Image credits: © Ford.
The Ford Thunderbird is an American automotive icon first introduced in 1955. During the early 1950's, military men were returning from fighting in World War II. In Europe, the style of vehicle was very different from the Detroit American car. The graceful but sporty MG, Triumphs, and Jaguar's, to name a few, had found their way into the hearts of many of these serviceman. The American automobile manufacturers noticed this trend and felt there was a strong market to support a small sportscar.
The Chevrolet was one of the first, if not the famous, of the Detroit auto-manufacturers to test the market with the introduction of their Corvette. Not wanting to be left behind, Ford entered with their Thunderbird.
Lewis D. Crusoe, Frank Hershey, and George Walker are considered the creators of the Thunderbird. Crusoe was a retired GM executive; Hershey was a designer for Ford; and Walker was the chief stylist for Ford. While Crusoe and Walker were in Paris, they saw a sports car and were instantly inspired. They convinced Hershey to create designs and the result was an open car with room for two passengers. As with all cars, deciding upon a suitable name is difficult. There were well over 5000 suggestions, with the one submitted by Alden Giberson behind selected. The name Whizzer had been seriously considered but was dropped for Gibersons suggestion, the Thunderbird.
The Thunderbird, though similar, was different in many ways to the Corvette and the rest of the small sports cars being offered. The Thunderbird was created as a 'personal luxury' car and even to the current production version, has never been designed as a sports car. Instead of fiberglass, the Thunderbird was constructed of metal. Instead of six cylinder engines, Ford upped-the-ante with a V8. To keep cost and development at a minimum, it used as many parts as possible from the other Fords of that era. The result was a two-seater with many creature comforts and impressive styling. Manual and automatic transmissions were both available. The instrument panel was home to a tachometer, clock and a 150 mph speedometer. The suspension was comprised of a ball-join in the front, offering a plush ride.
The Thunderbird was first debuted to the public at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show, though it was still in concept form. The production version varied slightly. In September of that same year, the first production Thunderbird was completed and ready for sale. It was only available as a convertible. A popular option, the removable hardtop with circular portholes was available. During its introductory year, over 16000 examples were produced.
A 292 cubic-inch V8, depending on the configuration, ranged in horsepower from 193 through 212. A year later, the horsepower rose to a base of 215 and a high of 340 from the 292 and 312 cubic-inch engines. Ventilation was improved with the addition of side vents. The exhaust pipes were moved to the ends of the bumper. By moving the spare wheel to the outside, the trunk space was enlarged and the Continental Kit was born. Production for 1956 was down just a little but still strong with over 15,600 examples being produced.
The Thunderbird received styling changes in 1957 with a reshaped bumper and an enlarged grille. In the rear, the tailfins grew in size and became more pointed. The round tail-lights also grew in size. The spare tire was again housed inside the trunk. The big news was under the hood with versions of the 292 and 312 cubic-inch engines being offered. The base engine was the 292 offering just under 200 horsepower. The top of the line configuration was the F-code 312 with the NASCAR racing kit performance package, boosting horsepower to 340. The F-code, in non-NASCAR racing kit form was popular; with the help of a single four-barrel carburetor and supercharger it produced around 300 horsepower. The E-code 312 engine option, another popular engine choice, was equipped with two four-barrel carburetors and produced 270 horsepower. In total, 1957 was a great year for the Thunderbird, both in performance and in sales with over 21300 examples being produced. The 1957 season actually had three extra months of production because the 1958 models were not ready to be sold. On December 13, 1957, the last of the first series of Thunderbirds was produced and marked the end of two-seater Fords until the 1982 Ford EXP. A two-seater Thunderbird would not reappear until 2002. In total, over 53,160 examples had been produced from 1954 through 1957.
The major complaint of many of the owners of the 'Classic' or 'Little Bird' Thunderbirds had been due to its size, mainly because there was no back seat and limited trunk space. The next version of the Thunderbird addressed both of these issues.
