Cars are vehicles for travel and vehicles for bringing people together. You might remember this 1957 Thunderbird when it appeared at the 50th annual Das Awkscht Fescht in 2013, owned by Benjamin Koch, our then Ontelaunee Club President. Ben drove the Thunderbird for travel only once but he sure used it to get to know people. A “trailer queen,” this Thunderbird received a terrific frame-off restoration and won nearly every important award given by the Antique Automobile Club of America (“AACA”) and the Vintage Thunderbird Club International (“VTCI”). More than the awards, this car gave Ben the reward he sought for years: the pride of ownership.
Ben owned and operated Honda Kawasaki of Berks on the North Fifth Street Highway in Reading. While motorcycles were his passion, the car pictured on his office wall from 1980 to 1999 was a green 1957 Ford thunderbird. Ben had a passion for speed – drag racing Harley-Davidsons in the early 1960s and Kawasakis in the 1990s (Pro Super Bike National Champion in 1999). But his wife, Barbara, reminds us it was the Thunderbird on his wall that kept Ben’s car interest.
In 1997, Ben began to realize that dream when he bought a 1957 azure blue Thunderbird in Lynchburg, Virginia. Azure blue has a hint of green and the car came with a white convertible top. The 1957 is Ben’s favorite among the “baby birds” of 1955-1957 because it has a longer trunk in which the spare tire is hidden and a 312 cubic inch engine instead of the 292 Y-block of 1955 and 1956. Ben’s first baby bird had an automatic transmission, but he preferred a manual shifter.
In 2001, Ben bought another 1957 Thunderbird in starmist blue with a matching hardtop and a navy convertible top, our subject car, at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois. This car had a 312 cubic inch engine, four-barrel carburetor and a three-speed manual transmission with overdrive shifted by a floor-mounted stick. It was in very good condition, slightly better than the azure blue model already in the Kochs’ garage. The two competed once at a Schuylkill County show and neither won because they split the votes. Ben sold the azure blue Thunderbird in 2002and focused on the starmist blue car.
Ben determined to perfect the starmist Thunderbird and brought it to Jeff Ludwig in Denver, Pennsylvania, for a frame-off restoration. Jeff gapped and painted the body panels, and detailed the drivetrain and interior with new old stock parts. Tom McMichael of the Ontelaunee Club straightened and finished the stainless steel trim. Jeff and Tom completed the restoration in 14 months. Ben showed the completed car at Duryea Days in 2004 where this writer met Ben and marveled at the restoration, saying that “this car needs to be seen.” This was the one time Ben drove the car at a show, braving gravel roads.
Ben won his first AACA junior in 2004 at Ashboro, NC, and his first senior in 2005 at Greensburg, PA. In between the junior and senior awards, your writer brought the car to attention of fellow Selection Committee members of the Concours d’Elegance of the Eastern United States. Ben, Barb and the 1957 Thunderbird came to that Concours in 2005 where the car received its first Star Award (best in class). After winning again at the Grand National at Northglenn, CO, in 2005 and its first grand national at the Grand National in Dover, DE, in 2006. It received many Repeat Preservation awards.
Ben and Barb took it to a variety of Thunderbird shows. The Thunderbird took its Formal First award at the VTCI show in Lancaster in 2004, a senior Formal First Place award at the VTCI show in 2007 held at Bethlehem, and Primary Division First Place and Best of Show at the VTCI show in 2009. Ben is most proud of the trophy received in 2010 for the Best of Show at the Buckingham Concours. Your writer is also proud of the second Star Award given to the Thunderbird at the Concours d’Elegance of the Eastern United States in 2011.
The Thunderbird was a vehicle for friendship. Ben, Barb, your writer and wife, Florita, had a great time at the Diamond (75th) AACA Celebration in Louisville, KY, in 2010. The Thunderbird showed well while we travelled the Ohio River on a paddlewheel boat, toured the best restaurants and learned that southern cemeteries are tourist destinations with magnificent statuary, including Colonel Sanders’ memorial. I also had the honor of accompanying Ben and his brother, Ted, when the Thunderbird sold at the Mecum Auction in Harrisburg in 2014 to a Ford car dealer. The Thunderbird now shows at a car museum near Fort Worth, TX.
Ben and Barb are true Ontelaunee motorheads. They like Fords; they still own a 1956 Victoria and a 1966 Thunderbird and are always looking for another 1957 Thunderbird. But Barb drives a Nissan and Ben will always tell you about motorcycles and DeSotos. Together they have ridden motorcycles around the country, camping early during their marriage but later showing cars and staying in motorhomes and hotels. Accompanying this article are two pictures of the 1957 Thunderbird in starmist blue, during and after restoration.
Ben and Barb Koch