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Cedar Rapids collector donates millionth Ford Thunderbird to museum
’The car is going home,’ Bob Peterson says
Robyn Ireland - for The Gazette
Jan. 5, 2022 6:00 am
CEDAR RAPIDS — Bob Peterson of Cedar Rapids doesn’t own just any Thunderbird. He owns the one-millionth T-Bird the Ford Motor Co. manufactured in 1972, with all its tricked-out features.
After owning the car for 36 years, Peterson is donating it to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Calif. (Peterson noted there’s no relationship between himself and the museum despite the similar spelling.)
The museum is only a few miles from Pico Rivera, where this particular Thunderbird was manufactured.
“The car is going home,” Peterson said. “And I’m pleased it’s going to one of the premier car museums in the United States. I’ve been to many car museums all over the 48 states and am pleased the Petersen is adding it to their collection.”
When this Thunderbird came off the assembly line, Ford commemorated the occasion by painting the automobile with a custom gold paint, used only that one time.
An all-white leather interior was another special feature, as was the bronze medallion in the roof, manufactured by Josten’s Jewelers, that reads, “Millionth Thunderbird 1955-1972.”
The Thunderbird at first was loaned for a year to the Classic Thunderbird Club International. The club put 30,000 miles on it, showing it all over the world.
The car then was purchased by George Watts, a Los Angeles insurance executive and a well-known expert of Ford’s classic cars. Watts already owned the first T-Bird, having found it as a derelict in 1965, with a mechanic’s lien on it because the owner couldn’t pay a repair bill.
Watts checked the serial number as discovered the low final digit indicated it was the first of the series. He purchased it for $500, restored it, then showcased it for the rest of his life.
Over the years, Watts became an informal spokesman for Ford, according to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article.
“The final paperwork turning the car over to the museum has to be completed, and then sometime in January a special, custom hauler will pick up the Thunderbird and transport it to L.A.,” Peterson noted.
"We are looking forward to having the car back in our collection," the Petersen Automotive Museum’s chief historian, Leslie Mark Kendall, told The Gazette on Monday.
"We love talking about how the Thunderbird fit in automobile history and was embraced by the consumer."
The museum’s website says it is one of the biggest automotive museums in the world, with more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. It was founded in 1994.
Never been washed
Bob Peterson had been interested in Thunderbirds since childhood. With his grade school only two blocks from the Ford dealership in Mason City, he used to go there after school and sit in whatever new T-Bird was on the lot.
“However, since I didn’t have cash or a license, the salesmen would politely ask me to leave,” he recalled.
Flash forward to 1981 and Peterson turned his passion to starting the Thunderbirds of America, an international club focusing on T-birds manufactured from 1967 on.
It was through that organization and others that Peterson became friends with Watts.
In 1985, Watts offered to sell Peterson the 1972 car. Peterson said he jumped at the opportunity to purchase the classic car.
It then had a total of 50,000 miles on it, with Watts owning it for 13 years. In the 36 years since, Peterson has added an additional 5,000 miles, even though it’s been in shows all over the United States.
Peterson likes to tell people he’s never washed the Thunderbird, as he doesn’t want water to get into the door panels and wheel walls. He has kept it covered, in his garage and has given it “sponge baths” with a damp cloth to keep it clean.
Peterson has worked as an engineer, a photographer, a technical writer and a graphic designer. In his spare time, he enjoys restoring his other classic cars — a 1934 Austin 7, a 1949 Crosley and a 1965 Kellison J2.