Marilyn Monroe’s Thunderbird?

It would be hard to think of a car more closely associated with pretty girls than the 1955–’57 Ford Thunderbird. In the movie American Graffiti, the mysterious blonde played by Suzanne Somers drives a white ’56 T-Bird. And does anybody think the girl in the Beach Boys song, ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ isn’t driving a two-seater?

The ’57 owned by Trevor Dumville might fit right into the T-Bird and pretty girl tradition. There’s a chance, and some evidence, that Dumville’s ‘Baby Bird’ was owned by Marilyn Monroe.

According to Dumville, the car was acquired many years ago by a Calgary collector who paid what was, for the time, a very high price because of the Hollywood connection. When the car was delivered, the paperwork didn’t absolutely prove that the car had been Monroe’s. The decision in the resulting court case, however, was that there was no proof that she hadn’t owned it, either.

The Thunderbird still sports its original V8 engine.

The Thunderbird still sports its original V8 engine.

In the early ‘50s, North American manufacturers began to worry about the sports car segment of the new car market. What they were worried about was that they didn’t have anything to sell to someone who wanted a two-seater sporting machine. GM was the first out of the gate, with the Chevrolet Corvette appearing as a ’53 model. Ford’s entry, the Thunderbird, was a ’55. Although it used many parts from the regular Ford lineup, a strategy that would be used again for the Mustang, the T-Bird created a sensation when it appeared. Actress Jane Wyman was the very first person to take delivery of a new Thunderbird and drove it right into the middle of a party she was giving to celebrate the event.

Some changes were made for 1956 – most notably the addition of portholes to the removable hard top and engine compartment vents on the front fenders to reduce heat in the cabin. For 1957 the car’s styling underwent bigger changes, the rear deck was extended and grew small tailfins while wheel size dropped an inch. A measure of the T-Bird’s halo effect can be seen in the name Ford attached to its new 312 cubic inch engine. They called it the ‘Thunderbird V8’, regardless of what kind of Ford had it under the hood.

Dumville remembers when the Thunderbird first came out, and how it was less of a sensation in Saskatchewan than it was in Hollywood. “The lady whose husband owned the dealership where I worked got one but didn’t keep it,” Dumville recalls. “There weren’t many in small town Saskatchewan. They were kind of a useless car. They were overpriced and they only had the one seat.”

“You didn’t see them for years,” the Calgary collector continues. “Then they started coming out of the woodwork. I can remember seeing them for $3,000. Then they were $6,000. They went up to crazy dollars – as high as &70,000 before they dropped off.”

The fully loaded interior on the Thunderbird.

The fully loaded interior on the Thunderbird.
Gavin Young, Calgary Herald,

When the collection of which the T-Bird was then a part was sold off, the ’57 two-seater was one of the pieces that Dumville wanted. Well-optioned for the time, the Thunderbird has a 245-horsepower 312 V8, power windows, power brakes, power steering, an automatic transmission, a power seat and a telescopic steering column. “It has every option except air-conditioning and the soft top,” he says. The car had been repainted and the interior was in very good shape, but sitting for many years without being driven hadn’t done the rest of it any favours.

“We went right through the mechanics of the car,” Dumville says. The undercarriage was steam-blasted and plastic-blasted before being repainted. It needed new springs, shocks and a steering box as well as some attention to the engine. “It’s a great car to drive,” says the proud owner. “It’s not a slow car. You can drive 70 miles per hour all day in it.”

His ’57 Thunderbird is one of the keepers in his collection, Dumville says. “I had a wonderful time putting it together and just having it.” As for the Marilyn Monroe connection, Dumville says he knows that there’s a good chance that the T-Bird’s provenance could be checked. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you research it?’” he smiles. “I said, ‘I’m not sure I want to know.’”

About Robert K. Rooney