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The History of the Ford Thunderbird 1955-66

Considered a classic at the time of its introduction, the Ford Thunderbird was debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in 1954. The popularity of the sleek two-seater was welcome news for the Ford Motor Company. Ford took a calculated risk with its decision to develop a car that could compete with the Corvette, released by Chevrolet in 1953, and it soon became clear that Ford’s research was about to pay off.

Fun Facts:

1st Lap
A Ford Thunderbird, driven by Sam Hanks, was the Official Pace Car for the 1961 Indianapolis 500.'

1st Class
In 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a series of stamps, “America on the Move: 50’s Sporty Cars” that featured a 1955 Thunderbird as one of five remarkable sports cars from the decade.

1st In Line
The first Thunderbird ever produced was sold at auction in 2009 for $660,000.

Information from a marketing study suggested that the target buyer for the Thunderbird was middle aged, well-established in a professional career, and relatively conservative regarding car design. Rather than radically redesign a new sports car, Ford opted for contemporary styling. This decision was not only in line with what Ford had learned from their marketing study, but had the added benefit of keeping production costs for the Little Bird low, as it shared many Ford stock parts with full sized cars in the Ford line. 

What set the classic T-Bird apart from the Corvette, as well as many of the sports cars entering the American market from Europe, was a design that highlighted personal luxury instead of the austere sports car styling of the era. The Thunderbird sported roll up windows, a steel body and, taking a leap over the six-cylinder Corvette, a 292 cubic inch V8 engine.

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The V8 engine proved to be a tight squeeze for a car designed with a low cowl height and created a clearance problem between the engine’s air cleaner and the hood. Ford’s solution, a feature that would continue to be part of the Thunderbird’s design for years to come, was to add a hood scoop.

The Little Bird was only available as a convertible, either with a collapsible soft top or removable hardtop. Sales for the introductory 1955 Thunderbird were good at 16,155.

Ford decided to retain their successful formula for 1956, and the new Thunderbird varied little from its predecessor. Some notable changes included more power under the hood, cooling vents in the fenders, and, addressing a common customer complaint, more cargo space. The Continental kit was Ford’s effort to increase trunk space without changing the overall design of the car. Moving the spare tire from the trunk to the rear bumper did allow for more trunk space, but the kit’s additional weight, which was distributed well behind the rear axle, caused handling problems. In addition to the handling problems it caused, the Continental kit’s location impeded access to the trunk. By 1956, Chevrolet was responding to the T-Bird by equipping the Corvette with a V8 engine and roll up windows. Sales for Thunderbird, at 15,631, were slightly less than the 1955 numbers and Ford implemented some changes for 1957.

The Thunderbird received new styling for 1957 that included a front bumper with integrated parking lights, a larger grille, and sweeping tailfins that mirrored the points sported by its larger cousins in the Ford line-up that year. Unable to successfully correct the issues associated with the Continental kit, Ford returned the spare tire to a larger redesigned trunk.

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1957 was to be the last year of the Corvette-Thunderbird rivalry, and Ford provided the Thunderbird with increased horsepower in its base option engines, as well as an “E-series” engine and an “F-series” engine. The “E” Bird was set up with dual 4 barrel carburetors and was rated at 270 horsepower, and the "F" Bird, with a factory installed Paxton-McCulloch supercharger, was rated at 300 horsepower. Of the 21,380 1957 Thunderbirds sold, only 208 were supercharged. Big changes were on the way for 1958 and 1957 would mark the last year of the vintage Thunderbirds that in time would become known as the Little Birds.
Once again, marketing research would prove to be the catalyst that drove the development of the Thunderbird model in 1958. As early as 1954, Ford had been considering the possibility of a four-seat Thunderbird. Known within the company only as project 195H, two factors would put development of the project on the fast track.

First, marketing research conducted after the release of the Thunderbird in 1955 showed that although the public liked the styling of the new car, its limited seating capacity was the primary reason against purchase. The second factor was Ford executive Robert McNamara, who, despite the initial success of the Little Bird, was less than enthused with the model’s ability to turn a significant profit. McNamara saw promise in the four-seater Thunderbird and moved project 195H forward for 1958.

The Big Bird era began with a radically redesigned Thunderbird that would come to be known as the Squarebird. The four-seat luxury car, 18 inches longer than the Little Bird and almost 1,000 pounds heavier, had somewhat boxy body lines and a wide pillar roof that inspired its nickname.

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The second generation design utilized unibody construction that allowed for maximum interior space, as well as provided low ground clearance for a sleek look. This design created an inherent problem that, much like the hood scoop of the Little Bird, resulted in a style defining solution. The low-slung chassis left no room under the car for the driveshaft to pass from the front to the rear axle. The solution, a driveshaft tunnel that ran down the center of the passenger compartment, precluded a bench seat. The designers solved this intrusion by providing individual bucket seats and by creating a full-length console that not only covered the tunnel, but also contained an ashtray, radio speaker, and a variety of switches and controls. Carrying the jet inspired design elements that were the rage of the day to a high point, the result was a car with an airplane cockpit appearance that made the Squarebird stand out among its competition and would set a new standard for the cars that followed.

