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Ford Thunderbird History – 1955 to 1971 (six generations)

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Ford Thunderbird - Flair Bird


Introduction
It entered production for the 1955 model year as a two-seater sporty car but unlike the similar Chevrolet Corvette, the Thunderbird was never sold as a full-blown sports car. The Thunderbird would soon add a hardtop coupe version, a back seat, and even two more doors as the do-everything personal car for Ford over the years - but it always provided decent performance along with a dash of style.

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. Succeeding generations became larger 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, which was available through the end of the 2005 model year.

Genesis
A smaller two-seater sports roadster was created at the behest of Henry Ford II in 1953 called the Vega. The completed one-off generated interest at the time, but had meager power, European looks, and a correspondingly high cost, so it never proceeded to production. The Thunderbird was similar in concept, but would be more American in style, more luxurious, and less sport-oriented.

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 (some say the car Crusoe pointed to was a Jaguar XK120) and asked Walker, 'Why can’t we have something like that?' Some versions of the story claim that Walker replied by telling Crusoe, "oh, we're working on it"...although if anything existed at the time beyond casual dream-car sketches by members of the design staff, records of it have never come to light.

Walker promptly telephoned Ford's HQ in Dearborn and told designer Frank Hershey about the conversation with Crusoe. 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 based on the forthcoming overhead-valve Ford V8 slated for 1954 model year introduction, 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. After Henry Ford II returned from the Los Angeles Auto Show (Autorama) in 1953 he approved the final design concept to compete with the then new Corvette.

Naming
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). Lewis D.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 got the idea during a lightning storm when he saw an illusion of a bird getting hit by lightning. Giberson never claimed his prize, settling for a $95 suit and an extra pair of trousers from Saks on Fifth Avenue. According to Palm Springs Life magazine, the car's final name came not from the Native American symbol of a mythological creature as one might expect, but from an ultra-exclusive housing tract in what would later be incorporated as Rancho Mirage, California. The name, Thunderbird Heights.


1955 to 1957 Ford Thunderbird (1st generation - Classic Birds)

The car was shown at the Detroit Auto Show on February 20, 1954. The first production car came off the line on September 9, 1954, and 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.

Created to act as a retort to the Chevrolet Corvette, it was Ford’s entry into the two seat sports car. The Thunderbird was only available as a convertible, but a distinctive fiberglass removeable hardtop with circular portholes was available and proved to be a popular option. The engine was a 292 in³ Y-block V8. The car had fender skirts and exhaust pipes that exited through twin bumper guards, which were bolted to the rear bumper. It was produced with a Fordomatic or Overdrive transmissions, and featured four-way powered seats and pushbutton interior door handles.

Equipped with the V8 engine, the Thunderbird could hit 110-120 mph. It was a smaller two-seat "personal luxury car", compared to the wallowing barges that roamed all the roads in the 1950s. It was designed to be a brisk luxury tourer.The Thunderbird was always about style, its clean styling, creature comforts, and V8 refinement made it a sales success.

For the 1956 model more trunk space was added, the spare wheel was mounted outside, the exhausts were moved to the ends of the bumper, and 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 in³ Y-block V8 rated at 215 bhp 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, the grille and tailfins were made larger, and larger tail-lights were fitted. The spare wheel moved inside the trunk again, which had been redesigned to allow it to be mounted vertically. The side "Thunderbird" script moved from the fins to the front fenders. All this resulted in what many fans feel is the most stylish Ford Thunderbird of all time.

Ford finally got serious about performance with the 1957 Thunderbird. As well as the standard 292 and 312 engines, new versions of the 312 Y-block V8 were produced in higher states of tune. The E-code 312 V8 featured two four-barrel carbs and was rated at 270 bhp. The F-code 312 V8 featured a single four-barrel carb force fed by a Paxton-built McCulloch centrifugal supercharger. The F-code engine was rated at 300 bhp, or at 340 bhp with the optional NASCAR "racing kit." But these performance options would disappear after February 1957 when the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) decided to end Detroit's horsepower war.

1957 sales were 21,380, which included 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 sport compact car.

Production Numbers:
1955 - 16,155
1956 - 15,631
1957 – 21,380

1958 to 1960 Ford Thunderbird (2nd generation - Square Birds)

Although the original Ford Thunderbird was successful, the corporation's executives -- particularly Robert McNamara -- felt its sales volume was small. Market research suggested that sales were limited by its two-seat configuration, making it unsuitable as an only car for families. The second generation, introduced for the 1958 model year, was designed as a four-seat car available as a hardtop coupe or convertible. A retractable hardtop was planned, but was shelved after the ‘Skyliner experience’.

