Classic American Cars: Thunderbird
The Thunderbird was produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1955 to 2005 and defined a new automobile category: the personal luxury car. Up until the release of the Thunderbird, car styles were limited to sedans, coupes and station wagons. The Thunderbird was designed to compete with the Chevrolet Corvette sports car that was first introduced in 1953, but ended up defining a whole new class of automobile. Design began in 1953 following the release of the Corvette and the 1955 Ford Thunderbird was introduced to the market in October of 1954.
With the Thunderbird, Ford was able to offer the styling and refinement that, up until then, had only been available with pricey import cars like the Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. But Ford’s offering with the Thunderbird was a less sporty, more luxurious car with American styling. It was a 2-seat, convertible coupe model with Ford design evident in the single lamp headlight and tailfins, but more sleek in style than the typical Ford. And whereas the GM Corvette was produced with a fiberglass body, and in 1955 only offered the V8 as an option, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird had a steel body and V8 engine that was standard. The ’55-‘57 models were 2-seaters, but in 1958 the Thunderbird was redesigned as a four-seater.
The Thunderbird was very well received in its first year and succeeded in outselling the ’55 Corvette by a wide margin (over 16,000 Thunderbirds vs. 700 Corvettes). Because of the car’s success, not many changes were made to it for the ’56 year model. Changes that were made were the availability of new paint colors and “portholes” added to either side of the fiberglass roof for enhanced visibility. The changes for the ’57 included a new front bumper shape, larger front grille and tailfins and larger taillights. Again the car sold very well, but Ford hoped to do even better, so they made considerable changes for the ’58 model, the second generation Thunderbird.
All told, Thunderbird went through twelve different generations. From 1955 through 1976 the car got increasingly larger. The sixth generation Thunderbird (the 1972 model) first released in 1971, was the largest model Thunderbird produced. It was downsized in 1977, still more in 1980 and even more in 1983. In the 1990s, larger 2-door coupes were less popular with the public and sales began to slump. In 1997 Ford stopped Thunderbird production. A 2-seat model Thunderbird was resurrected in 2002 and was manufactured through the end of the 2005 model year. This model played on the original design and appeal of the Thunderbird. It was available as a 2-seat coupe or convertible with modern appeal. Unfortunately, poor sales convinced Ford to halt production, and they currently have no plans to revive the model once more.
Through all the years that the Ford Thunderbird was produced, there were over 4.4 million made. Thunderbird succeeded in establishing a new class of automobile, but was unable to sustain a solid place in the car market. Yet, its classic styling will endure, making the Thunderbird a unique American automobile.