Aug 5, 2012 | Dearborn
Ford Thunderbird History
The Ford Thunderbird nameplate lives on in the hearts of enthusiasts, in the garages of collectors and in the memories of millions.
It started in Paris nearly a half-century ago. Since then, the flight of the Thunderbird has included classic two-seaters, cherished roadsters, convertibles and four-door models, as well as exciting hardtops and sedans -- more than 4 million of them. There has been the "square" look, the "projectile" look, the jet aircraft look and the luxury look. Yet, through the years, through the many changes and near extinction, Thunderbird's uniqueness, individuality and engineering innovations have been retained.
The First Thunderbird
Two men, Louis D. Crusoe and George Walker, were primarily responsible for the birth of the Thunderbird. Both were devoted to the automobile and its constant development and refinement.
Crusoe, a millionaire lured out of retirement by Henry Ford II, was a businessman with a solid "feel" for the automobile market. As a Ford vice president and Ford Division general manager, it was his responsibility to strengthen a young Ford Division . His goal was to give it a car that breathed excitement, a car that would add prestige to the Ford name.
Walker, later a Ford vice president and chief stylist, is described by contemporaries as a "stylist with the soul of an artist burning in his heart."
It was October 1951. With their mission in mind, the two men were walking along the aisles of the Grand Palais in Paris when Crusoe gestured toward one of the sportier automobiles on display, turned to Walker and asked: "Why can't we have something like that?"
"We have a job just like that in the works right now," was Walker's quick response. It was not quite so, until Walker found it convenient to get to a telephone and talk with his aides back in Dearborn. But, by the time Crusoe returned to the United States, there was indeed a "job just like that" in the works.
In the months that followed, there was a lot of talk about a "true Ford sports car." Some preparations were made. "Paper sports cars" took shape in the design studios. All hands had been instructed to go to work on a completely new Ford car for the 1955 model year.
Official approval of a crash program to develop the Ford sports car came in a product letter dated Feb. 9, 1953. In it, May 1, 1953, was set as the target date for a full-size clay model. The letter also authorized parallel work by the engineers on a suitable chassis. The initial guidelines called for a two-passenger, canvas-topped open car that "would make maximum use of standard production components." Design objectives included a weight of 2,525 pounds, an Interceptor V-8 engine, a balanced weight distribution, acceleration better than the competition, and a top speed of more than 100 miles per hour.
The new Ford sports car also was "to retain Ford product characteristics and identification to the extent necessary for a ready association with the standard production car." The Ford Design Studio was given basic styling responsibilities. With no time for scale-model studies and the like, the first sports car styling suggestions were full-profile, full-sized air-brush renderings on paper of five different cars, cut out and mounted so they could be viewed like automobiles on the highway. It was an effective, if unorthodox, technique. None of these proposals led directly to a final car, but each provided ideas for the full-size clay model that was taking shape.
While the clay model was being developed, other decisions were being made:
- The grille design would be a combination of the typically Ford arched upper shape and a Ferrari-style, egg-crate mesh.
- For cost reasons, the new car would use the same taillights and headlamp bezels as the 1955 Ford.
- A handsome hood scoop was executed to cover a bulge that was created to house the air cleaner.
- "Bullet-shaped" insets at the end of the bumpers carried twin exhaust tips, then the latest in styling and, hence, a must for the new Ford.
On May 18, 1953 - 17 days after his deadline - Crusoe saw a complete, painted clay model for the first time. It closely corresponded to the shape of the final first Thunderbird.
Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Bill Burnett had cut a Ford two-door sedan to the 102-inch wheelbase of the sports car in order to test some ideas about problems such as handling and brake balance.
By the summer of 1953, the car was far enough along for a decision to be made about building it. The decision came in September when Crusoe - in Paris to view the renowned sports cars of the world and measure them against the clay models back in Dearborn - decided the Ford car was right.
Although production wouldn't begin until the fall of 1954, making the new car a 1955 model, Ford was anxious to tell the world about it. Only one small detail remained - a name for the car.
There were 5,000 names considered. Hep Cat, Beaver and Detroiter were early, yet undistinguished, front-runners. Also suggested were Runabout, Arcturus, Savile, El Tigre and Coronado.