The second series of the Thunderbird was produced from 1958 through 1960 and are commonly referred to as the 'Squarebirds' due to their design. The designs of the Corvette and the Thunderbird went in different directions with the Thunderbird continue to further evolve into the luxury car segment. Robert McNamara, the CEO of Ford at the time, made the final decision to morph the 2-door Thunderbird into a four-door. The decision was made in an attempt to increase sales.
The square and angular design quickly made its way to the rest of the Ford model line. It was primarily the work of Joe Oros who would later aid in the designing of the Ford Mustang. The design proposed by Elwood Engel was declined but later influenced the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
The Thunderbird was now built with a unitized body replacing the traditional body on frame construction. The interior had bucket seats and a center console. The console and bucket seats were the result of an engineering problem. The Thunderbird sat very low, lower than most automobiles at the time. The powertrain needed to be revised in order to fit under the car without dragging on the ground. The result was to burrow it higher in the car and offer a center console. The center console was a welcomed amenity, allowing buttons, switches and ashtrays to be built into it. The Thunderbird was offered as a hardtop or a convertible. A retractable top was considered but after less-than favorable experiences with the Skyliner, the idea was scrapped. Lincoln and the Thunderbird were both built on the same assembly line at a newly created plant located in Wixom Michigan specifically for the development of these upscale vehicles.
Under the hood was a 352 cubic-inch V8 that produced an impressive 300 horsepower. A three-speed manual transmission was standard with overdrive or Cruise-O-Matic being offered as optional equipment. The vehicle was suspended in place with a front independent suspension and a live rear axle both with with coil springs. The combination of luxury and power seemed to be a suitable decision for Ford, as sales skyrocketed to almost 38000. The hardtop option was by far the popular choice with almost 36000 units constructed. A little over 2000 examples of the convertible option were chosen.
The NASCAR racing circuit saw the square bird racing around the track during 1959 and 1960. The vehicle was not only popular with consumers it also captured the coveted Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1958.
For 1959 Ford began offering leather seats in the Thunderbird. Ornaments could now be found on the exterior of the vehicle. Though little was changed in regards to aesthetics, there were many new mechanical components. The coil springs in the rear were replaced with a Hotchkiss drive unit and parallel leaf springs. An optional Lincoln 430 cubic-inch V8 boosted power to 350 horsepower, while the 352 was still the base engine. Part way through the year a change to the convertibles mechanism made them full automatic. Sales continued to be strong, with over 67000 examples being produced. The hardtop was still the more popular with just over 57000 examples created. The convertible had respectable sales with 10,261 examples being produced.
1960 marked the final year for the second generation Thunderbird. A Golde Edition, named after the German company who held the patent for the sunroof, was offered which featured a sunroof. 2530 examples selected this option, making vehicle outfitted with this option very rare in modern times. Sales for 1960 were nearly 93000, 11,860 were convertibles.
1961 was the beginning of the third generation, commonly referred to as 'Projectile or Bullet Birds'. The Thunderbird was completely redesigned with sleek styling that many believe resembles a bullet. In the rear of the vehicle the taillights and fins gave the impression of a jet or rocket-ship. The chassis was carried over from the prior year with minor improvements to produce a smoother ride. Performance continued to be strong with the 390 cubic-inch V8 producing 300 horsepower being the only available engine. The interior dashboard was curved and the steering wheel was the first vehicle to feature the 'Swing Away' design.
It was invited to participate as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. John F. Kennedy's rode in a Thunderbird during his Presidential inaugural parade. Elvis Presley purchased a 1961 Thunderbird.
Though the design of the Thunderbird was controversial, sales continued to hold strong, though less than the prior year. Over 73000 examples were produced with 10,516 opting for the convertible. The following year, sales rose to 78,011 with 9,884 being convertibles.
From 1962 through 1964 a Thunderbird Sports Roadster package was available which included a fiberglass tonneau cover to be used to cover the rear seats, converting the car into a two-seater. The tonneau cover was designed by Bud Kaufman and built with headrests. The convertible could still be operated even with the cover in place. Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels and trim completed the ensemble.