The four-seat T-bird was designed with unibody construction, eschewing a separate chassis. The intent was to allow the maximum interior space in a relatively small exterior package. The new Thunderbirds were produced at a new assembly plant at Wixom, Michigan, built as part of a corporate expansion plan to increase the sales of up-market cars (Mercurys, Lincolns, and Thunderbirds).

The distinctive styling featured boxy lines and a wide-pillar roof, which earned the second generation Thunderbirds the nickname "Square birds," and would later spread to all Ford models. The design was driven entirely by the styling department and approved before the engineering was considered. The design was one of two proposed, styled primarily by Joe Oros, who later worked on the Ford Mustang; the losing proposal, by designer Elwood Engel, was reworked in size to become the 1961 Lincoln Continental.

This second generation Ford Thunderbird was nine inches (230 mm) lower than the standard American car of the time, at 52.5 in (1.33 m), with only 5.8 in (147 mm) of ground clearance. The significant transmission tunnel intrusion required to fit the powertrain into such a low car was turned into a styling feature by covering it with a large, full-length center console dividing the front and rear seats and containing ashtrays, switches, and minor controls.

Beneath the monocoque construction, the remainder of the engineering was conventional. Engine choices were all new, with the elimination of the high performance 312 V8s but the addition of a larger 352 V8 (5.8 Ltr) FE-series engine. Standard transmission remained a three-speed manual transmission, with optional overdrive or Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission. Front suspension was independent, with coil springs and unequal-length A-arms. The rear was initially a live axle suspended by coil springs, which were intended to be interchangeable with optional air springs that were cancelled before production. Drum brakes were used at all four wheels.

Various delays conspired to have production start only on December 20, 1957, much later than the normal September start. However the new Ford Thunderbird captured Motor Trend's Car of the Year award in its debut season. While many fans of the earlier, two-seat T-birds were not happy with the new direction, Ford was vindicated with sales figures of 37,892, more than double the previous year despite losing three months of production and 1958 being a very poor year for car sales—the Thunderbird was one of only two cars to show a sales increase that year (the other being the Rambler). Only 2,134 convertibles were built, mostly because the convertible model did not become available until June 1958.

For the 1959 model year, Ford made changes to the front, rear, and side ornamentation, and made leather upholstery available for the first time. The rear suspension was revised, discarding coil springs for Hotchkiss drive, with parallel leaf springs. A new engine, the Lincoln 430 in³ (7.0 Ltr) MEL-series rated at 350 bhp, was available in small numbers. Sales almost doubled again, to 67,456 units, including 10,261 convertibles. Thunderbird advertising in 1959 targeted women in particular, depicting glamorous models in country clubs and other exclusive settings. The subsequent sales figures bore out Ford's marketing plans.

1960's sales figures hit another record: 92,843 units sold, including 11,860 convertibles. A rare option in this year was the country's first postwar sliding steel sunroof. It was named the "Golde Edition" after the German Golde company whose sunroof patent Ford licensed.

Production Numbers:

1958
2D Hardtop: 35,758
2D Convertible: 2,134

1959
2D Hardtop: 57,195
2D Convertible: 10,261

1960
2D Hardtop: 78,447
2D "Golde Edition" Hardtop: 2,536
2D Convertible: 11,860

1961 to 1963 Ford Thunderbird (3rd generation - Bullet Birds)

1961 featured all new exterior styling that earned it the nickname "Bullet Birds". Sales were strong, if not quite up to record-breaking 1960. A new, larger 390 in³ (6.4 Ltr) FE-series V8 was the only engine available. The Thunderbird was 1961's Indianapolis 500 pace car, and featured prominently in US President John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade, probably helped along by the appointment of Ford executive Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense.

The Ford Thunderbird for 1961 introduced several firsts for the automotive market. The most distinctive feature of the 1961 to 1963 Thunderbirds was the highly touted 'Swing Away' steering wheel. With the transmission in the park position the steering wheel would slide approximately 18 inches to the right allowing the driver to exit the vehicle easily. Another innovation included a floating rear view mirror - now common on all autos produced today, this feature was first found on 1961 Thunderbirds. Other optional extras that could be ordered were air conditioning, power windows, power seats, AM radio, fender skirts and white wall tires. Several standard features, like power steering and power brakes, back up lights and bucket seats were still costly options on most other autos.

Chassis design was carried over, but was reworked slightly for a smoother ride and better handling. The exterior styling featured a severely pointed front ‘prow’, modest fins above huge renditions of Ford's traditional round tail-lights, and softer roof contours on hardtops. The cowl was shared with the Lincoln Continental, and there was some similarity in the styling of the grille and the quad headlamps recessed in oblong housings. The interior design featured a dash which curved at its outer ends to blend in with the door panels. The only engine available was the 390 in³ V8, rated at 300 bhp.

