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Two-seaters established the T-bird legend

SUNDAY DRIVER -

December 04, 2005|By MALCOLM GUNN

A half-century ago, The Ford Motor Company's sensational Thunderbird ushered in the modern era of the personal luxury automobile.

Although sporty in appearance and injected with an abundance of horsepower, this cushy beauty was more at home cruising the North American boulevards and freeways of the 1950s than handling fast, making tight turns or stopping on the proverbial dime. Those maneuvers were best left to more exotic, albeit harsher-riding European machinery.

The 1955 'Bird's sole two-seat rival, the Chevrolet Corvette had come to market two years earlier. Although stunning to look at, the 'Vette's poor-quality fiberglass body hid, among other sins, a shortened sedan frame and an inline six-cylinder truck-based engine. Inside, the car was bare-bones basic, lacking most modern conveniences, including roll-up windows. At around $2,900, the Corvette was priced $1,000 more than a base Chevrolet sedan.

Meanwhile, the Ford camp was busy preparing a competing roadster, one that would turn out to be a more substantial offering, both inside the cockpit as well as under the hood.

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The T-Bird offered a host of standard and optional amenities including a Mercury-based 292-cubic-inch V-8 engine rated at 202 horsepower. Ford claimed sub 10-second 0-to-60-mph performance, along with a top speed of 110 mph.. Buyers could choose between a three-speed overdrive manual transmission, or optional three-speed Ford-O-Matic transmission.

The car hugged the ground like the Corvette, but its softly sprung suspension gave a floating ride that mimicked most family sedans.

The first Thunderbird (the name was chosen as a result of an in-house company contest) rolled off the Dearborn assembly plant on Oct. 22, 1954. By launch time, Ford dealers had already presold more than 4,000 of a planned production run of 10,000 units.

For all its style, comfort and performance, the 2,800-pound Thunderbird stickered at $2,750, slightly less than the Corvette. For that princely sum you received a decent-sized trunk, tachometer and a removable fiberglass hardtop. A convertible soft-top was a $70 option.

By the end of the car's first year, Ford had sold in excess of 16,000 units, while Chevrolet managed to move just 700 copies of its under-achieving Corvette.

For 1956, the Thunderbird received some of the "safety" features Ford was touting for its entire lineup, including a passenger-side padded dash, concave steering wheel and optional seat belts. You could also order a 312 V-8 that delivered 215 horsepower with the manual overdrive transmission or 225 horsepower when equipped with a three-speed Ford-O-Matic. The spare tire was mounted to the rear bumper (commonly called a continental kit) to create more trunk room and vent openings were carved into the front fenders to direct cooler outside air into the cabin.

Following complaints of poor rear visibility, the hard top could be ordered with optional side-glass portholes. They did little to solve the problem, but became the Thunderbird's signature design element for the next two years.

Although base prices edged upwards by $250, Ford managed to sell nearly as many T-Birds as in 1955, again clobbering its then V-8 powered Corvette rival. With the variety of luxury equipment offered, it had become possible to shell out $4,000 for the T-Bird of your dreams.

With Ford readying a four-seat replacement, the '57 Thunderbird would be the last of its type. For its final year, the car underwent extensive renovations, including a new front grille and modest tail fins. The spare was moved back inside the trunk, but, instead of laying down, was positioned upright to yield more usable space.

The final first-generation T-Bird, starting-priced at $3,600, offered a wide assortment of power options. Aside from the base 212-horsepower 292, there was a 245-horsepower 312 motor that came with a four-barrel carburetor.

You could also choose one of two high-performance versions of the 312 that came with twin four-barrel carbs and a special cam. Power was rated at 270/285, depending on whether you picked the regular engine setup, or Ford's factory "racing" version.

For all-out maximum thrills, there was the limited edition "F" series Thunderbird that came equipped with a Paxton-McCulloch supercharger. This 300-horsepower version could hit 60 mph in less than seven seconds. The car's original soft-guy image had evolved into that of a hard-core performance machine.

Of the 21,380 Thunderbirds built in 1957, a mere 208 came with the supercharged engine, 13 of which were destined for NASCAR stock-car competition. The remainder went to buyers willing to shell out $500 for this option, a hefty sum at the time.

Sadly, production of the original two-seater 'Bird ended in December of 1957. Since then, the Thunderbird badge has been affixed to a wide assortment of body styles, along with an equally vast array of four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines.

But for the True Believers, the one and only Thunderbird remains the 1955-'57 series.

Ford obviously believed there were enough folks out there sufficiently steeped in the Thunderbird legend to be willing to purchase a modern-day simulation. Consequently, the car was resurrected for 2002, complete with retro styling (including many of the original colors), V-8 power, rear-wheel drive and a plethora of modern-day luxury baubles.

Like the T-Bird of old, this newest interpretation of personal luxury wasn't cheap. And even though 2005 is its last year, the car is a testament to just how popular the 1955-'57 Thunderbird really was, and is to this day.

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