June 2021 - Jim Rock's 1956 Sunliner
Jim Rock says, “Thanks again, Dad, for my 1956 Sunliner”
No, I didn't purchase the car from a used car lot, grab it from the wrecking ball at a car cemetery or answer somebody's "For Sale" advertisement. You are in for the full story.
On one sunny day in May of 1956 at 12 years of age, I looked through the window blinds and saw the right rear quarter panel of the new yellow and white 1956 Ford convertible as Dad drove into the driveway. I thought the color combination was very unusual and too bright when compared to Dad's past cars. Sister Dearest helped decide on the Colonial White/Golden Rod Yellow combo before the car came to our home from Mahwah, NJ. Even still, what weird colors I thought!
One of my first trips in the Sunliner was to Bar Harbor, Maine with Dad. The top was down all the way, but Mom didn't go along as she was always afraid of getting her hair blown around. Poor sport! We traveled the old Route One which at the time was the only way up to Bar Harbor. It was congested with summer beach traffic along the coast in the afternoons. Mom never liked the continental kit. It was a bother when it was fill up time. The station attendants never knew quite how to open it. Then there was the time Mom walked home because she could not start the car. The selector level had to be exactly on "N". Dad sure was irritated to go get it because he had to give up his favorite TV program - - Gunsmoke! The gals in the family always would borrow the car and not put gas in - - another irritation to Dad.
During my days at University of New Hampshire, the first two years I used to hitchhike back home to Massachusetts on weekends and pick up the Sunliner where Mom used it to go to work. The last two years I was allowed to have a car on campus, so I had it all to myself.
The year was 1962, graduation time from high school. Dad was pleased with my school report card and realized the '56 had 21,000 miles on it. The time was appropriate to do his regular six-year trade in, so he said "Here you are son! The car is yours. You will be needing one from this point on." I really couldn't believe my good fortune. The car was mine free and clear - - a gift! All I had to do was to supply the gas and take care of the maintenance. What a nice Dad!!
It didn't take long to sell my Schwinn 3-speed bike with odometer reading 4,200 miles, even though at first I thought I was being forced into driving a car. Up to this point my bike was adequate transportation and I was content.
From the day I took her over, I vowed never to let my Sunliner go. If I owned something longer than 20 minutes it's mine forever. This is the reason my current house is too small! I took the "Rocky T-Bird" (as we called her at college) just about everywhere from New York to Maine, but at times she was a real headache. May I please explain.
My mechanic got me interested in giving the "Yellow Bird" very good care as soon as I got her. He told me the valves were sticking and making noises and to change the oil immediately. This was the beginning of the horror story. The oil filter had to be chopped off as it was frozen on to the engine. Removal of the valve covers revealed a scene like the mud flats of nearby Boston Harbor. What a mess! I was sent to the dealership that supposedly was doing regular oil changes (but never did) and had the sludge removed. However, the oil was not drained after the cleanup (probably with gasoline), and I blew out one of the mufflers upon my return to my regular mechanic. From that day on I began changing the oil every 1,000 miles with a shot of Mystery Oil. Because the car was still new, I was fairly lucky except for one valve which always caused a shaking sensation before the first shift of the transmission. The engine ran like that well past 84,000 miles when it began to give off exhaust smoke.
The State Registry Authorities pulled me over one day during the years they cracked down on smoking exhaust. My registration was confiscated. Fortunately, I had just purchased a new 1971 Monte Carlo with the intentions of keeping both cars running. (Oops! I was a traitor.)
I contacted a dealer in Boston (not knowing it was probably run by the mob.) I specified that I wanted a new short block and another carburetor. The company ended up only repairing the defective valve and replacing the carb with one twice as bad as the first. Golly! If only I had known about Mike Suter at that time! The engine skipped and the idle was high when I got the car back. I soon returned the car to the company, but it was so bad I was afraid to drive it. There she sat in Somerville, part of Boston, for several months after I filed a lawsuit which involved the District Attorney's office. The company kept calling me to say the car was ready but after each test drive period, I said that it was NOT! They threatened to put the car into the street. I called the owner at his home by obtaining his number from the police department. He hung up on me.
Early the following spring, I received my Small Claims award and went to pick the "Yellow Bird" up. I took her to my new mechanic and used the awarded funds of $425 to fix the engine and carb. I was all set for the time being.
During 1967-1970 the "Yellow Bird" was in storage for $8/month while I served my country. After three years, we took her off the blocks, squirted mystery oil into the cylinders, and started her up. I was so happy to hear that engine come to life but was not happy to see all the tranny fluid pouring out. The seals had dried up but would reseal after the car warmed up. Well, I got that mess fixed only to have the engine damaged because of an overfull transmission. (Some of those mechanics were really Bozo's.) This was the beginning of a period of exhaust smoke! Mind you that Mom always yelled at me to "get rid of it."
