Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Highway man

A vintage Thunderbird, his best mate, and Route 66. When celebrity jeweller Stephen Webster set out to drive across America, he thought he had all the ingredients for the perfect road trip. And then the engine overheated...

On the road with celebrity jeweller Stephen Webster
On the road with celebrity jeweller Stephen Webster

Everything about the Thunderbird is amazing. From its sheer size and beautiful detailing to that massive wraparound windshield and excessive front bumper, it's a car designed to take no prisoners. Have an accident in one, and there will be no need for a middleman between impact and The Big Fella.

The Thunderbird's dashboard is predominately metal, featuring an AM radio that appears to be a miniature replica of the front bumper. Both inside and out, the vehicle's steel and chrome beauty was never designed with safety in mind: its crumple zones are the driver, his passenger and any unfortunate pedestrians.



So forget about that advert claiming: "If you hit a child at 30 miles per hour, they have an 80 per cent chance of surviving." If you are in charge of this most all-American of vehicles, even a 5mph collision is likely to see you and your passengers being hosed off the dash.



And yet, if you happen to be driving a Thunderbird on the 101 freeway with your foot on a gas pedal that has "power" written across it, you feel like Charles Lindbergh flying the Atlantic. Everywhere you go, people give you the thumbs up. There is no "look at that wanker!" syndrome (the normal response to a fancy modern car driver).



My love affair with the Thunderbird began in 1999. Back then, I was living in Santa Barbara, California. I had been working there as a jeweller for 17 years. As anyone who has ever passed through or lived in Santa Barbara knows, those years were nice but dull.



But 1999 was the year when I decided everything would change. I was going to launch my first ever jewellery collection under my own name. My debut fashion show was to be held in Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Elvis had all played there. Now it was to be the turn of Stephen Webster.



Originally, the plan had been for my wife, Anastasia, and I to form a sort of commercial double act. In our new company, I would be the "talent" and she would be... well... the other "talent". Like Siegfried and Roy, we felt destined for stardom in the Sin City of Las Vegas. That was until nine months before the show, when Anastasia announced she was pregnant. The due date coincided exactly with our debut show.



At that time we weren't too distressed. Everyone knows that babies are like divas: they never turn up on time. The due date is just an approximation to stop you going on holiday. I once read about twins where one was twelve years old by the time its sibling was born – though admittedly that story wasn't carried by the quality press.



So, it was 1999, and two days before the big show we headed for Queen Mary's Hospital to see if a little induction would mean I could be present for the birth. After 24 hours of encouragement, we threw in the towel and went back home as a still-very-pregnant couple. The next day, I flew to Vegas to launch my jewellery firm, leaving Anastasia at home. Nika duly arrived on her due date.



Now it doesn't matter how you put it; saying you were in Vegas when your wife's first child was born never goes down well in company. People look at you with, at best, scorn, and more often than not, that scorn gets verbalised. Even Anastasia has forgotten the reason why I was there, choosing only to recall the fact that, while she was screaming and pushing, I was playing poker and having a lap dance at the same time.



What does this have to do with the Thunderbird, you ask? Well, bear with me. The show was an incredible success. It seemed the Americans were ready for someone new in jewellery design, and the combination of my colourful products and colourful suits (courtesy of Ozwald Boateng) succeeded in causing quite a stir.



Over the next few months, for the first time in my life, I started to feel quite flush. This elated mood encouraged spontaneity in me. So it came to pass that my wife, baby Nika (visiting the in-laws, who at the time lived in Orange County) spotted a beautiful black vintage Thunderbird while walking to the beach.



It was parked at the side of the road, with a sign that said two things: "1959" and "For Sale"... I had to have it. By a strange co-incidence, I too had been born in 1959; I decided that this was some kind of destiny. I negotiated the $6,000 price tag down to $5,000 on the condition that the owner would drive it himself the next day to the in-laws house, which was one and half hours away. If the car made it, it was a deal.



That was how the Bird, as the Thunderbird soon became known, arrived in my life. Although I soon moved to London, the car remained in the States, where it was passed between my family and friends, like an old relative, for me to enjoy as and when I could.



From California to Texas, it had a new home every few months and, as a consequence, started to deteriorate. In fact, there was a time when I saw it on a friend's drive in Dallas with three flat tyres, wheel hubs missing, door locks broken and covered in more bird shit than Nelson's Column. I really thought this was the end of the road. That was until 2003, when my friend Jeff, also born in 1959, came into the picture and said: "This is a crime." He shipped the Bird to his home in New York State and spent exactly four years restoring it to a point of glory exceeding the day it rolled off the production line. Inside and out, the Bird got lovingly dismantled and remantled with no consideration for time and expense.



Living in London, I was only able to keep loose tabs on progress. But in spring this year, Jeff said to me: "This is the year I will finish it." Together we decided the only way to mark the special occasion was to drive across America. We could have done the obvious thing and taken Route 66 all the way. But instead, we decided to start in New York and head south, taking in Nashville, Memphis, Arkansas, and joining the 66 in Texas for the final leg through New Mexico, Nevada and ending at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Strip in Hollywood.



The trip started earlier this month, and was due to last nine days in total.

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