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
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.
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