Crusoe was unimpressed and offered a $250 suit to anyone who could do better. A young Ford stylist, Alden "Gib" Giberson, submitted the name that would quickly earn approval and eventually acclaim - Thunderbird. He thought of the name because he had once lived in the southwest, where the legend of the Thunderbird was well-known.
Chief Stylist Frank Hersey, also a southwesterner and an enthusiast, spotted the name on Giberson's list and picked it for the new car. When it came time for Giberson to claim his prize, the modest young designer passed on what would have been the equivalent of a $800-$1000 suit today and settled for $95 and an extra pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue.
The name Thunderbird comes from the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, where, according to Indian legend, the Thunderbird was a divine helper of man. Its great flapping wings, invisible to the eyes of mortal man, created the winds and the thunder, and gave the Indians water to live on in the dry wilderness where fate had flung them.
With the name settled and a couple of last-minute appearance changes made, the Ford Thunderbird was ready to go to market;
Its first public appearance was Feb. 20, 1954, at Detroit's first post-war auto show.
The first 1955 Thunderbird came off the line at Ford Motor Company's Dearborn (Mich.) Assembly Plant on Sept. 9, 1954.
The press announcement of the new Ford sports car was on Sept. 23, 1954.
Thunderbird went on sale Oct. 22, 1954 - starting a legend that would grow with each new generation of Thunderbird cars.
The 1955 Thunderbird was more of a personal car concept than a sports car, the result of a decision Crusoe made during the winter of 1953-54. The more luxurious direction created the personal luxury car segment of the automotive market, and Thunderbird would enjoy almost uninterrupted leadership in this segment for decades.
The original Thunderbird was a racy two-seater with clean, crisp lines on a 102-inch wheel base. Overall length was 175 inches, height was a low 52 inches, and the car was 70 inches wide. Standard curb weight was 3,180 pounds.
The base sticker price of $2,695, included the removable hardtop, but not the soft top. Clock, tachometer, power-operated seats and a 292 CID V-8 engine also were standard equipment. However, practically none of the early Thunderbirds left the dealership without either overdrive or automatic transmission and most of the power options. Prices of the 1955 models ranged from $3,000 to $4,000.
The car was an immediate smash hit. Buyers of all ages, from all walks of life described the car in terms such as "wonderful," a "masterpiece," "advanced automobile" and a "morale builder that is real fun and sport to drive."
One letter even revealed that, after having viewed a magazine illustration, the admirer instructed an American relative to buy the 1955 Thunderbird and ship it to him in Europe.
The magic of the name and the impact of the car made it a natural merchandising tie-in for manufacturers of a wide range of goods - coats, jackets, shirts, shoes, rugs, furniture and toys, to name a few. Magazines also featured the Thunderbird in promotional campaigns. Some of the more prominent activities included:
The Powercar Company of Connecticut offered a Thunderbird Junior, a mechanically operated scale model car youngsters could drive.
Mechanix Illustrated offered Thunderbird as the first prize in their 1955 Build Words contest.
Cluett-Peabody used the Thunderbird to promote and sell Arrow shirts.
Worsted-Tex marketed Thunderbird-inspired coats, and many other clothiers used the car in promotions.
The public went for the Thunderbird in a big way, placing more than 3,500 orders in the first 10-day selling period. The planning volume for the entire model year was only 10,000 units. Ford had explored an uncharted market for unique transportation and came up with a winner.
Evolution of Thunderbird
With all of its popularity, the flight of the two-seater Thunderbird would be a short one. There were changes almost immediately after the car was introduced. The original design presented some problems. The cockpit needed better ventilation. Rear-quarter vision had to be improved. More trunk space was a necessity.
Design changes on 1956 models corrected these deficiencies. Flip-out side vents provided better ventilation, porthole windows enhanced rear vision and an outside tire carrier added trunk space. In addition, the 1956 Thunderbird featured Ford's new safety concept of "packaging the passengers."
Standard equipment included energy-absorbing instrument panel padding, a concave safety steering wheel, safety door latches and a shatter-resistant mirror. Safety belts were optional.
