T-Bird: Retro Rambling in Ohio

NEW CONCORD, Ohio — With Ford's new Thunderbird appearing at dealerships, and BMW's new Mini and Nissan's new "Z" car set to debut next year, it is easy to find yourself getting all mushy about the past and sighing "they sure don't build them like they used to."

But there is nothing like spending a couple of days driving a few hundred miles in a 1957 Thunderbird, lent by Ford Motor Co., to gain some perspective on nostalgia.

Keeping with the nostalgia theme, we decided to cover the 230-mile or so Ohio section of the National Road or Route 40, which was our country's first federally funded highway. It ran from Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, Ill., and has been driven over by Conestoga wagons as well as Model-T Fords.

1957 Ford ThunderbirdThe silver T-Bird, which showed up without license plates, came with these helpful tips from the guys who trailered it: to start it, put it in Neutral, pump the gas pedal a couple of times, and turn the key. Don't use the parking brake. And, oh yeah, the driver's door sags and doesn't close easily.

Just before taking off, we learned that the T-bird's taillights were not working. Hardly comforting since the car was built before fuel integrity standards and people do have a tendency to tailgate.

Crazed metronomes and manholes

Because of time constraints, my husband, Christopher, and I took high-speed Turnpikes and Interstates to Wheeling, W.Va., where we would pick up US 40 to take the route from eastern to western Ohio.

Driving the Thunderbird is fun and nerve-wracking at the same time. I giggle each time I wrap my hands around the thin, 17-inch diameter steering wheel — which seems to be roughly the size of a manhole cover — and buckle up the lap belt. My legs are stretched straight out to reach the pedals because the bench seat is on the floor. Looking out the windshield, the hood seems to stretch for miles.

I also have to laugh every time upshifts from the three-speed Fordomatic transmission slam in like the thrusters on the Starship Enterprise when she's going to warp speed.

The speedometer needle whips back and forth like a crazed metronome from 60 to 130 mph and back to 80. I would love to be stopped for speeding so when the patrolman says, "Do you know how fast you are going?" I can honestly say, "I have no idea, officer."

1957 Ford ThunderbirdThe Thunderbird also has no steering feel. I risk carpal tunnel syndrome by continually sawing the 17-inch steering wheel from side to side to try to keep it going in a straight line. And this is on an absolutely straight highway. What am I going to do on twisty two-lane roads?

Fumes permeate the passenger compartment so we have to keep windows cracked much of the time. Puhleeze, don't let me be asphyxiated. When the windows are rolled up, voices echo throughout the cavernous interior.

I'm also nervous about it holding together. All the noises make me wonder whether anything fatal is happening under the hood. On a rough road surface everything chatters like it's going to fall apart.

Shake, rattle and roll

Although the T-Bird shakes and rattles, it also rolls with even just a little bit of throttle, thanks to the original 312-cubic-inch displacement overhead valve, cast iron block special V-8 big that puts out 245 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque.

We connect with US 40 in Wheeling. Begun in 1808 in Cumberland, Md., the National Road's first segment reached Wheeling in 1818. By 1850 the road, which was intended to link established cities in the East with the emerging frontier west of the Appalachians, reached its western end in Vandalia, Ill.

The road fell into disrepair, and when it was reincarnated in the 1920s, it was as US 40, a transcontinental highway, that ran from Atlantic City's Boardwalk all the way to San Francisco.

In Wheeling, a "Dangerous Curve" sign really gets my attention. Luckily, the steering is not too bad off center when it gets some weight to it. Still it's far from confidence-inspiring, especially when combined with the braking ability of old drum brakes. And, if the brake is pressed a tiny bit too hard, the nose dives a couple of feet like a giant stepped on it, causing the car to bobble up and down for what seems like a mile.

Quickly into Ohio, we pass through Blaine, St. Clairsville, Morristown, Hendrysburg. Some small towns like these along US 40 were bypassed when the route was widened after World War II. Then even US 40 was bypassed when Interstate 70 was built parallel to it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Off the sterile interstate

Unlike on the sterile interstate, we experience small-town life, passing by houses and mom-and-pop shops, reminiscent of a time when life, and transportation, moved much more slowly.

Driving the National Road in Ohio is like being an archaeologist on a scavenger hunt. Amid the rush and strip malls of modern life, you are trying to recapture a slower pace and spot historical elements of the road: the white stone mile-markers and the S-shaped stone bridges that are distinctive to the road in eastern Ohio.

In Middlebourne we find one. Built about 1828, it is one of the best-preserved S bridges and the only one that people can still drive across. The shortest and simplest explanation for the S shape is that, for the time, it was the easiest, most practical way engineers could find to cross a river when it wasn't in a direct-angle alignment with the road.

After passing through Old Washington, Cambridge and Cassel, we spend the night in New Concord at the Friendship House Bed and Breakfast in an 1830s Federal-style house with US 40 at its front door.

The T-Bird has a squeak that sounds like a mouse caught under the balky gas pedal. Spraying with a can of WD40 we bought next door to the B&B seems to fix it.

Soggy Sunday

Our sunny, warm Saturday turns into a soggy, cold Sunday as we leave New Concord. The carbureted T-Bird is trying to stall at traffic lights and is taking more cranks each time to start up. The rain is getting worse, too.

Urban sprawl catches up to us just outside of Columbus where US 40 turns into the Reynoldsburg strip with its ubiquitous fast-food places and tacky strip malls. The T-Bird is getting more finicky, stalling at traffic lights, taking more tries to start up. The rain is getting worse, too.

But we do find a 40 Motel in West Columbus, which is representative of accommodations found on US 40 in the 1950s and 1960s before the Interstate bypassed the route.

In Donnelsville, close to the Indiana border we decide to give it up because it continues to rain and the carbureted T-Bird is trying to stall more often.

We take the quick, boring Interstate to Cleveland. The radio seems to pick up only Perry Como, which we find a bit Twilight Zone-ish. We don't have heat because the heater level won't budge, and we can't roll up the windows because of the fumes coming from the engine. My jacket sleeves are pulled up over my hands and held in place by the steering wheel and the hood is up over my head to retain warmth.

It gets harder and harder to restart the Thunderbird and, when the engine does catch, huge plumes of smoke envelope everyone around us, which is embarrassing. But at least we get home — and without triggering an air pollution alert.

We are thrilled to reach home and have learned some lessons: Be careful what you wish for and be grateful that they don't make them like they used to.

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