In the years following the end of World War II, the American automotive industry saw a new interest in the small, light-weight, and nimble sports cars that servicemen had discovered all over Europe. These machines stood in stark contrast to the big boulevard cruisers that Detroit had been cranking out, and enthusiasts initially had no domestic option to scratch that itch.
The Nash-Healey roadster was the first out of the gate, launching in 1951. The car quickly gained the attention of the motoring public, placing third overall at the 24 Hours of Lemans in 1952 right behind two factory Mercedes-Benz machines. This did not go unnoticed by the brass at General Motors and Ford.
In 1953, Ford sponsored an automotive design contest, and the winning entry was dubbed the Vega. Penned by designer Vince Gardner and based on an Anglia chassis, the light-weight two-seater caught the eye of Henry Ford II, who expressed interest in moving forward with the production of a stylish roadster.
Around the same time, Chevrolet was in the midst of rolling out its own sporty drop-top with the new Corvette. But while Corvette’s development focus quickly honed in on performance as the key priority, Ford wanted to do something a little different – something that could deliver an engaging experience behind the wheel while not losing sight of American style and sophistication. The result was the Thunderbird.
America’s First Personal Luxury Coupe
While light-weight and undoubtedly stylish, the T-Bird straddled the line between sports car and grand touring machine when it debuted for the 1955 model year. For the performance contingent, Ford outfitted the two-seater with V8 power – a 292ci Y-Block mill from the Mercury division that generated 198 horsepower and 285 pound-feet of torque – which was mated to either a three-speed manual or two-speed automatic gearbox. Its 102-inch wheelbase was identical to Chevy’s new sports car too, but Ford never intended the Thunderbird to serve as a direct rival to the Corvette.
Instead, Ford put a greater emphasis on the amenities, outfitting the new roadster with removable fiberglass fender skirts and hardtop as standard, while features like a telescoping steering wheel and four-way, power-operated seats graced the options sheet.
Ford’s strategy worked: the T-Bird would outsell the Corvette by a factor of 23 to 1 in 1955, outperforming Ford’s own sales projections for the Thunderbird’s debut year by more than 60%. It seemed Ford designers were on to something.
1956 and ’57 would see Ford inching the Thunderbird’s design more toward a luxury grand tourer, though Dearborn made sure not to lose sight of the performance side of the equation either. A 312-cube small-block V8 was added to the options sheet in 1956, with dual-quad and Paxton-supercharged variants of the larger powerplant becoming high performance options in 1957, the latter offering an eyebrow-raising 340 horsepower.
1957 proved to be a record-breaking year for Ford’s new convertible – 21,380 examples of the machine ended up in American driveways that year. Still, Ford executives felt the Thunderbird would be an even bigger sales success story with a substantial redesign that further emphasized the model’s strengths. Designers put the T-Bird under the knife for the debut of the second generation T-Bird in 1958.
Large And In Charge
Concerned that the Thunderbird’s two-seater configuration was stifling sales potential, Ford debuted a significantly more GT-focused Thunderbird for 1958. Now riding on a 113-inch wheelbase to accommodate the addition of rear seats, the Thunderbird gained roughly a thousand pounds during its redesign, further solidifying its position as a fast cruiser rather than an outright sports car.
To help compensate with its newfound girth, Ford outfitted the second generation T-Bird with big-block power by way of the new 300 horsepower 5.8-liter FE V8, while a 350 horsepower iteration of the 430ci Y-Block would be added to the options list in 1959. Prominent tailfins and acres of chrome graced the revised two-door, making Ford’s intention to position the Thunderbird as a rival to Chevy’s new Impala – rather than the Corvette – abundantly clear.
Ford’s redesign gamble paid off – the second generation Thunderbird would end up outselling the first generation car by more than four to one by 1960. Nearly 93,000 T-Birds were sold that year, another milestone for Ford’s personal luxury coupe. As the 1960s progressed, Ford further positioned the Thunderbird as an upscale grand tourer, doubling down on the luxury content while de-emphasizing the car’s sporting aspirations. By the time the fifth generation car debuted for the 1967 model year, both the manual gearbox and convertible top had been dropped from the options list altogether, as Ford saw those buyers gravitating toward the new Mustang.
Now utilizing a body-on-frame platform that was engineered to reduce noise, vibration and harshness, the Thunderbird continued to grow in dimension as it moved into the 1970s, sporting a wheelbase of over 120 inches and a curb weight of over 5,000 pounds when the sixth generation car debuted in 1972.
Return To Form
While 1980 had brought a clean-sheet redesign for the Thunderbird, which was now underpinned by the same light-weight Fox platform as the recently redesigned Mustang, its boxy aesthetic had received a lukewarm reception. For the ninth generation car’s debut in 1983, Ford employed a more modern, aerodynamic design that gave the car a more sport-oriented appearance. Engineers backed up the new look with the availability of both a 5.0-liter small-block V8 as well as a turbocharged 2.3-liter inline four cylinder mill, the latter of which could be optioned with a five-speed manual transmission.
Now positioned as a larger, performance-oriented alternative to the Mustang rather than a luxury coupe, the tenth generation continued theme even as its dimensions expanded once again with its transition from the Fox platform to the newly-developed MN12 it shared with the Mercury Cougar for the 1989 model year.
Sitting at the top of the Thunderbird performance totem pole was the Super Coupe, which packed a 210 horsepower supercharged 3.8-liter V6 mated to a five-speed manual gearbox as standard, along with a limited-slip differential, four-wheel disc brakes, a performance-tuned suspension, and an assortment of aesthetic tweaks. The Super Coupe received the coveted “Car of the Year” award from Motor Trend upon its debut.
Although the car was well received by critics, it never quite achieved the sales success of the previous generation car. In September of 1997 Ford pulled the plug on the Thunderbird altogether, ending more than four decades of continuous production.
After a five-year hiatus the Thunderbird returned to the fray for the 2002 model year. Now riding on Ford’s mid-sized, rear-drive DEW platform which it shared with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar’s S-Type and XF models, the new Thunderbird embraced its heritage in both intent and design.
Motivated by a Jaguar-derived 3.9-liter V8 making 252 horsepower (which was later upgraded to a stout 280 hp), the retro-inspired eleventh generation T-Bird could be had in both coupe and convertible form, and its styling certainly turned heads. While the revived two-door enjoyed a strong debut, the Thunderbird simply couldn’t achieve the sales targets that Ford had set for it, and it once again bowed out in 2005 after roughly 68,000 examples of the eleventh generation car had been produced in total.
Although Ford’s current crossover and SUV-focused strategy doesn’t leave much room for a car like the Thunderbird in the portfolio, we wouldn’t count the T-Bird out for good – iconic nameplates have a habit of finding their way back into automakers’ lineups sooner or later.