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1966 Ford Thunderbird
Highway Pilot Speed Control Option

Speed control at your fingertips

Image: 1966 Ford Thunderbird with Highway Pilot Speed ControlOne of the all-time best inventions ever in the automotive world was the speed control. It allowed the driver to set the desired cruising speed at the beginning of the trip, and the car would automatically maintain that speed uphill or down. This meant people driving cars with speed control began to arrive at their destination more relaxed and refreshed than otherwise. It eliminated the need to constantly check your speed, along with checking the rear view mirror for flashing lights if you discovered you'd exceeded the speed limit! Fuel mileage was improved as well, as steady speeds conserve fuel (not that most people worried about fuel economy that much back in 1966, especially those driving luxury cars).

So wonderful was speed control in fact, there just weren't many reasons for not ordering it if you drove very many highway miles. There were initial reports of problems with speed control shortly after it was introduced on the 1964 Thunderbirds, which led to dealers disabling the systems until Ford could get the issues sorted out. The issues were soon corrected, and the option was relatively trouble free for 1965. That first system differed greatly from the one Ford introduced for the T-bird in 1966, however. For 1966, the new Highway Pilot option would become more visible with the major controls moved to the steering wheel spokes for the first time.

The new 1966 system was so simple to use, it was surely designed with ease of use in mind. Power was controlled by an on/off switch [link opens image in new window or tab] mounted on the driver's side of the console, which required the driver to pull up on the control once the ignition was turned on. This switch snapped to the off position with a loud "click!" anytime the ignition was turned off. For safety reasons, turning the switch off erased all memory of previously set speeds, which required a new speed to be locked in each time the car was started.

At speeds between 30 to 80 miles per hour, desired speed could be set by pressing the SET SPEED control on the left side of the steering wheel center pad. The rocker-type switch could be moved up or down to set the speed.

Image: 1966 Thunderbird Highway Pilot ControlTo disengage, the RETARD control on the right side of the steering wheel is pressed. The rocker control is pressed down for RETARD. As long as the control is held, the car will decelerate and the brakes are lightly applied along with the stop lights.

To re-engage the system, the RESUME control portion of the switch (above RETARD) is pressed. As long as the car wasn't moving slower than 30 mph, it will automatically return to the original setting. To set speed at a higher setting, the SET SPEED control can be held down until the new faster speed is achieved, upon which said speed will be locked in when the control is released, or driver could accelerate car normally and press SET SPEED to lock in a higher speed.

The RETARD control works even if the speed control hasn't been set, but the control switch on the console has to be pulled up for it to do so. Additionally, a small switch is built in to the service brake pedal which also cancels automatic control when even the lightest pressure is applied to the pedal. The service brake pad on speed control equipped cars differs from the regular pad in that it's thicker due to the internal switch, and can be easily identified by its more rounded corners.

What makes it all work? As simple as it may be to operate, the mechanics of the system can be a nightmare to work on. A confusing array of wiring, relays, cables, pumps, and such all work together to keep speed on an even keel. A small vacuum motor under the instrument panel is attached to the service brake pedal with a chain. It is this motor that applies the brakes when the RETARD control is pressed. Braking action can be adjusted by moving the chain to a new connection point on the brake assembly, and if adjusted incorrectly, well...let's just say it can really slow the car down quickly!

Under the hood, a sensor pump has a special fluid in it that will prevent the system from working properly if it's not at the correct level. The sensor pump is a sealed unit containing non-volatile lubricant of high viscosity stability. It's important to remember that If for any reason the sensor pump is removed from the car, it must be kept in its normal vertical position or lubricant will leak out. (It is available from specialty Thunderbird vendors). Most of the components under the hood are located on the driver's side of the engine compartment, mounted on the inner fender. They take up quite a bit of room, and make a somewhat tight engine compartment even tighter. If the car also has the Thermactor Exhaust Emission Control System on it, it's very difficult to even get to the spark plugs to change them. Dealers must have hated seeing '66 Birds with both the speed and emission controls on them come in for tune ups!

