This 1978 Ford Thunderbird Hotrod Is a Gearhead’s First Love

What was your first vehicular crush?

byJesus Garcia|
Ford News photo

You don't turn into a car enthusiast without falling in love at least once, as sheet metal romance plays a big role in the lifestyle of a gearhead. Whether it happens for the first time when you crank over a Hemi or enjoy the breeze in a convertible Miata, for Samantha Markham it was the 1978 Ford Thunderbird she once laid eyes upon when she was 15 years old that ignited that first spark.

After chasing the 'ol bird for three years following her first sighting, she was able to buy it and reunite with her first love at the age of 18. Now, seven years later, the car has been her only motor-sweetheart, pulling double duty as both daily-driver and project car. I recently had a chance to chat with Markham to find out more about her big-block T'bird.

Markham was introduced to car culture at an early age by her father while growing up in Michigan. A childhood of watching Monster Jam, NASCAR races, and riding ATVs ultimately made her want to become a race car driver—though that ultimately didn't pan out. At age 19, she moved from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Texas taking the Thunderbird along the 1,300 mile drive with her.

When Markham became the caretaker of this 1978 Thunderbird, the car was running and driving, but the drivetrain was exhausted. The original 400ci V8 had low oil pressure, weak compression, and the automatic transmission was on the verge of giving up. It was the perfect candidate for an engine swap, but that cost money. She nursed the 400 mill for six years while she built a big block V8 for it. 

The original plan was to take a 460 block and bored to a 557. As the project went along, and she started buying parts, a 429 from a 1968 Lincoln Continental popped up on Craigslist. The engine came with a transmission and she decided it be most cost effective to rebuild that engine instead. However, the engine turned out to be basket case, and a valuable life lesson. As she puts it, "never buy an engine at night." Both the Lincoln's engine and transmission had holes in the oil pan caused by water from sitting out in the elements. Her old 460 block, and parts, were traded-in for machine work to repair the Lincoln 429 engine and transmission. What should have been the cheaper route turned into an expensive journey, but Markham takes comfort in the fact that she knows every single nut and bolt that went into her Thunderbird's heart.

The white Thunderbird now turns fire using a 429 big-block V8 stroked to 435ci with fuel injection, paired to a C6 automatic transmission and a Hurst Quarter Stick shifter. In the last half-decade, Markham, who is now a mechanic by trade, has invested everything into building up the engine and turn her land-yacht into a proper hotrod.

Thunderbird purists tend to criticize her for having a forced induction cowl she fabricated herself, saying it looks "too Chevy," she said. But from a design point, the hood works with the car's sharp body lines. Side-exit exhaust tips complement white-lettered tires wrapped around black steel wheels. It truly is one angry-looking bird.

Markham works at a restoration shop in Mansfield, Texas, called the House of Hot Rods, where she restores and modifies vintage cars while steadily working her way up to becoming a car builder.

"Anything can be turned into a hotrod, so don't set your mind on one particular car," Markham said when asked about offering advice to young folks looking to build their first car. "Get a budget in mind and start fishing, and don't always go with the popular choice."

Markham's future plans for the Thunderbird include a NASCAR inspired graphic package with racing numbers, coil-over springs, a new cowl hood, and if time and money finally intersect, a 750-horsepower Ford 557ci big-block V8 engine swap.

You can follow her project on Instagram.

Got a tip? Send us a note: