Sixty years ago, Ford introduced a magical car that would elevate it to new heights. Not only that, it became a cultural icon through most of its iterations.
Before the fall of 1954, Ford was locked in battle with General Motors that forced two mergers between competitors, the end of passenger car production for another and sent Chrysler back to the drawing board. The battle was fueled by price and sales volume. For each Ford sold in the early 1950s, a Chevrolet would match it or beat it. The two top value brands in the USA played this dangerous game of Top Trumps when a Post-World War II society was cashing in on their G.I. Bills for new homes and cars. The economy was booming, which enabled this sales war between Ford and Chevrolet. It also helped the other brands at their respective OEMs – Buick and Mercury was locked in their own sales war and Cadillac quietly tried to outdo Lincoln.
Both companies figured they could not sell just sedans and wagons for eternity. They needed something else to satisfy a new kind of driver.
The veterans of the European theater in World War II brought home a different taste in automobiles from the battle zones they fought in. The roadsters they saw were smaller, more nimble and quite agile. From the ruins of factories overseas, they began to import these machines across the Atlantic. Though they served a niche, the interest was quite high for those who needed a second vehicle outside of the big American car.
Smaller American automakers experimented with their own versions of these roadsters. Nash partnered with Healey of Great Britain with a Pininfarina-designed roadster that sold for a few years. Kaiser went with coachbuilder Darrin on their own two-seater. Though they fueled interest among sports car enthusiasts of the time, they did more to spur on the big two towards developing their own answer to MG, Triumph and Jaguar.
Chevrolet was first with the Corvette. A story that we are very familiar with and continue to celebrate today. However, Ford's answer would come a year later. It made a bigger noise than the Chevrolet made out of fiberglass.
The Thunderbird arrived as the entire industry underwent massive changes. It was the centerpiece of the greatest year in the American auto industry. Ford knew it had a hit when the first ones appeared in print and on television.
The Thunderbird's look was stunning. Though it had some of Ford's signature design features, its lower and shorter body created a massive impact on the eye. It also came with two options – hardtop or convertible roadster. The hardtop could be removed with a set of tools and some help to store inside the garage. The porthole window was an option on the hardtop model, as well.
Power came from a Mercury engine – a 292 cubic-inch Y-block 8-cylinder. In 1955, power was just under 200 horsepower. The next year, displacement was raised to 312 cubic inches with power going up to 215 horsepower. Along with some revisions to the bumper and other details, power was again raised to 245 horsepower for the 312 cubic inch V8.
The two-seat T-Bird was a success, as it outsold the Corvette in 1955 by a 23-1 margin. Though it was the first two-seat Ford since 1938, it would the last until 1982. It was not that the two-seat T-Bird was a failure. Ford saw something else beyond the roadster. They never intended for the Thunderbird to become another sports roadster. Their aim was to inject luxury onto the segment to separate it from the Corvette and its European rivals. Ford's marketers called it a "Personal Luxury Car."
For 1958, the roadster grew larger and added a rear seat to the mix. The larger Thunderbird also had bolder styling compared to the regular Ford models. The second generation model was viewed as a complete opposite of the innocence that marked the 1955-57 roadsters.
The second generation Thunderbird would test consumers whether they truly wanted a personal luxury car with a rear seat rather than the two-seat roadster. The first year was marked with the first downturn of the American economy since before World War II. Though Ford went through some rough waters by introducing a fifth brand – Edsel – and saw slower sales across all remaining brands, the Thunderbird actually gained sales. Sales shot up 16,000 units over 1957 and Motor Trend named the T-Bird its Car of The Year. These were two signs of approval that Ford actually made the right move for is personal luxury car.
Though the second generation proved that changing the formula worked well, they had something else on the table. The days of fins and overstyling were coming to a close. Subtlety would mark the new decade. Sleeker looks were about to come into vogue and the American auto industry would take the lead in this movement. It also helped that this country elected a President in 1960 that would mark the changing of the times.
It would be serendipitous that the 1961 Thunderbird would preclude Senator John F. Kennedy's election to the nation's highest office. One would say that it reflected a future ideal that would mark its time on Earth. The car was pure "Camelot."
Simplicity and sleekness marked the third generation Thunderbird. The wedge front end saw shapes that were never seen before on any car. It lent to an extraordinary side profile that allowed the roof – hardtop or soft convertible – to simply sit on top of this sleek body. The 1961 model brought back those single round taillights that marked the original some six years prior. It was simply nothing more than stunning to look at.
