The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: For Suzi Quatro, the T-Bird Never Felt Right

by Charlotte Vowden
22 April 2024 4 min read
The One That Got Away: For Suzi Quatro, the T-Bird Never Felt Right

“There I am, living in Essex with a red T-Bird driving to the local McDonald’s for a Big Mac and vanilla milkshake with the roof down, listening to ’50s music. Everybody was staring. I couldn’t be more American if I tried. I only used the T-Bird one time, and that was it, even though it had been my dream car since I was 5 years old.

I’m from Detroit, a city driven by Motown music and the car industry, so if you’re going to talk cars I’m your girl from the automobile centre of the world. Growing up, we did a lot of road trips as a family in my dad’s old-fashioned Chevy wagon. I was one of five kids and it was a car that you could fit all of us in. We didn’t take trains or buses, back then it would have been too expensive. 

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We took a lot of trips to California and Florida. My mother would bring fresh fruit and water, and we would sing all the way. It was a way to pass the time, but I think it probably did have a huge influence on me. We were all musical, so everybody knew their note to sing within the structure of a song. If somebody missed a note, the others would cover it. You don’t ever get a blend like you do with a family; it’s a strange, intuitive thing. It’s a really nice memory from my youth, and whenever we get together today, we automatically go into song. It’s hilarious.

The pleasure seekers band
The Pleasure Seekers, with Suzy Quatro (second from left) on lead vocals. (Frank Lennon/Getty)

At the age of five and a half I saw Elvis on TV and said I’m going to do that. I had an epiphany. When I was 14 [in 1964] I started playing in a band with my sisters [the Pleasure Seekers] and we were on the road right away. We were very popular and got signed, but in 1971 the band changed name and format. It was called Cradle and instead of me being the person up front singing 99 per cent of the songs I was kind of shoved to the back with the bass guitar. 

Mickey Most, an important producer from the UK, saw the band and offered me a solo contract. The contract meant me going to England to record, which I did. I had my first hit in 1973 and bought my first car in 1974. It was a blue 280SL Mercedes. It was a car with history.

Engelbert Humperdinck, who I know quite well, had bought the Mercedes for his wife, but then his wife wanted something different, so he sold it to [producer] Mike Chapman. I bought it from Mike with my ex-husband, Lenny, who was my guitar player. I didn’t realise until after we got it, but a clairvoyant predicted I was going to come to England and buy a blue sports car. I’d seen her out of fun and forgot what she wrote down in this notebook, until I found it again. 

Mercedes-Benz 280SL
Not quite Suzi Q’s SL, but largely as forecasted by the clairevoyant. (Flickr/Mick)

I used the 280SL for everything. It was a great little car, a really sought-after design that had a lot of power. It sat real low down but it was comfortable to drive. I’m small so I would sit up high in the seat so I could see. Lenny didn’t learn to drive until about 1975, however. I taught him in the band’s station wagon that we used to move equipment to and from gigs. 

We sold the Mercedes, but it’s not the one that got away. The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow we bought in 1976 isn’t, either. I picked it up in London and could not stop my nose from going up in the air as I drove it home. I will always remember that, there’s nothing quite like a Rolls-Royce; it’s the perfect car for the UK and its non-existent class system! I used it to go to the laundrette with the kids strapped in the back in their baby seats, and if we wanted to have a social night and have a drink, I’d hire a driver so that we could get home safely.

Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, perfect for carting around the kids. (Flickr/<p&p>

The one that got away, that was the ’57 T-Bird. My love affair with the Thunderbird started when I was 5 years old. My best friend lived next door, and her father got one when it first came out so it was always on the driveway next to ours. It just had something about it – I can’t explain it any better than that. People will tell you the ’57 T-Bird is a classic and to me, it’s one of the prettiest cars ever made. It’s American design at its best. 

When I got one, it felt fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Me and my husband, [Rainer], who I have been with for 30 years now, used to go to Florida on vacation, and in 1994 he decided he wanted to go to a car shop while we were there. I said, for Christ’s sake, I’m from Detroit, do you think I really need to go to a car shop when I’m in Miami? But we went anyway and I ended up buying my dream ’57 T-Bird!

I looked at it and went, ‘Oh my god’, and all of a sudden I’m buying it – after complaining about the fact that I didn’t want to go to the car shop! I paid around $15,000, took it back to the hotel where I was staying, parked it out front and then took it back to the dealer. They shipped it to the UK for me. I totally trusted the process, but it felt quite something when I was reunited with it in England. The T-Bird was in its original condition, and I loved the fact that it was authentic. Nothing had been upgraded. It had a white interior, whitewall tyres, and it handled beautifully. It was definitely cool.

I thought the T-Bird was going to be my forever car, but it just sat in my garage. The one time I took it out was that trip to the local McDonald’s. I put the top down and took it to the drive-in – is there any other way to enjoy a vintage American convertible? But it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like an ‘England’ car, so after about a year, I got rid of it. It just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and maybe it proved to me that sometimes you shouldn’t realise your dreams. But at least I got to find out!”

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