My Experience Daily Driving A 1966 Ford Thunderbird
Buying this as a first car was the best bad decision I've ever made.
Once upon a time, I was a teenager looking for a first car, and I bought this. I wanted to learn how to fix my own car, and I loved the styling of classic cars, so I wanted to get one. Many people told me it was a bad idea, that the car would be too expensive, that maintenance would be too expensive, that gas would be too expensive, that I'll crash and die because teenage driver, etc. But I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to experience for myself what owning and dailying a classic car was really like.
It took a bit of searching to find a classic car within my price range that wasn't a rusted-out non-running deathtrap or ugly malaise lump, but eventually I found my unicorn: A bright orange 1966 Ford Thunderbird Hardtop Coupe, with everything working, for $5,500. It was love at first sight, and I had to have it. Turns out, the ad lied and not only did not everything work, but there was a huge dent in the passenger-side door. I didn't care. I bought it anyway. Almost three years later I still have it, it's still my (sort of) daily driver, and I've learned way more from this car than I could have possibly imagined.
So... Can you daily drive a classic car in today's world, and as a first car? Yes!
Is it easy? HECK NO.
But is it worth it? ...
That's harder to answer. When I first got this car, I didn't even have a license, just a learner's permit, so for the first few months my total driving experience with this car was just driving it around the neighborhood to get used to the boaty handling I expected it to have. I then mostly took the bus to school because I wanted to save gas, and just made short trips in the Thunderbird for fun. But as the kids on the bus continued to get more annoying, and as my schedule made it harder to catch buses and still eat lunch with friends, I began driving my Thunderbird to school more and more, and before long I was driving it almost every day.
As this happened, I went from "I'm gonna restore this over the course of high school!" to "I hope I can afford to keep this thing running!" very quickly. I had taken pride in the fact that this was an unrestored "survivor car", still running because the previous owners had simply maintained it that well. But it quickly became apparent that this car had experience a LOT of neglect over the years. From what I can piece together of its history, the first owner used it as a daily driver, and then at some point in the seventies it became a garage queen show car for about 20 years. A subsequent owner then used it as a daily driver again, it was given a cheap repaint (orange was not a factory color, this car was originally candy apple red), and some moron did an absolutely abysmal job of rebuilding the engine (I'll get back to this later). It was then maintained just well enough to keep it on the road until the last owner bought it to restore, and then he sold it to me to pay for a surgery.
Despite it being poorly maintained for much of its life, it proved to be surprisingly reliable. Sure, it took at least ten minutes every day to start, the battery died a lot, and it got a whopping five miles per gallon (yes, really), but it got me where I needed to go. Whenever the engine had minor problems, I would bring it into my auto tech class and the teacher would show me how to fix it. Sometimes these problems did become a nuisance, though.
In particular, I remember one instance where some bullies in one of my classes were relentlessly giving me crap, and as soon as I could get away, I hid in my Thunderbird to try and avoid them. This worked for a while, but soon I saw them approaching in my rearview mirror, and I knew they weren't looking for a pleasant chat. I immediately tried to start the engine, but instead I was met with the dreaded "whrrr-rrrr-rrrr" of a starter motor fighting a nearly-dead battery. You know how in horror movies, the character will be in some car that won't start, and the monster keeps approaching, and as they keep getting closer your anxiety keeps getting worse and worse with every "whrr-rrr-rrr" that fails to start the car? Yeah. That. That was exactly what it felt like. But mercifully, right as the bullies reached me and bent over to tap my window, the engine roared into life, I threw it into reverse, and floored it. The car was both my fortress of solitude and Superman that day.
