The fast, race ready Holman Moody 1959 Thunderbirds
Q: Greg, I've an avid "old-timer" fan of NASCAR and have followed the sport since the very first Daytona 500, and even earlier on the beach course. Do you recall the famous NASCAR Thunderbirds from back then, both hardtops and convertibles? Weren't they available from Ford Motor Company ready to race? Thanks, and I really enjoy your columns. Bud L., Michigan.
A: Bud, those 1959 race ready Thunderbirds you speak of were indeed available, but not directly from the Ford company dealers. The legendary team of Holman Moody were the pioneers for building the first race team Fords for the Ford Motor Company, and build them well they did. I'm sure you remember that first Daytona 500, where Johnny Beauchamp, in one of the Holman Moody Thunderbirds, nearly won the race against Richard Petty in his Oldsmobile?
As you recall, the finish in 1959 at Daytona was a dead heat, and it took three days for Petty to be declared the winner after Beauchamp was originally named the winner and experienced all the victory lane laurels.
I contacted Lee Holman, son of the great founder, for this answer to make sure we get everything right. Thus, the story of Holman and Moody starts earlier as in 1957, John Holman and Ralph Moody put their heads together and formed the soon to be famous Ford race car building company, Holman Moody, at the Charlotte Airport business complex. With Ford's blessing, but not yet full factory support, it saw Holman Moody full size Fords win its first races in 1957.
By 1958, those beautiful Thunderbirds were on the building jig in prototype form as a 1958 model, but still a year away from the track. However, the full size Holman Moody 1958 Fords were entered in the last convertible race on the Daytona Beach Course, where good friends Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly raced to a win and a third, respectively. Weatherly would have finished one-two with Turner had Lee Petty not tangled with him on the last lap, as Petty finished second when Weatherly spun and gathered it back up for third. (This video is on YouTube by the way).
Also, 1958 is the year Ford officially gave its official stamp of approval and full factory support to the team, and that's where you remember (as I do) seeing ads for those Holman Moody race ready 1959 Thunderbirds. This corporate backing found Holman Moody building what Lee Holman remembers as a "dozen or so" 1959 Thunderbirds, all having the capacity of removing the top to compete in the convertible races and called "zipper tops."
With five of seven Thunderbirds in the 1959 built by Holman Moody, that 1959 Daytona 500 is still talked about to this day, with Beauchamp and Petty averaging 135.521 mph for the entire 500 miles! Banjo Matthews, another NASCAR legend builder and driver, drove a Holman Moody "zipper top" Thunderbird in 1959 also.
In summary, of all the cars produced, Thunderbirds were indeed special, and I believe all those older T-Birds form the 1950s are great vehicles to own, be it a nostalgia racecar or a collector car. And, although the 1955-1957 Thunderbirds bring the most bucks, there's nothing like those 1959 NASCAR Thunderbirds for a great look back at Ford's history.
Give Lee Holman a call at (704) 583-2888 for info on ordering of anything from a full size, real racecar to an official Holman Moody nostalgia style t-shirt, all visible on their Web site at www.holmanmoody.com. Yes, they are still in business at 9119 Forsyth Pike Drive, PO Box 669351, Charlotte, NC 28266
And thanks again Lee Holman for your assistance.
(Greg Zyla welcomes reader inquiries on anything to do with cars or racing at 116 Main St., Towanda, Pa. 18848 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org).