A clean and reportedly original 1968 Ford Thunderbird has been making its way around our favorite classified sections. Located in Port Washington, New York, the seller of this baby blue classic says it’s in good shape with 69,000 miles on the odometer. That would be impressive enough for a 55-year-old car, but then the listing threw me a curveball by saying it was owned by none other than DeForest Kelley, the actor best known for playing Leonard H. McCoy, M.D. in Star Trek.
I’ve been able to confirm that this really is the real McCoy and given its asking price of $14,500, it’s both an affordable classic and a piece of Star Trek memorabilia.
This car has been sent in by a number of readers. As it turns out, a lot of you are fans of both classic cars and Star Trek, which is pretty awesome. At first, I was going to toss this car into my Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness roundup. Then, I noticed that this car has been passed around a number of times over the past decade. The Thunderbird was listed on Craigslist in San Jose, California for $12,000 in December 2013 before being auctioned off in Oakland a month later in January 2014.
Apparently, the car changed hands at least once more after that and eventually, the car made it all of the way over to the other side of the country.
One thing stuck out through all of this, and it was the fact that while I could confirm that Kelley owned a powder blue 1968 Ford Thunderbird, none of the listings, old or current, showed any proof that this Ford Thunderbird was his. So, I decided to reach out to the seller of this car and they delivered the details.
While enthusiasts and historians still debate what the definitive first personal luxury car was, one vehicle stands out for helping to popularize the segment. Ford called the Thunderbird “a personal car of distinction,” and it was conceived by George Walker and Louis D. Crusoe. The men were given a mission to create a “true Ford sports car” for the 1955 model year. This sports car would be a two-seater soft top car with a goal weight of 2,525 pounds, Interceptor V8 power, balanced weight distribution, and performance to out-accelerate competitors with a top speed over 100 mph. The original T-Bird was a huge hit for Ford; it vastly outsold the comparable Chevrolet Corvette and forced General Motors to up that car’ game. Eventually, the two competitors went in very different directions, however.
In 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang, which took the hearts of buyers and the sales of the more expensive Thunderbird. To compensate, the Thunderbird got a dramatic redesign which saw it travel upmarket. Ford discontinued the convertible, moved the platform from unibody to body-on-frame, increased the size of the vehicle, and even introduced a four-door sedan with rear-opening doors. One fifth-gen design highlight is the wide grille with hidden headlights.
In 1967, the new Thunderbird sold close to 78,000 units, about 9,000 more than the Thunderbird of 1966. This looked to be an early success, then sales dropped sharply after. Hagerty notes that this generation of Thunderbird would go on the be called the “Glamour Bird.”
Our Daydreaming Designer, The Bishop, tells me these cars have some extraordinary engineering in them. The Bishop points out that the windshield wipers are hydraulic and driven from the power steering pump, the doors of the sedan were half-doors, a distributor was used for the sequential turn signals, and vacuum operated everything from the headlight doors to the 45-degree tilting steering wheel.
This steering wheel is truly something interesting. In 1961, Ford introduced the Swing-Away Steering Wheel. To enable easier ingress and egress, the steering wheel was able to shift 10.5 inches right. In 1967, Ford introduced the Tilt-Away Steering Wheel and it combined a manual tilt wheel with a function that automatically moved the wheel out of the way for ingress and egress.
Here’s how Ford advertised the system in the Mustang:
It worked by using the driver door courtesy light switch to feed power to a solenoid. That solenoid allowed vacuum to travel from a reservoir in the engine compartment to a motor on the steering column. That motor operated a cable, which pulled a locking pawl, which allowed the spring-assisted wheel to tilt 45 degrees, allowing easier entry and exit. When you closed the door, the vacuum bled, allowing you to pull the wheel back into place.
That brings us to the car we see before us today, a 1968 Ford Thunderbird with some interesting history.
DeForest Kelley’s Thunderbird
Now, let’s talk about the car of the hour and the man who drove it.
Kelley was born in 1920 in Atlanta, Georgia, and died in 1999. He married Carolyn Charlotte Meagher Dowling in 1945 and the two had a loving marriage spanning the majority of Kelley’s career. She was with him right until the very end, which definitely tugs on this woman’s heart. Kelley’s career spans an incredible 58 years and his filmography is a list too long to even start to fire off. Let’s just say that the original Star Trek, which lasted from 1966 to 1969 before additional shows and films were spawned, was just one piece of a long and distinguished acting career.
