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Ford Thunderbird: Buying guide and review (1955-1957)

Ford Thunderbird: Buying guide and review (1955-1957) Classic and Performance Car
Ford Thunderbird Ford Thunderbird Ford Thunderbird Ford Thunderbird
The early 1950s was a transitional period in the global motor industry, with car manufacturers recovering from World War 2. More adventurous sports cars were beginning to appear on the motor show stands, and Ford executives saw the popularity of Europe’s sports car offerings and, the imminent arrival of Chevrolet’s two-seater Corvette, as a sign to develop their own model. It was to be call the Thunderbird.
 
In late 1954 (’55 model year), the first generation of the Ford Thunderbird was launched. It was a huge success, with 53,166 produced over a three-year production run, and it proved to the executives that the American public loved the idea of a powerful and luxurious convertible. The second generation Thunderbird was a much larger car, with seats for four and a complete styling redesign. While even more successful, it wasn’t until 2002 that a two-seater Thunderbird in the spirit of the original was offered once again.
 
These first generation cars were marketed as a ‘personal car’, allowing personalisation by each customer from the long options list. It helped create a new luxury performance car niche, and vied with Corvette for market share of this new segment. While the Corvette had a head start, the Thunderbird consistently outperformed it in sales volumes. 
 
With numerous songs and movies praising the Thunderbirds various attributes, these cars have secured themselves an enviable place in motoring history.
 
Which one to buy?
 
The original 1955 model was available with a 193bhp, 4.8-litre V8 with a three-speed manual or in automatic form (with an additional 5bhp). Its combination of performance and luxury was well received, emulating its much more expensive European Mercedes and Jaguar counterparts. Suspension was basically unchanged from other Ford models, and braking was by drums all-round, demonstrating where the money was saved. 
 
The focus on luxurious interiors and straight line performance was what this car was all about though. Contemporary road testers commented on substantial levels of body lean, and wayward handling at the limit, but the basic setup stayed mostly the same for all three years of production.
 
With the addition of an optional 215bhp, 5.1-litre V8 from 1956 onwards, 225bhp if specced with the automatic transmission, straight line performance more closely matched the lighter Corvette V8s. In modern day terms, acceleration is more leisurely than sports car like, but the undeniable charms of cruising along in a luxurious lazy V8 is still there to be enjoyed. 
 
Spare wheels on these models were originally mounted outside on the boot lid, which is termed a ‘continental kit’, allowing for more luggage space. The final year of production saw the spare wheel being moved back in to the luggage compartment, although aftermarket kits were available to owners who preferred the earlier look.
 
The larger V8 received a power boost to 245bhp and optional dual four barrel carbs and other performance add-ons further increased power to 270 or 285bhp. There are even some cars out there equipped with factory fitted superchargers, pushing power to 340bhp. Only 208 of these cars were built. Finding rare options such as these will definitely have an impact on the selling price, but are absolutely worth seeking out. 
 
1957 was the best year for sales of the first generation T-Bird, and a fair number of these cars remain on the roads in the USA, There are a number of specialists and enthusiast sites to help keep them on the road in its native land, although there is plenty of expertise in the UK too. 
 
Choosing the right car will be influenced by looks, and which years of styling revisions you favour. The larger engines, with manual gearboxes are sought after, and cars fitted with these will command higher prices. 
 
Performance and specs
 
1955 Ford Thunderbird 4.8-litre Automatic
Engine 4785cc, 16 valve OHV V8 
Power 198bhp @ 4400rpm 
Torque 286lb ft @ 2500rpm
Top speed 110mph 
0-60mph 11.1 seconds 
Fuel consumption 18mpg 
Gearbox Three-speed automatic
 
Dimensions and weight

Wheelbase 2591mm
Length 4453mm
Width 1786mm
Height 1326mm
Weight 1425kg
 
Common problems

The Thunderbird has become an American icon and there are numerous dedicated owners clubs and various specialists who stock almost unlimited spares and new parts for your car, be it mechanical components, body panels or dashboard and interior trim. Sourcing these within the UK may not always be possible so get used to importing less common items from the US.

• Rust can be found in many places. Specific problem areas include the front floor panels, air ducts and inner wheel arches. Most cars will have subject to restoration at some point in their lives, so check for evidence of covered up accident damage.

• Leaking around the top of the windscreen is common, even with the hard top fitted, so check for rust in this area.

• Overheating is a common complaint and is usually attributed to limited under bonnet space, and badly designed water pumps. Fixes in the forms of multi blade cooling fans, uprated water pumps and coolant additives claim to solve this issue.

• As air conditioning was never an option, some have had systems retrofitted. It’s important to check that this has been done professionally, as it will put extra strain on the cooling system.

• Engines are lightly-modified Ford Mercury units, and benefit from frequent oil changes and regular servicing. Small oil leaks tend to be common, with the rear main seals on the larger engines being especially prone to oil seepage.

• Under normal driving conditions the automatic transmissions will shift between second and third even from standstill. They needs to be shifted down to first manually either by using the gear lever or by flooring the accelerator at low speeds.

