The 1955-57 two-seat Ford Thunderbird is among the most iconic American cars. It’s been in television shows, movies and print advertisements and pictured on a U.S. postage stamp.
The mass media often has mistakenly called any sporty looking car, like the Ford Mustang, a “sports car.” It’s given the 1955-57 Thunderbird the same description, although Ford stressed from the get-go its “new baby” was a “personal car.”
Ford knew the sports cars market was very limited and calling the Thunderbird a “personal car” would give it broader appeal.
The 1955-57 “T-Bird” was America’s second mass-produced sports car from a large domestic automaker, behind the Chevrolet Corvette. Smaller U.S. car producers, such as Nash and Kaiser, built a limited number of sports cars in the early 1950s to enhance their image. They saw that British sports cars, like the MG and Jaguar, drew lots of attention and sold relatively well here. But few of those U.S. sports cars were sold, largely because their producers lacked resources to compete with big automakers.
The story goes the Thunderbird two-seater was built because Ford division general manager Lewis Crusoe was admiring European autos at the 1951 Paris auto show with Ford designer George Walker.
“Why can’t we have something like that? ” Crusoe asked Walker after examining a sporty European two-seater.
“Oh, but we do,” the quick-witted Walked fibbed. He then telephoned Ford headquarters in Michigan and told it to get to work fast on a two-seater so Crusoe would have something to see after returning from Europe.
That story isn’t entirely true. Ford had been working on a two-seater, but wasn’t serious about it because sports cars accounted for a tiny percentage of the U.S. market.
The Chevy Corvette from General Motors was the only sports car from a big domestic automaker in the early 1950s. It arrived late in 1953 and GM didn’t hesitate to call it a sports car, although the first-generation (1953-55) ‘Vette was all wrong for most sports car buyers in America.
GM knew nothing about building sports cars. The Corvette was racy looking but had clumsy side curtains — accepted on British sports cars — instead of roll-up windows expected on a GM sports car. It also lacked outside door handles and had a then-odd creaky fiberglass body and ill-fitting soft top.
The Corvette had few comfort or convenience features for comfort-minded Americans, and wasn’t inexpensive. And it had a lazy, power-soaking two-speed automatic transmission, when foreign sports cars usually had manual transmissions.
GM tried to make the Corvette both American and foreign — and failed on both counts. It had a hard time giving away the first Corvettes for promotional reasons to VIPs and celebrities, many of whom disliked the car. Actually, the new Corvette wasn’t all that bad despite its drawbacks, being fairly nimble and reasonably fast for its era.
In contrast, the 1955 Thunderbird had a tight steel body with smooth, clean, youthful lines and rakish long-hood/short-deck proportions. It had the same 102-inch-wheelbase as the Corvette and sexy Jaguar XK-140 but echoed the styling theme of full-size 1955 Fords.
The new T-Bird used a good number of regular Ford parts to hold costs down. They included headlights, taillights and instruments. The parts sharing also let Ford successfully use the 2,980-pound Thunderbird to rub off some of its sporty, glamorous image on the restyled regular Fords.
The new Thunderbird was better for 99 percent of the U.S. market than the Corvette. It could be had with options including power steering, brakes, windows and a power front bench seat designed to look like two bucket seats. (Only two adults actually fit, so the 1955-57 T-Bird always has been described as a two-seater.).
The new Thunderbird came with a standard removable hard top or optional, snug power soft top — or both. It even was offered with a push-button radio.
By 1957, you could get a T-Bird with automatic windshield washers, a Dial-O-Matic power seat with fore-aft, up-down memory and a radio with volume that rose as engine speed increased.
Powering the 1955 T-Bird was a V-8 from Ford Motor’s Mercury division. The 292-cubic-inch engine generated 193 horsepower with a three-speed manual transmission and 198 with the Ford-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission. Now this was an engine Americans could appreciate.
Most didn’t know or care the T-Bird V-8 wasn’t as good as the sensational new 1955 Chevy V-8, but it was potent enough to give the T-Bird good performance. And it handled better than the average car. A privately entered model beat rival foreign cars in the production sports car class at the Daytona Speed Weeks in 1955, hitting 124.6 mph.
But speed wasn’t what the new T-Bird was all about. Rather, it was essentially a stylish, luxurious, upper-middle-class cruiser — a car perfect to give your girlfriend, wife or mistress for in-town showing off.
By today’s standards, the 1950s Thunderbird two-seater had an offbeat driving position, with occupants sitting low and a big steering wheel set close to a driver’s chest. There also was a bad blind spot with the hardtop in place. It’s why “porthole” circular rear side windows were put in that top in 1956 and 1957.
The 1956 model had a “continental” spare tire put outside in a rear metal case because it occupied too much trunk space. The spare not only greatly improved trunk room, it also shifted weight slightly to the rear and slightly improved the car’s good balance.
The Corvette made do with an old, slightly modified Chevy six-cylinder until 1955, when Chevy’s new V-8 arrived. But the 1955 “Vette” looked the same as the 1953 model. It was almost dead until GM began making it a genuine sports car with more performance and comfort features in 1956, and its sales finally began to take off.
GM hated the rival Thunderbird because that Ford model was an instant success. Ford intended the T-Bird to mainly be an “image car,” with annual sales of only 10,000 units. The automaker was surprised when 16,155 T-Birds were snapped up. That compared with merely 674 Corvettes produced in 1955.
The 1955 Thunderbird had base price of $2,944, or virtually the same price as that year’s Corvette. The T-Bird cost more than Ford’s $2,224 Fairlane Sunliner convertible. And even the Thunderbird’s optional convertible top added $290.
Ford didn’t want to mess much with success, so the 1956 Thunderbird had the same styling as its predecessor. However, its ventilation was improved and the ride was made more comfortable. The horsepower race was on, so power of the base engine was raised to 202 with the manual transmission and a larger 312-cubic-inch V-8 was added. It produced 215 horsepower with the manual gearbox and 225 with the automatic transmission.
Thunderbird sales dipped a bit in 1956 to 15,631 cars, but sales soared to 21,380 units in 1957 when model year production ran through the end of the calendar year. It still far outsold the Corvette. The 1957 T-Bird’s price had climbed to $3,408, but it remained an attractive buy.
The 1957 Thunderbird was arguably the best 1950s T-Bird two-seater, although it lacked the clean lines of the first two models. It had a new combination front bumper/grille and longer rear end, which again enclosed the spare tire. Rear fenders had modest canted fins, as did regular 1957 Fords because Ford wanted to maintain the potent Thunderbird sales influence on regular models.
A new instrument panel from full-sized Fords had gauges nestled under a cowl, and arriving were options such as the Dial-O-Matic power seat, which automatically went to a pre-set position when the car was started.
A manual-transmission T-Bird still had the 292-cubic-inch V-8, but its horsepower jumped to 212. Also offered was a 312-cubic-inch V-8 with 245, 270 or 285 horsepower. And there were 208 supercharged “F” Thunderbirds with the “312” V-8 that produced 300 to 340 horsepower, mainly for racing. A 1957 T-Bird hit 146.3 mph during the Daytona Speed Weeks.
The Thunderbird was successfully turned into a four-seater for 1958 to improve sales and profits. But the two-seater had proved in the end it could be a true high-performance car, if not a sports car.
Ford sold a modern retro-style Thunderbird two-seater from 2002 through 2005 that resembled the 1955-57 model. While decent, it was just moderately successful.
It’s often impossible to match an original.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.