Ford Thunderbird, 1958-1971

Motor Trend - July 1994
Look back over the 100-plus years of automobilia. You won't find a car that's mirrored the ever-changing American consumer's tastes as closely
as has Thunderbird. What began in '55 as a sporty-looking two-seat competitor to the Corvette quickly grew into a four-seat luxury machine and metamorphosed through four separate styling iterations by its 10th anniversary. A mere 17 years after its debut, Ford's upscale image leader was nearly 40-inches longer, 1500 pounds heavier. and considerably more lethargic. Yet, clearly undaunted by its loss of agility, the big Bird captured more buyers in '72 than in any previous year.
Throughout its nearly 40-year history, the T-Bird has discovered, splendored in, ravaged, and forgotten about more marketing niches than just about any other car on earth. A four-wheeled manifestation of the American Dream that followed, rather than trying to lead, and literally grew old with its owners. But, despite its constant search for a new personality, the Thunderbird name has retained its magic. Like Mustang, Camaro, and Corvette, Thunderbird is one of the most exciting, evocative domestic car nameplates of all time.
The complicated T-Bird legacy can be broken down into 11 phases: the two-seat era ('55-57) http://doiop.com/TBirds_55_56_57 ; four-place "squarebirds" ('58-60); streamlined "bulletbirds" ('61-63); last of the convertibles ('64-66); first of the four-doors ('67-'69); the Bunkie Knudsen http://tinyurl.com/2kjcef make-it-look-like-a-Pontiac era ('70- 71); the Lee Lacocca make-it-even-bigger era ('72-76); oops, OPEC made us downsize ('77-79); hell, put it on a Fairmont platform and make it even smaller ('80-82); aero look and turbo power ('83-87); and, brave, new Bird ('88-94)...
The early Thunder-Fords were all about panache. Hoodscoops, dual exhausts, and a 292-cubic-inch V-8 marked the '55-57 models as sports cars, though all but the most feeble of Corvettes could knock the tail feathers off this cock in short order. Priced at parity with Chevy's fiberglass roadster (about $3000), the two-seat Ford suffered from performance anxiety until'57, when a supercharged 312 V-8 arrived. Packing 300 horsepower, it could run 0-60 mph in 8.0 seconds. But both Ford and Chevrolet were receiving expensive lessons in marketing. The masses wanted vehicles that looked like sports cars, but without the comfort losses of the real thing. While Chevy stuck to its guns with the slow-selling Vette, Ford wisely obliged the tide.
Now appealing to the luxury-sport buyer, the '58 T-Bird was 2 feet longer and 750 pounds heavier than the '57 model. It grew two extra seats, a hardtop coupe bodystyle, and a 352-cubic-inch V-8. Annual sales rocketed to nearly 38,000 units--a gain of more than 75 percent from just one year previous, and better than four times the number of Corvettes pushed out the door that same season. The trend reached its zenith in 1977, when 318,140 Thunderbirds were produced, eclipsing the same-year Corvette by over 268,000 units.
That the T-Bird never earned a proper racing credential until it became Ford's Winston Cup entry in the late '70s didn't matter much to its fans. The name alone seemed to justify its image as a performance car, though for most of its life, the prestige Ford was merely an average- line player with soft suspension, glitzy styling and a hefty pricetag. While the Corvette of the early '60s was all Martin Milner http://tinyurl.com/2bau9k , Hot Rod magazine, and cheeseburgers eaten on the hood, the Thunderbird was Peter Lawford, Esquire, and prime rib.
This Retrospect focuses on the T-Bird's adolescent years...
========= To be continued...
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1958-1960 http://doiop.com/TBirds_58_59_60
In automotive circles they were called "squarebirds": the upright, four- seat body style that was a vast departure from the sleek two-seater of '55-57. Using new unibody construction techniques borrowed from the '58 Lincoln drawing board, Ford created a car of impressive structural strength. Full coil-springs were employed in anticipation of an air- suspension option (it never materialized), a true hardtop model was added to the line, and the manually folding convertible was replaced by a power-operated soft-top that retracted into the trunk. A retractable hardtop model, a la Ford Skyliner http://doiop.com/Skyliner didn't make it past the early cost-accounting phase.