• The factory fitted fuel and temp gauges were not very accurate so many owners have fitted aftermarket items.
 
Model history

1955: Ford Thunderbird launched as a two-seater convertible in late 1954 as a 1955 model.
1956: Optional 5.1-litre V8 made available, spare wheel mounted outside for more space in boot.
1957: Tuned versions of the larger engine offered. Spare wheel moved back into the boot. Changes made to bumpers, tailfins and grille. Best selling year for the Thunderbird at 21,380 units, partly due to an extra three months of sales thanks to the late arrival of its replacement.
 
Clubs and websites

• www.tbirdhq.com - Thunderbird Headquarters, a great site for buying new parts
• www.tbird.org/clubs.htm - A useful directory of all Thunderbird owners clubs in the USA
• ctci.org – Classic Thunderbird Club International
• www.tbirdforum.com - Ford Thunderbird forum
 
Summary and prices
 
The Thunderbird name is one of the most recognisable in the automotive world. It represented a new direction for Ford, and spawned a multitude of imitators as it defined a new segment in American motoring. Prices range from £15,000 for a car in need of restoration, to £150,000 and beyond for concourse condition cars and ultra-rare supercharged versions. 
 
There’s a broad range to choose from out there, and a lot of stock is put into originality. Matching numbers cars always command a healthy premium over those with patchy histories, but £30,000 seems to be the sweet spot for a reasonable condition car. Finding one that has been well looked after still offers an unbeatble way to travel back to the ‘50s, and experience a motoring icon.

Words: John Tallodi
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Last updated: 29th Oct 2015
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Ford Thunderbird
23900 105000 GBP
  • Lot 827

    Ford Thunderbird

    £30,000 - £36,000 est. £30,000 - £36,000 est.
    Auction Date: 21 Jul 2018
    RESERVE PRICE
    • Engine size: 4800
    Auction Date: 21 Jul 2018
    £30,000 - £36,000 est. £30,000 - £36,000 est.
    Auction Date: 21 Jul 2018
    RESERVE PRICE
    Silverstone Auctions
    +44 (0) 1926 691 141 View contact number
  • Ford - Thunderbird - 1964

    €14,901 - €19,371.30 est. (£0 - £0 est.) €14,901 - €19,371.30 est. (£0 - £0 est.)
    Auction Date: 01 Jan 1970
    RESERVE PRICE
    Online Auction
    €14,901 - €19,371.30 est. (£0 - £0 est.) €14,901 - €19,371.30 est. (£0 - £0 est.)
    Auction Date: 01 Jan 1970
    RESERVE PRICE
  • Ford Thunderbird

    £47,500 £47,500

    This strikingly beautiful Ford Thunderbird is available for a negotiated sale around £47,500 which is in the middle of our estimated sale price. See TradeClassics.com for a full write-up and over 300 images and videos. EXTERIOR Finished in black, with matching black fabric hood, and striking brightwork across the car, this Thunderbird is a real head turner. The colour combination really makes the most of the styling of the car, the chrome bumpers, grills and overriders look great as they contrast against the black. With such stand out styling, you really feel like you are transported back in time just looking at the car. Wheels & Tyres Continuing with the chrome theme, the wheels feature huge chrome hub caps, and period correct white wall tyres. The are in lovely condition, take a look through the video to see them in more detail. Bodywork The Thunderbird is a big car, with vast panels and those very distinctive front and rear wings. Across all of the bodywork, we didn’t observe any dents, you can see this in the exterior review video with the light reflecting to show you. In addition to this, considering the size and age of the car, the panel gaps and shut lines are really good. There was a lot of care taken in the restoration and that shows with the build quality of the car. The underside of the car is also super clean, we took a number of photos and videos under the car with lights on to show this. Paint The paint finish on the Thunderbird is of a very high quality. It is deep in its finish, and has a mirror like look with no sign of orange peel. Importantly we observed that the finish of the paint is consistent across the entire body of the car. Being finished in the base colour of black, there are some slight light scratches visible on the bodywork, but these would easily be polished out by machine. Over time the car has picked up a few niggles in the paintwork which are best observed and noted in the extensive exterior review video; leading edge of the bonnet front and back, rear side leading edge of drivers side door along with a paint defect in the rear quarter middle, passenger side bottom front leading edge, small paint defect just below where the hood meets the body on the offside. Glass and Trim The glass across the car is in great condition, including the rear window in the hood. The chrome across the car is in really good condition, there is lots of it and it reflects light nicely. Take a look through the video to review the condition and see that on a few parts of the trim there is some slight pitting as you would expect from a 1955 car. INTERIOR Just two seats in this car, which means a very spacious and airy cabin for the two lucky people travelling in the Thunderbird. As mentioned in the introduction, for its time this car was a trendsetter for luxury. Features such as electric windows and electric adjustable seats were not heard of in 1955. A really comfortable and tidy cabin. Seats and Carpets The interior of the car has been fully refreshed as part of the restoration. Finished in red leather, with matching red carpets and chrome trim across the dash it looks stunning. There is no wear on the seats, and the carpets look in great condition too. The door cards feature chrome, red and white finish and all look lovely. Dashboard The dash looks great with the red trim and metal strip spanning across the width of the car. Lots of lovely little touches like the Thunderbird and V8 badging really set the car off from the interior. The all important world first tachometer, with its unique glass design that lets light in from the front looks really fresh, and all the gauges work correctly. Steering Wheel / Gear Stick Both the steering wheel and gear stick are in good condition and in a matching colour combination to the car. MECHANICS Rob took me on a quick run in the car, getting it to speed and across a variety of surfaces. The car performed without fault, and was an enjoyable ride as a passenger. It is worth mentioning again that this car was former racing driver Colin Blowers pride and joy, and the condition of the mechanics of the car to this day are testament to his skill and care during the nut and bolt restoration he carried out. Engine and Gearbox The car started on the button from cold (albeit with a battery booster) even with the car having sat unused for some time, with the engine idling smoothly extremely quickly. On the road the engine pulled us along without issue, and the smoothness of the engine running along with the relative quietness of the twin exhaust set up, sometimes can make you forget there is a huge 4.8L Y block V8 under the hood. The automatic gearbox worked an absolute charm on our short trip. Both when cold and at temperature, the car changed gears effortlessly, not a judder or jolt in sight. Suspension and Brakes On our loop through the local town, on to a short dual carriageway, and down a country lane, the car handled all of the different surfaces and speeds without issue. Brakes on the car are strong, as with all other mechanics. The Drive The drive with Rob was without fault, and as a passenger was very comfortable. The cabin has lots of room, and the vast windscreen gives you a great view out on to the open road. Both at low speeds around the town, and at speed on the dual carriageway, there were no untoward noises or shakes observed during the journey. Electrics and Other The battery was flat when we first started the car, having not been used for some time. Rob assures us that the battery will be charged and tested before sale.

