Bird extant.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in August of 2010 at the Portola Hotel & Spa and Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California.

350 bhp, Hilborn fuel-injected 312 Y-block V8 engine, Jaguar four-speed manual transmission, Halibrand QC rear end, lightweight aluminum body panels, heavily modified suspension, braking, cooling and exhaust systems. Wheelbase: 102"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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