If there was an American car which stood in a class of it’s own, it would have to be the Thunderbird, which was produced by Ford Motor Company from 1955 to 1997.
Sure, the Thunderbird lacked the finesse of most European automobiles, the performance of sports cars like the Corvette or Mustang, or the cargo and passenger hold of a full-size sedan, but it had a unique quality of it’s own. What other car out there has gone from a length of 175 inches to a whopping 214? What other car has been designed initially to be a sports car, then as a family 2-door sedan, then as a grandiose luxo-cruiser, and last as a “personal/luxury” car? Not too many, except of course, the Ford Thunderbird.
The idea behind the Thunderbird was conceived as a result of American troops touring the European nations (in the process observing many of their sports cars) during WWII. After the war, when U.S. auto manufacturers rolled out old 1942 models simply to put cars back on the market, Ford designers huddled together to start creating new cars. Up to 1953, there were no popular American sports cars, until the Chevrolet Corvette was unveiled in January 1953. (Gunnell 6-9)
Ford executives panicked as they realized that they had no sports car of their own to compete with the Corvette. In February 1953, FoMoCo initiated a project to quickly build a sports car. The car would have a V-8 engine and styled to be instantly recognized as a Ford car. The prototype was nothing more than a Ford sedan which had been cut and welded to fit a 102-inch wheel base. At the time, the project car was called “Burnetti” after William Burnett, the Ford Division chief engineer, but later it would be named the “Thunderbird”. Other names like the “Fairlane” or “Savile” were suggested in a contest which Ford held in order to find a name for it’s new sports car. (Gunnell 10)
The name “Thunderbird” was submitted by a stylist, Alden “Gib” Giberson, who had lived in the southwest. In Indian legend, the Thunderbird symbolized power, swiftness, and prosperity. It was considered a helper of man because by flapping it’s wings it was believed to cause thunder and lightning, and bring rain to the parched fields. The “Thunderbird” name became official on February 15, 1954. (Lichty 90)
On October 22, 1954, the first production Thunderbird was rolled out of the factory. It’s base price was $2,695, only five dollars less than the 1955 Chevy Corvette, the T-Bird’s primary competitor. However, compared to the Corvette’s 1955 sales of 700 cars, 16,155 Thunderbirds were sold in 1955, far above Ford’s initial sales projections. The Thunderbird had become Ford’s flagship. In advertisements for the Fairlane, Mainline, and Customline, comments were made saying “There’s a touch of Thunderbird in every Ford.” (Gunnell 10-12)
The 2-seater 1955 Ford Thunderbird came standardly equipped with the new 292 V-8 which could deliver up to 193 horsepower. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but the Ford-O-Matic transmission was optional. All Thunderbirds were convertible that year, with either the rayon soft-top or the removable fiberglass hardtop. (Lichty 192-193)
In 1956 and 1957, no major changes were made for the Thunderbird. Seatbelts were first offered on the Thunderbird, as well as any Ford car in 1956, and a small opera window was added to the removable hardtop. The next year, the Thunderbird received the unique “bird” emblem which replaced the former checkered-flag (similar to the Corvette logo) on the nose of each car. The spare tire was installed inside the trunk as opposed to latched on the rear bumper, and fins now appeared on the rear fenders. (Lichty 195)
On January 13, 1958, the first four-passenger Thunderbird was introduced, which was also available in a non-convertible hardtop form. They measured a foot and a half longer and weighted half a ton more than their 1957 predecessors. The new Thunderbirds were designed very angular and squarish, thus giving the nickname of “Square Birds”. The number of headlights and taillights were increased from two to four. The standard engine was 352 V-8 which cranked out 300 horsepower. (Gunnell 52-59)
The reason behind the change from a two-seater sports car to a four-seater came from the drop in U.S. sports car sales. Ford predicted that the Thunderbird would sell better with four-seats and would appease drivers with families. The gamble worked, and Ford sold 35,698 Thunderbirds in 1958 – almost twice as much as the number of T-Birds sold a year earlier. The next year, Ford would sell 67,090 T-Birds and an additional 80,376 in 1960.(Gunnell 52, 241)