Last-minute improvements, including the addition of the optional 312 CID V-8 engine, gave the second edition of the Thunderbird better handling and increased performance.
The 1957 Thunderbird was the first to have a fully padded dash surface. It featured optional Dial-O-Matic power seats and a radio that automatically adjusted the volume in proportion to the speed of the engine.
It would be the last of the two-seaters. With production of 1958 models delayed, 1957 Thunderbird production continued for three extra months. The last one rolled off the assembly line December 13, 1957. An era had ended.
The Classic Thunderbirds
Seldom in the history of the automobile industry has a company achieved the success Ford reached in creating the Thunderbird. The car stunned the automotive world and the effect was a lasting one.
It gave to America and the world a handsome car that was entirely in the American idiom -- a practical and enjoyable car for daily transportation and long trips, and a stylish, yet unique sporting machine with excellent performance and intriguing pedigree.
Absolute evidence of the two-seat Thunderbird's impact on the motoring world came just four years after the last one was built when Today Show host Dave Garroway referred to it as "an American classic." Generally, it takes decades for a car to receive such recognition. Vic Take of Clayton, Mo., heard the Garroway comment and took the first steps toward establishing the Thunderbird Club International. He was the club's first president. Today, Thunderbird clubs worldwide boast memberships in the thousands. Thunderbird acolytes long ago exhausted the search in garages, barns and junkyards all over North America and elsewhere for original two-seat T'birds to rebuild and refurbish. The remaining 1955-1957 two-seaters are in the hands collectors and restorers and on the pages of automotive history.
The Square Bird Thunderbird's future for the next four decades belonged to the four-seaters. Certainly, the two-seater had given Ford Division the prestigious car it needed, and sales exceeded planning volumes in each of the three years it was on the market.
But, the economic realities of the times, the public's motoring needs and Ford's market share inhibited the potential of the car. Even as the two-seater was being designed, plans for a four-passenger personal car were on Ford's drawing board.
The decision to build a bigger 'bird was justified by subsequent marketing research that showed, among other things, that:
- Two-seaters were not being purchased by families with children, unless as a second car.
- Seating capacity and price restricted Thunderbird ownership to multi-car, upper income families.
- A four-passenger car would broaden the market to include the upper income single car owner group.
- Significant numbers of two-seater owners were interested in a four-passenger model so long as Thunderbird styling was maintained.
Five percent of all car buyers interviewed said they would purchase a Thunderbird if seating capacity were increased.
Armed with this rationale, Ford Division ushered in the new 1958 year by unveiling the four-passenger Thunderbird before a group of prominent Americans at a New Year's Eve Party at the exclusive Thunderbird Golf Club in Palm Springs, Calif. The public introduction was later in January.
The 1958 Thunderbird retained the classic lines of the original Thunderbird, plus some classic styling touches of its own, including the one-piece grille and bumper and clean contemporary roof lines that would set new styling standards for the industry.
It was on a 113-inch wheelbase - 11 inches longer than the original - and overall length was 205.4 inches, 30.4 inches longer. With an overall height of 52.5 inches, it still had a low-slung, relaxed, reverse wedge stance. Shipping weight was 3,799 pounds.
Another leading feature of the 1958 Thunderbird was unit frame construction, and the car boasted "more room per passenger that any luxury car." Front and rear headroom, according to the press releases, were "within a fraction of an inch of America's other prestige automobiles."
Horsepower also was close to that of the significantly bigger luxury cars. The 1958 Thunderbird engine was a 352 CID V-8 with an h.p. rating of 300. Other 1958 styling features included an anodized aluminum honeycomb-pattern grille, twin headlights deeply browed, with the brow line extending into the hood. A flat roof line dropped off to a novel rear window but retained the characteristic Thunderbird treatment in the rear quarter and twin taillights set over a honeycomb-pattern design.
Inside, there were individual bucket seats, and a console that housed controls for the heater, air conditioner and power windows, as well as a radio speaker and ash trays for front and rear passengers.
Classified as a "semi-luxury" car, the 1958 Thunderbird was square in design, with few concessions to rounded corners, front or aft. It solidly established Ford Division in the luxury car market and was a sensation from the time it was introduced.
