Few American classics still turn heads like Ford’s flashy two-seater, a time machine that simply refuses to fade away.
Unforgettable is simply not a big enough word to describe Ford’s first Thunderbird, built with two seats only from 1955 to 1957. Even people who couldn’t care less about cars will more often than not stop and smile when an “Early Bird” glides into view. That long, prestigious hood and cute little rear deck. Those classic portholes and Continental kit added in 1956. The pair of polite, trendy fins that sprouted out back in 1957. It would be hard to find anyone of a certain age who doesn’t recognize this timeless face.
Cruisin’ down memory lane
Baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet? Get outta town! Nostalgic icons don’t come much more patriotic than Ford’s original T-bird, which a halfcentury back may well have captured the very essence of what makes a great American car a great American car. “Named after a legend, it may create one of its own,” predicted a January 1955 Motor Life report. Was this prophecy or understatement? According to a 1992 USA Today poll, the ’57 Thunderbird ranked as “America’s Favorite Classic Car.” Whether it remains so today typically represents a matter of opinion.
“People of a certain age probably remember the original T-bird well,” says West Peterson, editor of Antique Automobile, the bimonthly magazine of the Antique Automobile Club of America (aaca.org). “But I’d have to say that, among non-car enthusiasts in their 20s, it’s 50-50 whether they would know it at a glance. I’d say a vintage VW Beetle is more easily recognized casually among them.”
James Hack, managing director of the Classic Thunderbird Club International (CTCI), based in Signal Hill, California, adds, “The ’57 Chevy is probably more notable from a casual perspective today, but most likely because they made more of them. You also don’t see many T-birds running around the streets anymore, not like ’57 Chevys, Mustangs and so on.”
According to David Tulowitzky, of the CTCI’s Trail Birds of Southwest Florida chapter, at best the ’57 Chevy is “probably equal” to the ’57 T-bird right now as far as general popularity is concerned. “There might have been other popular collector cars that have popped up in recent years, but I don’t know of any other model that has surpassed the T-bird. Today muscle cars are drawing more and more attention as a whole, but there isn’t one particular model that stands out as much as the early T-bird, certainly among casual observers.”
Both Hack and Tulowitzky agree that relative rarity and an initial short shelf life helped heighten the two-seat T-bird’s appeal.
“They were unique in their time,” adds Tulowitzky. “The Corvettes were too, but Chevrolet kept building them and building them better. These days, Corvettes of the ’50s don’t draw as much attention. Had they only built them for three years, it probably would be different now.”
Echoes Hack about the early T-bird: “For three years there was nothing like them. They retained a lot of character and haven’t been modeled again since.”
Or at least not until Ford itself took a shot at reviving some of that character in 2002 with a reborn two-seater, a retro-styled plaything that stuck around through 2005 before disappointing sales sent it packing.
“I liked the reborn Bird, and we considered buying one,” says Tulowitzky. “But it came out just before the new Mustang did, and lot of us in the club felt they could’ve done more to make the new T-bird look like the ’55, much like they’d made the new Mustang look like the old ones.”
Tulowitzky bought his first two-seat Thunderbird, a ’57, in 1972, and still proudly shows it off today. He has also owned a few ’56 T-birds over the years, basically because his wife has always favored that model. “Women do love the Thunderbird,” he chuckles, while identifying an important voter base that in his opinion surely has aided his favorite car over the years in any and all popularity contests.
This car’s a star
Hooking up with various media outlets during the ’60s and ’70s also didn’t hurt its popularity. Once honored in song as well as on the silver screen, the Thunderbird legend took on a transcendental scope, enticing many among the masses who otherwise might not have considered it possible for an automobile to be a pop icon.
Icons themselves, Southern California’s Beach Boys first turned to Dearborn’s two-seater for lyrical inspiration in 1963. When songwriter Brian Wilson needed a measuring stick to demonstrate the rubber-burning prowess of a ’32 Ford hot rod, he chose the coolest car he knew. “Just a little Deuce Coupe with a flathead mill,” crooned the Wilson brothers and friends, “but she’ll walk a Thunderbird like it’s standing still.” Who cared that he certainly could’ve chosen hotter Detroit iron? Beach Boys fans didn’t, nor did they probably “know what I got.” Most never set foot on a surfboard, either.
What surf music followers did know was how to have a blast, at least until “Daddy took the T-bird away,” or so claimed Fun, Fun, Fun, the 1964 Beach Boys hit that more accurately reflected the Thunderbird’s place in the cool world. While a real factory hot rod it wasn’t, Ford’s original T-bird did pack loads of status, prestige and pizzazz, making it the perfect rich man’s toy and the perfect gift for his best girl, be she daughter, wife or mistress.
This classy chassis image also proved perfect for both movies and television. A red two-seat T-bird fit Robert Urich like a glove for his role as detective Dan Tanna in ABC’s Vega$, aired from 1978 to 1981. Sexy assistants, life-in-the-fast-lane Las Vegas nights, and a too-cool-for-school ride – what else could a man want? In Curt Henderson’s case, the answer to that question sat behind the wheel of a ’56 Thunderbird.
