The Coolest Car Ever Made
Is this cool or what? Millions of people believe the Ford Thunderbird is the coolest car ever made. Here’s a car that was created by an auto industry famous for making six passenger boxes on wheels with a little power and even less style. In a flash, the Thunderbird trashed all those conventional ideas and made a whole new set of rules. The T-Bird had plenty of room…for two people. It was racy without looking like a hot rod and it looked equally proper with its driver dressed in evening wear or racing coveralls. At the time, except for a few hand built roadsters, the US market for sports cars was virtually non-existent.
The History of the Ford Thunderbird
Chevrolet had broken the ice in 1953 with the Corvette but in two years they had managed to sell less than 4000 cars. Not exactly the kind of numbers that would lead anyone to believe that Americas were starving for sports cars. But when Ford looked at the Corvette, they didn’t conclude that people didn’t want sports cars. They said, “People don’t want that Sports Car! We’ll give ‘em what they want.”
Keith Maney, the editor of Year One’s Restoration Review notes that “it’s important to realize that developing the Thunderbird, there was really no rule book to follow. I mean, after all, American manufacturers didn’t build two seat cars until, of course, the Corvette came along. Since there were no hard and fast rules that needed to be followed, the engineers and the designers could really go wild. And of course, as everyone can see, they did a wonderful job.”
The Ford Thunderbird – A Personal Luxury Car
On October 22, 1954, Ford rolled out its version of the sports car and it was American in every respect. Ford called it a personal luxury car, from its deeply upholstered bucket seats to its engine turn dash with a full complement of gauges. The whole look and feel was upscale and sporty. And America ate it up. Comparisons between the Thunderbird and the Corvette were inevitable.
]Both the Thunderbird and the Corvette were built on 102 inch wheel bases but the T-Bird measured in at almost eight inches longer than the Corvette. It was unmistakably Ford from bumper to bumper. Its low stance almost six inches lower than a Ford Fairlane and its lack of heavy chrome and styling contrivances made it refreshingly different from anything else in Ford’s line or anyone else’s for that matter.
Keith Maney goes on: “It’s interesting to see how the Ford designers did such a good job of coming up with a sporty two seat automobile and yet maintained a lot of family resemblance with the other Ford products of the time. If you compare these cars with a Corvette you’ll notice that the Ford has a long hood, a sweeping deck with fins, it’s a very exciting shape. Another big difference, obviously, in the design and style of the Thunderbird as compared to the Corvette is Ford’s choice of body material. They made these cars out of steel as opposed to fiberglass. I think they did that because they planned to sell a bunch of them.”
Even though Ford didn’t position the T-Bird as a sports car, they made sure it had enough power to blow the doors off most of the other cars on the road. This little car didn’t just look like it would do 120…it would! One of the T-Bird’s first stops was the speed trials at Daytona Beach, where this cute little runabout quickly established itself as a car with muscle. Ford’s reliable wide block 272 cubic inch engine had been bored out to 292 to create a special engine for the T-Bird. This Thunderbird sported 8.1 to 1 compression, a single four barrel carburetor and dual exhaust to make 193 horsepower when backed by the standard three speed manual transmission. With the optional two speed automatic trans, the compression was up to 8.5 to 1 giving five more horsepower. When they tallied up the sales figures for 1955, Ford was delighted with America’s reaction to the Thunderbird. 16,155 lucky people became T-Bird owners in the car’s first year, which was just a small fraction of the people who actually wanted one. “They were real, real strong selling and they sold all of them fast. There were very few on the showroom floors and they sold them all just as fast as they came out.” Recalls one car enthusiast.
The T-Bird Is a Winner
So, after this kind of success for 1956, Ford chose its changes to the T-Bird very carefully. Ford knew they had a winner with the T-Bird so for ’56 they elected to add a few nice to have features and leave the rest of the car alone. Glass wind wings were added to the windshield pillars. Handsome cockpit ventilation was provided by a pair of side fender vents. To increase trunk space, Ford now put the spare tire in a continental kit on the rear bumper. The popular removable hard top was back, this year with a styling touch that says Thunderbird to this day. The portholes, as Keith Maney explains, were lacking on the ’55. “Early ’56 did not have portholes and in mid ’56 they came out with them. The purpose of them is a total blind spot. You cannot see anything out of them. It’s extremely rare to find a car now without portholes. They’re called show tops now. Almost all of them got cut. People put the porthole windows in them so they would be able to see out. Very rare to see one without.”
Adds Tony Carpenter of Marietta, Georgia: “There was a kit that you could buy from Ford motor company, cut the hole and install the frame and put the glass in and in 1956, Ford motor company had a lot of emphasis on safety. You could get a padded dash. You made changes to the door so it wouldn’t pop open in a collision and the portholes became important to allow you to have that vision in the back corner.” Engine power continued to be one of Thunderbird’s strong points. Ford upped the 292′s output to 202 horsepower and offered an even larger engine: the 312. At 225 horses, the 312 improved the T-Bird’s already excellent throttle response. Late in ’56 you could get a two four barrel version called the E Code engine which made a blistering 260 horsepower. By the end of 1956, Ford owned the two place market in America. In just two years, Ford had put almost 32,000 T-Birds on the road: almost five T-Birds for every Corvette.
