Ford Thunderbird (1955-1957)

Article by Mark Trotta

Development of the Ford Thunderbird began in February of 1953, just one month after Chevrolet debuted their Corvette dream car at the GM Motorama in New York. Ford would use parts off existing models for their new car, as did Chevy. Ford would also copy the long-nose/short-tail and 102-inch wheelbase of the Jaguar XK120 as did Chevy. But similarities ended there - Ford's answer to the Corvette was not a bare-bones sports car, but rather a stylish and practical personal luxury car.

1955 Ford Thunderbird

1955 Thunderbird

Production of the T-bird started in October of 1954. The body was made of steel and featured roll-up windows, unlike the Corvette's fiberglass body and side curtains.

1955 Ford Thunderbird interior

A telescoping steering column, dual exhaust, and a 292-cid OHV V8 were all standard equipment. Offered as convertible only, a removable fiberglass hardtop was a popular option. Base price was $2,695, lower than the Corvette's $2,934 sticker.

Ford had hoped to sell 10,000 T-birds the first year, but instead found itself unable to keep up with demand. Production ran into September, eventually selling over 16,000 examples for the 1955 model year. Meanwhile, over at GM, a mere 674 Vettes were sold, with previous year's sales at 3,640. The Corvette would likely have been discontinued, but the success of the Thunderbird prompted Chevrolet to continue production.

1956 Thunderbird

The T-bird saw only minor changes in its second year. Vent wing-windows were new, as were circular porthole windows in the optional roof. New paint colors were offered, including several two-tone paint schemes.

An optional 312-cid V8 produced 215-horsepower with the overdrive 3-speed manual transmission, or 225-horsepower when mated to the Ford-O-Matic 3-speed automatic transmission. Production output for 1956 was 15,631.

1956 Ford Thunderbird at classic car show

Continental Kit

In the late thirties, Edsel Ford had taken a trip to Europe. He noticed sports cars with external spare-tires mounted on their rear bumpers, done so to allow more trunk space. Upon returning to the States, he asked Lincoln's chief stylist to incorporate this design into the new Lincoln Continentals. Ford stylists designed a similar "Continental style" spare tire kit for the 1956 Thunderbird.

1956 Ford Thunderbird with Continental spare

1957 Thunderbird

A restyle for the 1957 T-bird included a larger, reshaped front bumper and grille, larger tail-lamps, and sharper-edged tail fins in the rear. The 312ci V8, now standard, produced 245-horsepower. Optional was the high-performance "E-code" 312 engine, fitted with two four-barrel carburetors and rated at 270-horsepower.

1957 Ford Thunderbird

Paxton Supercharger

The "F-code" option gave the buyer a 312ci motor with a Paxton-built McCulloch supercharger mounted to a single four-barrel carburetor. Ford conservatively rated the F-code motor at 300 horsepower, but historians believe the figure was more in the 340-360 horsepower range, depending on the camshaft installed. Just 211 Ford Thunderbirds were fitted from the factory with Paxton superchargers in 1957.

Both of the E-code and F-code performance options would be dropped after February 1957, as Ford and the A.M.A. (Automobile Manufacturers Association) agreed to end Detroit's "horsepower war".

Continental Kit Issues

Complaints of the additional weight of the Continental spare causing steering issues led to a trunk lid redesign, allowing the spare to be moved back inside. Although no longer available from Ford, aftermarket companies continued to sell Continental kits for those who liked the appearance of the external spare.

1957 Ford Thunderbird

Since its inception, Ford company executives felt that a two-seat car had restricted sales potential. The success of the 1957 Thunderbird, with 21,380 sold, encouraged Ford to market a four-seat Thunderbird for 1958.

Read: Classic Cars of the Fifties