The Ford Thunderbird is a car manufactured in the United States by the Ford Motor Company. It entered production for the 1955 model year as a two-seater sporty car; unlike the superficially similar (and slightly earlier) Chevrolet Corvette, the Thunderbird was never sold as a full-blown sports car. Ford described it as a personal luxury car, a description which named a new market segment. In 1958, the Thunderbird gained a second row of seats for greater practicality. Succeeding generations became larger and more luxurious, until the line was downsized in 1977 and again in 1980. Sales were good until the 1990s, when large 2-door coupes became unpopular; production ceased after 1997. In 2002, a revived 2-seat model was launched, was available through the end of the 2005 model year.
Three men are generally credited with creating the original Thunderbird: Lewis D. Crusoe, a retired GM executive lured out of retirement by Henry Ford II; George Walker, chief stylist and a Ford vice-president; and Frank Hershey, a Ford designer. Crusoe and Walker met in France in October 1951. Walking in the Grand Palais in Paris, Crusoe pointed at a sports car and asked Walker, ‘Why can’t we have something like that?’
Walker promptly telephoned Ford’s HQ in Dearborn and told designer Frank Hershey about the idea. Hershey took the idea and began working on the vehicle. The concept was for a two-passenger open car, with a target weight of 2525 lb (1145 kg), an Interceptor V8 engine and a top speed of over 100 mph (160 km/h). Crusoe saw a painted clay model on May 18, 1953, which corresponded closely to the final car; he gave the car the go-ahead in September after comparing it with current European trends.
Unlike the Corvette, the Thunderbird was never a full-blown sporting vehicle; Ford’s description was personal luxury car, and the company essentially created this market segment.
There was some difficulty in naming the car, with suggestions ranging from the exotic to the ridiculous (Hep Cat, Beaver, Detroiter, Runabout, Arcturus, Savile, El Tigre, and Coronado were submitted among the 5,000 suggestions). One serious suggestion was Whizzer. Crusoe offered a $250 suit to anyone who could come up with a better name.
Stylist Alden “Gib” Giberson submitted Thunderbird as part of a list. Giberson never claimed his prize, settling for a $95 suit and an extra pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue.
According to Palm Springs Life magazine, the car’s final name came not from the Native American symbol as one might expect, but from an ultra-exclusive housing tract in what would later be incorporated as Rancho Mirage, California: Thunderbird Heights.
1955-1957 “Classic Birds” or “Little Birds”
The car was shown at the first postwar Detroit Auto Show on February 20, 1954. The first production car came off the line on September 9, 1954. It went on sale on October 22, 1954) as a 1955 model, and sold briskly; 3,500 orders were placed in the first ten days of sale. Ford had only projected building 10,000; eventual 1955 sales were 16,155.
As standard, the 1955 Thunderbird included a removable fiberglass top; a fabric convertible top was an option, although commonly specified. The only engine option was a 292 Y-block V8. The exhausts exited through twin “bullets” above the rear bumper, as was the fashion.
For the 1956 model, Ford made some changes. To give more trunk space, the spare wheel was mounted outside, Continental-style; the exhausts were moved to the ends of the bumper. Air vents were added behind the front wheels to improve cabin ventilation. To improve rear-quarter visibility with the removable hardtop in place, “porthole” windows were made available as a no-cost option. An optional 312 Y-block V8 was made available for those that wanted more performance.
1956 sales were 15,631, the lowest of all three 2-seater Thunderbird model years.
For 1957, a more radical restyle was performed. The front bumper was reshaped, with heavier sides, “bullets” at the ends of the grille, and the section below the grille dropping down. The grille was larger. The tailfins were made larger, more pointed, and canted outward; larger round tail-lights were fitted. The spare wheel moved inside the trunk again, which had been redesigned to allow it to be mounted vertically and take up less space. The side “Thunderbird” script moved from the fins to the front fenders. The styling was so influential, the later British Anglia bore an uncanny resemblance to it. The Corsair was heavily influenced by the later “Bullet bird” of 1961-63.
Engine options increased, because Ford went racing with the Thunderbird that year. As well as the standard 292 and 312 engines, versions of the 312 were produced in higher states of tune, and even a few McCulloch supercharged versions, rated at 300 and 340 hp respectively.
1957 sales were 21,380, including three extra months of production because the 1958 models were late.
The 1957 Thunderbird would be the last two-seater Ford ever built and sold to the public until the 1982 Ford EXP.