By David Bellm
America in the 1950s was crazy for sports cars. Whether because of a
fresh exposure to all things European during WWII, or just simply an
insatiable craving for new, exciting pursuits, sports cars received
tremendous public attention in the postwar era.
Naturally, such trends weren't lost on automakers that seriously toyed
with the idea of adding a sports car to their offerings of prosaic
four-seat coupes, sedans, and station wagons.
All the major
manufacturers trotted out autoshow concept cars that tantalized the
public with notions of two-seat sportsters that could whisk their
occupants away into a fantasyland of thrills and excitement.
The public predictably responded with tongues wagging, begging
automakers to put these dream cars into production.
But having millions of people lusting for a sports car, and having any
significant percentage of them actually purchase such a machine were two
entirely different things, as two of America's largest automakers were
about to find out.
Among those manufacturers toying with a production sports car was Ford
Motor Company. Seeing its chief rival Chevrolet introduce its Corvette
sports car for 1953, Ford rose to the challenge with the Thunderbird, a
similar machine that hit showrooms for 1955.
Like the '55 Corvette, the Thunderbird was a two seater, powered by a
mildly souped up V8 engine, with either automatic or manual
transmission. And both were soft-top convertibles that offered an
optional removable hardtop.
But from there the similarities ended. For one thing, the Thunderbird
had a steel body instead of the Corvette's fiberglass construction.
importantly, beyond such specific details, Ford's two seater was even
less of a true "sports car" than Chevrolet's -- which itself was
considered a mere pretender by hardcore automotive enthusiasts.
With a somewhat unsporting weight of around 3000 pounds, the Thunderbird
was intended to be more of a stylish boulevardier rather than a true
performance machine. That said, performance was impressive, owing to the
Thunderbird's 292-cubic-inch and 312-cubic-inch V8s, which put out
between 193 and 340 horsepower in various iterations.
And the public seemed to favor the Thunderbird's more plush, practical
manner over Corvette's less refined personality, with the Thunderbird
outselling its Chevrolet rival by a considerable margin every year.
Throughout its three-year initial production run, the Thunderbird
remained essentially little changed, getting minor revisions for 1956,
and then a sharp-finned facelift for '57.
Along the way, the T-Bird got
its famous porthole to cure poor visibility when equipped with the
hardtop, as well as a "Continental" spare tire, mounted on the rear
bumper to free up space in the trunk.
Although considered a valuable image booster for Ford, production of
these two-seaters ranged from about 16,000 for '55 to around 21,000 for
'57 -- hardly profitable numbers for a high-volume automaker like Ford.
This wasn't lost on Ford's conservative management of the late 1950s,
foremost among them Robert McNamara (who a few years later left Ford to
join President John F. Kennedy's cabinet). Along with others in the
company, McNamara pushed for development of a larger successor to the
first Thunderbird design, one which could seat four people in reasonable
comfort. It was felt that the extra seating would almost certainly boost
the car's appeal considerably, raising sales to the point where it could
effectively contribute to the company's bottom line.
This bigger, four-seat 'Bird made replaced the first-generation design
for 1958, ending production for one of the most charismatic automobiles
ever to emerge from Detroit. McNamara's gamble paid off. The bigger
T-Bird sold far better, and for the next three decades Thunderbirds
would remain four seaters.
Almost as soon as the two-seat Thunderbirds were discontinued they
became prized collectibles, a distinction they maintain today, with
enthusiasts coveting and restoring 1955-57 T-Birds with passionate
For 2002, Ford Motor Company realized the publicity value of this
enthusiasm, and introduced a two-seat Thunderbird styled very much like
the original 1955-57 design.
And just like the first two-seat T-Bird, the public drooled profusely
but few people actually bought one, relegating this remake to a
production run that was only one year longer than that of the 1955-57
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