As a longtime auto restorer and collector, Jim Rogers can see potential in an abandoned car or truck and know what it can be turned into, given enough time, money and skill.
His white-over-black 1962 Thunderbird Coupe is a prime example of that.
“It had been sitting in a car port in Marion since 1974 when I first saw it. It still had a ’74 tag on it. But it had no engine in it,” Rogers recalled.
He learned the story of the car, which had been sent out for some engine work and came back missing the 390 V-8 that had powered it. It had been left to rot away under the car port for the last 36 years.
That was in 2010 and the old T-Bird was now for sale.
“It looked pretty good, the paint was faded of course,” Rogers said. He figured he could save the classy looking old car, so he bought it and added it to his project list.
He was still working for the Grasshopper Mower Co. at the time and operating Rogers Body & Restoration Shop as a sideline.
“What I didn’t know was that it had pack rats inside the dash,” he said, noting he might not have bought the car if he knew how much trouble that would cause him. “So I got started on it and I would run out of money and it would sit for a while and then I would start up again.”
Rogers found a salvageable 390 truck engine, which he he bored and rebuilt to automotive specifications.
“Nightengale at Galva rebuilt the transmission (a 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic), and I had the power steering, steering column, air conditioner and brake booster all rebuilt. I spent a bunch of money on it,” he said.
What he couldn’t find was a correct set of cast iron car-specific exhaust manifolds for the engine. Reproduction manifolds were available, but quite costly, so he kept looking.
“I was looking for parts for it all along,” Rogers said. Finally, one day he spotted what he was looking for: an original set of 390 exhaust manifolds lying on the ground next to a junked Thunderbird of the same vintage in a Beatrice, Neb., salvage yard.
Fifty bucks later, he had his manifolds.
His Thunderbird is what came to be known as a “Bullet Bird,” which were sleek, rounded cars built from 1961-63. They stood out with their wide, shark-mouth grille, big, round turbine-style tail lights, subtle rear fender fins and classic notchback roof.
Rogers’ plan was to keep his Bullet Bird as stock as possible, but he finally had to relent and put an aftermarket Edelbrock carburetor on the 390 engine when the original Autolite just wouldn’t work.
He rebuilt the brakes and installed a new dual exhaust system on the car.
Inside, he faced the challenge of what a half-century of sun and constantly changing temperatures can do to vinyl upholstery.
“Everything was tired … hard vinyl that was cracked … the dash pad, everything,” Rogers recalled. With the help of a friend, he was able to source reproduction seat covers, door panels and a headliner and install them.
The interior features a wrap-around dashboard and center console that is reminiscent of a jet fighter’s cockpit, with pod-like gauges and a swing-away steering column for easier entry/egress from the low-back bucket seats.
The only other major departure from showroom original is the 17-inch American Racing polished mag wheels, which mount 255/45R17 Fuzion blackwall tires. The car appears to have been lowered, but actually sits at its stock ride height, thanks to a bit of help from rear overload shock absorbers.
Rogers did all the body work and paint himself in his one-man shop.
“I spent hours on those doors. They always got lots of little door dings because of the curve of the doors. I even thought about putting rub strips on the doors, but decided not to,” he said.
Rogers retired from Grasshopper about three years ago, giving him more time to work on customers’ cars and his own. He has only recently begun showing the ’62 Bullet Bird, which attracts plenty of attention at area car events.
“I get a lot of questions about it. A lot of people don’t know what it is … and you don’t see many of them around anymore,” he said.
The Thunderbird is currently for sale.
“I wasn’t planning on keeping it. I have too many cars already,” Rogers explained.
All his hard work and attention to detail is going to make someone a very happy classic car collector.
Mike Berry: firstname.lastname@example.org