“The 1961 Thunderbirds were totally new cars. They longer, lower, wider and heavier than the previous years. Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, and the new 390 cubic inch V-8 engine were standard equipment on all Thunderbirds for 1961.” That year, the Thunderbird retained it’s basic function as a four-seater sports sedan, but became a much better looking car. The sides were flattened and cleaned up, with the Thunderbird script removed from the rear fenders. The hood and bottom grill somewhat sandwiched the headlights, giving the car the face of a crab. The taillights returned once again to the former rocket booster look from the earlier ’55 – ’57 models. (Lichty 202)
A unique option for the Thunderbird in 1961 was the “Swing-Away” steering wheel which could be adjusted to tilt to the left in order to give the driver more room to enter and exit the car. In 1962, there were two additions to the model line-up: the Landau, which was a T-Bird hardtop with a vinyl roof, and the Sports Roadster, which was a convertible Thunderbird with a fiberglass cover for the back seats. Only 455 Sports Roadsters were made in 1962, making it a rare collectible. 1963 Thunderbirds were virtually identical except for a striped crease on the doors and front fenders. (Gunnell 90-96)
The 1964 Thunderbirds were also completely restyled and featured longer hoods and shorter roof lines than previous offerings. The side panels were highly sculptured. They had mirror-image feature lines at the belt line and lower body side. The front end was more aggressive and featured a larger power dome (scoop) on the hood. The headlights were spaced farther apart than in previous years. The rear of the 1964 T-Bird featured rectangular taillights set within a massive bumper. (Lichty 209)
The most important change for the Thunderbird in 1964 was not it’s exterior but it’s interior. The dashboard wrapped around the driver and was nicknamed the “Flight-Deck” by Ford. The only changes made in the year to come were the addition of disk brakes, sequential turn signals, and simulated chrome side-scoops to the front quarter panels. The Sports Roadster was no longer produced after 1965, but buyers could still purchase the Sports Roadster tonneaus as an aftermarket accessory. (Gunnell 102-108)
In 1966, the Thunderbird’s image changed drastically when the former horizontally-barred grille was replaced with an egg-crate backing which supported a large “Thunderbird” wingspan. The side-scoops of 1965 were eliminated along with the previous hood lips. A new engine was made optional, a 428 V-8 which could produce 345 horsepower. One sad note is that 1966 was the last year that a convertible Thunderbird would be produced. (114-118)
“The 1967 Thunderbirds were totally restyled once again. The front end featured a full-width grille with hidden headlights and a large Thunderbird emblem floating in the center of the grille. As in 1966, the rear end featured a large, single taillight lens with a horizontal trim strip in the center. For the first time in the Thunderbird’s history, a four-door sedan, called the “Landau Sedan” was offered. This Landau was different than the sedans in that the rear doors opened to the front, giving the nickname ‘suicide doors.’ (Lichty 217)
1968 Thunderbirds got a restyled grille which was void of the previous T-Bird wingspan. Also, for the first time in Thunderbird history, they could be fitted with front bench seats instead of the previous mandatory buckets. That year, the 360-hp 429 V-8 became standard on all models. The next year however, the T-Bird wingspan returned to the grill, and the taillight bar was divided by a single backup light. (Gunnell 127-131)
In 1970, the Thunderbird received yet another grill “with a protruding center section, which was found to be very delicate and caused insurance companies to charge very high premiums to Thunderbird owners.” These grills gave the Thunderbird somewhat of a beak with exposed headlights. The 1971 models were practically identical to the previous versions. (Lichty 225)
Thunderbirds were completely restyled for 1972, a year that witnessed the introduction of the largest Thunderbird ever. They were based on the Lincoln Continental Mark IV chassis and used the Mark IV body, with only minor changes, inside and outside. While the Thunderbird had lost most of it’s sportiness, it had gained all the luxury features of the Continental. The Thunderbird had certainly come a long ways since its ‘two-seater’ days. It was now FoMoCo’s top-of-the-line personal/luxury car” (Lichty 227, 235)
In 1972, the Thunderbird lost the previous 2-door and 4-door Landau models. Instead, the only version available was the six-passenger hardtop coupe. 1972 and 1973 Thunderbirds were practically identical except for some minor changes: One, being the addition of an opera window to the wide C pillars. Another was the alteration of the grille, which was changed to an egg-crate form once again. The next year would bring the new 460 V-8 which, due to new emission controls, cranked out only 220 horsepower.