Easily the most renowned starring role for a T-bird came in George Lucas’ 1973 hit movie American Graffiti when Henderson, played by Richard Dreyfuss, stumbles upon the perceived love of his life, Suzanne Somers, while cruising the strip the night before he is to fly off east to college.
“The most perfect, dazzling creature I’ve ever seen,” continues to taunt Henderson from her virgin white ’56 right up to movie’s end. Whether she was the young trophy wife of a wealthy jeweler or a high-priced call girl mattered not at all. “I just saw a vision, I saw a goddess,” was Curt’s claim. But would he have been equally dazzled had Somers been riding in the back of a four-door 1958 Edsel, like he was?
Two’s company Talk around Dearborn of a sporty two-seater dated as far back as 1951, but it wasn’t until Chevrolet rolled out one of its own that Ford people actually got serious about building a counterpart. Henry Ford II’s guys got their first look at Chevy’s new fiberglass-bodied Corvette at General Motors’ Motorama in New York in January 1953. About a month later, the order was given to create a comparable machine, and Ford general manager Lewis Crusoe’s team wasted little time executing it.
Chief engineer William Burnett oversaw mechanicals, while William Boyer, working under the influence of legendary designer Frank Hershey, handled the bulk of the styling direction. A completed wooden mockup was ready by February 1954. As for a name, that came about after a corporation-wide contest was held offering $250 to any employee who best honored the new breed. Stylist Alden “Gib” Gilberson won the contest. Gilberson turned to familiar Native American mythology for inspiration.
Motor Trend'’s Don MacDonald was, in the spring of 1954, among the first to announce the upcoming arrival of something truly new on the Detroit scene — truly new because Ford appeared ready to not only meet Chevrolet’s challenge but to do it one better. Like MacDonald, nearly all who saw the Thunderbird mockup recognized that about the only aspects directly copied from the Corvette were its topless body, two-passenger seating and short, 102-inch wheelbase. MacDonald’s one-page April 1954 MT report, entitled “Thunderin’ Thunderbird,” explained that Crusoe had insisted that his designers stick with a metal body, not fiberglass, to keep manufacturing difficulties down while speeding production up. Ford clearly intended to build T-birds faster, and thus more plentifully, than Chevrolet could mold up its Corvettes.
The idea also wasn’t just to produce more cars, it was to produce more car. “Perhaps the outstanding feature of the new Thunderbird is the clever wedding of sports car functionalism with American standards of comfort,” wrote MacDonald. Unlike the early Corvette, the T-bird right out of the blocks would feature roll-up windows, an available removable hardtop and standard V-8 power. Public sales of the soon-to-be legendary Thunderbird began on October 22, 1954. Production had started September 9 with sights set on building 10,000 examples that first year. The final tally was 16,155. After a slight dip in 1956, production of the last, and in most minds the best, two-seat T-bird reached 21,380.
By any other name
Almost everyone who set eyes on Ford’s first Thunderbird called it a sports car – this even though Ford from the get-go preferred a more appropriate classification: “personal car.” That label soon evolved into “personal luxury” as the T-bird’s true colors began to show more brightly. Indeed, most press reviews instantly acknowledged that the Thunderbird was obviously more comfortable, convenient and classy than Chevy’s relatively crude fiberglass two-seater. Yet critics still couldn’t resist painting the relatively plush, V-8-powered two-seat Bird as a sporty Corvette rival with ample competition potential.
Such strokes gained strength after Ford announced optional dual carburetors for the Thunderbird’s 312-cu.in. Y-block V-8 late in 1956. Identified as the “E-code” engine, this meaty mill was making 270 horsepower in 1957; 285 with the optional “NASCAR kit” cam. An even hotter F-code 312 Y-block, this one topped by a McCulloch supercharger, appeared briefly in 1957 to push the available output ante up to 300 horsepower; 340 with the solid-lifter NASCAR cam. Both the E- and F-code models remain among the hottest selling Thunderbirds today, with one of the supercharged versions recently going for $115,000 at a Russo and Steele auction.
Perhaps the biggest bucks ever brought by a T-bird was the $660,000 Barrett-Jackson hammered out last year for the first model Ford assembled back in September 1954, a black 1955 formerly owned by the late George Watts. “As one of the most iconic American sports cars ever built, the Thunderbird will always have a strong following and demand solid prices at auction,” says Barrett-Jackson president Steve Davis. “What makes the Thunderbird so collectible is its versatility. You can search for a rare, pristine example like the first production ’55 we sold in Scottsdale in 2009, or find an entry level model for a reasonable price. The Thunderbird also is a great platform for customization, which has attracted a new generation of fans to the historic car.”
Sporty convertible or mini-luxo-cruiser: Whatever the case, Ford’s original two-seat Thunderbird is still soaring high 55 years after its birth.
To read more about the world of T-birds, including the car’s racing history and its last hurrah when the “new” two-seater debuted in 2002, visit hagerty.com/thunderbird.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.