Performance was improved with a optional 'M-Code' 390-cubic-inch V8 with Holley two-barrel carburetors producing 340 horsepower. Only 145 examples were produced with the 'M-Code' option. In total around 62,000 hardtops and 10,516 convertibles were produced. 1427 buyers opted for the Convertible Sports Roadster package.
A Landau model was also introduced in 1962. It was a luxury hardtop version that featured a vinyl roof. It proved to be a popular option with over 12,000 examples being purchased in 1963. Overall, sales declined in 1963 with a total of 63,313 examples being produced. The Sports Roadsters were the least popular with only 455 examples produced. The convertibles had respectable sales with almost 6000 produced. Only 55 M-code Thunderbirds, 37 being Sport Roadsters, were produced in 1963. A Limited-Edition of 2000 'Principality of Monaco' Landau model were created. These special editions were inscribed with the original owner's name and production number on a plaque.
Styling changes continued in 1964 with square features replacing many of the round items. This was the beginning of the fourth generation of Thunderbird. The mechanics remained unchanged. The size of the wheelbase and length were increased. This was the final year for the Sports Convertible option.
Disc brakes were added in 1995. A new grille was added in 1966, as was the addition of an optional 428 cubic-inch engine producing 345 horsepower. Zero-to-sixty took about 9 seconds. The 390 cubic-inch engine was standard, able to propel the Thunderbird from zero-to-sixty in just eleven seconds while top speed was achieved at 110 mph.
This generation of the Thunderbird played a staring role in the TV series 'Highlander'. A 1966 model was shown in the 1991 movie 'Thelma & Louise.'
1966 was the final year for the fourth generation Thunderbird, commonly referred to as 'Flair Birds' or 'Jet Birds'.
The fifth generation of the Thunderbird was produced from 1967 through 1971, commonly referred to as 'Glamor Birds'. The design changed considerable, now available in four doors. Part of the reasoning was to distinguish it further from the Mustang, which had been intruding on the sales of the Thunderbird. So the Thunderbird was moved upward, further into the luxury car segment.
The unibody construction was abandoned for a body-on-frame construction. The design was changed, complete with a new grille and headlight layout. The headlights were hidden until needed. The rear doors were 'suicide' with the handle positioned on the opposite side of traditional doors. The door opened backwards. A convertible option was no longer offered.
In 1968 the grille was new but the rest of the vehicle remained mostly unchanged. Ford now offered a powerful 429 cubic-inch 8-cylinder engine capable of producing 360 horsepower. 1968 also marked the first year that the Lincoln Continental and the Ford Thunderbird would be closely related, built in similar fashion. This would continue until the close of the 1990s.
The grille and taillights changed in 1969. Two taillights replaced the single units. A sunroof was offered as optional equipment.
In 1970 the Thunderbird was available as a two-door or four-door. Minor changes were made in 1971, with most of the changes occurring to the bumper and grill.
From 1972 through 1976 the sixth generation of the Thunderbird was produced. This generation grew in every conceivable way, thus gaining it the 'Big Bird' name. It grew in size, weight, horsepower, and luxury. The 429 cubic-inch was standard and the 460 cubic-inch V8 was offered as optional. The weight of the vehicle topped the scale at nearly 5000 pounds. The large engines and heavy bodies meant the Thunderbirds received poor fuel mileage. This would turn into a concern for Ford when the country entered into an oil crisis.
In 1973 dual headlights and egg-crate styled grille were placed on the front of the vehicle. The 1974 version remained mostly unchanged from the prior year.
1977 began the seventh generation of the Thunderbird which persisted for only two years, ending in 1979. The Thunderbird shrunk in size, now sitting atop of the Ford Torino platform. At almost a foot shorter, it dropped nearly a thousand pounds and the price tag listed the car for almost $2700 less than the prior year.
Most of the vehicles diet was due to a new drivetrain consisting of a small-block 302 cubic-inch V8. A 351 and 400 V8 were offered as optional.
In 1978 a T-top option was offered. The front of the Thunderbird was restyled slightly in 1979 with a new grille.
The decrease in power was attributed to increasing government and safety regulations and due to the oil shortage. Ford made the decision to continue to make the Thunderbird smaller and lighter. The engines continued to decrease in size and as a result, the fuel economy improved. The interior remained to be luxurious offering many popular amenities of the era.
