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Thunderbirds are go: we select our favourite big-screen birds

19 January, 2016

Over the years, Thunderbirds have appeared in dozens of movies and TV series — and here are a few of our favourite big-screen Birds

American Graffiti

In American Graffiti (1973), although the white ‘baby’ Bird only makes a brief appearance, driven by Suzanne Somers, the car (and the girl) provide the impetus for all that happens to the movie’s main character, as portrayed by Richard Dreyfus.

Patrick Swayze may have wowed the girls with his Dirty Dancing (1987), but the boys were probably more interested in Jennifer Grey — and the bright-red ’56 T-bird that appeared in the first part of the film. 

T-Bird Gang

If the actors were the stars in the two films noted above, then the cars were most definitely the stars in the 1959 movie T-Bird Gang — a low-budget black-and-white thriller that involves murder and gang of juvenile delinquents. However, the only reason to watch this film would be to see the featured ’56 Thunderbird.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Pneumatic horror host, Elvira, ended up driving a ’58 Thunderbird convertible in her movie, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988). Appropriately, her car was ‘tastefully’ customized by George Barris to include a spiderweb front grille plus skull-and-crossbone wheel inserts.
Disney got around to featuring a Thunderbird in its 1961 film The Parent Trap, with one of the main characters driving around in a light-blue 1960 model, while fans of Perry Mason will probably remember Paul Drake’s black 1960 convertible.

Thelma & Louise

Less seriously, there was the flying 1963 convertible in the Robin Williams comedy, Flubber, although the best ‘flying’ Thunderbird has to be the 1966 convertible that came to a sticky end in Thelma & Louise. Then there was the ’64 convertible that played a small role in the 1964 Bond blockbuster, Goldfinger

Die Another Day

Interestingly, Thunderbirds appeared a few more times in 007 films — next in 1965’s Thunderball, as driven by the villainous Spectre No. 2, Emilio Largo, and then again in 1971 for Diamonds Are Forever. Finally, the all-new Thunderbird, as resurrected in 2002, appeared in Die Another Day driven by Halle Berry.

We couldn’t find any motor sport–type films involving the Thunderbird, although if you check out the 1969 Paul Newman racing title, Winning, you’ll get to see a Thunderbird cutting a lap at the brickyard.

TV series which feature cameo appearances from a Thunderbird include The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rockford Files, Crime Story, The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Bewitched, CHiPS, Hawaii Five-O, and Charlie’s Angels, amongst many others.

This article was originally published in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 290. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below:


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Motorsport Flashback – Kiwi rallying in the 1970s

Rallying arrived in New Zealand in 1973 like a tsunami. It had been only a few years since the sport was introduced here and shortly afterwards Heatway came on board as the sponsor to take rallying to a new level. The 1973 Heatway would be the longest and biggest yet, running in both islands with 120 drivers over eight days and covering some 5400 kilometres. The winner was 31-year-old Hannu Mikkola — a genuine Flying Finn who had been rallying since 1963 before putting any thoughts of a career on hold until he completed an economics degree. The likeable Finn became an instant hero to many attracted to this new motor sport thing. I was one of them.

Think of it as a four-door Cooper

New Zealand Mini Owners Club coordinator Josh Kelly of Dunedin loves his Minis. It’s a family affair. Julie and Mike, Josh’s mum and dad, are just as keen, and they can usually all be found taking part in the club’s annual ‘Goodbye, Pork Pie’ charity run from the North of the country to the South.
But lately Josh’s young head has been turned by some other revolutionary BMC cars. He has picked up a couple of Austin and Morris 1100 and 1300s, which he started to restore — that was until an opportunity arose to buy a rare example stored in a shed.