When Mike Thome first saw the red 1960 Ford Thunderbird two years ago, the car was "a complete mess," with no seats, dashboard or upholstery...

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When Mike Thome first saw the red 1960 Ford Thunderbird two years ago, the car was “a complete mess,” with no seats, dashboard or upholstery. Thome decided to buy the classic car as a restoration project, but little did he know how much work it would be.

In December, after spending more than $30,000 on the restoration, Thome discovered the rare T-Bird coupe had been stolen 15 years before in Spokane. A Bellingham car restorer hired by Thome had discovered the vehicle-identification number (VIN) didn’t match, and Thome called police.

The State Patrol said yesterday it was looking for a man suspected of stealing and then selling the car, a man already wanted on an outstanding warrant for theft and fraud. Troopers today plan to release details about the suspect, who is still at large.

“I wouldn’t have had a clue [about the VIN],” Thome said. “That was the last thing in the world that I would have thought about.”

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Thome, 63, a retired lumber-company owner from Bellevue, said he was worried that he would lose his investment.

The T-Bird was sold in 1988 in Spokane to a man who couldn’t make the payments, police said. After the car was repossessed, the man stole the car from the credit union in 1989, according to Thome and the State Patrol.

That same man, known as “Joel,” then placed an ad in the newspaper in January 2003 to sell the car, and he stood outside his Federal Way apartment showing the dilapidated coupe to Thome.

Thome went to the State Patrol in December after learning that the VIN probably was fake. Auto companies etch the numbers into each car, and parts of each number identify the make, model and year. Detectives confirmed the car had been stolen.

Thome had to pay $750 each to the credit union and the insurance company that still claimed ownership, but he said they could have charged him as much as $10,000 for the 1988 value of the car.

“It hurt, but it was a lot less devastating than it could have been,” he said.

Thome is left with a sparkling Thunderbird, with a rich burgundy paint job and almost all new parts, picked off from T-Bird specialists from around the country.

“It is gorgeous,” he said. “It’s kind of a showpiece now.”

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com