    • Year: 1955
    • Mileage: 80621 mi
    • Engine size: 4.8
    For sale
    £47,500 £47,500
  • Ford Thunderbird

    €23,900(£0) €23,900(£0)

    VEHICLE DESCRIPTION: Ford Thunderbird 1962 - 390 c.i. (cc. 6384) 300 hp - ASI omologated and italian registration - new engine - refurbished automatic gearbox and power steering - stainless steel exhaust - interiors restored - totally original body paint - last works carried out in 2017: battery and tyres replaced. WARNING - THE EXHIBITED REDUCED PRICE DOES NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT ANY POSSIBLE CAR EXCHANGE TERMS AND CONDITIONs OF SALE We do not have the possibility to constantly update our prices and ads so it is possible that the selling price displayed may be changed. It is the burden of the buyer to verify all information, datas and inspect the vehicle before proceeding to purchase. We are able to supply any kind of documentation upon request. For further information we are at your disposal please contact us at +39 030/2411531 , mail to info@luzzago.com Visit our webpage www.luzzago.com TIPS We are able to delivery your purchase straight to you. Contact us for quote to your address. (also shipping too EU and Extra EU community)

    • Year: 1962
    • Mileage: 53437 mi
    • Engine size: 6.4
    For sale
    €23,900(£0) €23,900(£0)
  • Ford Thunderbird 4,7 Cabriolet

    €40,600(£0) €40,600(£0)

    Ford Thunderbird 4,7 Cabriolet Equipment: Meget fin stand Sjælden eksemplar Dette unikke eksemplar skal opleves og ses ring for info sælges for kunde

    • Year: 1957
    For sale
    €40,600(£0) €40,600(£0)
  • 1957 Ford Thunderbird

    $39,900(£0) $39,900(£0)

    292 ci 212 hp V-8, 3 speed manual transmission with overdrive, power steering, removable hardtop, town and country radio, fender skirts and telescoping steering column. Fitted with brand new era correct G-78 14 wide white wall tires. Expertly refinished in Flame Red with exceptionally nice authentic pleated black and white interior and engine turned trim pieces to make a very stylish presentation. The 1957 has been considered by most collectors to be the best and most desirable of all the “early birds” and this 3 speed standard shift model is unique in that 90% of the 57s were automatic transmission. The 3 speed with overdrive enhances acceleration while the overdrive improves highway mileage. Always a dry western car with original rust free and laser straight body panels. $39,900.00

    • Year: 1957
    For sale
    $39,900(£0) $39,900(£0)
  • 1955 Ford Ford Thunderbird

    POA POA

    (SOLD) Restored to show in the late '70's by its fanatic owner, this 1955 T'Bird is a "Senior Car" as designated by the Classic Thunderbird Club International (CTCI). To earn this distinction, a car must place Best of Class or Best of Show in the Primary division of a CTCI regional or national show. After achieving this status, the car went on to take a number awards including Senior Original Best of Class. It also was featured on the cover of CTCI's.

    • Year: 1955
    For sale
    POA POA