1956 THUNDERBIRD HARDTOP/CONVERTIBLE On loan from Albert and Gloria Ciejka, Saratoga Springs, NY
Ask any enthusiast and they’ll tell you that the only “real” Thunderbirds are the two-seaters produced by Ford in 1955, ’56 and ’57 to compete with Chevrolet’s Corvette. The Ciejkas, obviously enthusiasts, have owned two T-Birds but this one is, by far, their favorite.
“In the late 1960’s, I bought a ’55 T-Bird that was a real fixer-upper,” recalls Albert. “Then, in 1973, I saw an advertisement for a ’56 in a local weekly newspaper and quickly went to see it. Two days later, I sold my ’55 and owned the ’56.”
Like so many enthusiasts, Albert had to postpone his project until the children were raised and educated, but his vision never wavered.
“It sat in the garage until the fall of 1996, waiting its turn behind the kids needs. But finally, it was dad’s turn and I contacted a friend, Dick Lynaugh, to do the work. We matched his time with my money and three years later it was back on the road.”
When the restored car made its debut, however, it looked entirely different. Both its original black paint and the “T-Bird” green applied over it by the second owner were gone.
“We wanted to go with a yellow and finally decided on ‘Goldenglow,’” recalled Ciejka. “They offered two yellows in ’56. One, called ‘Goldenrod,’ was the main color for that model year but in early spring, they added ours as a special order for a couple of months.
“You see some combinations that work, and others that make you ask ‘What were they thinking when they bought that car?’ The most common comment we hear is ‘That color fits that car and it looks great!’ And even in our T-Bird Club, where red and blue cars dominate, we have the only yellow one.” The other major change that most T-Bird aficionados notice is the rear bumper, though it looks like a perfect match for the car.
“The previous owner had removed the Continental kit and replaced it with a front bumper. He also replaced the wheels with a set from a ’57,” explained Ciejka. “We decided we liked the way the bullets in the bumpers match the centers of the ’57 hubcaps and decided not to go back to the originals. We figured that if we ever change our minds, we can always go back to the original look. Between the T-Bird specialty parts suppliers and a club member that stocks all sorts of parts for these cars, we could easily get a set of ’56 wheels and a Continental kit.”
Another interesting point regarding the restoration is even more subtle, the fact that the removable hardtop roof does not have portholes.
“In 1956, you could order your new car with a convertible top only or you could also get the hardtop option,” explained Albert. “If you chose to buy the hardtop, you could then have portholes as a $75 option. But once owners saw cars with this option, they found an after-market product for $25 that you could install yourself. They were very popular and to find a non-ported ’56 hardtop is not easy, but Dick finally found one.”
While the ’55, ’56 and ’57 hardtop units all look the same to the uninitiated, they have different mounting pins on the rear deck and are not interchangeable, making the search more difficult. But once found, the Ciejkas knew that they had a true ’56 hardtop.
“Now we have the options of going topless, using the hardtop or having the convertible top up when we go out for a ride,” summed up the retired teacher. “But taking it out in the rain is always an adventure. Regardless of whether you use the hardtop or the convertible top, they leak where the top meets the windshield. And since nearly everything is vacuum controlled, when you accelerate the vacuum drops and the wipers slow down or stop.” The “Bird” may not fly on wet days but otherwise, it’s considered a “driver” by the Ciejkas.
“We rebuilt it to enjoy and we love to drive it during the summer months, whether we’re headed for club events or just joyriding,” says Albert. “The car hugs the road with a solid feel and is very stable at highway speeds. With the original bias-ply tires it would hunt around the driving lane, but that was a function of the tires, not the car. Now, with the radials we have on it, the ride is smooth and predictable.
“While riding, it’s great to get a ‘thumbs up’ from others in their restored or classic cars, as well as from the general public. And whenever we park it, some of the younger generation will ask what kind of car it is. It’s a nice opportunity to give them a quick lesson and expose them to a car from the past.”
That the restoration was first class is proven by the car’s popularity as a “calendar car.” Noted writer/photographer Dan Lyons has used the car for three nationally distributed calendars and it has also been featured in a number of books about two-seater Thunderbirds.
It was also used in Ford’s Albany promotion to reintroduce the two-seater Thunderbirds a few years ago, parked alongside the podium with a new yellow T-Bird. And, as a crowning glory, the Ciejka’s beauty was the cover car for the November/December 2012 National Thunderbird Club publication, Classic Thunderbird Club International.