Little Bird: The 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird

The old saw “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” could well have been coined for this week’s subject. Immediately embraced by everyone but sports car purists and Ford accountants, it remains among the most beloved (and most coveted) of all American cars. In the wake of its success, nearly everyone involved with its conception claimed credit for it, slighting each other and playing up their own contributions. This week, we try to sort out the origins of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird.

1955 Ford Thunderbird fin

A TIME OF CHANGE

To understand the origins of the Thunderbird, we must step back to the end of World War 2. In 1945, Henry Ford II, then 28 years old and newly released from the Navy, took the reins of his grandfather’s ailing company. The elder Ford’s cronies were finally swept away, but the Ford Motor Company was in very bad shape. It had lost its traditional hold on the low-price market to Chevrolet and it was bleeding money to the tune of $10 million a month.

Henry II realized immediately that he needed help to revitalize the company. He hired Ernest R. Breech from Bendix as Ford’s new executive vice president. Breech soon convinced Henry that Ford should emulate General Motors, so they began hiring executives, designers, and engineers from GM. Ford’s existing styling staff, led by Eugene (Bob) Gregorie, remained intact, although many of them subsequently left, but their ranks were soon filled out with GM alumni like Eugene Bordinat, Don DeLaRossa, Bob Maguire, Dave Ash, and John Oswald.

THE CONSULTANT

The biggest priority for Ford at that time was the 1949 Ford line, which would be the first all-new Ford products since before the war. Bob Gregorie’s staff had already developed not one but two new Fords: a big car and a new “Light Car” compact. Breech decided that the big Ford was too big and the Light Car too small, so the former became the new Mercury while the latter was transferred to Ford of France to become the Vedette.

That decision left an urgent need for a new design for the standard Fords. Breech decided they needed outside help, so he hired a golfing buddy of his, George W. Walker, who ran a successful design studio in Detroit, with contracts from Nash and International Harvester, among others. Walker was a big, charismatic man, an ex-football player and bon vivant who could give Harley Earl a run for his money when it came to flamboyant personal style. Walker had tried to get a Ford contract years before, without success, but he was still enticed by the prospect of landing such a major account.

In the fall of 1946, Walker’s team, which included stylists Joe Oros and Elwood Engel, won a competition with Bob Gregorie’s in-house styling team to design the ’49 Ford. After that, Walker’s firm was hired on an ongoing basis as design consultants.

1950 Ford Custom V8 front3q
The car that saved the Ford Motor Company: The 1949 Ford, styled by George Walker’s group, was hugely popular, despite a host of early quality problems. The very similar 1950 model, like this 1950 Ford V8 Custom coupe, was much improved.

The arrival of Walker’s people did not sit well with Ford’s own stylists. They were already subordinate to Engineering and now they had to compete with the highly paid consultants, whose boss had the ear of the company’s executive VP and of Henry Ford II himself. By the early fifties, Walker himself was rarely involved in day-to-day activities, but Oros and Engel, his lieutenants, were heavily involved in much of Ford’s design work. Many of Ford’s in-house stylists privately resented their presence.

Walker’s victory in the design contest was too much for Bob Gregorie, who soon resigned, followed only a few months later by his successor, Tom Hibbard. By 1952, Ford Styling was headed by Charlie Waterhouse, whose main function was to manage the relationship between Styling and Engineering. Gene Bordinat headed the Lincoln-Mercury studio and ex-GM stylist Frank Hershey was hired to head the Ford Division studios. Elwood Engel worked primarily with Bordinat, while Joe Oros was assigned to work with Hershey. George Walker was not formally in charge of Ford design, but his influence was strongly felt.

THE CHEVROLET CORVETTE

Although Harley Earl had fired Frank Hershey several years earlier for doing non-GM design work — a privilege Earl reserved for himself — Hershey still had close ties to GM Styling. (As our regular readers will recall, it was Hershey who was chiefly responsible for the tail fins of the 1948-49 Cadillacs.) Therefore, when Hershey’s former boss set out to build a fiberglass-bodied sports car, Hershey soon got wind of it. A friend called on him one night and showed him a sketch of the Corvette. Astonished, Hershey asked if Chevrolet seriously planned to build it. His friend said yes.

1954 Chevrolet Corvette front 3q
The original Chevrolet Corvette, which first debuted in January 1953, probably inspired the creation of the Thunderbird. (Photo © 2009 Latvian98; used by permission)

(Ironically, shortly before that, one of Hershey’s stylists, J. R. (Dick) Samsen, had asked him if Ford would ever build such a car, but Hershey said no, insisting that the market was far too small to be worthwhile.)

Nonetheless, Hershey thought that Earl’s two-seater — which became the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette — was a challenge that Ford couldn’t afford to ignore. The sports car market in America was very small at that time, perhaps 12,000 units a year, but the Corvette would still be a blow to Ford’s status. Thanks to the venerable flathead V8, Ford had long been the default choice of hot rodders and automotive enthusiasts, but their loyalty might be sorely tested by an actual Chevy sports car. The day after seeing the picture of the Corvette, Hershey went into work and told his staff about it, saying they were going to need to come up with a sports car of their own.

1955 Ford Thunderbird nose badge
Ford didn’t call the 1955 Ford Thunderbird a sports car, but the racy checkered-flag emblem on the nose suggested otherwise. Some early Thunderbirds were raced, with mixed results.

Hershey quickly organized a few of his stylists in a separate room, away from the main studio, and had them start work on the new car, which he assigned to a young designer named Bill Boyer. In later years, Hershey said that that only he and Boyer worked on the design and minimized Boyer’s contributions. Boyer, however, admitted that several other stylists were involved, including Bob Maguire, Damon Woods, Dave Ash, Dick Samsen, Alan Kornmiller, and Joe Oros, representing George Walker.

