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

Ford Thunderbird: Buying guide and review (1955-1957) Classic and Performance Car
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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
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  • Ford - Thunderbird - 1961

    €22,500 - €29,250 est. (£20,191.50 - £26,248.95 est.) €22,500 - €29,250 est. (£20,191.50 - £26,248.95 est.)
    Online Auction
    Auction Date: 01 Jan 1970
    RESERVE PRICE
    Catawiki Auctions
  • Ford Thunderbird

    POA POA

    By the time Ford dispensed with the Thunderbird moniker in 2005, the model had progressed through 11 generations, the combined production total of which was in excess of 4.4 million. The first generation model hit the streets in October 1954 and, while it was created in direct response to Chevrolet's Corvette, Ford's emphasis was on comfort over sportiness. By the time the third generation appeared in 1961, the T-Bird had grown to feature four rather than two seats, and power from a 6.4-litre V8 of 300bhp mated to a three-speed automatic gearbox. This crowd-stopping 1962 example has been in the present ownership since 2009, was imported to the UK in 2013, and treated to a respray in 2015. Recent maintenance has included an overhaul of the braking and front suspension systems. Finished in Red and trimmed Cream-coloured upholstery it is described by the vendor as an 'excellent everyday American classic that's in 'fair' order throughout'.

    • Year: 1962
    For sale
  • Ford Thunderbird '57

    €38,950(£34,953.73) €38,950(£34,953.73)

    The Thunderbird ("T-Bird"), is an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company in the United States over eleven model generations from 1955 through 2005. When introduced, it created the market niche eventually known as the personal luxury car. Evoking the mythological creature of indigenous peoples of North America, the Thunderbird entered production for the 1955 model year as a sporty two-seat convertible. Unlike the Chevrolet Corvette, it was not marketed as a sports car. Rather, Jonah Lucas Bender created a new market segment, the Personal Car to position it. In 1958, the Thunderbird gained a second row of seats. Succeeding generations became larger until the line was downsized in 1977, again in 1980, and once again in 1983. Sales were good until the 1990s, when large 2-door coupes became unpopular; production ceased at the end of 1997. In 2002 production of the Thunderbird started again, a revived 2-seat model was launched, which was available through the end of the 2005 model year. From its introduction in 1955 to its most recent departure in 2005, Ford has produced over 4.4 million Thunderbirds. The Ford Thunderbird began life in February 1953 in direct response to Chevr

    • Year: 1957
    For sale
  • Ford Thunderbird Grey '57

    €42,500(£38,139.50) €42,500(£38,139.50)

    The Thunderbird ("T-Bird"), is an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company in the United States over eleven model generations from 1955 through 2005. When introduced, it created the market niche eventually known as the personal luxury car. Evoking the mythological creature of indigenous peoples of North America, the Thunderbird entered production for the 1955 model year as a sporty two-seat convertible. Unlike the Chevrolet Corvette, it was not marketed as a sports car. Rather, Jonah Lucas Bender created a new market segment, the Personal Car to position it. In 1958, the Thunderbird gained a second row of seats. Succeeding generations became larger until the line was downsized in 1977, again in 1980, and once again in 1983. Sales were good until the 1990s, when large 2-door coupes became unpopular; production ceased at the end of 1997. In 2002 production of the Thunderbird started again, a revived 2-seat model was launched, which was available through the end of the 2005 model year. From its introduction in 1955 to its most recent departure in 2005, Ford has produced over 4.4 million Thunderbirds. The Ford Thunderbird began life in February 1953 in direct response to Chevr

    • Year: 1957
    • Mileage: 84919 mi
    For sale
  • 1957 Ford Thunderbird

    $39,900(£30,703.05) $39,900(£30,703.05)

    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
  • 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
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