BY MIKE McNESSOR
American collector-car enthusiasts coming of age in the last 30-40 years view the '57 Thunderbird as a star among collector cars. This is in no small part due to the sheer number of times these iconic machines have appeared on TV and the silver screen.
The International Movie Cars Database lists more than two dozen visual references to the '57. That number nearly quadruples if you count the '55-'56 edition. (One of which was, of course, the '56 T-Bird that a sultry Suzanne Somers drove Richard Dreyfuss's character nuts with in American Grqffiti). The most exposed '57 might be the car that Robert Urich drove as private investigator Dan Tanna in TVs Vega$.
So what does this have to do with the value of one of the most recognizable of Dearborn's products? Hard to say, but the staying power of the T-Bird in pop culture probably had some influence on the steady rise we've seen from a low of about $7,500 for a scruffy driver when Vega$ aired its second season in 1979 to a high in the neighborhood of $75,000 today.
Three decades ago, a "national 1st place" winning '57 "E" "Bird with two four barrels and a 271hp 312 was advertised in Hemmings for $25,000. At Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale 2009, an E 'Bird, restored to "Minter-quality standards" (a reference to the Thunderbird specialist-house Amos Minter's Thunderbirds in North Dallas, Texas) and equipped with the desirable three-speed manual with overdrive, sold for $128,700.
Those of us here who cover auctions tend to think of "baby 'Birds" as being sleepy in terms of value because there are invariably a few examples at every auction trading hands in the $30,000-145,000 range. In recent years, they just haven't been at the center of a Hemi or Ferrari type of craze that sent their values skyrocketing, so we tend to overlook them.
But there has been noticeable and reliable appreciation. For instance, in 1999 sellers were advertising T-Birds in Hemmings for as low as $8,500 and as high as $47,500. Popular price guides at the time put the '57 at a low of $16,800 to a high of $35,100. Today, the low end for cars sold nationally begins north of $25,000 and runs as high as $75,000. Consumer price guides list the car more conservatively at $22,600 to $56,600. And we have seen serviceable examples being sold in smaller, local and regional classified publications in the $20,000 range.
The low price of a project car can be attractive, given the volume of repair parts available and the network of experts and enthusiasts. But a front fender can cost as much as $4,500 and isn't a bolt-on replacement due to the T-Bird's unitized construction. The rocker panels, rocker supports, front floor pans and front air ducts were prone to rust, and repair panels are available. But shoppers cruising for lower priced T-Birds might find cars that have already been repaired, albeit less than professionally.
Perhaps if s a no-brainer, but we're putting the Thunderbird on the buy list. Prices aren't going down, and we're thinking it's just a matter of time before someone makes Vega$ the movie...