The Battlebirds

The Battlebirds

Late in 1956, Ford was beginning to understand Chevrolet’s vision for the Corvette. GM wasn’t building a cool boulevard cruiser to match the Thunderbird, they were trying to build a real sports car that could succeed on the street or the track. Ford simply didn’t have an answer. As kind of a jumping off point into the research and development of a competitive sports car, they decided to build four experimental Thunderbirds for 1957 under the guidance of a race shop in Long Beach, CA – Peter De Paolo Engineering. Two of these Thunderbirds got a NASCAR workover resulting in cars that looked close to stock. The other two were built with a complete disregard for rules of any kind. They became known as the Battlebirds.

At De Paolo, a couple of class ‘a’ race car builders got to work. Jimmy Travers and Frank Coons decided that the biggest limiting factor of the Thunderbird was its poor power-to-weight ratio. The two got busy by cutting holes in just about everything on the car. And the shit that didn’t get holes, got remade out of lighter material – The doors, hood, deck lid, and a ton of other parts were all hammered out of aluminum.

Once sufficiently lightened, Travers and Coons focused on the motor behind the now sleek little racers. One car got a big Lincoln 430 motor while the other got an injected and blown 312-inch y-block. Each made over 400 horses and were backed by Jaguar 4-speeds as Ford didn’t have an appropriate 4-speed in their arsenal yet. The finishing touches were the ubiquitous Halibrand quickchanges and kidney bean rolling stock.

The Lincoln powered car set a speed record in the experimental class at Daytona when it went 93 mph in the standing mile. More impressively, however, the little 312-inch car went over 200 mph on the beach before it vented the motor on the back up run. Both cars saw some success on the road courses of the day as well… Eventually, they were sold off to a private racer. The 312-inch car survived (and is currently restored), but the Lincoln powered Battlebird was destroyed in an accident.

Now, the Battlebird story isn’t some long lost legend. Hell, we’ve told parts of the story on TJJ before… But for years I’ve looked for extensive imagery of the cars at war in the late 1950’s. While images of the restored car are readily available, these vintage shots seem to be next to impossible to locate. I’ve found the two included on this post, but nothing further. Do any of you fellas have some shots in your own archives? If so, post them up!


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