History of the Ford Thunderbird | Thunderbird Guide
The Ford Thunderbird has a long history, dating back to 1955 when the first generation was released. Since the first generation, there have been 11 generations in total. This automobile has a convertible style and was designed not to be a sports car but a luxury vehicle. With each new generation came new adjustments to different aspects of the T-Bird, like the speed, engines, body shape and more.
This article breaks down each of the generations from the first through the 11th, all the way from the early generations to the newest ones. Buckle in and take a trip through the Thunderbird's rich history.
Early Generations (1st through 4th)
The Thunderbird was created as Ford's answer to Chevrolet's Corvette. Henry Ford II reached out to Lewis Crusoe, a former General Motors (GM) executive, to help him develop a new car to make a swift response to Chevrolet. Crusoe worked with Ford's chief designer, Frank Hershey, to create the Thunderbird. Hershey was the one who thought to design the new car with a sports car platform.
He based it on his favorite vehicle, the Jaguar XK120, which is why the Thunderbird features a similar interior seating position, steering wheel angle and pedal angles. Crusoe was impressed by the painted clay model Hershey developed and got Henry's approval for the first design. Ford stylist Alden Giberson gave Thunderbird its recognizable name — the name came to him while he was drinking coffee in a cup with a two-headed bird on it.
Ford revealed the Thunderbird to the public at the Detroit Auto Show in 1954. Once the car was shown to the public, over 3,500 orders came in within the first 10 days of the car's unveiling. The Thunderbird proved to be more successful than its rival, the Corvette, and the marketing made the difference. The Corvette was promoted as a sports car, while the Thunderbird was advertised as a personal luxury car.
1. 1955 — The First Generation
After the original release, Ford upgraded the two-seat Thunderbird in 1956 as it updated a number of the 1955 models. Today, people would refer to this as a mild facelift. While the vehicle was sportier than the 1953 Corvette, Ford preferred to avoid calling the Thunderbird a "sports car" and instead opted for "personal car." It featured a V8 beneath the hood and a three-speed manual gearbox. A removable hard-top placed a blind spot in the back of the car, prompting Ford to add circular windows to the 1956 model's side panels.
Moving the spare wheel in a chromed cradle on the rear bumper behind the trunk also led to somewhat improved handling and weight distribution. Unlike the "Vette," the Thunderbird could match the European cars' speed.
Inside the Thunderbird was a bench that resembled two bucket seats and held two passengers. Critics criticized the large steering wheel for sitting too near to the driver's chest, but the public didn't care — the Thunderbird was a huge success. The 1956 model also featured an engine that was more powerful than the one from 1955. However, Ford unexpectedly sold more Thunderbirds in 1955 than in 1956, even though the 1955 model didn't have a full calendar year of sales. Customers were already asking for a four-seater, which wasn't yet ready at the time.
The 1957 T-Bird
Ford upgraded the vehicle in 1957, which worked to increase sales. This new Thunderbird model was revised in many areas. Ford placed the bumper underneath the grille and removed the 1955 model's chromed components from this new version. Fin-tails decorated the rear quarter panels, a common feature on luxury automobiles. The interior boasted a new dashboard that covered all panels, which provided protection for the stereo and panel buttons.
Ford also implemented new round dials on an aluminum interior panel and kept the vehicle's gear lever on the floor. The two engine choices were the same as the 1955 automobile, with slight upgrades. The supercharger boosted the power up to 340 horsepower, resulting in an uncharacteristically speedy luxury car. Until the Ford EXP in 1982, the 1957 Thunderbird was the last two-seater vehicle Ford manufactured.
The 1958 Upgrade
Things were changing by the end of the 1950s. People wanted more luxurious cars with distinctive exterior designs, including the 1958 Thunderbird. Robert McNamara, president of Ford Motor Company, anticipated customer needs and wishes by being the first to study trends. Because of this, he realized that adding a back seat would increase the vehicle's appeal and practicality and double sales overnight.
The 1958 Thunderbird's chrome accenting was a note of luxury at the time. This vehicle had a loose square styling with a hood scoop and a V8 engine, with four-barrel carburetors and a dual exhaust, cranking out 300 horsepower with a 3-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission. The Thunderbird looked ahead of its time with front bucket seats and stylish rear seats, featuring round simple gauges with chrome details and power windows.
Modifications to the 1959 Model
Ford made additional changes to the T-Bird in 1959. They also began marketing the vehicle to women by creating advertisements of it at country clubs and other luxurious locations.
The 1959 model got a new look on its front side, with the chromed grille underneath the bumper and two new rubber protectors. The convertible model's rag-top could be easily opened and hidden underneath the trunk with one button push. The rear taillights became wider, and the interior was again improved upon.
A new full-length console divided the front seats, and like the 1958 version, this model had a flat bench. Ford also upgraded their offerings by selling T-Birds with a new choice of engine — a 430 ci (7-liter) engine, which provided 345 horsepower and was coupled with a Borg-Warner 3-speed automatic gearbox.