The 1957 Ford Thunderbird
In 1957, Ford debuted what would become the quintessential T-Bird and an American icon. The ’57 Thunderbird sprouted a cute little pair of tail fins but this car made ‘em look good. The ’57 was stretched inches which made room to put the spare tire back in the trunk. The T-Bird’s grill and front bumper were enlarged slightly and its trim and color combinations were updated this year. Ten different paint colors were available, all with color keyed upholstery. And in all, you could choose between 34 different color combinations.
The Detroit horsepower race was in full swing by now and there was no way Ford was going to let its little rocket ship come in second. The 292 and 312 Y-blocks were still available but performance had been enhanced to 212 and 245 horses for the single four barrel engines. The dual four barrel engine now made 275 horsepower and the street racers could now order the 312 with a Nascar special 285 horsepower cam shaft. The top of the line T-Bird engine was the 312 with a belt driven Paxton super charger.
Ford built 208 blown ’57 T-Birds that year, mostly with the Nascar speed race in mind. On the beach at Daytona, Chuck Day and other famous drivers sped the new records with this combination and all over America, the Thunderbird was proving that it wasn’t just a car for taking your date to the senior prom. Keith Maney remembers: “They handled very well. Even today’s standard. They came with front stabilizer bars, even at 80-90 miles an hour, still handled very well.”
So where do you go if you’re already making America’s coolest two seater? Well, Ford figured if two was cool, four would be twice as cool. Ford had created a whole new class of car. A personal sized luxury car. As plush as a full sized model and as racy as a sports car. But the market for two seater cars in America was still tiny and tiny markets produce tiny profits. But the T-Bird made its own rules and there was no rule that said a personal luxury car has to seat just two people, so for 1958, Thunderbird redefined itself. Now there was room for four.
The 1958 Ford Thunderbird
Keith Maney talks about Ford’s smart move: “Ford was very smart. They knew that the market would really want a backseat. People are family-oriented, obviously and you need to be able to take your family with you when you go places. Their market research said there would be a bigger demand for the Thunderbird if it was a four seater. You know what? They were right. Sales went through the roof, starting in 1958.”
The howl from the two seat fanatics was soon drowned out by enthusiasm from 100s of 1000s of new customers. Now there was a hard top version to go along with the rag top and its four bucket seat layout was a huge hit with the backseat passengers. Says Ron Dudik of Grayson, Georgia: “The market was so strong with the small Thunderbird, the two seater, they though they could get more into the era of the family market, the family sports car to increase their market.” If there had been any worries about how America would take to the new four seat T-Birds, they were quickly erased. Ford sold almost twice as many ’58 T-Birds as the ’57s, making the ’58 T-Birds just one of two cars to post a sales increase that year. So for ’59 Ford brought the car back practically unchanged. Make no mistake, the T-Bird was growing. The four seater’s wheel base was 11 inches longer. And its body was two feet longer and almost six inches wider than the little Birds. In case you thought the T-Bird had become just another overweight underpowered land yacht, 100,000 spectators at the brand new Daytona speedway saw a ’59 Thunderbird come within inches of winning the first Daytona 500.
The 1959 Ford Thunderbird
Keith Maney remembers: “Also taking place in the automotive marketplace at that time was a horsepower war, the beginnings of it. Ford was getting involved with performance through their Nascar program. With the new larger car, of course the old 312s had a hard time pulling the car around. The 1959 model was equipped with a Lincoln 430 cubic inch engine, making 330 horsepower. Of course, all those cubes and all that horsepower didn’t have any trouble pulling this car around.” Adds Ron Dudik: “It’s a real strong car and at that time they came in and only made 200 430 cars. There’s not a lot left in existence today. And that was their market and their surge on the market to be competitive against the other Corvettes and muscle cars that were out there during that time.”
The Sparkle in Ford’s Lineup
By 1960, the Thunderbird was the sparkle in Ford’s lineup and in a showroom full Fairlanes, Starliners, and Sunliners, the T-Bird stood out like a thoroughbred in a corral full of plow horses. The ’60 T-Bird reflected the chrome-heavy styling tendencies of the day with a more elaborate grill treatment. Its side trim was updated again. And the most recognizable change from the ’59 models was a change from two tail lights per side to a three tail side layout.
Basically, though, the Thunderbird for 1960 was more of the same. And why not? Since the four seat revolution had begun two years earlier, Ford had sold over 106,000 T-Birds and it was still the car America dreamed of owning. 1960 would almost double these sales figures with almost 93,000 more T-Birds going home in the hands of overjoyed buyers. But it was the end of another three year styling cycle and the rumors coming out of Dearborn, hinted that the T-Bird for 1961 would be radically different. It was a new decade.
