This article on the Cowin's Thunderbird was originally published in the April 2009 issue of Street Machine magazine
THE T-Bird is small for a Seppo car. With only two seats but V8 power, it was Ford’s response to Chevrolet’s Corvette, although it was never claimed as an out-and-out sports car. From 1958 they lost any resemblance to sports cars as they got bigger, heavier and more luxurious. Just like Elvis, the Thunderbird was at its peak in 1957 and there’s not much you can do with one to improve it.
Even so, Graeme and Wendy Cowin took the risk with their ’57. Together with the team at Hills & Co Customs, they kept the classic look of the Thunderbird while adding a touch of hot rod muscle, a dash of custom and a good shake of modern creature comforts.
At a glance you might think the body was untouched. In fact it’s had heaps of work put into it. Justin Hills explains: “We did all the rust in the car — the A pillars were particularly bad — and it looked like a tree had fallen across both guards so we rolled new pieces for the tops of the guards.”
Thunderbirds, like most cars when they leave the factory, weren’t exactly laser straight. Check this baby out — the reflections are near perfect, even across the panel gaps.
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“We did a lot of work to make things fit better, even heat shrunk the doors and quarters to get the bow out of them and get the lines right,” Justin says. “We did all of the bodywork with the body on the chassis, which is especially important on a convertible as it’s got very little strength. Once we pulled the body off, we had to brace it so that it wouldn’t move.”
When it came to the chassis, it was TJ at Camden County Customs who set up the front and rear ends and nailed the ‘oh so right’ stance.
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Up front is a Fatman Fabrications Mustang II clip. It features tubular A-arms and disc brakes and works in conjunction with a Cortina power rack for a much more taut and modern feel through the steering wheel. The rear is a four-bar with coil-overs that make sure the beefed up nine-inch stays where it should. Looking at the driving shots, you can see the chassis mods have worked wonders as there’s hardly any body roll.
With the engine bay tidied up and all the firewall junk either binned or hidden, the stroked 371-cube Windsor was set way back to help with weight distribution and handling.
If you’re a fan of the Y-block, Graeme doesn’t make any apologies: “We decided to put the Windsor crate motor in because we sell them, plus it was lighter and smaller and makes a hell of a lot more power. When I pop the bonnet, I don’t get too many people asking: ‘Where’s the Y-block?’”
And why would they? When the bonnet flips forward you’re greeted by one of the most nicely detailed Windsors you’ll have ever seen. As is often the case, keeping it simple was the recipe for success. The block is gloss black and everything else is either polished or plated. It’s classy and absolutely spotless under there.
The stroker 371 Windsor has been set as far back in the chassis as it will go for better weight distribution and handling. Dual quads may not work as well as a big four-barrel but they sure look the part. Plain alloy rocker covers were polished and then CNC engraved with the Thunderbird logo
Straight out of the Rocket catalogue, the World Products package comes with all the good stuff, and claims 455 horsepower. Inside are Arias forged pistons, a forged Scat crank, Scat H-beam rods and a Crower roller cam, while up top is a set of World’s aluminium heads.
Crowning it all is an Edelbrock dual-quad intake manifold running a couple of 500cfm Edelbrock carbs and a pair of custom CNC-engraved rocker covers. They started off as a set of plain-Jane cast alloy units and were sent down to Bocam in Melbourne to get the Thunderbird logo added. Finishing it all off is a custom exhaust by Racer’s Choice, a serpentine system from Billet Specialties and a ribbed oval air cleaner.
A Billet Specialties leather-wrapped wheel, dashboard filled with Auto Meter gauges, Lokar shifter, billet pedals and a slick trim job indicate that this is no restorer’s car
Although the engine is all hot rod, it gets a little bit of luxo with an AOD four-speed auto, courtesy of B&M and Al’s Race Glides.
The interior follows the same philosophy as the rest of the car. It’s updated but remains obviously mid-50s Thunderbird. To the untrained eye, it probably looks original except for the fancy steering wheel and shifter — supplied by Billet Specialties and Lokar respectively. But that would be showing great disrespect to all the hard work performed by Hills & Co as well as Trick Trim.
Air con was a must-have and is ducted via the outlets that have been neatly blended into the dash. Another clever trick is the Town & Country radio — it’s been modified so that the buttons operate the remote control for the hidden stereo. The instrument cluster is factory as well, though it’s been filled with Auto Meter Classic gauges
A lot of thought went into designing and shaping the seat as well as the door trims, which feature the factory bright-work but a much cleaner and more modern looking pattern on the leather. The dashboard has also had many hours of work put into it with integrated air conditioning vents and controls as well as cup holders. Yes, cup holders.
“I’ve got to have air con and cup holders in a car otherwise Wendy doesn’t want to come out,” Graeme says.
Wheels can make or break a car; the Cowins got it right.
“People said they wouldn’t suit the car but they suit it down to the ground. I didn’t want any old five-spoke wheel and these look like something Ford would do,” he says.
His choice was a set of Billet Specialties GTP47 wheels measuring 18x8 all ’round. They wear Mickey Thompson S/R tyres measuring 26x8 at all four corners.
Finally, the paint. Listed as Mid Grey Silver, you’d expect it to be somewhere between grey and silver but as you can see for yourself, the car looks as if it’s been dipped in liquid mercury. With the burgundy leather interior and the sparkling stainless and chrome — thanks to Al McCoy and Hamilton Plating — the colour was another perfect choice for this classy Thunderbird custom. Or is it a hot rod?
GRAEME & WENDY COWIN
1957 FORD THUNDERBIRD
Colour: Mid Grey Silver
Type: Windsor, 371ci
Induction: Edelbrock 2x4 with dual 500cfm Edelbrock carbs
Heads: World Products aluminium
Camshaft: Crower roller
Conrods: Scat H-beam
Lifters: Hydraulic roller
Pistons: Arias forged 10:1
Crank: Scat forged
Valve springs: Isky dual
Valves: Ferrea stainless
Oil pump: Melling high volume
Fuel pump: Carter
Cooling: Aluminium PWR radiator with Spal fan
Exhaust: Racer’s Choice custom with Magnaflow mufflers
Ignition: MSD distributor with 6AL ignition box
Gearbox: AOD four-speed auto
Converter: B&M 1500rpm
Diff: Nine-inch, 3.50 gears, Tru-Trac, Strange centre & axles
Tailshaft: Ford with Strange yoke
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Springs: Fatman (f), Edelbrock coils (r)
Mods: Fatman front clip with A-arms (f), four-bar (r)
Steering: Billet Specialties column, Cortina power rack
Brakes: Fatman (f), Ford Falcon (r)
Master cylinder: Wilwood dual