The Battlebird is a 7.0‑litre battering ram with drum brakes
There are often unique, rare cars in the paddock shelters at Goodwood, but at the 77th Members’ Meeting there was one car in particular that everyone seemed to be talking about. Meet the Battlebird.
The Battlebird is owned by Bill Shepherd, the boss of Bill Shepherd Mustang and a man well known for his love of all things American and V8 powered. With just a couple of hours until he was due to jump into the Battlebird for the Peter Collins Trophy, to fight against the likes of the Jaguar D-Type, the Aston Martin DB3S and the Maserati 250S, we caught up with him for a little chat about this incredible machine.
It’s one of the less conventional race cars we’ve had at Goodwood, that’s for sure, as not only was it built to tackle land speed records rather than lap times but it doesn’t have a roof or, in fact, a windscreen.
“In 1957 Ford decided they wanted to promote the Thunderbird," Shepherd told GRR. "They employed an engineering company in California to build a couple of speed attempt Thunderbirds. One was built with a 312 Y block [5.1-litres] with fuel injection and supercharging, the other one was built with a 430 Lincoln engine [7.0-litres]. They were lightweight construction, aluminium panels, aerodynamic – basically they were designed to run fast!
"So they ran it at Daytona Beach, on the beach. The 430 Lincoln, this one, ran 165mph. But it had troubles, didn’t do its return run. The 312 did 204mph – on the beach. But because I’m probably a bit stupid we thought the 430 Lincoln was the one to have.
“The cars were then sold to Dearbourn Steel Tubing, the guy who owned that, and he ran them and raced them in various regional events.
“Eventually [he sold] them to a jet pilot who then leased them to a film company. And it was leased to the people who produced Viva Las Vegas for Elvis Presley. And Elvis was going to be driving this car, but the mechanic on the shoot took it out and wrecked it. So they changed the Thunderbird to an Elva, and so we call the car Elvis now.
“I found the remains of this car about two year ago. So it’s been a two-year project to get it here, and it’s been a bit of a fight to get it here today, but we were keen to get it out for this event because it’s the right thing to do. Hopefully we might run it here again at Goodwood.”
As Bill explains, it’s a simple car with simple underpinnings, one that was never really meant for circuit racing.
“The car itself, 430 Lincoln, big block, four-speed manual transmission, all pretty normal. Live rear axle, wishbone front suspension. This one’s not really down to the lowest weight, but it’s not heavy.”
What kind of power and torque does he think it’s producing, we ask? “400, 450, something like that”, he says, with a smile on his face.
“The first competitive event it did was qualifying yesterday! Up till then it’s been a horrible beast because we’ve been trying to work out how it steers and handles, and we just made a step forward, but we can’t make it stop yet. It’s on drum brakes all round, which is fine, apart from it’s not a lightweight car and it goes quick in a straight line. Stopping is an issue…
“In the day, drum brakes were the thing. It’s just we’re probably not as familiar with drum brake technology as they were in their own time. We’re used to running drum brakes on the rear of cars more as a stabiliser than a braking system, but when you’ve got drums on the front it’s very difficult to work.”
Bill qualified in eleventh position in a field of thirty, not bad at all considering the car hasn’t been run properly for years.
“The car is quite nice to drive now, actually," he adds. "We’ve got to work out the handling a little bit further, but it turns in OK, it takes the power reasonably OK. You need to be delicate otherwise you get a lot of inertia in the car. Obviously acceleration is good, traction seems OK, but when you heave on the brakes it’s just like a wooden pedal – nothing happens. And then as the laps proceed the wooden pedal just goes further away from you, and then after about six or seven laps the wooden pedal is like metal because you’ve hit the floor boards.
“In the race today we’ll see how it runs. If the brakes are good it’ll move up, if they aren’t good… I think I’ll be cautious. Either that or I’ll paint a big black profile of a Thunderbird on the Supershell Building, and just aim for that and go through it.”
Thankfully Bill didn’t speed off the track and through the side of a building, nor did the drum brakes prove so problematic that the Battlebird couldn’t compete against the smaller, lighter and more circuit focussed European-built competitors. Bill brought the car home in seventh position, something we hope he’d be rather proud of.