1962 saw strong production figures and the introduction of the Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster. The Sports Roadster was a limited production version of the convertible. It added 48 spoke Kelsey Hayes designed wire wheels, special badges to the front fenders and a dash mounted passenger grab bar to the front dashboard. The rear fender skirts were deleted to allow clearance for their knock-off centers. However, the most striking addition to the Sports Roadster was a fiberglass tonneau cover designed by Bud Kaufman, which covered the back seat of the car and created a two seater appearance. The tonneau cover featured twin headrests and were raised so as to flow back to the rear, thus avoiding a too-flat appearance. The convertible top could still be operated even with the tonneau cover in place. Although a stylish idea (often attributed to Lee Iacocca), its high price, and cumbersome installation limited its sales.

Early Roadster models suffered from problems related to their specially designed wire wheels. The problem was quickly corrected when Elvis Presley was involved in an accident when one of the Kelsey Hayes wheels collapsed during hard turning. Some 1,427 Sports Roadsters were produced in 1962, including 120 models with the special M Code option detailed below.

For performance fans Ford offered a special "M-code" (VIN engine code M) 390 in³ FE V8 engine rated at 345 bhp (257 KW). This added a tripower or three two barrel setup to a higher compression version of the Ford 390 engine. It featured three Holley two-barrel carbs and an aluminum manifold which kept the carbs level and at the same height. This engine used 406 heads as well as the same carburetors that were found on the high performance 406 powered Ford Galaxies but with a modified version of the intake manifold to allow for proper air flow under the engine. This engine was considered a moderate failure and was quietly discontinued halfway through the mid 1963 production run. Only 145 Ford Thunderbirds were built with the M code option which included the 120 Sports Roadsters.

Also introduced in 1962 was the Landau model, with a vinyl roof and simulated S-bars on the rear pillars. This was the beginning of the 1960s/1970s fashion for vinyl roof treatments - the vinyl roof was a popular Thunderbird feature for the next twenty years. 

Changes for 1963 were relatively mild, however there was some speculation at the time that due to its wedge appearance the Thunderbird would be renamed as a Lincoln - to coincide with the new Lincoln Continental introduced at this time. Some additions to the option list included vacuum assisted door locks, an AM/FM radio and a power driver’s side mirror became standard. Sales figures were down with the Landau becoming the number two model after the standard hardtop. Landaus added simulated wood grain trim to go along with the landau top. In addition a Limited Edition "Principality of Monaco" Landau model was introduced. This Corinthian White car, with a white leather interior was personalized with a plaque displaying the owner's name and the car's limited production number from only 2000 units. Only 5,913 convertibles and 455 Sports Roadsters sold, indicating a decline in convertible popularity at the time.

Production Numbers:

1961
2D Hardtop: 62,335
2D Convertible: 10,516

1962
2D Hardtop: 62,335
2D Convertible: 10,516
2D Convertible Sports Roadster: 1,427

1963
2D Hardtop: 42,806
2D Convertible: 5,913
2D Convertible Sports Roadster: 455


1964 to 1966 Ford Thunderbird (4th generation - Flair Birds)

For 1964 the Ford Thunderbird was restyled in favor of a more squared-off, "formal" look. The T-Bird's sporty image had by that time become only an image. The standard 390 in³ with 315 bhp (235 kW) engine needed nearly 11 seconds to push the heavy Thunderbird to 60 mph (96 km/h), although with enough room a top speed of about 120 mph (200 km/h) was obtainable. The softly sprung suspension allowed considerable body lean, wallow, and float except on smoothly surfaced highways (There was an export suspension package available as special order). Contemporary testers felt that the Buick Riviera and Pontiac Grand Prix were substantially more road-able cars, but despite this the Thunderbird remained the leader of the market segment.

The 1964 Thunderbird was the only car to have the word 'Thunderbird' on the front hood and was initially offered as a hardtop, a convertible, or Landau, with vinyl roof and simulated landau irons. The tonneau cover and wire wheels of the Sports Roadster remained available as a dealer-installed option, although only 50 were sold. Total 1964 sales were excellent: 92,465, up nearly 50% from the previous year.

Several features intended for the new generation were delayed until 1965, when front disc brakes became standard equipment and sequential turn signals were added. The latter feature flashed the individual segments of the broad, horizontal tail lights in sequences from inside to outside to indicate a turn. The delay resulted from legal difficulties with various U.S. state laws on vehicle lighting. Sales, impacted by increasing competition (including from Ford's own Mustang), dipped to 74,972.