Thunderbirds had gotten bigger, heavier, bulkier, and less sporty all the way from the introduction of the 1967 4-door Landau. Finally, this tradition of “bigger is better” would end.
“All-new sheetmetal and sharp downsizing to a 114 inch wheel base helped conceal the fact that the shrunken Thunderbird was essentially an adaptation of the newly introduced LTD II. Even if buyers noticed, they might not have cared, since T-Bird’s price was also sharply cut by about $2700 from it’s 1976 level” (Lichty 243)
The new standard engine became the 302 5.0 liter V-8 which produced 134 horsepower. Sales for the Thunderbird boomed with the introduction of this new generation. While only 46,713 Thunderbirds were sold in 1976, 300,066 Thunderbirds were sold in 1977 and 319,328 the next year. (Gunnell 182, 241)
Mid-size T-Bird, far more economical and maneuverable than its oversize predecessor, is little more than an adaptation of LTD II coupe, which differs mainly in styling and equipment. Visibility was much better, trunk bigger, back seat roomier than before. Good repair record show no serious trouble spots other than paint deterioration and early rust, plus alloy wheels that corrode, making wheel removal extremely difficult. Durability of body, brakes, engines and exhaust systems is above average. Doesn’t quite measure up to comparable GM personal-luxury coupes, though, except in size and price. (Consumer Guide 167)
1978 and 1979 Thunderbirds were no different from the 1977 model except for some minor trim changes and the Diamond Jubilee Edition in 1978 which commemorated Ford’s 75th anniversary. The Heritage Edition came out in 1979 next to the base T-Bird and Town Landau. (Gunnell 187-194)
For it’s 25th year in the lineup, Thunderbird got a new size and a new standard engine. This year’s version rode a 108.4 inch wheel base (formerly 114) and carried a standard 4.2 liter V-8. That engine had the same stroke as the 203 V-8 (now optional), but a smaller bore. For the first time in a decade and a half, this T-Bird also wore a unitized body, essentially a stretch of the Fairmont platform. Instead of the former six-passenger capacity, the ninth generation was intended for just four. (Lichty 253)
Although the Thunderbird had great improvements in 1980, some critics continued to simply dislike the automobile, as a car magazine writer states “in 1980, the Thunderbird reacquired a separate identity as a 2-door coupe, a coupe that registered with many of us as somewhere between merely awful and absolutely hideous. Which may have something to do with why sales figures have been stagnant at best ever since.” (Craw 31)
Ford released a special Silver Anniversary Thunderbird in 1980. The next year undoubtedly was disappointing for most T-Bird fans, after finding out that the standard engine would be a 3.3 liter V-6, however the 4.2 and 5.0 V-8’s were still optional. In 1982, the 5.0 V-8 was dropped and a 3.8 liter V-6 was added to the options list. Sales that year plummeted to only 47,903 T-Birds sold. (Gunnell 196-204)
For the past quarter century, the T-Birds that a upper-middle class America has been mainlining have been as predictable as death and taxes: rococo-excessive architecture and Las Vegas lounge interiors, liberally garnished with extras-none of which distinguished T-Birds much from the Cutlasses, Grand Prix, and Cordobas of this world. Yet here before us, like manna from heaven, is a Thunderbird that looks like a BMW-clean, lean, and purposeful. (Ceppos 37)
In the October of 1982, the Thunderbird once again made automotive history. It had returned with a new concept – that aerodynamics were necessary for a well-designed automobile, not only a standard for sports cars, but luxury coupes as well.