Finally in 1983 the car was garaged for a period lasting 15 years and moved several times in the process. The "Yellow Bird" got buried under all my landscaping supplies. In 1998 I had to vacate the rented garage. Fortunately, I had just purchased a house with parking, so the "Yellow Bird" was towed to the house.
During my four years at the University of New Hampshire, the Sunliner went on joy rides on weekends. Some of my past friends still ask about the car and still ask if I put cardboard in front of the radiator for heat. I had many nice dates. It was love at first sight, for the girls always loved--the car, but not me!
Shortly after towing the car home, I could not bear looking out at her in non-running condition, so the tow company (getting rich from me) took her to my new mechanic to get her going again. After $2,500, the key was turned and she came to life, the dual exhausts throwing out a half bucket of rust but remaining intact.
The first CVA convention which I attended was in Nashua, NH in 2004. When I think of what the car looked like at the time, I probably would have placed it under the “Rough ‘n Tough” category. The tires were mismatched, front grill kind of rusty in places and vinyl top crumbling away. Therefore, the convention photo was not something very pretty to look at.
Don Stickler convinced me to join CVA and it was the best thing I ever did! Thanks to Don, I've met many wonderful and helpful people to assist me in restoring the car to good running condition. Mike Suter did my carb (I hated to open the box as it was so neatly packed.) T-Bird Parts supplied many items also.
At present the "Rocky T-Bird" is running very well. She's 35 miles short of 100,000. I've added P/S, electronic ignition (got tired of getting stuck with points), and cow catchers! Also have done many other things thanks to the expertise of Steve Rocke (my long-lost brother) of Canaan, NH.
Well, I can't emphasize enough the fact that frequent oil changes are the solution to major engine problems. Dad always made sure he changed his oil every 1,000 miles after his Ford experiences. The "Yellow Bird" had some main bearing drips and smoke from the oil breather but otherwise was running well. My landscaping friend Jay and I drove to the Maryland National Convention in 2007. We did not have to beg for rides.
I thank my Dad for causing all of the above and wish he were around to see the car and enjoy a ride with us with the top down. I thank my Mom too, for yelling at me to get rid of the burden. That made me all the more determined to keep the "Yellow Bird." And thanks to Sister Dearest for the color choice and for being jealous that I got the Ford for free after she had to pay for Dad's previous trade, which was a '51 Chrysler Windsor (poor sister)! Dad's reason for making Sister Dearest pay for the Chrysler was because he could not afford to do for her what he did for me in 1967. I count my blessings for being brought into the world when I was. The 1950' s were great to have lived through and the timing for me to obtain the Sunliner was just right.
Thanks again Dad!
Not long after the 2004 Nashua, NH convention I joined the CVA and have attended every convention since then. After the old tires were replaced with Diamond Back radials, the front grill was replaced along with a new rag top, and cattle guards and fender shirts were replaced. Each passing year brought a new upgrade or two. The costliest of all was a new interior and an engine rebuild after 100,000 miles. The final major improvement was a new coat of Colonial White paint. The yellow needs to be redone on the lower body. The Continental Kit was done with extra TLC this past year. The car was driven to Williamsburg, VA. On the return trip from Virginia, the car broke down as I was backing into the driveway at the house! Now isn’t that really GOOD LUCK?? The repair was expensive and difficult. It was something about the fuel pump having to be reattached to the block!! Surely, I would have been stranded for days to get that fixed. Last season everything failed together – like the water pump, starter, coils, and radiator!! Sometimes there is no end to the repairs!
The first trip for this 2021 season was with the Bay State Antique Auto Club to an outside venue for lunch. The first trip of the season is called a “breakdown tour”, a misnomer. I’m thankful the tour did not result in one of those!
The Sunliner was originally called the “Rocky T-Bird” while I was at the University of New Hampshire between 1962 and 1966. One gal remains in touch to this day. That was Betty from Morristown, PA. I drove her to the airport many times for Thanksgiving Holidays and Christmas from UNH. Betty always remembers the trip without adequate heat. The controls were frozen, so I used a cardboard in front of the radiator. This coming October, the University of New Hampshire is having a reunion and Betty will get to ride in the Rocky T-Bird once again!
Future plans are to have the lower body restored. That’s going to be a project and quite time intensive. Now I am 77 years of age, and “Rocky T-Bird” is now 65 years of age. She always takes me back to “the good old days”, when I wasn’t so old, and I wasn’t so good. But with the support of good friends and good doctors we will be in good shape for many good miles in the future.