The KHJ Surfin' Bird
The Surfin' Bird is a 1956 Ford Thunderbird that Bill Cushenbery restyled for 93 KHJ Boss radio's "Big Kahuna" promotion in 1966. It is one of the last known true custom cars to be completed by Cushenbery. Per the promotion, Cushenbery was contracted by the Big Kahuna to build a custom outta-sight Surfin' Bird to be given away by the radio station in early August of 1966. He was given $5,000 dollars to complete the project. The Radio spots billed it as the $8,000 dollar Surfin’ Bird. The Boss radio jocks ran multiple promotional spots for the contest. At the sound of the Big Kahuna's Cockatoo, hopeful listeners would call in for a chance to win the car. Contestants were given a tiki charm with a numbered tag that would be used to draw the winner.
The Big Kahuna
Several radio spots were created with fake auto body "grinding noise" in the background, to simulate being in Cushenbery's shop, while the Big Kahuna in his trademark Hawaiian pidgin English (Mahalo Nui Loa Cushenbery), requested features to be added to the car. These may be the only known audio recordings of Bill Cushenbery's voice. Frank Terry of KHJ was the interviewer and translator of the Big Kahuna’s pidgin English to understandable English for Cushenbery to respond.
Ferrari Front, Stingray Rear
The starting point of the car was a 1956 Ford Thunderbird. It was built in Cushenbery's Burbank shop and it had a tight deadline for completion. Sources stated that Bill hired a friend that worked at the Barris shop to assist with the build. Bill supposedly worked on the "Ferrari front", while the other man (possibly Steve Tate) worked on the "Stingray rear.” The actual work on the car does reflect this, as the front is all lead and executed at a high level, yet the back half had less refined metalwork and Bondo instead of lead.
Given Away August 8, 1966
This car clearly shows the flamboyance of 1966, with a look that mimics other wild customs of the time period, like the Dean Jeffries "Monkeemobile". The Surfin'Bird was given away August 8th, 1966 on KHJ-TV Channel 9 The Dick Curtis 18 to 34 show at 5:30 pm. It is unknown to date who the original winner was or if any of the footage from that broadcast exists.
The Surfin'Bird was displayed at the "A World On Wheels" Auto Show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on August 7th, one day prior to the giveaway. Up until recently, no photos of the completed car were known to exist other than the mock-up shots on KHJ promotional materials. The complete history of the car is still being discovered. After the giveaway on The Dick Curtis show, the car disappeared. There is a possibility that the car ended up in Northern California, as evidence of a San Jose Ford Assembly Plant parking sticker was found on the rear panel. The first known history after disappearing was the purchase of the vehicle by known Thunderbird restorer Frank Stubbs of Renton, Washington. Frank purchased the car without knowing the history and owned it for a decade prior to knowing the Cushenbery connection. Frank purchased the car from a Nevada owner in 1989. This owner had titled the car in 1987. This is the earliest record of an owner of the car to date.
"Probably the ugliest car I have ever seen."
Frank later traded the car to a friend, then retrieved it a few years later. The car was offered up for sale occasionally during the decades it was owned by Frank. The car made an appearance in the Customs Northwest “The Lead Paddle News Magazine” in Sept/Oct 1993 on a trailer, presumably for sale. The caption under the photo stated, "Probably the ugliest car I have ever seen." Car was also spotted at the Unfinished Nationals, with several photos of the car from that show surfacing.
Sold to Kevin Bennett
During his ownership, Frank removed the original 289 from the Cushenbery build and put a Thunderbird Y-block back in it. He later sold this drivetrain. The car was safely stored by Frank until it was finally sold to Kevin Bennett of Austin, Texas in April of 2020. After Kevin bought it, the car was transported to Texas.
The "Summer of the Big Kahuna" was one of KHJ Radio's most ambitious promotions to date, and expected to last weeks, carried over into several months. The entire story of the Big Kahuna was chronicled in a comic book and promoted via radio spots, personal appearances, and multiple giveaways. KHJ Radio printed a weekly BOSS30 top hits survey where the Big Kahuna and the KHJ Surfin’ Bird were featured. In the surveys, the “value” of the Surfin'Bird fluctuated from $5000 to $8000 dollars. Several KHJ Radio spots were broadcast to promote the contest to win the Surfin’ Bird. Fortunately, these radio spots still exist and were able to provide intimate details of what was done to the car, or at least planned. The radio spots detail the following features implemented by the Cushenbery Custom Shop:
- Cobra Powered - Shelby engineered power plant - dual quads - dual point distributor
- 40 coats of hand-rubbed Makapuu Blue pearlescent finish
- Mag wheels and blue streak racing tires
- GT 4-speed transmission with matching gear ratio
- White pearl bucket seats
- White pile carpets - Mustang
- European wood inlay steering wheel
- Custom control console
- Boss stereo pack am-fm boss radio
- Princess telephone
- Electric doors
- Front and rear nerf blades
- Polished aluminum aerodynamic grille cowl
- Bonneville quad headlights
- Mustang tail lights
- Recessed and indirectly lit license compartment
- Detachable fastback hardtop
- Upholstered trunk
- Detachable soft drink cooler and hibachi BBQ
- Roof rack w/matching custom HOBIE surfboards
- Ferrari type nose - sucking in the front fenders w/quad headlights
- Reworked hood
- Top will feathered back - fading back into the rear of the car
- Back of car rather wild w/same type styling as the front
The breakthrough in finding a completion photo came from Bill Cushenbery Jr. Bill remembered the car being built when he was in cub scouts. His scouts pinewood derby car was painted with the same Makapuu pearlescent blue paint. Bill graciously provided the missing “after” photo and a photo of his pinewood derby car. Bill remembered this photo being part of a photoshoot for the radio station at Vickroy Park in Burbank. Bill also remembered a "hot blond” being part of the photoshoot, but no photos have yet surfaced. The model for the photo shoot had the 60s beehive hair thing going on and white gogo boots. It is believed that the model may have been Kam Nelson. She was Sam Riddle's assistant and did lots of promotions for the radio station. It is also possible that famous photographer Henry Diltz could have been the photographer, as he is reported to have followed the Big Kahuna in his exploits to photograph them for the radio station. Attempts to confirm this are ongoing.
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