In it’s tenth and smaller form, Thunderbird took on a striking aero look. “Conceived for today with an eye on tomorrow” was the way the factory catalog described it. The new version was built on the ‘S’ shell, with 104 inch wheel base (down from 108). Extensive aerodynamic testing resulted in an air drag coefficient of 0.35 (lower than any tested domestic competitor in it’s class). Aero design features included concealed drip molding, a sloping hood, tapered fenders and quarter panels, sharply raked windshield and backlight, contoured parking lamps, and integrated decklid spoiler. (Lichty 263)
The 1983 Thunderbird came available in three trim lines: the base T-Bird, the luxurious Heritage, and the sporty Turbo Coupe. The 4.2 V-8 was replaced by the more powerful 5.0, and the Turbo Coupes came equipped with a turbocharged 2.3 liter 4 cylinder engine. (Gunnell 206-211)
In 1984, the first Thunderbirds to feature electronic controls (including fuel injection) were released. The Heritage line was renamed Elan and a new line was added – Fila – which was basically a sporty-looking Elan. The only visible differences between 1983 and 1984 T-Birds are some minor changes in the instrument gauges. 1985 brought forth a freshened grille, wrap-around taillights, a new Thunderbird logo, a digital instrument panel, and a special 30th Anniversary Limited Edition. In 1986, the Fila trim line was dropped. (211-222)
“Even thought the personal-luxury coupe’s profile didn’t undergo a dramatic alteration, the sheetmetal was all new this year. So were aero-style headlamps and flush-fitting side glass, as well as full-width taillamps. A new sport model with 5.0 liter V-8 joined the lineup, and the former Elan was now called LX. The former three-speed automatic was gone. T-Bird’s Turbo Coupe got a boost under the hood from the intercooled 2.3 liter four.” (Lichty 276)
Perhaps the freshened sporty look of 1987 was responsible for making the Thunderbird Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year”. The new Turbo Coupe was void of any grille whatsoever and air was inputted into the engine via two nose hoses in the hood. The only change made in 1988 was the power boost of the 3.8 liter V-6 up 20 horsepower. (Gunnell 224)
“Still rear-drive and arriving a little later than the other Ford models, the sharply restyled Thunderbird rode a much longer (113-inch) wheelbase but was nearly an inch lower and 3.4 inches shorter than its predecessor. Width grew by 1.6 inches, and the interior gained considerable room. The V-8 option was gone, but performance fans had a much different choice: the new Super Coupe, with a supercharged (intercooled) version of the V-6 under its hood and a standard five-speed manual gearbox. Aero body flaring and dual exhausts made the SC distinctive.” (Lichty 280)
Ford reportedly spent more than one billion dollars redesigning what would be the 11th generation Thunderbird, and unfortunately the last. In 1990, Ford released the 35th Anniversary model which was a Super Coupe with special interior and exterior trim. At the request of T-Bird fans, the 302 V-8 was added back as an optional engine the next year. In 1992, all Thunderbirds came equipped with the popular SC fascia and the former “gill” design of the base models was scrapped. Next year, Ford would also drop two trim lines of the Thunderbird, the base and Sport, leaving only the LX and SC. (Gunnell 232-249)
1994 brought major changes in the interior of the Thunderbird. The dashboard was redesigned completely to surround the driver, much like inside a cockpit. The exterior skin was also modified and made smoother. Some complaints came from people who disliked the new exterior because the LX and SC models were practically indistinguishable. Like with the Ford Mustang, the former 5.0 liter V-8 was dropped and replaced by a SEFI 4.6 V-8 which outputted 205 horsepower.
1996 signaled the death of the Super Coupe, leaving only the Thunderbird LX to remain. The skin was again remodified, but sales dropped dramatically, and rumors of Thunderbird’s end were heard everywhere. In May 1997, spokespersons from the Ford Motor Company confirmed those rumors by announcing the discontinuation of the Thunderbird due to record low sales, and of course, Thunderbird fans were outraged all across the country. The low sales of the Ford Thunderbird were blamed on the elimination of the Super Coupe in 1996, it’s enormous size, and general lack of public interest.
Overall, more than three million Thunderbirds were sold between 1955 and 1989, the peak years being 1964, 1978, and 1985. Although the last 1997 Thunderbirds are sitting on car lots right now, waiting to be sold, it is uncertain that Ford will ever be able to replace this beautiful automobile. They may succeed to break Thunderbird’s sales, but they can never hope to replace the Thunderbird spirit.
Ceppos, Rich. “Ford Thunderbird: The Fords in out future start here.” Car and Driver Oct 1982: 36-39.
Consumer Guide. Complete Guide to Used Cars: 1988 Edition. Illinois: Publications International, 1988.
Gunnell, John, eds. T-Bird: 40 Years of Thunder. Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1995.
Lichty, Robert, eds. Standard Catalog of Ford: 1903-1990. Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1990.
McCraw, Jim. “’83 Ford Thunderbird: This time the beauty goes all the way to it’s heart.” Motor Trend Oct 1982: 31-38.