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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 17, 1998

A venerated name disappeared recently and for the first time in 42 years, there are no new Thunderbirds in Ford showrooms. And while a bit of contemporary auto history is gone, the legend of the T-Bird lives on.

Traditionally, new automotive models are the result of in-depth market analysis, myriad technical brainstorming and financial number-crunching. Ford's Mustang was developed this way. But the Thunderbird had its inception in a chance remark by a Ford executive at an auto show thousands of miles from Dearborn - or so the tale is told.

The story is that Lewis Crusoe, then Ford vice-president in charge of finance, was attending the 1951 Paris Auto Show and while looking over the traditional British sports cars that were on display, asked a colleague why Ford couldn't make something similar but traditionally American. A phone call made was immediately made to the Ford home office and the company was on its way towards building the classic two-seat Ford Thunderbird.

The story may or may not be true (and Ford itself disclaims it), but it does point up the fact that legendary cars often produce legends around them. A more logical story involves the fact that Ford, bent on recovering its performance image, knew that Chevrolet was going ahead with its Corvette project and needed something to counter it.

The Ford sedans of the day were relatively small and light and were powered by a lightweight, short-stroke overhead valve V8 engine so Ford had the ready-made components needed to do battle with the Corvette. The basic Ford sedan power train and suspension units were incorporated into the new car and even the body design was made to follow the then-current Ford sedan design theme. Unlike the Corvette (which Ford brass pooh- poohed as an impractical toy with its fiberglass body and antiquated six cylinder engine), the two-placed Thunderbird was unmistakably a Ford.

The early Thunderbird was an immediate success with the American buying public. It was a classic sports car in that it seated just two people, was low slung and had more that enough power to allow its driver to stay up with or surpass most of the imports that were on the market.

And best of all, it was delivered in an domestic package that could be serviced in any small town in the nation that had a Ford dealership. In those days, sports car owners rarely ventured far from the metropolitan areas with their imports for fear of being stranded.

There were some flaws in that Thunderbird: some complained that the optional hardtop had a blind spot at each corner which made lane changing and passing sometimes chancy; the interior was hot on summer days; the luggage compartment had room for a toothbrush and little else. Small things, but Ford, anxious to make its innovative "personal" car one that would received as little adverse publicity as possible, made modifications to the '56 version that overcame most of the complaints.

Two small portholes were offered as options in the hardtop, the spare tire was moved onto a outside mounting on the rear bumper and vents were put into the sides of the front fenders. The complaints disappeared.

Mechanically, a slightly larger engine of 312 cubic inches of displacement was offered in '56 as a companion to the standard 292-inch unit. As before, the transmissions offered were the then-standard 3-speed manual (which was also available with an overdrive unit tacked on behind) and an automatic. It was a "sensible" sports car for the sporting businessman to park in his garage alongside the family's '55 Lincoln Capri sedan.

For 1957, the last year that the two placed Thunderbird was offered, Ford made a concerted effort to recapture its reputation for building fast cars and offered a half-dozen engine options in the basic car. Besides the standard 292 inch, single-carburetor powerplant, 'Bird buyers could order the same car with two four-barrel carburetors, two compression ratios and even an optional McCulloch supercharger.

But there was method in Ford's power madness. It was going after records at the Daytona Speed Week Trails that year and had to offer to the public cars that were essentially the same as those that ran in Florida. Former Indy 500 winner Pete DePaulo was commissioned to put together a winning team, and thanks to corporate planning and support, he succeeded.

In '57, the Thunderbird body was change again. Ford sedans and wagons followed the industry trend and became longer, wider and bulkier and the Thunderbird sprouted a revised and extended bumper system, more power and trim options. In effect, it became a less sporting machine. Ford must have known what it was doing, for in that last year of production for the small Thunderbird, over 21,000 units were sold as opposed to about 16,000 for '55 and just under that figure in 1956.

But that was the last of the really "classic" Thunderbirds. In the ensuing decades, the name was attached to four-seater stand-alone "Big Birds," ponderous four-door sedans, four-cylinder turbocharged compacts and even to dull, gussied-up LTD coupes. The last version was a traditional front-engined, rear driven, V8 or V6 powered four-place coupe that had the distinction of being a front-runner if not a winner on NASCAR tracks for the past decade.

The Thunderbird name is gone now but there's already rumors that Ford will bring it back, attached to a "modern" personal car. We can only hope that it will return with the panache of the original collectible two-seater of the mid-'50s. It would be like the offspring of an old friend coming back to the old neighborhood.