Another time, I was not so lucky. I was driving home from my first "job" of sorts, and the engine stalled. In the middle of an intersection. In the city. With no parking close enough to coast into. The engine wouldn't even turn over at this point, so I was sitting there panicking and blocking traffic until a couple good Samaritans came by and helped me push the car into a two-hour parking space across the street. I called my dad to bring jumper cables and see if we could start it, and when he arrived we were able to start the car. This time, it made it all the way to the next intersection before stalling. I had just barely enough momentum this time to coast into the nearest parking space - a handicapped space, and at an angle - but this time, we were unable to jump-start the car. After pushing it around for a while to try and get it parked straight, a group of firemen actually came by and helped us push the car to a gravel lot down the street where a tow truck could get to us. When we got there, I noticed a sign in the lot saying "Chinese restaurant parking only, violators will be towed." So it was a race between our tow truck and theirs! Luckily, ours came first, and we determined the problem was a crappy Chinese alternator that only charged "sometimes". A few hours later, the car was fixed and returned to daily driver duty.
The car served me well as a daily driver for about a year, leaving me stranded only twice in that entire time frame. By this point, I was impressed with the reliability of this 50+ year-old beast of a car. And then disaster struck. First, the car began to stall every time I turned right. Then I noticed the engine running poorly. Messing with the carburetor for several days failed to solve the problem. One compression test later, we determined the car was only running on seven of the eight cylinders, and both the valves and piston rings weren't sealing properly. I drove the car one last time into the auto tech building, and it would not emerge again for months.
As I disassembled the engine, it seemed that every part I removed revealed a new problem. Before long, "replacing the piston rings and checking out the valves" had snowballed into a full engine rebuild. And then COVID happened, leaving the car trapped in the shop with the engine half-disassembled and me unable to work on it. Months passed before we were able to make arrangements with the school for me to work on the car again so it could leave the building under its own power. But then the rebuild was underway, various shops were looking at parts that needed rebuilding and throwing around terms like "worst I've ever seen," and by summer of this year the car was running again. It took a few more repairs after that to get it actually roadworthy, and it turns out the right-turn problem was actually due to a bad ignition switch, something which has plagued a lot of Fords of this era but not a lot of people know about apparently. But after all of that, the engine is practically brand new, and the car runs great. And it only took about $2,500 worth of repairs that the previous owners neglected to do...
But really, one of the reasons I bought this car was to learn how to fix cars, and since I ended up learning waaaay more than I expected to, I guess I got my money's worth. And now that it runs properly and I've been driving it in college without issues, I can tell you about the driving experience!
IT IS A BOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAT. Everything they say about old American car handling is absolutely true. This thing is so boat-like that in corners, whatever conversation you're having with passengers is suddenly interrupted by random nautical speech. You'll be driving along, everything normal, when suddenly a corner comes along and... "Yeah, I need to get some milk from Walmart so I can bake the-YARRRR ME HEARTIES ALL HANDS ON DECK BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES SHE'S ON HER ENDS-cake." But I don't see this as a bad thing, really. Not every car has to be a canyon-carver.
What this car excels at is cruising in maximum comfort and style, and that it does very well indeed. The steering is light enough to steer with your pinky, and despite the boatyness, it's really not difficult to drive at all. Once you get used to the way this car handles, the floaty-boat handling isn't scary at all, if anything it's just amusing and gives the car character. And it does make the ride very comfortable, which is what you want from a lux-o-barge like this.
The engine is Ford's 390 ci (which I think is 6.4 liters for you Europeans) V8, which makes... I honestly don't know how much horsepower it makes. Horsepower figures are a bit murky for cars of this era, as they were measured with the engine on a stand and no accessories being driven, not even the water pump, so you have to take them with a grain of salt. The engine was rated at 290 hp from the factory, although it's been modified slightly to match the spec that should have 315 hp, but that's still by 1960s standards so it could be more like 270 or 280... Let's just say it makes somewhere between 270 and 300 hp. Nothing insane, but it's not slow, and the 390 V8 makes torque for days, so it has no problem getting this car up to speed. It also seems to get about 10 mpg no matter what.
That engine is hooked up to a 3-speed automatic transmission. Yes, I know, automatic transmissions are for unenlightened weak yogurts, I don't care. I would complain about it if this was a Miata, but it's a luxury car and frankly the automatic suits the car's laid-back personality just fine. My only complaint about the transmission is that three gears isn't enough. It doesn't shift out of first gear until 35 mph, and at speeds of ~45 it feels like it needs to shift, but it can't because third is for highway speeds and it's not there yet. This doesn't do anything to help fuel economy or performance, and if I were to make one major modification to this car, it would be to replace the transmission with a more modern automatic. But for now, the three-speed gets the job done just fine, so it's not that big of a deal.
