Most first editions of legendary cars are squirreled away in a private museum or are on proud display at a corporate office.
But the first production copy of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird can be seen storming around the hills of Orange County, Calif., with George Watts at the wheel.
The 81-year-old Watts has restored nearly 25 Thunderbirds of various ages and decrepitude over the years, but this is the only one he has kept. Watts found the car in 1965 in a body shop, ready for the wrecking yard. The shop owner, not knowing he was sitting on a gold mine, wanted $500 for it.
"I offered him $400, but he insisted on $500. I knew what the car was, so I figured, 'Why not?' " Watts recalled.
It took Watts three years to restore the car, whereupon he made the black beauty his daily car for several years. Now, he drives it about 1,000 miles annually.
The mint-condition two-seater does not hide its birthright; its California yellow-on-black license plate reads "001 BRD."
Watts bought the car with 78,000 miles on the clock. Since he zeroed out the odometer, it has 38,716 miles on it. He is meticulous with his maintenance. Watts' neighbor, whose gleaming silver BMW X5 peers out from the garage, claims, "He washes that car more than I do mine."
Watts recently had the car's points, condensers and plugs tuned, and he had the brakes done, with new shoes and wheel cylinders.
Everything works. The car is pristine. There's not a squeak or rattle. The power windows slide down smartly. The aura of the car is so pervasive, one would swear he could hear Don Larsen's World Series no-hitter against the Brooklyn Dodgers on the T-Bird's AM radio.
Oil and transmission fluid dot the garage floor, but in such minute quantities as to be noticeable for their near absence. When asked to lower the new convertible top for a photograph, Watts fairly blushes when he admits, "It's never been down."
But the car is not a concours queen, even though it has been shown repeatedly. It has been in all the major enthusiast magazines. Watts recently drove it to Seal Beach for a photo shoot with a crew from Denmark.
Watts is not timid with the car. He gives the throttle a firm stab of encouragement as he gives me a tour of his neighborhood.
Finally, it's my turn. Too young to remember this car, I can't get the T-Bird engine to fire up. In a grandfatherly way, Watts gently chides that the transmission must be in neutral to get the V-8 to turn over.
The hood extends forever
A black puff of smoke comes from the right exhaust pipe as the engine gurgles to life. The car pulls smartly away from a standstill, the asphalt thrumming through the tires, the suspension offering up a gentle boom when encountering undulations. The brake pedal has a certain wooden vagueness, its stopping power requiring a bit more leg muscle than anticipated.
The hood seems to stretch on forever away from the windscreen, acres of black paint reflecting the darkening afternoon sky. The glass fabrication technology of the time shows through, the windshield displaying a bit of fish-eye where it curves to meet the A-pillar.
The engine delivers a locomotive's pull. While certainly no speed demon, there is a refined elegance to its acceleration. The 'Bird's cornering is sure and planted, its meaty tires holding without a howl or warble.
Watts admits a slight dissatisfaction with the car's 8-volt electrical system, which causes the turn signals to blink a little slowly for his taste. But given the age of the car, the "one-and-a-two" delay between the "plink ... plink" is almost charming.
Watts' interest in Thunderbirds started when he saw his first '55 in the Lawry's Prime Rib restaurant parking lot.
"I had been into old Fords," he says. "I had a '26 Model T with a V-8. But when I saw that T-Bird, I just about died."
Judging from the looks and countless thumbs-up from passers-by, 001 BRD still has that effect.