A Hilborn Injected, 392ci Hemi T-Bird Sleeper

Tom Curnow's '55T-Bird with Hilborn Injected Hemi Power
  Bad ass hot rods don't always have to be the fastest, loudest or most expensive cars. The best ones typically combine a performance engine swap, the right stance with appropriate wheels and tires, good paint and the proper sound.  By that measure, Tom Curnow's 1955 Thunderbird has the right stuff. Savvy car guys have a natural knack for combining just the right ingredients in a single finely crafted piece that makes the right statement in any crowd.
  Curnow has that vision in abundance and he put it to good use building his own personal tribute car for legendary racer and friend Art Chrisman who had built the engine for Frank Cannon's original Hemi powered T-Bird that graced the cover of Hot Rod Magazine in January 1958. Tom admired Cannon's T-bird from his earliest days and once he had the opportunity, he rendered a faithful modern day duplicate.
 Art Chrisman checks out Tom Curnow's Slick T-Bird with a Hilborn injected Hemi Swap nearly identical to the one Chrisman helped build in 1957.
Chassis mods, special fabrication and engine swap by Hawaii Racing, Simi Valley CA , with Rich  Manchen chief fabricator.
In the late fifties, southern California enthusiast Frank Cannon owned a first generation T-Bird with a McCullough supercharged 312ci Y-block. Seeking more performance from the little Ford V8, he took it to the Chrisman garage where they put a tune on it that allowed Cannon to run 109 mph at the Santa Ana dragstrip and later at Colton. Shop talk soon evolved into formative action and the T-Bird was re-equipped with a Chrisman-built 454ci Hilborn injected Chrysler hemi that raised it speed to 116 mph and crushed everything in sight; so much so that Hot Rod Magazine featured the car on the cover of the January 1958 issue.The Accompanying article entitled, "Big Engines for Thunderbirds" chronicled the installation of a much modified '57 Chrysler hemi being installed in Frank's '55 T-Bird at the Chrisman Brothers garage. Art and his brother Lloyd engineered the decidedly "hot rod style" engine swap.

Cannon and the Chrisman brothers became close friends and the T-Bird ultimately became the springboard for a budding racing partnership that led to the Chrisman Brothers and Cannon "Hustler" dragster; all because Cannon had bet Mickey Thompson $300 that his egine could run over 150 mph in a dragster; which it ultimately did. Curnow's modern version of that car is a tribute to Frank Cannon and the Chrisman brothers who catapulted to drag racing fame with an injected Hemi engine lifted from Frank's "55 T-Bird.
The Hemi engine fits like it was made for the car. Note cut down injectors stacks at the front for hood clearance. A throttle position sensor is attached at the front of the right side injector bank and a hidden plenum under the manifold maintains a common vacuum signal for the Holley Dominator ECU.

Engine                  392ci A Block Chrysler Hemi
Crankshaft          Stock forged 392 Crankshaft (std/std)
Pistons                 Forged Arias, .030 over stock bore
Rods                     Molnar Technologies Steel Rods with ARP 2000 bolts
Comp. Ratio         10.25:1
Heads                   Hot Heads aluminum cylinder heads
Head Gaskets      Cometic Head Gaskets
Camshaft             Isky, Custom Hydraulic Cam
                              I/E  203°/212°,  0.438/0.468 Lift, 114° LSA with 106° centerline
Pushrods             Smith Brothers Adjustable Push Rods
Induction             1957 Hilborn CHY-331-392 Fuel Injector
                              Modified for installation of electronic injectors
Plenum                 Custom “below the valley cover” plenum chamber plumbed to the intake    
                              ports provides vacuum reference for proper IAC  operation        
Injectors              43-lb. injectors by Imagine Injection, Inc., Glendale Arizona
ECU                      Holley Dominator ECU, Holley FI wiring harness, dual Holley O2 sensors,
                              Holley Idle Air Control Valve, intake fuel pump                          
Ignition                Scintilla Electronic Distributor with Hall Effect pick up, MSD 6AL CD ignition
Distributor          designed by Steve Sbelgio’s Eclipse Engineering, Whittier , CA to provide
                              dead acurate timing and square wave signal for Holley ECU
Oiling System      Hot Heads Modified 340 oil pump conversion
Timing Cover      Hot Heads polished timing gear cover
Valve Covers       Original 1958 392 Chrome Valve Covers and wire covers
Plug Wires           Taylor
Exhaust               Hot Heads cast iron exhaust manifolds
Mufflers               Borla stainless mufflers
Engine by             Joe Souza, Hawaii Racing , Simi Valley, CA
Tuning                 40 hours of adjustments and tuning by Steve Sbelgio of Eclispe made the car
                              as smooth and dependable as a brand new Detroit vehicle , delivering over
                              500 horsepower and 22 mpg on the highway