Power also reflected the new design with a 390 cubic-inch V8 putting out 300 horsepower. By the end of its run in 1963, power would scale up to 340 horsepower. A 3-speed Ford-O-Matic was the only choice for Thunderbird owners.
There was a feeling that the third generation Thunderbird was simply too good to be a Ford. It exuded design features that just happened to be found on another new car introduced at the same time – the Lincoln Continental. Some have said that the Thunderbird was better off being sold as a Lincoln than at a Ford dealer. The affect that T-Bird made during the era of Kennedy was that luxury, opulence and the imagination found its way on a car that captured the spirit of that moment in history.
As with Ford design, the Thunderbird went through another evolution towards a boxier look, while maintaining its signature wedge front end. For 1964, the Thunderbird sharpened some key design signatures – a flatter rear end with a larger taillight cluster and the introduction of the Landau roof profile. The latter only showed one window opening for the door, while closing off the B and C pillars onto one solid panel towards the rear of the car.
By this time, the Thunderbird attracted some company in its segment. For 1963, Buick introduced its Riviera. If one car upped the ante on the new segment, the Riviera became the T-Bird's biggest threat with its cleaner lines and elegant aura. For 1966, Oldsmobile introduced a front-drive coupe – the Toronado. While the Riviera upped the design game by upping its size and sharpening its style, the Toronado injected new driveline technology and a fastback coupe look. Other models, the 1963 Studebaker Avanti, 1965 Rambler Marlin and 1966 Dodge Charger, tried to get into the new segment. The Avanti was the closest rival – along with the older bodied Hawk – both the Marlin and Charger had other targets in mind in the burgeoning muscle car field. Neither of the latter two could match the personal luxury air of the T-Bird, Riviera and Toronado.
It was because of GM that Ford was ready to shock everyone again. For 1967, a fourth generation Thunderbird was introduced. Riding on a frame that is shared with full-sized Fords, the Thunderbird took on a massive transformation, including a wide mouth grille with hidden headlamps, a full-width taillight cluster and the first four-door model in its history.
This would also be the most powerful Thunderbird ever. At the top of the options list was a 429 cubic-inch V8 that was built for 385 horsepower. However, it would be too much to power the Thunderbird in that tune, so Ford took consideration for insurance reasons to tune the 429 down to 360 horsepower. In other words, you still had a muscle car inside of a personal luxury car.
The 1970 model arrived with one dramatic change up front. The wide mouth grille and hidden headlamps were shelved in favor of a beak. The beak gave the T-Bird an animistic style that defined the car's future. That car – one I fondly remembered from my own childhood – became the most dramatic vehicle produced in the dawn of the new decade. A lot was carried over from the 1967, but there were many updates made inside and out to further cement the allure of the 1970-71 models.
The significance of the fourth generation Thunderbird was that it spawned something a lot more significant – a Lincoln. The Continental Mark III was built off of the same frame with its own design elements – no panels were shared with the less expensive Thunderbird. The Mark III was a byproduct of the growth in personal luxury cars – namely a response to the front-drive Cadillac Eldorado that was introduced for 1967.
The T-Bird also gained some direct competition. Pontiac introduced their 1969 Grand Prix on the mid-sized platform, followed by Chevrolet's Monte Carlo for 1970 on the same chassis. Chrysler upgraded the Dodge Charger for 1971 to compete with the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix, while keeping an eye on the larger, more established Thunderbird. However, Ford's marketers did not see the T-Bird on the Grand Prix/Monte Carlo/Charger's level. It still had the Riviera and Toronado in its sights. Both GM cars would grow onto full-sized platforms and go through its own design changes for 1971. The boat-tailed Riviera would a shot to the T-Bird's bow when it stunned everyone in the industry.
For 1972, the Thunderbird further grew onto a 120.4-inch wheelbase and weighed more than 4,400 pounds. It was simply huge, even for American standards. By 1973, the only engine available was a 460 cubic-inch V8 – the largest in Ford's history. Horsepower was down due to new Federal emissions standards, therefore it felt sluggish and yielded horrific fuel economy.
The timing for the huge fifth generation model was off. The OPEC oil crisis was on and it began to affect large car sales. To offset the Thunderbird's largess and slowing sales, Ford introduced a mid-sized version – the Gran Torino Elite. It looked like a Thunderbird, but it rode on the Torino's frame and had plenty of cues from its mid-sized brethren. The Elite gained some sales, which would eventually foretell the T-Bird's future.
This historiography is a long one. To cover the history of a significant American automobile – one that would play a role in the precursor towards this work – would take a Part Two to tell the rest of it.
We shall stop in 1976 – the Bicentennial year. There are more fireworks to come…
All photos by Randy Stern