The standard two-door hardtop carried a suggested retail price of $3,330, but $5,200 was considered an average delivery price. The car lived up to all of its pre-introduction plaudits, and was named Motor Trend Magazine's "Car of the Year." Sales totaled 48,482, almost matching two-seater deliveries for all of the three years the model was on the market. Ford management's decision to drop the smaller car was almost immediately vindicated.
Fittingly, Thunderbird production, starting with the 1958 model, was moved to the company's Wixom (Mich.) Assembly Plant, where Ford Motor Company's Lincoln luxury cars are built. As with the two-seaters, the bodies were built by the Budd Company in Philadelphia and shipped to Michigan for assembly.
Two models, a hardtop and a convertible, were offered in 1958. The "little Bird's" tachometer and adjustable steering wheel were among the deleted items. Gone too was the semi-sports car ride of the two-seater.
The unitized construction of the 1958 Thunderbird was a forerunner of this type construction in the industry, and the 1960 Thunderbird - last of the "Square Bird" designs - was the first American-built car to offer an optional sunroof.
The 1958-60 "Square Birds" became sought by collectors in ever-growing numbers. Despite the popularity of the two-seaters, "Square Bird" enthusiasts have as strong a following as two-seater worshipers. Certainly, there are more 1958-60 models to collect. Ford produced a total of 198,191 of the convertible and two-door Landau models. The Landau models with sunroofs are especially valuable since only a limited number - less than 500 - were built.
A Three-Year Cycle
In keeping with a three-year planning cycle, Thunderbird styling was again changed in 1961. This time, the now-established Ford Division flagship introduced the "projectile" look, a design featuring full-length body sculpturing and an even thinner roof than previous models.
Standard equipment included automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes, and a unique swing-away steering wheel - ordered by nearly 77 percent of all Thunderbird buyers - was optional.
The "projectile" styling continued through 1963, with the 1962 model offering more than 100 improvements and two exciting new models, a two-seater sports roadster and a vinyl-covered hardtop Landau coupe. Among the improvements:
- A swing-away steering wheel was made standard equipment.
- Lighting and instrument pointer visibility improvements added safety and convenience.
- Under-the-hood and body refinements provided better riding characteristics.
- All critical parts of the muffler were made of stainless steel for longer life.
- A new 30,000-mile disposable fuel filter incorporated 15 improvements, and oil change intervals were extended from 4,000 to 6,000 miles.
- A new factory-installed coolant need changing only once every two years or 6,000 miles, eliminating the need for regular fall and spring cooling system changes.
- A new, larger master brake cylinder reduced pedal effort, but increased braking power, and a new type brake lining - more durable and highly fade-resistant - was introduced.
Some 45 pounds of sound-deadening materials were added under the Thunderbird's hood and to the wheelhouse, dash, instrument panel, passenger and trunk floors, roof panels and rails and quarter panels.
A Cherished Roadster
It's practically impossible to pinpoint the origin of the 1962 sports roadster. It was just "there" when the model year lineup was announced. It was a grand experiment, and the cult of Thunderbird sports roadster collectors quickly grew as the years passed.
It was an unusual car with a molded fiberglass tonneau and padded headrests that transformed the four-seat convertible into a two-seater car.
Special features included wire wheels with chrome-plated spokes and rims, simulated knock-off hub caps and an assist bar for passenger comfort during cornering. Interestingly, the roadster had a special emblem - a gull-like bird, not a Thunderbird - superimposed over a red, white and blue crest that was mounted on the front fenders below the Thunderbird script.
The base roadster retail price was $5,439. Some fully equipped models sold for more than $7,000. After two years and a total production of 1,882, the sports roadster was discontinued.
The 1964 Thunderbird
The 1964 Thunderbird reverted partially to the square design theme. It was more angular than the 1961-63 models, yet not as square as the 1958-60 models. The new styling featured a longer hood, a shorter roof line and sculptured side panels.
With the bumper and grille designed to provide a faster, more aerodynamic look, the overall styling continued Thunderbird's by-now traditional image of "swift-lined sleekness."
