Chuck Bettinger’s 1955 Ford Thunderbird used to be red. Really red. Torch red, the color Ford used in the 1950s, almost a fire engine red. That color didn’t work so well for Bettinger who chose to transform the car to the stock T-bird blue it sports nowadays, and that color might be why he refers lovingly to his car as a cream puff.
Getting it from that red to the much calmer blue, which Bettinger says looks green to him, and does look green when the sun’s hitting it at that certain angle, wasn’t an easy or quick job. He couldn’t just take it to the drive through paint shop.
The car was literally taken apart from top to frame so that it could be restored to Bettinger’s taste. His wife thought she’d like to have the car, but she’s driven it only one time, saying it’s still a hot rod. Perhaps it is, but it’s a hot rod sporting many conveniences not found on the original – air conditioning, rack and pinion steering, and disc brakes.
“But it still looks like a ’55 T-bird,” Bettinger gladly stated when he showed the car recently at the 22nd annual Sacramento Mustangs & Fords at the Marriott show sponsored by the Sacramento Area Mustang Club. Show proceeds benefitted the California Automobile Museum’s new roof fund, the Automotive Student Service Education Training (ASSET) Scholarship Foundation at Cosumnes River College, and the Rancho Cordova Police Activities League program. He towed it down in a specially designed trailer that was on the street not far from his spot near the entrance.
Originally built for comfort, not speed, this was Ford’s first two-seater in nearly two decades. It was lightweight, sported fender skirts and the removable fiberglass hard top which was standard. The soft cover had been optional.
Bettinger discovered the car in the back of a shop, not entirely in one piece. The vehicle, he learned, originated in Kansas City and was that infamous torch red when first sold in 1954. Bettinger’s a record keeper, a necessity in his long career as a mechanic at the Oroville Dam powerhouse, which he began in 1961 before the first concrete was poured there. The vehicle remained in one family, passing through several members before Bettinger came into possession of it.
It’s been his for a little over a year and a half and he’s documented the entire restoration project, which is kept in a photo album he pulled from the trunk. The project wasn’t quick because restoration projects, he explained, take a back seat to the more lucrative business of collision repair. And it’s difficult, Bettinger explained, to find someone to do the complete body.
“The biggest thing was waiting to get the body back,” he said, explaining also that the body was walnut-shelled, meaning that it was sand blasted with crushed walnut shells. This process can cause less stress to the vehicle, and it is often used for cleaning jet engines or even for cleaning carbon build-up in passenger cars.
The hard top is the same blue as the exterior and he painted the dashboard the same color because he likes the monochromatic color scheme, which is disturbed only when he replaces the hard top with the tan soft top from a 1956 model. The car, this day, was topless. A self-healing protector was added to save the body from additional wear from the removal and install of the tops.
He’s owned the car about the same amount of time as it took to restore. The air conditioning system from Classic Auto Air was installed under the dash. The car runs a 340 hp, 302 engine and has hydroboost. And it’s for sale. In fact, several folks discussed the merits of the vehicle with Bettinger while he was showing. The sign, like Bettinger, is quiet.
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Story and Photos by Trina L. Drotar