There is no denying the awesome design and style of the Ford Thunderbird. 1955 -1957 is known as the first generation of Ford Thunderbird. This was the time when the 2-seat convertible was introduced, which was actually the first 2-seat Ford vehicle since 1938. At the time Chevrolet introduced the Chevrolet Corvette at the New York Auto Show, and Ford simply had to compete with its own great car or, as they called this new market, the personal car. The focus was on comfort, not on speed.
The 1955 Ford Thunderbird made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show in February, 1954. They rolled off the production line in September of that year and went on sale in October as the ’55 model. Within days 3,500 were sold and, by the end of 1955 16,155 were sold, outselling the Corvette more than 23-to-1, as the Corvette only sold 700 units that year. Physically the Thunderbird it looked like a lot of other Fords, with circular headlamps and tail lamps and a modest tailfin. Still, it was sleeker and had a stylish hood scoop. Even the speedometer said it could go up to 150mph.
WThe top of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird was fiberglass and removable. There was an optional fabric convertible top. It had fender skirts and the exhaust pipes exited through twin bumper guards bolted to the rear bumper. The engine was a 292 Y-Block V8.
The entire frame was a version of the standard Ford body-on-frame design. The 102-inch wheelbase was the same as the Corvette. Between 1055 and 1957 a total of 53,116 cars were made for the three model years. It had a manual overdrive transmission or a Fordomatic automatic, 4-way powered seats, pushbutton interior door handles, telescoping steering wheel and a tachometer. While it was not designed to be a sports car, it could it 110-120mph with its V8 engine.
In 1956 the spare wheel was mounted to the outside of the car, giving the car much need trunk space. Air vents were added behind the front wheel cabin, which boosted interior ventilation, and the exhausts were moved to the end of the bumper. Small porthole windows were added to help improve rear-quarter visibility. If you wanted more power you could opt for a 312 Y-Block V8. Production dropped this year to only 15,631 units.
The 1957 Thunderbird had a more dramatic look. The grille and tailfins were bigger, as were the tail lights. The spare tire was no longer on the outside of the car, but instead it was mounted vertically inside the trunk. The scripted “Thunderbird” lettering was moved to the front fenders. Passengers loved the new 4-way power seat “dial-o-matic” option. For engines, there was a 312 and 292 engine. Some versions of the 312 had higher states of tune. There was also a McCulloch supercharged version rated at 300 and 340 hp. Sales of the Thunderbird went up to over 21,300 units sold.
In 1958 the Thunderbird got a redesign as a 4-seater. While the 2-seaters of 1955-1957 were outstanding, the 4-door blew the lid off the sales force, selling 200,000 in three years. This was the beginning of the personal luxury car. This was the first individual model line to earn Motor Trend “Car of the Year” honors.
TThe 1958 Thunderbird was first released as a hard top, and in June 1958 the convertible body style was released. The entire body was much larger than the first generation. The wheelbase was now 113 inches long because of the new back seat in the car. Also introduced was dual headlights, more prominent tailfins, larger hood scoop and a more dramatic chrome grille. A new 352 cu V8 with 300hp was available with automatic transmissions or 3-speed manuals.
In 1959 a new grille and optional 350 hp 430 cu MEL V8 was introduced. Sales jumped up to 67, 456 that year.
In 1960 more style was introduced, another new grille upgrade, and optional manually operated sunroof for the hardtop models. The taillights that were in place for 1958 and 1959 were now replaced with triple-units, in competition with the look of the Chevrolet Impala. Sales broke records in 1960, with 92,843 vehicles sold.
1961 saw a big change for the Thunderbird. In fact the 3rd generation was a dramatic redesign. The style was sleeker, giving the car now classic bullet shaped front end. The standard engine was a 390 cu FE V8. This V8 produced 300 hp and came with a 3-speed automatic transmission. If you see photos of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade you will see a 1961 Thunderbird. The 1961 Ford Thunderbird was also Indianapolis 500’s pace car for that year.