2. 1960 — The Second Generation
The second generation of the Thunderbird came at an opportune time — fighter jets had begun impacting car design. Many people referred to the 1960 Thunderbird as the Square-Bird. It was sold for three years between 1958 and 1960 and showed notable success among the public.
The 1960 model was spacious and emphasized comfort, keeping it in the personal luxury car segment. It had a headlight casing resembling an eagle eye, and a large chrome bumper took up most of the front, stretching out to either side. The fighter-jet inspiration was most notable in the 1960 Thunderbird in the design of the curved windshield and sidelines, and fins on the trunk were modeled after plane winglets. Each set of rear vehicle lights was incorporated into a thruster-like panel.
The car could now fit four adults inside with its four individual seats, and four of its windows were operated by manual crank. On the dash-panel were three large dials with no tachometer. The Ford Thunderbird successfully found its niche market — those who didn't want to race the cars but enjoyed the drive.
Under the hood, Ford installed a choice of two V8 engines. The smaller offered a 5.8-liter displacement rated at 300 hp, while the other was a 7.0-liter V8 rated at 350 hp. Both versions paired with a standard 3-speed manual, but a 3-speed automatic was on the options list.
3. 1961 — The Third Generation
The third generation of the Thunderbird came with a completely new design approach. It still remained a personal luxury vehicle, but it was sleeker and had either a hardtop or a soft top. The 1961 T-Bird was unveiled in 1960 and looked like it could cut through the air, even though Ford didn't want the vehicle to be considered a sports car.
The 1961 model had a narrow front end, a raked-forward lower grille, a curved hood, a steep windshield — which was the only part of the car that raised above the waistline when the rag-top was down — and a slightly sloped bodywork. It also resembled a jet fighter. The interior sat four passengers with two bucket seats in the front and a bench in the back. Additionally, there was a 6.4-liter engine paired with an automatic transmission installed under the hood.
Ford sold more than 200,000 units of the 1961 Thunderbird in both shapes, and more than 10% were convertibles.
4. 1964 — The Fourth Generation
The fourth generation of the Thunderbird no longer had its previous sporty image and instead became a personal luxury coupe. At this point, the T-Bird was already well-known and respected both on the streets and among car culture enthusiasts. It made the Corvette look foolish while offering a higher level of comfort, but with this new generation, Ford made it clear that the Thunderbird was not to compete with the Corvette.
This model was a four-seat coupe that was longer than many four-door sedans because Ford focused on image, comfort and performance. The T-Bird had a long, wide and flat hood that extended over the front dual-headlamps. The headlights mimicked eagle eyes, and the raked-forward grille created a dynamic image instead of a sporty one. The fourth generation was offered as either a hardtop coupe or a convertible with an electric opening mechanism. Under the hood was a 6.4-liter engine that provided 300 hp.
The dashboard featured an extended lip on its upper side. The speedometer was wide and took the top side of the instrument panel, leaving the other four gauges to line up underneath it. With the wide and wood-trimmed center console, the T-Bird offered a luxurious image that was hard to beat by most of its competitors. Because of this, Ford sold it in over 200,000 units in less than three years.
Middle Generations (5th through 8th)
Middle generations of the Thunderbird marked a new era of innovation for Ford. Below, take a closer look at how their design changed over the next decade.
5. 1967 — The Fifth Generation
The fifth generation of the Ford Thunderbird was produced from 1967 to 1971. This era saw the second major change in the direction of the T-Bird. The introduction of the Ford Mustang in early 1964 challenged the Thunderbird's market positioning since it was also a small two-door four-seater. Because of this, the T-Bird had to become more desirable in the market, and it was also offered in four-door models.
6. 1972 — The Sixth Generation
The sixth generation of the Ford Thunderbird, which was also the largest, significantly impacted the American car industry because of its sheer size and enormous engines. However, the oil crisis in 1973 prevented that from showing in the resulting sales.
The Muscle-Car era was moving toward its end in 1972, even if people hadn't known at the time. Carmakers built their cars with large engines tuned for shallow power for their engine displacements. The Thunderbird had two sets of round headlights in the front and a pinned-out grille in between so that it resembled a battleship on wheels. It also had a long hood to cover one of the largest V8 engines ever placed in a Ford that featured a raised center part and a profiled surface.
The car resembled a faux-cabriolet from the sides. Inside, it featured automatic climate control, leather seats, a mini AM-FM stereo, 6-way power front seats and a sunroof. Drivers could choose between two engines: a 7- or a 7.5-liter model.
7. 1977 — The Seventh Generation
Produced from 1977 to 1979, the seventh generation of the Ford Thunderbird was repackaged from a full-size car to a large intermediate vehicle. It served as the replacement for the Ford Elite. It had a square, sharp styling that was popular at the time, and it became one of the best-selling models in the history of the Thunderbird. Over 318,000 were sold in 1977, followed by 352,000 in 1978 and 295,000 in 1979.