Transmission      Hughes GM L460E 4 speed automatic transmission, with R -700R4 tail shaft to accommodate mechanical speedometer, L460E electronic speedometer drive signals Holley ECU which controls transmission functions using speed sensor, MAP output, Throttle Position sensor and tach pickup

Shifter                  ShiftWorks
Rearend               Stock Dana 44 with 3.23 rati0
Brakes                  Power Brake Service
Traction Bars      Original “Traction Master” rear spring control
Lubricants           Cam 2 motor oil, transmission fluid and rear end gear oil               

Unisteer rack and pinion steering
Front Disc brakes, rear drum brakes
Remote Hydra Boost Power Brake system by Power Brake Service, Bob Sweeting
Rocket Wheels 6 x 15 polished
Coker American Classic Radial tires ( front)
Hurst Pie Crust Cheater Slicks
US Radiator Corp custom 3 pass brass  radiator , polished header tank
Custom serpentine front drive system, now available from Gene Adams/ Claude Lavoie Early Hemi Parts
Cast aluminum water manifold  (only cast unit that can be used with 392 Block using Hot Heads or Chrysler 354-555 heads)
Vintage Air MK1V under dash AC
Summit Racing 20 circuit wire harness, installed and customized by Eclispe Engineering, Whittier
Chassis modification and fab by Hawaii Racing, Simi Valley CA  Rich  Manchen  of Bonneville Speed Demon fame was the chief fabricator.
Chrome by Verne’s Plating, Gardena CA
1956 Mercury Station Wagon tail lights (extremely rare and expensive)

The stock master cylinder was not up to the job of stopping the car so a complete Hydra-Boost power brake system by Bob Sweeting at Power Brake Service is mounted in the trunk to provide stopping power. It has proved fully capable of stopping the car with all the efficiecy of any modern muscle car.

The Molnar Technologies H Beam Chrysler Gen 1 392 rods used in this engine are machined from billet 4340 steel, and then heat treated to provide improved strength. To make the rods even stronger, they are shot peened which also increases fatigue life. Molnar 392 connecting rods are fitted with highly durable premium bronze bushings for use with floating pin type pistons. Each con rod set for a 392 engine includes ARP fasteners, moly lubricant and installation guidelines. Molnar 392 Hemi rods are finished in the United States at the Molnar Technologies shop in Michigan.

The car was restored for 2nd owner in 1998 (original owner lived next door)  and Tom purchased it in 2003. The License plate frame is from is from Jessie E Smith Ford in Glendale. Jessie Smith started a Ford dealership in Glendale in 1915 and the family operated it until the mid-1960s. Tom was born in Glendale and his family were friends of the Smiths since 1939.

Tom's car is a great tribute to Frank Cannon and the Chrisman brothers;  a team that exerted a profound influence on early drag racing and  launched the Chrisman legacy. It's a fantastic re-creation of a mainstream fifties hot rod that retains its timeless appeal and qualifies as a genuine alternate supercar in an age of endless Camaros and Mustangs.

Frank Cannon's T-Bird was not red, so Curnow's vision is a departure from the original, but its an appropriate choice for a hot street car.  It serves as a fitting reminder that great hot rods are built, not bought and you can often create a spectacular machine from a car that the guy before you overlooked. If you were driving a hot machine like this in the late fifties, you were one bad hot rodder. We'd say that is still the case today.

Tom Curnow
Lyle Larson
Engine Swap photos by Rick Head