For Joe Tegtmeier, being a car guy involved going to hot rod shows with his father, Jim, and washing the family cars every weekend when weather allowed. The pair also built Joe’s first car, a 1971 VW. It was a classic father-son bonding.
Fast-forward to 2023. Joe wanted to have a classic American ride that looked and felt vintage but rode and drove like a new car. He, his wife Janet, and son Colt settled on a 1957 Ford Thunderbird—with a twist.
“We wanted to build something that combined the flowing exterior lines of the original 1950s ‘Baby Birds’ and sweeping interior of the 1961-63 ‘Bullet Birds’,” Joe explained. “We also wanted modern suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, fuel injection, and other modern upgrades, something we could just jump into and go.”
To make this vision a reality, Joe needed two things: a car and someone to build it. He found the ’57 in Florida (“A pig with lipstick—looked nice but lots of mystery under that paint!” Joe said). Then, Joe got Cool Hand Customs in Middleton, Wisconsin to build it.
Having assembled cars like a 1978 Pinto Cruising Wagon with a drivetrain from a late-model V6 Mustang to a 1960 Simca Châtelaine mated to a shortened 2007 Cadillac STS chassis, EJ and Amy Fitzgerald are no strangers to custom fabrication. As you’ll see, they fulfilled Joe’s vision and then some.
Joe named the Thunderbird “Sam the Baby Bullet.” Yes, there’s a story behind it.
“Baby Bullet is from the combination of styles from the two generations of Thunderbirds,” Joe explained. “Sam is for my father. His real name was Jim, but that was so common and our last name too difficult to pronounce that he just used Sam when he made reservations at a restaurant or other places. My son Colt does the same thing, so it’s now a family tradition and great way to honor my father’s memory.”
The T-Bird arrived at Cool Hand Customs with its original 312 cubic inch Y-block and Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission. It was replaced with a small block Ford crate engine rated at 365 horsepower and 370 lbs.-ft. of torque. It’s fitted with an All-American Billet serpentine accessory drive system and a Holley Sniper 2 EFI system. An AOD four-speed automatic transmission with a 2,500 to 2,800 RPM stall torque converter sits behind the small block. It sends power back to a Ford 9 inch rear axle with 3.73 gears and an Eaton Detroit TruTrac differential.
The frame is a steel reproduction made by Regal Roadsters, a company that builds fiberglass Thunderbird replicas and components that is virtually down the street from the Cool Hand shop. It came with a Mustang II-style front suspension that Cool Hand upgraded with a QA1 Pro Coilover conversion and Classic Performance discs brakes. The rear suspension is a four-link with QA1 Pro coilovers and Classic Performance discs.
The Thunderbird rides on 205/55/17 Diamondback whitewalls mounted on custom-built 17 x 7 US Wheel smoothies. The wheels are painted to match the tan canvas top and are fitted with dog dish-style hubcaps.
The body is (mostly) Ford steel. Removing the red paint revealed very little rust but a lot of damage ‘repair,’ especially in the floors and rear quarter panels. Nothing Cool Hand couldn’t, er, handle.
They replaced the lower rear quarters with quarters from a 1963 Ford Fairlane as they have very similar lines, especially in the taillight area. They also eliminated the fender skirts, which Joe didn’t like.
Cool Hand also extended the rear passenger area by 4.5 inches to give the Tegtmeiers some extra space. They also rebuilt the trunk floor to convert the spare tire well into a closed tool box, filled and smoothed the firewall, and removed the side vents in the front fenders. All told, EJ and Amy have over 1,000 hours invested in fabrication and bodywork alone.
The paint color is called Lithium Blue, created by KBS Coatings and Cool Hand Customs for the KBS MAXX line of low VOC single-stage paint.
Cool Hand Customs built a custom ‘double-cove’ dash that mimics the 1961-63 T-Bird interior. They fitted a 1963 T-bird gauge panel filled with New Vintage USA Woodward Series gauges and modified a ’63 center console to fit. It houses a Shiftworks shifter and controls for the Vintage Air climate control system.
The seats are 1967 Mustang buckets built up using components from OER, Scott Drake, and Distinctive Industries. Amy upholstered the interior with Saddle Brown and Palomino vinyl from Distinctive Industries. Other interior upgrades include an ididit steering column topped with a Classic Performance American Retro steering wheel and Billet Specialties pedals.
The Thunderbird made its debut in the KBS Coatings booth at the 2023 SEMA Show. Car season was pretty much over when it came home to Wisconsin, but Joe Tegtmeier took advantage of a break in the weather on Thanksgiving Day to take the car for a drive. As he said, he couldn’t help himself. Can’t say we blame him.
Cool Hand Customs 1957 Ford Thunderbird Parts List
- All American Serpentine Accessory Drive Kit
- Holley Sniper 2 EFI System
- Prothane Transmission Mount
- Prothane Motor Mounts
- Powermaster Mastertorque Starter
- Speedmaster Air Cleaner
Chassis & Brakes
- QA1 High-Travel Coilover Springs, Rear
- QA1 Coil Springs, front
- QA1 Mustang II Front Shocks
- QA1 Pro Coil Shocks, Rear
- Classic Performance Rear Disc Brake Kit
- Classic Performance Front Disc Brake Kit
- Classic Performance Master Cylinder/Booster Kit
- Leed Brakes Proportioning Valve
- US Wheel Custom Order Wheels 17 x 7, Bare Finish
- Diamond Back Touring Tires, 205/55/17
- New Vintage USA Woodward Series Tachometer
- New Vintage USA Woodward Series Gauge Kit
- Classic Performance Steering Wheel
- ididit Universal Tilt Steering Column
- Billet Specialties Brake Pad
- Billet Specialties Gas Pedal Assembly
- Distinctive Industries Seat Foam
- Distinctive Industries Seat Upholstery, Saddle
- Distinctive Industries Seat Heaters
- OER Seat Frame Passenger Side
- OER Seat Frame Driver Side
- Scott Drake Seat Track Assemblies
- Retrobelt Lap Belts
- Shiftworks Floor Mount Shifter
- Vintage Air Gen-II Mini Climate Control System
- Vintage Air Gen-II Control Panel