Ford Thunderbird Custom Hardtop

One of the most prominent figures in the world of custom cars from the late 1950s was Larry Watson, and among his most famous creations was this beautiful 1958 Thunderbird. Before he had a drivers license Watson would pedal his bicycle from his home in Long Beach to the shop of George Barris in nearby Lynwood. There he would watch and study the talents of Von Dutch as he would create wild pin-striping designs. By the time he was 16, Watson had the bug, as well as some of his own ideas on customizing. After graduating high school in 1957, he opened his own shop – Watson's House of Style.

In 1958, Watson bought a new Ford Thunderbird hardtop and immediately set about making this car a one-of-a-kind show piece. At George Barris's shop, craftsmen Bill Hines and Bill DeCarr nosed and decked the T-bird, then shaved and filled its handles, removed nearly all outside ornamentation, before softening the edges and corners, giving it a sleek streamlined look. When completed, it was taken back to Watson's shop where he performed his magic. First he applied a metallic silver base coat, then six coats of pearl lacquer. Thinking the car was too bright, he then masked off the edges and shot a special mix of candy apple burgundy in the open areas, thus creating his trademark panel-painting, a technique that Watson would be hailed for, as well as his skill in combining colors that complemented each other in such a way as to dramatically bring out the original design of the car. As Watson's Thunderbird toured major car shows, it was constantly awarded the highest honors for its outstanding paint and body work. In addition to being viewed by thousands of show goers, this breakthrough beauty appeared in over 20 different publications of the day and was in constant demand for appearances not only around the Southern California area, but all over the country.

In the early 1960s, Watson started to pursue a career in acting and would eventually appear in over 140 television shows. He did do some pin-striping for fellow actors and celebrities, but this was strictly on an exclusive basis. In the early 1980s he rediscovered his original 1958 Thunderbird in the back of his shop and set about restoring it to its original splendor. It took a number of years, but today the car has been returned to its original custom appearance ready to hit the show circuit and again "wow" the crowds.

Finished in its silver and deep burgundy paint scheme, it exemplifies the term "custom by paint". The original big-block V8-engine was upgraded with chrome everywhere, from the valve covers to air cleaner, the power steering pump and even the oil dipstick. Only a mild customizing of the interior was done, and it remains functional with original AM radio and power windows. Since its full restoration, the car has been driven less that 300 miles and while in its current ownership has been maintained and kept in a climate controlled facility which has helped preserve its beauty.

More than just a show car from the 1950s, the Watson Thunderbird was a trendsetting pioneer in design and beauty - one that looks just a good today, a half century after it was first created, as it did when new.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in September 2009 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Est. 300 hp, 5.7L overhead valve V8 engine, three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission, four-wheel power assisted hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 113"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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