Photo by Bill Roseberry
Larry Roseberry stands next to his red 1957 Ford Thunderbird. Roseberry had to sell the car in 1981 but was able to buy it back 33 years later.
Sometimes in life you get the opportunity to right a wrong from your youth. Larry Roseberry, my father, knows that feeling first hand.
When I was a kid, he owned a 1957 Thunderbird convertible, Inca gold in color with a 289-cubic-inch, high-performance engine and 4-speed manual transmission. It was a pristine piece of machinery and a prize possession for our family.
Then, due to unforeseen circumstances, he had to sell it for the good of his family. This is the story of how he got it back.
Let’s go back to the beginning, though, before I was even part of the story. In 1974, two years before I was born, my parents were in the market for a house when the loveable T-bird took precedent.
“I’ve always liked the ‘small birds,’ as they’re called, ‘55, ‘56 and ‘57,” dad said. “We were in the market for another house and went to look at one in Rosewood Heights and it had an unattached garage. When the guy took us out back to show us the garage there were two Thunderbirds there. He had a ‘55 and he had this ‘57. The ‘55 was a complete, drivable car and the ‘57 was just a roll-around body shell and he had the drive train on the floor to go with the car and I said, ‘Are the cars for sale?’ He replied, ‘One of them.’
“I’ve always liked the ‘57s, so I struck up a deal to buy the car instead of the house.”
He moved to our family home in Fosterburg and next came the craftsmanship that erected the car I remember as a child. My dad has always been a car enthusiast. There’s an old family story how my grandpa wanted to buy him a pony as a kid, but my dad scoffed at the idea, instead pleading for a go-cart.
So now he got to mold his masterpiece.
“I painted it Inca gold, which was a stock color for the ‘57 Thunderbird,” he said. “It’s kind of a yellow. It was kind of an Army green, a real ugly color. I don’t know what the guy was trying to do with the car, but it wasn’t even an original color.”
It also came with a drive train from a ‘64 Ford Fairlane, the 289-hypo engine and 4-speed transmission.
“I spent about a year doing the work I wanted to, to upgrade it and get the drive train in and working,” he said. “I installed a seatbelt in the middle because you were small and we took a few thousand-mile trip to break it in.”
Fast forward to the winter of 1980-81. I was 4 years old and I have vague recollections of my mother, father and I sleeping in our living room in sleeping bags with a fireplace heating the house. All the rooms had to remain closed to keep the heat centralized. I even remember the family on food stamps.
The reason: my dad worked at Amoco in Wood River and they had gone on strike. The strike lasted three months and mom and dad were behind on the bills. That’s when dad concocted a plan to help power through the hard times — sell his most cherished toy.
“We drove it several years, enjoying it. I was in a car club and we did cruises and club events with it and car shows,” dad said. “Then Amoco, where I worked, went on strike for a few months and I saw selling the car as a way of getting out of debt, so I sold the car in 1981.
“It was a pretty hard decision and it’s the only car that I ever saw leaving the property where your mother cried when it left. She even enjoyed the car.”
The selling of the car helped get us back on our feet. In the years since my dad has remained a car enthusiast — in particular a Ford enthusiast. He’s purchased other cars and worked to restore them, but the loss of his Thunderbird at the age of 34 has always haunted him.
In 2014 tragedy struck the family when dad lost his father at the age of 94. It was a rough time for us, especially considering my dad is an only child, as am I; so you could say grandpa, dad and I were kind of the Three Amigos.
As we grieved, dad received a phone call one day from a familiar voice. It was the guy who had purchased the Thunderbird in ‘81. He and dad had stayed in touch through the years as he updated dad on his mission to restore the car to its original ‘57 stock specifications. He put the original drive train back in, the stock 312, 4-barrel engine and 3-speed manual transmission. He also painted it the factory red color from ‘57.
He had an offer for dad.
“After 33 years he decided it was time to let it go, so he calls me and asks if I would be interested or if I knew anyone who would be interested,” he said. “I said, ‘I’d like to look at it.’ And I went to look at it and we started talking and we struck up a deal and I bought it back after 33 years.”
Dad, 67 in 2014, got the chance at redemption. With a little discretionary income from his inheritance from grandpa, dad was able to afford to right his wrong. Though obviously nothing could replace grandpa, the old Thunderbird provided a little light at the end of the tunnel.
“It put a little bright spot back in my life again,” dad said.
He admitted some things have changed since he originally owned it. The ‘57 Thunderbird sits pretty low to the ground.
“The only thing I can say is it was a little easier getting in and out of it 33 years ago compared to now,” he quipped. “But I still manage.”
Will he sell it again? Never say never, but selling it isn’t in any future plans.
“I’m not saying I won’t (sell it), but I’m not planning on it right away anyway,” dad said. “I’ve got some improvements I want to do on it and bring it back up from where it is now.”
And after all, now that can be my inheritance. I guess I should think again.
“I’ll leave it to the dog,” dad said, chuckling.