And the brakes on this car are phenomenal! A common criticism of older cars is crappy drum brakes, but the Thunderbird came with front disc brakes as standard, and it stops better than some modern cars I've driven. Performance-wise, if there's one thing this car excels at, it's stopping.
The interior is a very nice place to be, with a beautiful space age-looking dashboard featuring one of the coolest gauge clusters I've ever seen. The speedometer is linear, featuring a little ribbon that extends beneath the numbers to tell you what speed you're going. I miss the days of creative, gorgeous interiors like this.
This isn't a picture of my actual car, but it looks close enough.
The seats are like sitting in big, perfectly-contoured marshmallows, but less sticky. And this car came with a power-adjustable drivers seat as standard, which I wasn't expecting from a car this old. The back seat is actually really cool in that it wraps around to the sides. It's less of a rear seat and more like a rear couch. In fact, the owner's manual refers to it as "The Lounge". Cool! And it's easy to access because all you have to do to fold the front seats forward is... push them forward. Not the safest solution, but darn convenient. And there's plenty of room for your legs, heads, and arms back there, so you can totally take three passengers with you in comfort.
The one weird thing about the interior is that there's no glovebox, and I'm not sure why. There's just a big empty space there with some fancy "Thunderbird" script, and nothing more. It has a decent amount of storage space in the center console at least, and that space is lockable for extra security, but that's all you get in terms of interior storage spaces.
Other features of the interior include the Thunderbird's famous tilt-away steering wheel, which when in park can tilt to the side to make entering easier. It would be really cool if it still worked, but alas, mine is jammed for some reason and I haven't yet figured out how to free it up so it can tilt. It also features vents under the windshield and rear window that can be opened and closed electronically to filter out "stale air" (aka farts and cigarette smoke), which would be really nice if it wasn't broken and stuck open on mine. The vent has a habit of making a slight chilly breeze which gets a bit annoying in the winter...
Mine's a base model and therefore has no air conditioning, but surprisingly, I don't mind it. Just roll down the standard electric windows and let the breeze cool you off. And in the wintertime, it is equipped with a decent heater. Other than that, it also features the standard AM radio (which is broken and only receives one Catholic station), and a piece of trim covering up a hole where the optional 8-track player would've gone if you had ordered it, but you didn't, so instead you get this trim to remind you that you're cheap.
So it is a bit more expensive to own than a modern car, and it doesn't have as many creature comforts. It also doesn't handle as well, isn't as fast, gets worse mileage, and will kill you if you get in a crash. So even if you can live with all that, why bother? One mysterious thing I had been curious about regarding classic cars was all of the people talking about how these cars have soul. They say you form a bond with it over time, and that these cars have personality like you just don't get in modern cars. They say computers and boring styling and fancy tech have made the cars of today impressive performers, but at the expense of character. And all of that sounds like a bunch of hokey, nostalgic rose-tinted-goggle nonsense.
But it's true. It's absolutely true. The one major thing that has kept me going, that has kept me repairing this car every time it breaks down, that makes me forgive the terrible mileage, that makes me forgive all its quirks and inconveniences, is its character. Over the years that I've owned it, as I've leaned how to work with all its little quirks, I've discovered more and more of this car's personality. It doesn't feel like just a car anymore. It feels like an old, loyal friend, or perhaps a big, expensive pet. I ended up naming the car Phoebe because it felt wrong for my friend not to have a name. She's a bit feisty sometimes, and she doesn't like to get up in the mornings, but once she's awake she's a blast to spend time with. I can't exactly explain why, but she really does feel like she has a soul. And that's a rare, intangible quality you can't just engineer into a modern car. Modern cars are fun, sure, but they don't have that certain something that makes me feel guilty when I leave her out in the rain or sad for her when she breaks down. I've fallen in love with my '66 T-bird, and I wouldn't rather be driving anything else.
That's why you should daily-drive a classic car.