While Ford mostly played down the two-seat T-bird's sporting nature early on, hot-blooded owners couldn't overlook the performance potential of such a little car fitted with such a big, powerful V-8. As early as February 1955, Thunderbirds started showing up at sports car racing events like the 12-hour endurance classic at Sebring, Fla., where one finished 37th.
A year later, racer Chuck Daigh dropped a bored-out V-8 into a streamlined Thunderbird and took it to Daytona Beach's annual Speed Weeks trials to combat a Corvette team spearheaded by Zora Arkus-Duntov. Daigh's T-bird initially ran faster than Duntov's Vette before both men's cars were disqualified for using engines bored out too far. Daigh then returned to the beach with a stock-spec 312 V-8 fed by dual four-barrel carbs and recorded an 88.779-mph average for the standing-mile.
A truly thunderous four-car T-bird team, specially prepped by DePaolo Engineering in Long Beach, California, went back to Daytona in February 1957, this time with full, unabashed factory backing from Dearborn. Two cars were kept relatively stock in appearance, though they were powered by stroked versions of Ford's optional superchaged Y-block V-8. Known as "Battlebirds," the other two were treated to major modifications inside and out. One was fitted with a big, stroked 430-cubic-inch Lincoln V-8; the other was powered by a 312-cube Y-block stroked to 348 cubes.
While the Lincoln-powered version was later destroyed, its #98 running mate was restored in the early '90s by classic Thunderbird expert Gil Baumgartner for Ford performance collector Bo Cheadle. Looking every bit as wild as it did when it was kicking up sand in February 1957, Cheadle's seriously streamlined Battlebird features a Hilborn-injected Y-block, a Jaguar four-speed gearbox and a Halibrand quick-change rear-end.
Daigh drove the #98 car at Daytona in 1957 and managed an amazing 205-mph flying mile. But he couldn't make the mandatory return pass due to engine trouble, leaving the other Battlebird to cop the official flying-mile title, averaging 160.356 for its two-way run.
At that point the sky appeared to be the limit for Ford's highest-flying Thunderbirds. But then came the Automobile Manufacturers Association's "ban" on factory racing involvement, a decree that in the summer of 1957 convinced Ford chief Robert McNamara to put the kibosh on experimental engineering shenanigans like the Battlebirds.