The eight generation of the Thunderbird began in 1980 and persisted for just two years. It continued to decrease in size dropping another 800 pounds and shrinking by over a foot. Though gas mileage increased, the Thunderbird decreased in popularity. The design was very 'boxy' featuring many squares and upright lines. The body now sat atop of a uni-body frame. The headlights were flip-up.
There were two engines offered, both were eight cylinders. The 255 cubic-inch was standard while the 302 cubic-inch could be purchased as optional equipment. The interior was elegant with digital instrumentation and multiple trim packages available.
The ninth generation began in 1983 and continued until 1988. The car continued to become more fuel efficient, this time aerodynamics were addressed. Though the engine bay now housed a 3.8 liter six-cylinder engine, the design became sportier.
The big news in 1983 was the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a manual gearbox. This was the first time that a four-cylinder engine was offered in the Thunderbird. The Heritage version came equipped with a 3.8 liter 110 horsepower engine and a three-speed automatic gearbox. An eight-cylinder engine producing 140 horsepower was available as optional equipment.
There were minor changes throughout the next few years. In 1985 the front grille and tail lights were new. The interior received a new instrument cluster. The horsepower improved to 155 on the Turbo Coupe. A 30th Anniversary Edition model was offered.
By 1987 the turbocharged Thunderbird was producing nearly 200 horsepower, thanks in part to an intercooler courtesy of the Mustang SVO. The Thunderbird was redesigned with larger glass and headlights that were even with the rest of the grill. The result improved aerodynamics. It was named Motor Trends Car of the Year for that year.
The Turbo Coupe was replaced in 1989 with the Super Coupe, a 3.8 liter supercharged V6 engine capable of producing 210 horsepower and nearly 320 foot-pounds of torque. Good enough to earn the Thunderbird another Motor Trends Car of the Year Award.
The tenth generation of the Thunderbird began in 1989 and produced until 1997. This brought the introduction of the Thunderbird SC, meaning Super Coupe. The Thunderbird SC was equipped with the supercharged engine, disc brakes, and ground effects. Two other versions were available, the base Thunderbird and the Thunderbird LX.
The wheelbase became longer and a new independent suspension was placed in the rear. The interior was roomy and comfortable offering many luxuries and continuing the proud tradition of the Thunderbird.
The only engines offered were the 3.8 liter V6 and the supercharged version. The normally aspirated engine produced around 140 horsepower while the supercharged version, the 3.8-liter V6 with a supercharger, provided 70 more horsepower. A four-speed automatic gearbox was standard. A five-speed manual gearbox was offered with the SC version. By 1991 a 5-liter V8 could be installed in the Thunderbird, offering 200 horsepower. In 1994 a 205 horsepower 4.6 liter V8 was offered, replacing the 5-liter option. The Super Coupe's horsepower rating improved to 230. By 1995, the Super Coupe was no longer offered.
There were little styling improvements made to the tenth generation Thunderbirds. Changes to the front end helped improve the aerodynamics. In 1994 the interior received updates. In 1996 it received an update that made changes to the head and tail lights. New wheels, hood bulge, and a few others updates gave the Thunderbird a modernized appeal.
There were little changes made to the Thunderbird in 1997, its final year of production. On September 4th, the last Thunderbird was created, until its reappearance in 2002.
In 2002 Ford introduced the eleventh version of the Thunderbird. The design was very retro with its design taking styling cues for the early versions of the Thunderbird. It was good enough to capture the Motor Trend's Car of the Year award. It sat atop a chassis that it shared with the Lincoln LS.
It was a 2-door, 2-passenger luxury sports coupe, equipped only as a convertible with a removable hardtop. The price tag was set at around $40,000, putting it in the near-luxury category. A 3.9-liter V8 engine, mounted in the front provided the power.
Throughout its production lifespan, the design was never changed but the colors offered did. Sales were never strong and rather disappointing. It stayed in production only a few years, lasting until 2005.
By Daniel Vaughan | Mar 2006
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