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Ford Thunderbird

Ford Thunderbird Published: 6th Aug 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird
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A classic 50’s Ford Thunderbird fitted with a modern Land Rover V8 diesel. Is that FAB with you asks Richard Dredge

When it comes to unlikely cars, this Ford Thunderbird must be somewhere near the top of the pile. It’s the brainchild of diesel fan Andy Young, who bought the T-Bird’s carcass in 2010, without any running gear. Says Andy: “I wanted to fit a Ford V8 as that’s what should be under the bonnet. But I fancied a diesel unit because I wanted something different. That was a major part of the appeal for me; to do something nobody else would”.

That’s an understatement. Andy started his apprenticeship in the late 1960s, with his local Ford dealer, working on BDA-engined Escorts, V6 Cortinas and was involved in the construction of a Jaguar-engined Zodiac. By the end of the 1970s he’d started fitting turbocharged diesel engines to Fiesta vans. When truck racing arrived it was Andy who engineered the championship-winning rig for the opening season, with a 700bhp 10-litre engine. This success led to a move to Scania, where Andy created a 1400bhp 14-litre V8 diesel engine, after which came a 1200bhp 12-litre straight-six.

Fast forward to 2008 and Andy was ready to take on an interesting project. He spotted a restored Thunderbird bodyshell in the classifieds, into which pretty much anything could be slotted. Andy fancied fitting a Ford V8 diesel but his options were slim. Then he discovered that Jaguar Land Rover’s TDV8 engine was developed by Ford; it was fitted to the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport in either 3.6 and 4.4-litre forms.

Diesel do nicely!

Hard to source second-hand, Andy tracked one down then set about slotting it into the Thunderbird’s nose. More compact than the original 4.8-litre petrol unit, housing the V8 wasn’t difficult. The TDV8 unit is around 100lb lighter than the original engine and significantly shorter, which enabled Andy to keep the whole thing behind the axle line, noticeably improving the car’s 1950’s handling.

The engine bay was cleared of ancillaries, so modern alternatives could be plumbed in around the V8. The brake servo was fitted in the engine bay, with remote master cylinders. The brakes are Wilwood 13-inch ventilated discs with six-pot callipers; they sit behind polished 18 x 8.5 Lenso wheels, machined specially for the diesel-powered Thunderbird.

With the engine in, the next thing was to get the power to the rear wheels. Says Andy: “I wanted a manual gearbox, although in hindsight that’s the only significant thing I’d change – this engine is really well suited to an automatic transmission.

“I opted for the six-speed ZF gearbox found in various Jaguars, but with the diesel ratios that the TDV8 engine requires. As a result the car is barely ticking over most of the time; at 70mph it’s doing little more than 2000 revs, while at 50mph it’s doing just 1500rpm”.

Accommodating the gearbox wasn’t difficult as it’s no bigger than the original two-speed auto, and far lighter. Accommodating the transmission was one thing; getting the gear shift in the right place meant engineering a set of linkages to connect everything together, was quite another.

The next trick was to get everything running. Says Andy: “The TDV8’s ECU needs a huge amount of information from a wide variety of sensors, so it was a bit of a pig to sort.

“Unsurprisingly JLR wouldn’t help, but I tracked down someone who works on some of JLR’s special projects. He knows how everything works and as a freelancer he could help me; it was just what I needed”.

As installed, the engine is pretty much standard. The EGR valve has been blanked off and there are no particulate filters. The exhaust consists of two straight-through pipes, while there’s an intercooler for each bank of the V8; the cooling system is bespoke because of the Thunderbird’s much narrower engine bay.

After much fettling and tweaking, the V8 was coaxed into life and when it was put on the dyno it developed 300bhp at 4100rpm and a massive 525lb ft of torque at 1900rpm. When new in 1955, the Thunderbird could offer just 193bhp and 280lb ft from its 4.8-litre V8. Yet despite the ridiculous amount of go, the T’Bird is utterly tractable at all times. That diesel rattle never disappears completely, but it’s never intrusive and at A-road speeds it’s easy to have a conversation because the V8 isn’t very far above its 750rpm tickover speed.

What’s really endearing about the car though is the design inside and out. The view through the heavily curved windscreen and those heavily sculpted front wings are quite superb. The aluminium juke-box dash, wide-open cabin and the details that proliferate are from another era, so it’s no wonder Andy has already had several offers to buy his creation. None have been large enough to tempt him though. Yet…


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