Yet, Kelley’s role in playing the doctor on the USS Enterprise would become the character he’s known most for. Dr. McCoy, or “Bones” as he was called on the show, was a human, fiery foil to the ultra-logical Mr. Spock, and both were close friends with the ship’s Captain Kirk.
Kelley, like Spock’s actor Leonard Nimoy, also had fine taste in cars. Nimoy famously owned a 1963 Buick Riviera, just three years old when Star Trek went on the air. According to the documents provided from the seller, Kelley picked up his Thunderbird brand new in early 1968, then held onto it all of the way until late 1991.
Kristine M Smith, Kelley’s assistant toward the end of his life, wrote a book about the actor’s final years. When it comes to the car, she writes:
De commiserated mightily for years after parting ways with his powder blue 1968 Ford Thunderbird. It began to be untrustworthy in the late 80’s just as De and Carolyn started needing very reliable transportation to get them to doctor appointments and the like and they couldn’t count on it to start for them reliably, so they very reluctantly traded it in on a Lexus in — I want to say 1990, but maybe 1989, because I think it was a 1990 or 1991 model.
That’s the vehicle I drove him around in except for the one time I rescued him from a doctor appointment visit when hospital transportation wasn’t available to take him home. Then I transported him in the little red car that the Kelley’s bought for me (by stealth! That story is in the book!)…along with the transportation coordinator and De’s wheelchair! It was a tight fit, but it worked! He never mentioned other vehicles they’d owned, so I don’t know if he was car crazy. All I know is he was crazy about HIS cars! He took great care of them. They always looked like they just drove off the showroom floor! There’s a funny story about his California Car Duster in the book!
De and Leonard got their cars the same year, and De drove his into Leonard’s on the lot accidentally one time when he was leaving and didn’t realize his tires were turned. THAT made the news on the lot.
Apparently, this Thunderbird is so original that the ding caused by the parking lot mishap is still there. Something I’m impressed by is that this car is said to have never been restored in any way. We’re allegedly looking at the car’s original paint and original interior.
Power comes from a 429 cubic inch Thunderjet V8, that’s rated at 360 horsepower and 480 ft-lbs of torque. Thrust reaches the rear wheels through an automatic transmission. Despite its good looks, the car isn’t perfect. The driver seat is shredding and the headliner is beginning to fall down. There’s also what’s said to be surface rust in some areas. Still, that’s pretty great for a car this old!
Why It’s So Cheap
The thing that shocked me at first was how cheap this car is. Now, my wife and I are Star Trek fans and we’ve participated and bid in memorabilia auctions where things as simple as production chairs sold for about what the seller wants for this car. Star Trek fans are willing to pay a ton of money for something their favorite actor wore or sat on. I’d think a whole car would go for out-of-this-world prices.
Yet, the seller wants $14,500 for it, which isn’t all that more than the $12,000 it was sold for a decade ago. Mind you, the odometer reads 69,000 miles and change. When this car sold a decade ago the odometer reading still started with 69,000 miles. In other words, fans of The Original Series have basically just kept this car as a big piece of memorabilia for a decade. That also means while the car moved from California to New York over the past decade, it clear did so from a trailer.
Here’s the registration paperwork, I’ve redacted the address:
The seller gave me another story about the car:
Deforest Kelly was a big animal lover and in 1992 he came to the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington,New York here on Long Island to show his support. Interesting enough, his car is now located in that same town. Quite a coincidence out of all the states, and towns it ended up here.
An explanation for the car’s price may be found by Hagerty, which tracks the sales and insurance policies of classics. The fifth-generation Thunderbird used to be considered somewhat hot in the classic collector market, but Hagerty says that by 2019 it fell off, hard. Since then, fifth-gen T-Birds trail behind average in prices and interest. Perhaps those who once loved these are no longer driving cars anymore or moved on to other collector cars. In 2019, a pristine 1968 Thunderbird coupe was worth about $21,900 and the average price, as of 2019, was $8,900. Also in 2019, buyer interest was down, but those who remained interested in a fifth-gen T-Bird were likely to be Millennials.
It seems few people really want these Thunderbirds and those who do may be too young to know who DeForest Kelley even is. Or, maybe since this car was first listed on Craigslist (and now eBay), Star Trek fans have no idea how to find it.
Either way, this car is an affordable classic with a cool story for just $14,500. Maybe that’s not a deal, but it’s not outrageously expensive, either. If you’re interested in cruising like Dr. McCoy did, you can head over to Craigslist in Long Island or place a bid in the eBay auction, which ends tomorrow.
And whether you end up in this T-Bird or not, make sure to live long and prosper.
(Images: Seller, unless otherwise noted.)
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