Interior design also reflected the space-age styling of the early and mid-1960s. Featured were luxuriously padded, high, thin shell, contoured individual seats, "pistol grip" door handles and a full-width, safety-padded instrument panel. Radio, clock and retractable seat belts also were standard. New options included individual reclining seats and trailer towing equipment. And, insulation and sound-proofing were improved to the point that they were described as "super."
Though the design for the 4,760-pound car was essentially the same as 1964-65 models, the 1966 Thunderbird became a collector's favorite because it is regarded as the best of the four-seaters of the era.
The 1966 edition offered Town Hardtop and Town Landau models with a unique appearance gained from a bold new roof line extending forward into the quarter area of the door windows and without the conventional quarter windows.
Windshield washers and vacuum door locks were added to the standard equipment, and power six-way seats and a power antenna were new options. All Thunderbird convertibles, but especially the 1966 convertibles, are collectors' items. The reasons are obvious: First, they are Thunderbirds, second, they are convertibles.
Ford discontinued the Thunderbird convertible after the 1966 model year. Not counting the two-seaters, 70,234 were produced.
The 1967 Thunderbird
The Thunderbird grew a little more when the 1967 models were designed. The wheelbase for the two-door hardtop was extended to 115 inches (up two inches), overall length was 206.9 inches (1.9 inches more), and passenger capacity was increased to six. The 1967 Thunderbird represented one of the most dramatic styling changes in industry history. It was a jet aircraft-like design featuring a long, thrusting hood and a short rear deck.
The front-end highlight was a crisp lattice-work grille deeply inset and outlined with thin, bright metal moldings on the top and sides. The grille was framed at the bottom by a new deep-sectioned bumper that blended into the sheet metal, and the headlights were concealed by doors at the outboard edges of the grille.
Inside were newly sculptured twin bucket seats, a full-length console, all-vinyl door panels with full-length arm rests trimmed in bright metal, and the all-new Tilt-Away steering wheel - an exceptionally popular Thunderbird comfort/convenience feature.
Also, for the 1967-model year, a four-door model was added. It was discontinued after the 1969-model year. The four-door didn't help sales much - only 70,988 were built during the two years it was on the market - but today they are collectors' cars and are rapidly gaining in value.
The 1970 Thunderbird introduced new styling featuring a long hood treatment and a unique bumper/grille treatment that made the bumper almost invisible.
Other exterior design features included a new extruded-aluminum grille (the "poke-thru nose") flanked by dual headlights. A concealed radio antenna provided a non-cluttered look and eliminated antenna noise. Concealed windshield wipers and cowl air vents provided a clean, "sweeping" line from the hood to the roof, and back-up lights were "concealed" in the center rear panel.
Ultra-luxurious appointments were on the inside. Included were a standard full-width front bench seat with attractive, re-designed head restraints, individual bucket-style seat backs and a fold-down center armrest. Thick padded armrests extended the full-length of the front door panels. Safety innovations included a "Uni-Lock" three-point safety-belt and shoulder harness system.
The power team for the 4,551-pound car was the 429 four-valve V-8 engine and Ford's Select-Shift Cruise-O-Matic transmission.
By 1971, Thunderbird - the name and the car - were so popular that the famed department store, Nieman-Marcus, offered "His and Her" Thunderbirds in their catalog which lists "gifts for the person who has everything" The twin Thunderbirds were equipped with telephones, tape recorders and other special equipment, and carried a price tag of $25,000 for the pair.
A New Generation of Luxury
A new generation of even more luxurious Thunderbirds started with the 1972 model. Only a two-door model was offered. The emphasis was on styling and comfort.
The 1972 Thunderbird was on a 120.4 wheelbase (5.4 inches longer) and overall length was 216 inches. The car weighed 4,596 pounds.
Strikingly handsome and formal in appearance, it achieved new levels of luxury and comfort, even for the Thunderbird. Michelin radial-ply steel-belted tires and bodyside protection molding were standard.
The standard power front disc brakes were re-designed to provide more positive braking and longer brake life than previous systems. The number of parts in the all-new braking system was reduced from 26 to 12 for even greater reliability and quicker service. The Sure-Track Brake Control System was added as optional equipment.