The system worked well, and was mostly trouble free, even as the cars with Highway Pilot aged. Problems with the system are usually caused by a loss of sensor pump fluid, dirty or worn contacts on the turn signal switch or steering wheel (which incorporated the speed control functions as well), or a failed relay. The cost new was $128.72, and could be ordered on any Thunderbird. For some reason, window stickers often listed two separate lines for this option:

HIGHWAY PILOT CONTROL $91.29
UNIQUE STEERING WHEEL $37.44

The total was the same, but it's possible Ford originally intended to also offer the 1964-1965 type speed control, which wasn't quite as fancy, but also cost considerably less at $63.40. There really isn't an obvious reason for splitting the option in that manner for invoicing, but the computers of the time weren't as sophisticated as they are now, so perhaps there was a good reason for why it was done this way at the time. (We were told it was to draw attention to the unique steering wheel that came with the system, but can't verify that's really the reason why.)

Highway Pilot is a somewhat rare option on the 1966 Thunderbirds, due mostly to its high cost when new. It is unusual today to see cars equipped with Highway Pilot but not SelectAire Conditioning. We've even seen reclining seats and speed control without air conditioning, which seems strange to us. Who takes a trip of a long enough duration that they need speed control but not air conditioning? A bit odd, but we've seen more than a couple with this configuration.

The unique steering wheel on Highway Pilot cars (part number C6SZ-3600) matched the main interior color, and that included Town Landau installations, which normally received a faux wood wheel. The center bar section featured a molded, padded vinyl hub. A highly polished chrome face plate included a satin gray finish between the control switches. At center was a small Thunderbird emblem of the same design as the one used in the standard circular padded hubs on cars without speed control. A chrome horn ring appeared on the lower half of the steering wheel. The horn ring is somewhat susceptible to being broken, and the padded vinyl on the center spokes of the steering wheel often pulls away from the face plate, leaving gaps between the vinyl and chrome trim.

Highway Pilot Control Steering Wheel and Horn Ring Pad Part Numbers:

The basic Highway Pilot Steering wheel part number is C6SZ-3600-*
The basic Horn Ring Pad part number is C6SZ-13A818-*

A letter following those numbers designates color where the asterisk (*) is located. Here are the color codes:

B - Black
C - Dark Blue
D - Red
E - Parchment
F - Ivy Gold
G - White
H - Burgundy
J - Aqua
K - Silver (Grey)
L - Emberglo

The retard feature of the system was changed in 1969 to eliminate the braking action and instead allowed the car to just coast to a lower speed. For 1970, the on/off control was moved to the left side of the steering wheel spoke, and a combination set accelerator/coast control was located on the right. This simplified the system even further, and speed control would become more popular though the seventies, especially after the gas shortages of 1973-1974, when people became more interested in fuel conservation.

The Highway Pilot Control is one of the 1966 Thunderbird's more unique features, and cars with working units are worth seeking out for today's collectors, especially given the fuel saving advantages of maintaining a steady speed on long trips. There is little evidence that a working Highway Pilot system increases the value of a 1966 Thunderbird, but it should. This system can be added to a car if desired, but it's not a job for the faint of heart as the process of installing all the pieces properly is a chore. If you locate a parts car with the option and decide to remove it for a possible future installation, be sure to get the steering column hub (the metal casting directly behind the steering wheel), as it is different on Highway Pilot-equipped cars.

1966 Thunderbird Highway Pilot advertisementFord was so proud of this new technological marvel that it produced an advertisement announcing the availability of this convenience option. [Click image at left to view larger image in new window or tab.]

When you consider that other makes and models with speed control at the time required the driver to dial in the desired speed, then continue to rotate the dial to make adjustments, this truly was one of Ford's better ideas that caught on. Now many makes and models feature automatic speed controls on the steering wheel, but in 1966 it was Thunderbird's exclusively.