8. 1980 — The Eighth Generation
Presented in 1980, the eighth generation Thunderbird was produced for two years and was a mid-size segment, unlike previous generations with full-size segments. Its dimensions were of unibody construction, and it had a 10% size reduction. The Thunderbird had the same chassis as the Lincoln Continental and contemporary Mercury Cougar XR7.
The car's braking system included rear drum brakes and front disc brakes, and it offered a 4.2-liter V8 engine and a 5.0-liter V8 as options — a 4-speed automatic gearbox was paired with both. Later in 1980, another 6-cylinder engine was also offered.
Newest Generations (9th through 11th)
Go down a trip of memory lane with the Thunderbird's newest generations — currently gone, but not forgotten.
9. 1983 — The Ninth Generation
The ninth generation was built on the same Fox-body platform used for the Mercury Cougar, Ford LTD and Lincoln Continental. Ford was worried about overlapping with the Mustang and made the Thunderbird too slow in trying to prevent that, despite its sleek design. Because of this, this automobile didn't make it into the top sales charts.
It had a long hood and a short trunk for a dynamic look, with a raked windshield, sloped rear windscreen and big horizontal headlights. From the sides, the small windows behind the doors brought more light inside the cabin. The front bucket seats were once again designed for comfort. To fit the personal-luxury style, Ford installed wood trims on the dash panel, doors and center console.
The car had an auto-reverse stereo-cassette player placed lower than the air-conditioning control unit. The engines offered were a 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, a 3.8-liter V6 and a 5.0-liter V8. The V-units were paired as standard to a 3-speed automatic transmission, while the turbocharged unit was mated to a 5-speed manual.
10. 1989 — The Tenth Generation
Ford designed its 10th generation Thunderbird to compete with the most exceptional luxury German coupes on the market. Controversies within the Ford Motor Company over the car lead the man responsible for the project, Anthony Kutcha, to retire. The Thunderbird had surpassed its weight and target price, and it and didn't get adequate sales. From its looks, it was considered a competitor for the BMW 6-series.
It was a 4-seat coupe with slim, horizontal headlights and a Thunderbird badge on the hood. There was a grille on the bumper's lower side with two air intakes beneath the hood to keep the engine at a cool temperature. The rear wheels sat behind the C-pillar, which was unusual for the time and made the car appear more advanced than its competitors. However, the sport seats' high, adjustable bolsters weren't as visually appealing.
The back of the 1989 model had enough space to seat two adult passengers, and Ford offered a choice of V8 and V6 engines.
11. 2001 — The Eleventh Generation
The goal of the 2001 Thunderbird was to invoke nostalgia in customers with its retro design and modern features, but this strategy didn't go as planned. It launched in 1999, based on the same platform as the Jaguar XF and Lincoln LS. When the Thunderbird was first unveiled, the market was enthusiastic for the 11th generation, but this excitement didn't last long. Sales were slow and production ended in 2005.
The design was inspired by the first generation of the T-Bird with its big, round headlights, flat, chromed grille with square-grid mesh and sloped silhouette. It modernized the old style and featured two seats at the front and a bench in the back, all leather-wrapped. Ford gave only one engine option for this car — a 3.9-liter V8 paired with a standard 5-speed automatic transmission.
Ford tried for several years to find materials to best suit the car's interior, and in the end, the company settled for the same as most of its other vehicles.
Now that you know about all the Ford Thunderbird generations, you may still be wondering about the specifics of this model. Get more information here:
Who Were the Creators of the Ford Thunderbird?
Henry Ford II reached out to Lewis Crusoe, a former GM executive, to help him develop a new car to make a swift response to Chevrolet. Crusoe worked with Ford's chief designer Frank Hershey to create the Thunderbird.
Is the Thunderbird a Sporty or Personal car?
While occasionally sporty in design, the Thunderbird was never marketed as a sports car. It was designed as a personal luxury vehicle.
Was the Thunderbird Inspired By the Corvette?
In response to the Chevrolet Corvette that was displayed in the 1954 New York Auto Show, the Thunderbird was designed to be a luxury car. The Corvette was advertised as a sports car.
What Is the Most Sought-After Thunderbird?
The first generation of the Ford Thunderbird is the most desirable. It was produced from 1955 to 1957 and was the only T-Bird offered as a two-seater.
Are Ford Thunderbirds Rare?
Yes, and M-Code V8 Thunderbirds are exceptionally rare. Only about 100 were sold between 1962 and 1963.
What Was the Best Year for the Ford Thunderbird?
The 1958 Ford Thunderbird became one of the best-selling models of its time, with 37,892 units produced and sold, more than doubling the previous year.
Contact Volo Museum Auto Sales Today
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