Spotlight: Supercharged ’57 Ford Thunderbird D/F

Photos: Mecum Auctions

You may call them Earlybirds, or Little-birds, but the fact remains that the 1955 through 1957 Ford Thunderbirds are highly prized collector cars. Among those in the know, the 1957 F-code Thunderbird is even more special, being the first Ford production cars to be equipped with a supercharger. Only 194 of these were built and are particularly desirable these days.

It seems, however, that there’s always a bigger fish and we’re pleased to present this one for your appreciation. To both promote competition and help showcase technologies that Detroit manufacturers were working on, NASCAR relaxed its engine rules somewhat for the 1957 season. The changes would allow new engine induction technologies, such as fuel injection and supercharging – subject to the standard homologation rules, of course.

Chevrolet had been working with Rochester Carburetors to bring a mechanical fuel injection system to market and had readied the 1957 Corvette with a 283cui engine, making 283hp and for the first time passing the 1 hp/cubic inch milestone.

The achievement was not insignificant, causing Ford Division General Manager Robert S. McNamara, to write the Ford Executive Committee about an engine program “deemed essential to the maintenance of the Ford car and Thunderbird performance reputation.”

The program was based on the use of a 312cui V8 engine, fitted with a new style McCollough supercharger, blowing through a 4-barrel carburetor. McNamara affirmed that the engine “would provide operational characteristics equal to or better than any fuel injection system at present day development.” One hundred vehicles had to be built to meet the NASCAR rules, but they didn’t all have to be the same.

Photo: Nigel Smuckatelli

The approved program saw production of sixty-five Ford Custom Two-Door Sedans, twenty Ford Convertibles and fifteen Thunderbirds. Hand-built at the Dearborn Assembly Plant on January 25, 1957, the Thunderbirds were fitted with heavy duty, three-speed manual transmissions, seat belts and fiberglass hard tops.

Additional refinements were made to the cars heading for Daytona’s Speed Trials in 1957. Halibrand magnesium wheels, a small windshield, a fairing behind the driver and aerodynamic covers for the headlights were added. When all was done in Florida, one of these Battlebirds had set a new speed record for American sports cars, posting a speed of 138.755 mph.

Ford’s success on the beach convinced management to authorize the production of a milder version, using the McCollough supercharger to build the 194 cars previously mentioned. In their own right, they would carve out their own unique niche in Ford history.

The example shown here is one of the original fifteen cars hand-built for competition and one of just eight that are known to survive today. When you are talking about rare Thunderbirds, there is no doubt that this is one of them. Originally purchased by a local drag racer in Jacksonville, FL, the car was modified for drag racing, ultimately logging an impressive result of 13.10 seconds at 117 mph. After he finished with racing, the original owner returned the car to stock condition and drove it for 60,000 miles.

The car was later bought and sold, eventually being purchased in 1979 by a Maryland Ford collector who had it fully restored by an eminent Thunderbird expert. Following this, the car collected awards wherever it went, including a perfect 400 point score at the 1988 Hershey Antique Automobile Club of America event. Often featured in magazines, the car is considered the reference standard for its class.

Coming to auction in May at Dana Mecum’s Original Spring Classic Auction in Indianapolis, this will be a significant car to watch out for. This ’57 Ford Thunderbird is expected to cross the auction block on Friday, at 7:05 pm Central time.

About the author

Don Roy

Don's background includes 14 years in the OEM and Tier2 domestic auto industry, as well as three years as Technical Editor of a muscle car enthusiast print magazine. He is a mechanical engineer by trade and completed his first project car when he was 16 years old - after rebuilding the engine in his bedroom. His hobbies include photography, film making and building the odd robot from time to time.
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