The Ford Thunderbird has gone through several generations over the years, with the first generation lasting from the 1955 to 1957 model years. As such, this first generation of the Thunderbird is worth revisiting every once in a while to get a feel for this auto’s history and why it is still a favorite among automotive enthusiasts.
The Lead-Up to the Thunderbird
Prior to the Thunderbird, the Vega arrived in 1953. This was a two-seater sports roadster that was smaller and had meager power, which meant it never reached production. The Thunderbird built on the idea but had more American styling, less of a sport-orientation, and was more luxurious. The team behind the first Thunderbird included Lewis D. Crusoe, George Walker, Frank Hershey, Bill Boyer, and Bill Burnett. The auto began with the concept of a two-passenger open auto that would weigh 2,525 pounds and have an Interceptor V8 engine for a top speed above 100 mph.
Introducing the Thunderbird
When Ford introduced the Thunderbird, the design was a two-seat convertible of a sporty nature but not a sports car. Instead, Ford marketed it as an upscale model, something which many believe led to the creation of the personal luxury vehicle market segment. Even so, many feel that the Thunderbird was a direct response to the then-new Chevrolet Corvette, as that prototype was unveiled a month before. The Thunderbird project began in February 1953, and by February 1954, there was a prototype on display at the Detroit Auto Show. This prototype featured a detachable glass-fiber hard top along with a folding fiber top.
Production for the Ford Thunderbird started in September 1954 with sales starting in October for the 1955 model year. This 1955 Thunderbird was sleeker and athletic than the other Fords from the same time. It did share some characteristics with those other Fords, including the modest tailfins and the single, circular taillamps and headlamps. The Thunderbird stood out with its hood scoop and the speedometer that went up to 150 miles per hour, the latter of which hinted at the high-performance nature of the Thunderbird.
The Thunderbird had a 102-inch wheelbase that was basically a shortened variation of those from other Fords. The standard 4.8-liter Y-block V8 was directly borrowed from the Ford Mercury division.
The 1955 Thunderbird sold very well, including 16,155 Thunderbirds. By comparison, only 700 Corvettes were sold the same year. Even so, in 1956, Ford made some upgrades to the Thunderbird. This included moving the location of the spare tire, so it sat on a rear bumper in the continental style. This increased trunk storage room. The 1956 Thunderbird also received a 12-volt electrical system that was new, but the change in weight led to some steering issues. This model year also got extra paint colors, standard circular porthole windows within a fiberglass roof, and a 5.1-liter Y-block V8 with 215 or 225 horsepower.
For 1957, the Ford Thunderbird got a reshaped front bumper, larger tail lamps, and larger tailfins and grille. The instrument panel got restyling, so the round gauges sat in one pod. The rear of the auto was also longer, which led to the spare tire returning to the trunk. The previously optional 5.1-liter V8 also became standard.