The First Ford Thunderbirds

classic Ford Thunderbird

In 1955 through 1957, Ford made what may be considered the most iconic two-seater American sports cars ever built. The 1955-1957 Thunderbirds have been seen on countless television shows and movies, not to mention being pictured on a U.S. postage stamp. In the 1975 movie American Graffiti, Suzanne Somers plays the role of a blonde mystery girl who is spotted driving around town in a white 1956 “T-Bird.”

The 1955-57 T-Bird was the second mass-produced sports car from an American automaker. The first, according to Randall Automotive of Henderson, TX, a full service Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, was the Chevrolet Corvette which debuted a few years earlier in 1953.

The Chevrolet Corvette

The Chevrolet Corvette was the first sports car from a American automaker. It arrived late in 1953 and GM didn’t hesitate to call it a sports car, although it really wasn’t. The Corvette wasn’t very sporty being powered by a 150 HP, 6 cylinder in-line engine coupled to a two-speed automatic transmission. It was also had a bulbous look, side curtains instead of roll-up windows and had a less-than-sturdy fiberglass body.

Then it was Ford’s turn

In 1955, Ford released the Thunderbird. Having studied the mistakes made by GM, Ford addressed most of the Corvettes short comings. The T-bird had a tight steel body with smooth, clean lines and long-hood/short-deck styling. Rumor was that the designers had taken styling cues from the Jaguar XK120-140 series of sports cars.
Powering the 1955 T-Bird was a V-8. The 292-cubic-inch Mercury engine generated 193 HP with a three-speed manual transmission and 198 HP with the three-speed automatic transmission. Now this was the engine of a real sports car. It also designed to handle far better than the Corvette.

The 1955 T-bird also offered some refinements that the Corvette, and most other sports cars for that matter, lacked. These included a push-button radio, power steering, power brakes, power windows and a power front bench seat. It also came with a removable hard top or optional, snug power convertible top.

1956-1957 Models

The 1956 Thunderbird had the same styling as the 1955 models. To spice things up a little, a larger 312-cubic-inch V-8 with 215 HP was added. The 1956 T-bird also had a “continental” spare tire mounted in a rear metal case because it occupied too much trunk space. The spare not only greatly improved trunk room, it also looked great.
The 1957 Thunderbird was arguably the best of the 1955-57 T-Birds. Although it lacked the lines of the first two models, it had a new combination front bumper/grille assembly and longer rear deck. You could also get a T-Bird such features as automatic windshield washers, a power seat with memory function and a Am-FM radio with volume that rose as engine speed increased. Thunderbird sales dipped a bit in 1956 to 15,631 cars, but sales soared to 21,380 units in 1957.

The retro T-bird

After a great deal of lobbying from journalists and fans, in 2002 Ford designed a modern retro-style Thunderbird two-seater. I was sold from just from 2002 through 2005. While it was a decent car, it was just moderately successful and was discontinued in 2005. Today original 1955-56-57 T-birds are the darling of the collector car set and command substantial prices on the open market.