In 1962 a Sports Roadster package for the convertible models was added, as was a vinyl-roofed Laundau option with simulated S-bars. The Sports Roadster had a special fiberglass tonneau cover for the rear seats to simulate a 2-seat appearance. There weren’t many Thunderbirds with this cover feature, as it was complicated and expensive at the time. Other options included a better version of the 390 cu V8, known as the M-Code, equipped with three 2-barrel Holley carburetors.
In 1963 Ford added a horizontal style line that ran from where the bumper and fender meet at the back through to the door and down. Alternators, instead of generators, were added to the 1963 Thunderbirds.
The fourth generation of Thunderbird was from 1964-1966. In 1964 Ford introduced a squared appearance. The wheelbase was still 113.2 inches and kept its similar grille and dual headlights. It was available in hardtop, Laundau and convertible. The standard engine was still the 390 cu FE V8 with its 300 hp, along with the 3-speed automatic transmission.
The 1965 Ford Thunderbird was upgraded with new standard disc brakes, sequential turn signals, horizontal tail lights from inside to outside to indicate turns.
In 1966 the Ford Thunderbird got a new egg-crate style grille with Thunderbird emblem in the center. The rear fascia and restyled break lights design was new, and the engine was given an upgrade. The standard 390 cu V8 was now paired with a single 4-barrel carburetor with 315hp. Even better, however, was the affordable option of a 428 cu FE V8 with 345 hp.
1967 was the introduction of the fifth generation of Ford Thunderbird and would be a time of redesign and reconceptualization of the Thunderbird itself. Ford decided that the Thunderbird was now going to be a more luxurious vehicle. It was larger and now had a body-on-frame construction. The convertible model was dropped and a 4-door model with suicide rear doors was introduced. Hidden headlights were now in a fighter jet like grille opening.
In 1970 sequential turn signals were now incorporated into full panel tail lights in the rear of the car. Design wise, car buyers loved the new longer angular lines in the hood.
The 1971 was very similar to the 1970 model and the least year that a 4-door Thunderbird was available.
Now longer and larger than ever, the 1972 Ford Thunderbird had the same body and frame as the Lincoln Mark IV. The length was 214 inches, with a 120.4 inch wheel base. The standard engine offered was a 429 cu V8 and optional 460 cu V8. After 1973 this 460cu V8 was standard. One would think that this motor would mean more power, but the overall performance was actually not that great. The car was a staggering 4800lbs with the 460cu V8, and, when combined with emissions controls, the overall fuel efficiency was disappointing. In 1973 87,000 vehicles were sold, but by 1975 sales fell to under 43,000. Sales did go up in 1976, but Ford realized it was time to deal with the federal emissions standards and the fuel prices and redesign the Thunderbird once again for a new generation.
The seventh generation of Ford Thunderbird started 1977 off with a smaller overall design. The wheelbase was trimmed down to 114inches. This year would see the Thunderbird beat Oldsmobile Cutlass sales as America’s top selling personal luxury sedan. Over 8 inches of overall length, now 217.7 inches, was trimmed off, and it was now about 900 pounds lighter. A smaller small-block V8 replaced the big-block V8, reducing the weight of the car and giving great performance. In California the 351 cu 351M engine was required, with the 400cu as an option. Outside of California the standard engine was a 302 cu Windsor V8. The bigger 351 cu and 400 cu, as well as T-tops were available, along with the 351W.
The Diamond Jubilee Edition of Ford Thunderbird commemorated the company’s 75th anniversary in 1978. This car lived up to its name with a price tag of close to $12,000, close to twice the price of a standard Ford Thunderbird. Every option was available (except for the moon roof and engine block heater). In 1979 Ford released a similar option package known as the Heritage package.
This generation had enormous sales of well over 955,000 vehicles in three years. Still Ford realized that fuel efficiency concerns and further calls for emissions controls meant it was time to discontinue the 400 CID engine and look ahead at another generation of changes.