The Epitome of Personal Luxury
The Ford Thunderbird reached its pinnacle as a personal luxury car with the 1975 model. Skipping the traditional three-year styling change for the first time, the 1975 design was basically the same as the previous model, except that the car was longer and heavier. Overall length was 223.9 inches, and the weight was 5,101.
The added length was to accommodate Ford's most powerful engine, the 460 CID V-8, and much of the added weight was accounted for by the addition of air conditioning - and the bigger engine - as standard equipment.
Other standard refinements were concealed windshield wipers, a distinctive opera window, dense-grain vinyl roof, solid-state ignition, power side windows, automatic seat-back release, spare tire lock and white sidewall, steel-belted, radial tires.
Available for the first time were power four-wheel disc brakes, making Thunderbird one of the few American-built cars to offer this safety-enhancing feature. The four-wheel disc brakes were more consistent when hot or wet and stopped the vehicle in shorter distances than conventional front disc/rear drum braking systems. Other options were power mini-vent windows, quick-defrost windshield and rear window and moon roof.
End of an Era
With the exception of three new luxury groups, the 1976 Thunderbird was basically the same as the 1975 version in terms of luxury, convenience, appearance and standard equipment levels.
New as optional equipment were a power lumbar seat and an AM/FM quadrasonic eight-track tape player. The greatest significance of the 1976 Thunderbird was that it marked the end of another Thunderbird era. After this, the flight of the Thunderbird would change directions.
The new direction of the Thunderbird was into the high-volume mid-size specialty car market.
Built on a 114-inch wheelbase, it was a slimmer and sleeker automobile that retained many of the traditional Thunderbird styling touches that millions of owners and admirers had come to know.
The appearance of the 1977 Thunderbird was spotlighted by a unique wrapover roof treatment, featuring beveled glass opera windows in the center pillars. Other distinctive features included a chrome-plated grille, hidden headlamps and "wall-to-wall" taillamps.
Mid-Size Market Niche
The early 1980s saw a completely different direction for Thunderbird - it was smaller, more angular in styling and targeted to a more conservative, fuel-economy concious customer. Not destined to be a favorite of collectors, it was not long for the cycle-plan.
In 1983, Ford took Thunderbird into a new design phase introducing the "aero-style" Thunderbird that would lead Ford Motor Company and the industry in a new direction. The bold styling would next find its way into the car that changed the industry for years to come beginning in 1986 - the Ford Taurus.
Thunderbird was all-new from the ground up in 1989, featuring an exterior design destined to further reshape the aero-styling trends of the '80s. It was a leader in technology transfer from racing to production and was among the first vehicles outfitted with Ford's next generation electronic engine control module developed by Ford's Formula One racing program.
Thunderbird first appeared in NASCAR in 1959 winning six races in the top division. The mid-sized Thunderbird is one of the most successful cars in racing history, attracting a legion of fans to Ford. The restyled Thunderbird burst onto the NASCAR circuit in 1982, and went on to win more than 150 races in NASCAR's top division, including four victories in the Daytona 500.
Closing the Books...Temporarily
But as the 20th century grew to a close, customer's tastes again shifted away from Thunderbird, as they had in the late 1950s. Continuing sales declines led Ford to announce the 1997 model would be the last - for a time.
Ford soon announced that although the old platform was going away, the Thunderbird nameplate would see a bright future in a very familiar form.
A new two-seat Thunderbird concept car was unveiled at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The sunmist-yellow roadster included key styling cues from its classic 1955-1957 forebears. The concept car is a design exercise intended to revitalize excitement in the car market and gauge consumer reaction. The car was wildly popular with showgoers. Two years later, Ford announced Thunderbird's return and unveiled a production version of the concept at the 2001 Detroit show.
The 2002 Thunderbird came to market in the summer of 2001 as a limited niche production model aimed at 20-25,000 units of annual production. It won critical acclaim for its modern interpretation of the classic original roadster styling and was named Motor Trend Magazine's "Car of the Year."
Thunderbird received improvements in the 2003 model year including an upgraded 280-horsepower V-8. In 2005, Ford marked the 50th anniversary of the Thunderbird with a special edition package including a nameplate commemorating the occasion.
On March 10, 2005, Ford announced that the Thunderbird would be discontinued after the 2005 model year and the nameplate would go back into hiatus.