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April 24, 2009

News & Features

Mr. Thunderbird: A local restorer is the go-to guy for fixing up classic T-birds

Special to NWautos


Frank Stubbs looks over a Thunderbird in his shop in Newcastle. (Photo by Jeff Layton)

The dull, gray hunk of steel mounted on the lift at an awkward angle could hardly be called a car.

There was no rubber, chrome, knobs or fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. It was only a skeleton -- the bare bones of what was about to become a restored classic Ford Thunderbird.

Only a mad scientist or a wizard could bring this hulk back to life. That man is Frank Stubbs, also known to clients and admirers as "Mr. Thunderbird." For 30 years, Stubbs and his wife, Cathy, have been restoring 1955-57 Ford Thunderbirds out of their Newcastle home.

Stubbs's restorations are legendary. Many of his creations have won gold medallions at auto shows, and his customers are often willing to wait the year it can take to refurbish a car.

Frank Stubbs' six steps for bringing a classic back to life
  • 1. Disassemble the entire car.
  • 2. Strip the body of paint and undercoat.
  • 3. Repair and replace accident damage and rust areas.
  • 4. Prep and paint the body.
  • 5. Rebuild the running gear and interior components.
  • 6. Reassemble the car and tune the engine.

Stubbs fell in love with Thunderbirds when he bought his first one at age 20 and soon began restoring them in his free time. Eventually he quit his day job as a bricklayer, expanded his garage and began restoration work full-time.

Stubbs explains in his modest, soft-spoken manner that restoring classics is a tricky business. If a customer wants to show the car, Stubbs has to keep replacement parts as true to the original as possible.

As an example, he points to new weatherstripping around the windshield of a gleaming white hard-top in his shop. He explains, "It's widely known that the original stripping that Ford used was poor quality. If it's replaced, it's not an 'original' piece anymore, but it improves the car."

It usually takes from 200 to 300 hours for Stubbs to restore a car. Much of his time is spent patching rusted panels that tend to show up around wheel wells and floorboards. He wields his welding equipment like an artist's brush on canvases that can be worth well over $200,000.

Stubbs's other specialty is updating old T-Birds with modern conveniences. In a corner of the shop is a cream-colored '56 with a tan and silver interior. Most of the dash is gutted, with wires protruded from every gap and hole -- ready to have air conditioning and rack-and-pinion steering installed in the original frame.

One of the hardest parts of being a restoration expert is fixing mistakes made by other people, Stubbs says. He's working on a '57 hardtop whose previous owner tried to fix rust on the rear wheel-well opening but had shaped the body wrong. Stubbs is now custom-building skirts that will fit in the openings and partially cover the wheels.

"I know what the cars are supposed to look like, and when something -- like the slope of a fender -- is wrong, it just doesn't look right to me," he says.

The work is part mechanical, part artistic. Turning neglected steel into a restored classic takes a lot of patience and, most of all, a well-developed adoration for a vehicle that is widely considered the most-loved car ever made in the United States.


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