Cars

A chance encounter with a rare Bird

Todd Duhnke’s 1964 Thunderbird convertible seems perfectly positioned to pick up train passengers at Wichita’s Union Station. The Prairie Bronze beauty is in amazing condition, with just over 12,000 original miles on the odometer.
Todd Duhnke’s 1964 Thunderbird convertible seems perfectly positioned to pick up train passengers at Wichita’s Union Station. The Prairie Bronze beauty is in amazing condition, with just over 12,000 original miles on the odometer. The Wichita Eagle

Todd Duhnke is a self-described “pack rat.” He collects everything from old car dealership brochures to company-built models of jet airliners to old train schedules and road maps. But they aren’t tattered, faded mementoes covered in dust and cobwebs.

They’re pristine and they’re neatly stored away in the basement beneath his multi-car garage. What’s in the garage, you might ask?

He also collects cars, mostly Fords from the 1950s and ’60s, and like his other collectibles, they are factory-fresh, pristine examples that have been carefully preserved.

One such vehicle is a beautiful Prairie Bronze 1964 Ford convertible, with barely 12,000 actual miles showing on its odometer.

“I wasn’t really looking for a ’64 Thunderbird,” Duhnke recalls of the day he spotted this one at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., back in 2004. “ But that thing just speaks originality.”

“It was a cold, rainy day, but I thought I would try to bid it,” he said.

Every time a competing bidder upped the ante, he instantly followed suit and when the hammer fell, the sleek Thunderbird convertible, one of only 9,198 produced that model year, was his.

That model signaled a complete redesign of the Thunderbird, with the new body style running from 1964-’66 and earning the nickname of “Flair Birds” for the cars’ crisp, clean styling.

“This was Ford’s first unitized body car, if you don’t count the old Lincoln Zephyr,” Duhnke said. “It’s heavy as a horse, overbuilt like a tank. It probably weighs 5,200 pounds.”

Duhnke is as fascinated by the story behind the car as he is with the vehicle itself.

“It was bought in downtown Seattle. A woman traded her 1960 Pontiac in on it and she took delivery on it in March (of 1964). The car was driven only short distances.”

The original owner and her sister lived together in a condominium and when the Thunderbird’s owner passed away, the car went to her sister, who did not drive.

“So the car sat in the basement of the condo, where it didn’t deteriorate,’ Duhnke said. When the second sister died, a nephew inherited the Thunderbird, which by then had accumulated only 8,000 miles.

“It had 11,240 miles on it when I bought it,” says Duhnke, who spends more time cleaning and polishing the Thunderbird than driving it. It occasionally shows up at a Wichita car show.

The convertible features almost all original paint, with only a touch-up to one door and a quarter panel. It is equipped, as all ’64 Thunderbirds were, with a 390 V-8 engine producing 300 horsepower and with a C-6 Cruise-O-Matic transmission. A look under the hood shows it’s all original.

“It’s exactly as brand new, 100-percent original, right down to the yellow-top coil,”

Duhnke points out.

Inside, the space age styling of the mid-’60s is everywhere to be seen.

“Thunderbirds always had gorgeous interiors,” Duhnke said. The instrument panel wraps around the driver, down into the center console, creating a jet pilot cockpit effect. The stylish deep-dish steering wheel doesn’t tilt, but swings out of the way for ease of entry.

There’s room for two up front and two more in the beautiful, iconic Thunderbird cove rear seat. The entire interior is finished in original Palamino Leather, a factory option. The car is equipped with power windows, and power steering, but there’s no air conditioner present, since the car was slated for delivery in cool, rainy Seattle.

The white cloth top is likewise all original equipment and it folds away into what would normally be the trunk of the car. With a powered two-piece deck lid opening up to accept the top and then covering it, it’s basically the same mechanism used on Ford retractible hardtops of 1957-59, said Duhnke.

The only real upgrade he has made to the Thunderbird is the addition of a set of Kelsey Hayes 15-inch wire wheels, which were optional on T-Birds in 1964, but didn’t come on this car. He still has the original 14-inch steel wheels and wheel covers carefully stored away.

Todd Duhnke wants to keep the mileage down on his rare Bird, but when a particularly beautiful day beckons, he and his wife, LuAnne, may be spotted cruising the streets of Wichita in the stylish convertible. And what is that experience like?

“It just floats. It glides along,” Duhnke reports with a big smile.

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