Motor Trend bestowed Car of the Year accolades on the T-Bird in '58, commenting: "The new Thunderbird is as comfortable as any American car today, regardless of size." The only engine choice was a 352-cubic- inch/300-horsepower V-8, and our vintage test car was equipped with the optional Cruise-O-Matic transmission. Slogging around nearly 4000 pounds of weight, it ran 0-60 mph in 10.1 seconds; slower than a Vette, but about on par with other V-8s of the day. By '59, the mammoth 430- cabic-inch/350-horsepower Lincoln powerplant became a regular T-Bird option; with 490 pound-feet of torque on tap at a leisurely 2800 rpm, 0- 60-mph times dropped to 8.9 seconds.
"There is no more extraordinary car in the world today than the Thunderbird." Such was the opening sentence of MT's test (Sept. '60) of the last of the squarebirds, though concessions were made that it "has never been the good handling car that drivers expect from a vehicle of such sporty appearance." Undaunted, our writer beamed that the T-Bird "has, more than any current domestic car, the spirit and quality that made the classic roadsters of the '30s such memorable favorites. There are many cars that will outperform the T-Bird, cost less, deliver more miles per gallon, carry more passengers, even ride and handle better. But, somehow, the T-Bird has never been measured by these standards. The Thunderbird is different, and that is all it has ever had to be."
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1961-1963 http://doiop.com/TBirds_61_62_63
The three years of "bullet birds" differed from one another only in minor trim items; the most obvious being the use of four chrome spears on the rear fenders ('61) three larger rear fender emblems '62), and a trio of even bigger hash marks relocated to each door ('63). One look at the frontal styling should confirm what Ford insiders already knew: Management was considering moving the Thunderbird onto the Lincoln line. However, the real truth is the number of sales a Lincoln-badged 'Bird could've produced wouldn't have been a third of what the car could generate as a Ford.
Lee Iacocca was in his second year as Ford Division chief in 1961 and had captured 24 percent of the domestic market with his strong-selling products -- cars 1,362,186 total, 73,051 of which were Thunderbirds. The "longer, lower, wider" theme continued.
Front-wheel drive was considered for production in '61 and again in '65, but was deemed too complicated, costly, and unappreciated by the American buyer. The Lincoln V-8 was no longer available, but a new 390- cubic-inch/300-horsepower Ford motor was introduced, with a triple two- barrel carburetor option in '62 boosting horsepower to 340. Also new for '62 was the formal Landau version, which wore a vinyl top and phony landau-type "S' bars on the rear roof pillars. It sold extraordinarily well. Gizmos and gadgets abounded in the aeronautic-styled interior, including a swing-away steering wheel that moved 10 inches to the right for ease of entry.
To satiate dealer whining over the canceled two-seat ragtop, Iacocca approved production of the Sports Roadster for '62 and '63. It was merely a convertible with a fiberglass tonneau that could be affixed behind the rear seats, thus giving the look of a two-seater. Complete with faired-in headrests and real wire wheels, this pricey package ($5439 versus $4788 for the regular convertible) had a production of less than 2000 units during the two-year period. The large tonneau couldn't be stored in the trunk, nor could much of anything else for that matter since the top mechanism and spare tire effectively ate up all luggage space. Once again, form took precedence over function. At 4842 pounds, the Sports Roadster was certainly the heaviest production car to ride on a 113-inch wheelbase.
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Okay.. brave new bird aka MN12 chassis ran from 1988 thru 1997 with SuperCoupe last year in 1995.
I've had a 67 4 door 390, 85 3.8, and currently a 95 LX 4.6.
The 67 suffered from something Ford/Lincoln still refuses to fix.. high tech options and black boxes (for the time) that are no where near reliable after the expiration of the base warranty.
The 67 was a cool ride when it ran. So low to the ground that a pack of cigarettes barely fit between the ground and the lowest piece under the floor pan. The dual cardan u joint drive shaft was a fun repair as well as steering box leaks, vacuum leaks, mechanical sequential taillights, and wipers run by the power steering pump, prone to stop running every time you splashed in a water puddle.The plastic power window motor gears liked to tear themselves up.
The 85 fox body was a well handling car with heavy duty suspension and EAGLE ST or GT tires but suffered from easily torn,cracked or rusted extremely thin sheet metal and a 3.8 v6 that would tend overheat once past 75,000 miles. I saw it on 4 different 3.8 Fords in the family over a 10 year period.
The 95 MN12 is a bit beefier. The 4.6 oil filter change is the most difficult I've seen on a Ford, probably because the car was not designed with the 4.6 in mind. It's a nice touring car but don't kid yourself.. it does not have the drive train or brakes needed to support muscle car power. I think the last MN12 chassis car was the 98 Lincoln Mark 8. Weak points for normal drivers are warped front brakes, electrical wiring failures due to poor routing in the engine compartment, and tranny failures.
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