Under the hood, the 1958 Thunderbird received a newly designed 352 cubic inch, 300 horsepower V8 as its standard engine coupled with a new 3-speed “Cruise-O-Matic” automatic transmission. The decision to change the design of the Thunderbird translated into increased sales, over 37,000 for 1958, and production numbers would continue to climb throughout the Squarebird era.

Two significant changes for 1959 included the option of a 430 cubic inch V8 engine and late in the year, a fully automatic mechanism that allowed the convertible top to fold into the trunk. Changes for 1960, the last of the Squarebirds, included a sliding metal sunroof. This option was made available for 1960 only.

The next generation of Thunderbirds was introduced in 1961. The Bullet Bird, a nickname derived from the car’s sleek exterior styling, also introduced some distinctive interior innovations including the “Swing Away” steering wheel. When the car was placed in park, the steering wheel would swing to the right, or near center of the dash allowing for easier driver entry and exit.

The Bullet Bird maintained the T-Bird’s reputation for luxury. Power brakes and power steering, offered only as options for many cars of the era, were standard items for Thunderbird. The cockpit theme continued with a dash that curved at the ends to meet the door panels. Under the hood, a 390 cubic inch V8 engine provided 300 horsepower.

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In 1962, a limited production Sports Roadster model was added. A fiberglass tonneau cover that fit over the back seat and included integrated headrests for the front bucket seats created the illusion of a two-seater convertible. Other features of the Sports Roadster included Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels, a passenger assist grab bar mounted on the dash, and fender badges. An optional “M” code engine could be added to the package. The “M” code engine, a 390 cubic inch V8 equipped with three two-barrel carburetors, produced 340 horsepower. The Sports Roadster was considered an overnight collectible and very few, just 1,427, were produced in 1962.

The Landau model was also introduced in 1962. The hardtop featured a vinyl roof and simulated convertible top “S-bars” on the rear roof pillars. The vinyl roof option would eventually carry over to other models in the Ford line and remain a popular option throughout the decade.

1963, the last year for the Bullet Bird, saw few significant changes in design from the previous two years. Under the hood, the generator was replaced with an alternator and the hood latch was moved to the grille. The Sports Roadster option was continued from the previous year but with sales of only 455 units, Ford decided to discontinue the model, cementing its place in the world of collectible cars. Recognizing the success of the Landau model, Ford released a limited edition "Principality of Monaco" Landau model. Painted white, with a white leather interior, the car included a personalized, numbered plaque mounted on the console to signify ownership and the car’s place in a limited 2,000 unit run.

Shop from MAC’s vast selection of Ford Thunderbird parts, including upholstery, seat covers and interior parts, today.

In 1964, the next generation of Thunderbird, the Flair Bird or Jet Bird, returned to a more square design. Transistorized ignition and “Highway Pilot” speed control were available options. The new T-Bird resonated with the buying public and sales for the 1964 Thunderbird were much higher than the previous year.

By 1965, front disc brakes replaced front drums as standard equipment and the T-Bird would offer one of the most distinctive automotive features ever produced by Ford, sequential taillights. When the turn signal was activated, the horizontal taillight lens, backed by a series of individual bulbs, would be illuminated in a sequence of inside to outside to indicate the direction of the turn. Despite this popular feature, sales of the Thunderbird dropped from the previous year, perhaps the result of Ford’s introduction of the very popular Mustang in mid 1964. 

From 1961 through 1965, the 390 cubic inch V8 was the only engine available, but in 1966, the 428 cubic inch V8 was an option. When a customer checked the 428 engine box on the order form, they got an unexpected bonus, the superb heavy-duty C6 automatic transmission. 1966 also saw the introduction of the Town Hardtop and Town Landau models. These new models featured a bold new roofline that extended the roof side sheet metal forward to the door, eliminating the rear side windows. Also included with these models was a "Safety/Convenience" control console that included warning lights for low fuel, door ajar, a seat belt reminder, and a switch and light for the four-way flashers. This console was mounted to the roof to further the aircraft flight deck theme that Ford had long been applying to the Thunderbird. Sales continued to drop slightly but the 1966 Thunderbird remained a good seller for Ford.

If you are contemplating the restoration of any of these magnificent antique Ford Thunderbirds, are already deep into a restoration, or are proudly driving your completed restoration, MAC's wants to help you. MAC's has been supplying a complete line of obsolete parts, accessories, supplies, manuals, and literature for Ford restorers since 1978. Our current 1955-1979 Thunderbird parts catalog lists over 6,000 parts. It is fully illustrated and contains part numbers, prices, descriptions, number of each part required, and the years of application. The catalog is free if you have a 1955-1979 Thunderbird. Outside the U.S. we do require a payment of $5.00 U.S. to cover the cost of postage.

Restore your Little Bird, Big Bird, Squarebird, Bullet Bird, Flair Bird, Jet Bird, Convertible, Hardtop, Landau, Sports Roadster, and Town Landau or Town Hardtop with classic, vintage parts from MAC’s Antique Auto Parts. We carry restoration parts for 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979 Ford Thunderbirds.