The 1961 Ford Thunderbird – Passing the Torch
The torch had passed to a new generation and they wanted a new generation of automobiles. The one car that looked like it belonged in this new decade was the ’61 Thunderbird. Once again, the stylists had taken T-Bird to a new level, keeping practically the same dimensions as the square birds, this new generation of bullet birds were different everywhere you looked. The grill and front bumper were now one sculpted unit. And the rear bumper now incorporated two large round tail lights. Tail fins, the symbol of the fifties, were pared down to the bare minimum and were perfectly in keeping with T-Bird’s futuristic styling. Staying with the very popular four bucket seat interior layout, Ford now offered power steering, brakes, and automatic transmission as standard equipment. One of the more interesting options of the ’61 model year was the new swing away wheel which flipped the steering wheel out of the way when the driver’s door was opened.
Once again, Ford upgraded the T-Bird’s engine, this time by offering their new 390 cubic inch engine as the prime mover. With one four barrel carburetor on a cast iron intake manifold and 9.6 to 1 compression, this engine made 300 smooth, on demand horsepower at 4600 RPM. And 427 foot pounds of torque at 2800 RPM. Maybe the ’61 was a bit too much all at once for the Thunderbird faithful or maybe it was its record-setting price rag of close to $4400 with full options. Whatever the reason, sales dropped to just 77,000 cars this year. Undaunted, however, Ford pressed on into the next two years with a couple aces up its sleeve.
The ’62 and ’63 Ford Thunderbird
A new addition to the lineup for 1962, and again in ’63, was the Thunderbird Landau Coupe, created by applying a vinyl covering and Landau irons to the T-Bird’s hard top for a more formal look. It was one more step toward lavishness and away from the sportiness of the early birds. Since going to four seats in 1958, the cry from the purists for a return to the two seater T-Birds had never silenced. In response, Ford introduced the Thunderbird Sports Roadster: a standard T-Bird convertible’s rear seat area was enclosed by a removable fiberglass cover, which also incorporated head rests for the driver and passenger. Riding on genuine wire wheels, it was one of the most striking T-Birds ever made.
It was the special touches like the Landau Coupe and the Sports Roadster and horsepower upgrades like the big 390 engine which made up to 340 horsepower which kept America’s eyes focused on Thunderbird. Of course, T-Bird owners remained satisfied that they were driving the coolest car on the road. But the other auto makers had finally caught onto this personal luxury car trend. What until now had been exclusive T-Bird territory was under attack from cars like the Pontiac Grand Prix and the Buick Riviera. It was time for another masterpiece from Ford styling. From’ 61 through ’63, Ford produced some of the more memorable T-Birds but they hadn’t set any sales records with this car.
In fact, Ford had only sold 63,000 Thunderbirds in 1963. But the newly restyled ’64 models brought the customers running back to Ford’s showrooms to the tune of almost 93,000 cars. For the next three years’ styling cycle, the Thunderbird would remain practically unchanged but Thunderbird signature features make this generation of T-Bird model memorable. The sequential tail lights in 1965 and the swing away steering wheel combined with all the usual T-Bird features continued to make this car the be all and end all in personal luxury. But after the initial sales boom in 1965, sales started to slide again. The 74,000 cars in ’65 to 69,000 in ’66. Another era was ending.
Making Room For Two More
So just as in 1957, when a two seater gave way to the four seater T-Bird, Ford felt it was time to make room for two more passengers. So for 1967, the T-Bird grew again, this time to a four door version, which seated six in luxurious comfort behind a very formal set of center opening doors. With the introduction of the ’67 models, Ford buried the last of the T-Bird sports car lineage under several hundred extra pounds of chrome and sheet metal and in the years to follow, the T-Bird would make a journey from big luxury car to family car and back to sporty car. It would win races on the Nascar tracks again and its design would once again revolutionize the shapes of American cars.
J Mays, the former Vice President of Design at Ford describes the Thunderbird’s legendary status: “You’re looking at an automotive icon and if I were to look at American cars over the last 50 years, they’re probably, maybe five or six, that would come to mind. This has got to be at the top of the list.”
A Thunderbird for the 21st Century
The 2002 Thunderbird lived up to this proud heritage. Just like the car’s first days, the lines formed at Ford dealers for a chance to become the owner of the world’s coolest car. Doug Gaffka, the designer of the 2002 Thunderbird says: “I think we wanted this car to be immediately recognizable as a Thunderbird from 100 yards down the road. There would be no mistake as it being any other car but a Thunderbird.” Ford’s former VP adds: “There’s obviously a more modern proportion to this vehicle than the original. We call it modern heritage because we’re picking up the essence of the original but recreating that with modern detail.”
Maybe the T-Bird didn’t earn its fame as a tire burning stoplight drag racer like most muscle cars. But the cars we all love and remember are the ones that changed our lifestyles. At the very top of that list is the Ford Thunderbird. Thanks to the T-Bird a generation of Americans, both young and old, started thinking about cars as more than just transportation. But as a symbol as freedom. Because of this, the Thunderbird set a standard of cool that maybe no car will ever achieve again. Unless it’s another Thunderbird!