CONCORD, N.C. (Oct. 10, 2000) – The ’55 Ford Thunderbird that Keith Dorton drove on his first date with his wife Patsy is bringing the couple to Lowe’s Motor Speedway Oct. 20-22 for the GoodGuys Southeastern Rod & Custom Nationals.
While the Dortons haven’t changed much — they’re still the same fun-loving couple, just 37 years older — the Thunderbird has undergone a massive transformation. Keith Dorton, a well-known figure in the racing community for his engine-building experience, admits to having been a motorhead all of his life.
“My first car was a ’32 Ford five-window coupe,” Dorton remembers. “It was just an empty shell, really. I was 12 years old at the time and spent a lot of time scavenging parts from salvage yards to build it.”
When the Concord native turned 16 and got a driver’s license, Dorton wasted no time in getting to the local dragstrip to start enjoying the thrill of speed in his ’32. A year later, he graduated from high school and began taking mechanical engineering classes at Charlotte College (now UNCC).
Dorton had always liked the lines of the 1955-’57 two-seater Thunderbirds, so at the age of 17 he sold his ’32 Ford to raise the $1,500 asking price of a used ’55 model. In search of more power, he took out the T-bird’s small V-8 and installed a 406-cid V-8 wearing three two-barrel carburetors, then headed to the dragstrip.
The young speed freak wanted his ‘Bird to be stylish as well as fast, so he called famous California customizer George Barris to see how much a few quarts of Barris’ candyapple paint would cost. The price was more than the young student’s budget would bear, but the man who would later build such television icons as the Batmobile, the Monkeemobile and the Munster Coach agreed to share his secret recipe with Dorton.
“I went to all kinds of different stores to get the different ingredients it took to make that paint,” Dorton remembers. “No one else around here had a paint job like I did. It looked beautiful for almost a year, but then the sun just bleached out the pigment and my red car turned a dingy orange.”
A job with legendary race car builders Holman-Moody during 1963-’65 gave young Dorton a chance to really learn engine building and the fledgling stock car racing business from the masters. During that period Dorton and Patsy had their first date in the Thunderbird, eventually married and decided to start their own business, Automotive Specialists, to build engines for racers.
Dorton had been driving his Thunderbird every day to work and every Saturday night on the dragstrip, so he wasn’t surprised when the crankshaft broke, causing him to park the car in his garage until he and his new bride could feel comfortable spending money on repairing it.
More than 30 years later, Dorton had turned down dozens of offers to sell the car when he decided it was time to breathe life back into the “first date car.” Enlisting the help of Owen Walters, a local street rod builder, he had the body removed from the frame and rebuilt piece-by-piece.
Other than being as smooth as glass and covered with a brilliant red, the body has not been modified very much. Only a sharp-eyed T-bird enthusiast would notice the molded-in front gravel pan, smoothed-out grille opening and slightly larger hood scoop. It’s under that flamed hood that the real changes have been made. Dorton, whose engines have set poles and taken drivers to victory circle in NASCAR’s Winston Cup and Busch races in addition to other stock car series, chose an incredibly powerful, high-tech powerplant to propel his two-seater street machine. A 5.4-liter V-8 with single overhead camshafts, normally found in Ford’s full-size pickups and Expedition SUVs, sits under a Holley supercharger and produces a tire-shredding 400 horsepower. Gearshifts are handled through a new five-speed transmission.
The suspension, steering and brakes have all been updated to make the 45-year-old Ford ride as comfortably as a Taurus. Wide BFGoodrich tires on 16-inch Centerline alloy wheels ensure that the T-bird corners as quickly as any Mustang.
The upholsterer who covered the interior in a gold material in ’63 swathed the seats and dash in more tasteful cream-colored leather in ’99; Dorton says the price difference between the two jobs was “substantial.”
Thirty-seven years after their first date, the Dortons have two grown children, a thriving business and a happy marriage. Spectators at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway GoodGuys show can decide just how much the Thunderbird had to do with that.
General admission for the GoodGuys Southeastern Rod & Custom Nationals is $10, with children aged 7-12 admitted for $6 and seniors over 60 admitted for $8. Children 6 and under are admitted free. Parking is $5. Event hours are Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, contact Lowe’s Motor Speedway at (704) 455-3205.