For 1966 the larger, 428 in³. (7.0 Ltr) V8 became optional, rated at 345 gross horsepower (257.4 kW) and providing a notable improvement in 0-60 acceleration – now around 9 seconds. A new Town Hardtop model was offered featuring a roof with blind quarter panels for a more formal look (at the cost of rear visibility). The Landau model was replaced by the Town Landau, which retained the previous model's padded roof and landau S-bars, but applied them to the Town Hardtop's formal roof. The Town Landau was by far the best-selling model, accounting for 35,105 of the 1966 model's 69,176 sales.

There was a rare special order 427 available through certain Ford dealers for the 1963-1965 Thunderbirds. Only 120 of these "high performance" models were made with only six still to be known in existence today. It is documented that Bob Tasca, a well known drag racer of the 1960s, ordered a factory-fitted 427 1964 Thunderbird that was said to do 0-60 mph in 6 seconds with a top speed of 135 mph (217 km/h).

A black 1964 "Flair Bird" convertible later had a major role in the TV series Highlander as protagonist Duncan Macleod’s main mode of transportation. A green 1966 Thunderbird convertible was prominently featured in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise, starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, directed by Ridley Scott.

Production Numbers:
1964 - 92,465
1965 - 74,972
1966 - 69,176


1967 to 1969 Ford Thunderbird (5th generation - Glamour Birds)

This fifth generation saw the second major change of direction for the Ford Thunderbird. The T-Bird had fundamentally remained the same in concept through 1966, even though the styling had been updated twice. The introduction of the Ford Mustang in early 1964 had however challenged the Thunderbird's market positioning. It, like the Thunderbird, was a small, two-door, four-seater with sporting pretensions, but it was substantially cheaper. As a result the Thunderbird's sales suffered. Ford's response was to move the Thunderbird up-market - some fans of the classic T- Bird consider 1966 to be the last year of interest.

For 1967 the Ford Thunderbird would be a larger car, moving it closer to Lincoln as the company chose to emphasize the "luxury" part of the "personal luxury car" designation. Ford chose to abandon the Thunderbird's traditional unibody construction for this larger car, turning to a body-on-frame method with sophisticated rubber mountings between the two to reduce vibration and noise. The T-Bird convertible, increasingly a slower seller, was dropped and replaced with a four-door model. The rear doors were backward-opening suicide doors as on the 1960s Lincoln Continental. The four-door would remain available through 1971 but never really generated substantial sales.

The 1967 styling would be radically different from what came before. Ford's stylists delivered a radical shape that in many ways anticipated the styling trends of the next five years. A gaping wide "fishmouth" front grille that incorporated hidden headlights was the most obvious new feature. The look was clearly influenced by the intakes on jet fighters such as the F-100 Super Sabre, and was enhanced by the flush-fitting front bumper incorporating the bottom lip of the mouth. The sides were the barrel-like fuselage style that was very popular during this period. The belt line kicked up "coke-bottle" style after the rear windows, again a styling trait that would prove ubiquitous. Large C-pillars (and a small "formal" rear window on the 4-door) meant poor rear visibility but were the fashion of the time. The taillights spanned the full width of the car, and featured, as in previous Thunderbird models, sequential turn signals.

The 1968 Thunderbird saw the introduction of the new 385 series big-block 429 in³ motors. Like most Ford engines of the time, they were underrated at 360hp for insurance reasons. The Thunderbird engines were given special treatment with wedge style heads, making a significant power increase over their conventional headed brothers. These motors made the "Glamour Birds" some of the quickest and fastest ever produced despite their larger size and heavier body on frame construction. 1968 and 1969 model years saw only minor trim changes.

The new 1968 Lincoln Continental Mark III was based on the four-door Thunderbird chassis. From that point on the Thunderbird and Continental marks were generally related cars - the Mercury Cougar also often shared the same components.


1970 to 1971 Ford Thunderbird (6th generation - Big Birds)

Although sharing the same platform and many of the same parts of the 1967-69 models the 1970 Ford Thunderbird saw a major change to its style, most notably a big eagle's beak out front! As with the 1967-69 models, the 1970-71 models had sequential turn signals incorporated into the full panel tail lights in the rear of the vehicle.

Offered in coupe or sports-back models, all 1970-1971 Thunderbirds had prominent angular lines on the hood leading to a jutting tip that also formed the center of the grill that was a thinly disguised bird beak. Because of this the T-bird for these two years had its most animalistic look that was fairly aggressive in appearance. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, the former GM man now President of Ford, is said to be responsible for this dramatic change, as a result some have come to call these models 'Bunkie Beak Birds'.

In 1971, Neiman Marcus offered "his and hers" Thunderbirds in its catalog, with telephones, tape recorders and other such niceties - they retailed for US$25,000 for the pair.

 
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