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
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...