Hershey also recalled that he enticed a young engineer whose name he did not remember to help him and Boyer establish the design parameters for the new car, laying out the engineering “package” (key mechanical dimensions). This quickly attracted the attention — and the enmity — of Ford chief engineer Earle MacPherson. MacPherson was determined to maintain Engineering’s control over design decisions and he didn’t take kindly to Styling initiating projects without his approval.

MacPherson’s annoyance nearly torpedoed the project, but chief product planner Chase Morsey heard about it and came to Hershey’s defense. When Morsey heard Hershey’s explanation, he agreed that the sports car project was a good idea and helped Hershey run interference.

1955 Ford Thunderbird nose
The hooded, “Frenched” headlamps of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird (and other ’55 Fords) were inspired by the custom cars of George Barris and others.

CONFLICTING STORIES

George Walker tells this story quite differently. According to Walker, interviewed by Dave Crippen in 1985, the two-seat sports car concept was the work of Joe Oros and another artist whose name Walker couldn’t recall; Oros developed the early sketches into a coherent design. Walker said it was an off-the-books side project until he noticed Henry Ford II admiring the array of foreign sports cars at the Paris auto show. He said Henry asked why Ford didn’t have a sports car, and Walker told him they already did. When they got back to the hotel, Walker called Oros and told him to get the design ready to show Henry when they returned to Dearborn.

Walker told this story to TIME Magazine in 1957 and it has become an established part of Thunderbird lore. What was less clear was when that conversation was supposed to have taken place. Many sources suggest that it was the 1951 Paris show, in October of ’51, but Ford archives have no record of a sports car project prior to Hershey’s, which began in the summer of 1952. The TIME story referred to the 1953 show, but by the fall of ’53, the two-seater was already well under way as an official project.

It would not have been out of character for Walker to embellish the story or invent it out of whole cloth — while being lauded on the cover of TIME as “The Cellini of Chrome,” Walker was hardly likely to resist claiming credit for Ford’s most glamorous car, even if he had nothing to do with it. Hershey, however, didn’t deny that Walker made such a trans-Atlantic phone call; he just said it took place after his own project was already under way (which would imply that Walker called from the 1952 Paris Salon de l’Automobile, in October 1952). It appears that at least the broad strokes of Walker’s story were true and he simply omitted or confused the names of the people involved, whether intentionally or through a lapse of memory.

Muddying the waters further, Tom Case, who subsequently became the product manager for the two-seater project, credits the idea to Ford general manager Lewis Crusoe, citing a sports car marketing study Crusoe had supposedly ordered. (Indeed, some histories suggest it was Crusoe with whom Walker attended the Paris salon, although Walker himself said it was Henry Ford.) In 1972, Case told Special Interest Autos that Crusoe conceived the Thunderbird as a promotion to boost interest in Ford passenger cars and that the early sketches that most closely resembled the final product were not by Hershey or Boyer, but by stylist Bob Maguire.

An additional wrinkle is a 1952 Ferrari 212/225 Barchetta owned by Henry Ford II, a gift from Enzo Ferrari. A low-slung black roadster, bodied by Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera, it bears some resemblance to the Thunderbird, although even a casual observer would be in no danger of mistaking one for the other. We don’t know how much the arrival of the Ferrari may have influenced the decision to develop the Thunderbird, but it seems likely that it provided at least some stylistic inspiration. (We do not currently have a photo of that car, but it survives today in excellent condition. It is now part of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Collection; the author has seen it on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.)

TAKING FLIGHT

Whatever the truth about the two-seater’s conception, the project took on a new urgency in January 1953 when the Corvette made its public debut at the GM Motorama in New York. Later that day, a full-size model of Ford’s own two-seater was presented for management review. The Corvette demanded a response, so the two-seater quickly received approval as an official project. Ford Division chief engineer Bill Burnett hastily turned a ’53 Ford coupe into a chassis development mule that his staff dubbed the “Burnetti.”

1955 Ford Thunderbird front
While early Corvettes had six-cylinder engines, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird came standard with a V8: the Mercury version of Ford’s overhead-valve “Y-block” engine, which had replaced the elderly flathead in 1954. All 1955 Thunderbirds had the 292 cu. in. (4,778 cc) version of this engine, but in ’56 a bigger, 312 cu. in. (5,111 cc) version became optional.

Despite the galvanic effect the Chevrolet sports car had on Ford management, there was considerable room for improvement on the basic Corvette concept. The early Corvette had a six-cylinder engine, no side windows or exterior door handles, and a crudely finished fiberglass body. Lewis Crusoe wanted the Ford to have a V8, proper roll-up windows, and a higher standard of trim. He had a good idea of the demographics of the car’s likely customers and wanted nothing that would embarrass or annoy an affluent businessman or middle-age banker.

Engineering, for its part, was adamantly opposed to fiberglass construction, which posed many problems. Even Chevrolet had been lukewarm about it, adopting it only for the sake of expedience; their original plan had been to switch the Corvette to steel if sales took off. The main argument for fiberglass was that it was much less expensive than tooling for a steel body, which meant a lower break-even point. In the end, the engineers won out, and Ford’s two-seater would be built in steel by the Budd Company, which built bodies for various low-volume Ford cars. As a result, however, the tooling costs were high, which would have a significant impact on the two-seater’s future.

WHAT’S IN A NAME

By the fall of 1953, the two-seater’s development was proceeding apace, but it still didn’t have a name. Lewis Crusoe, who was fond of custom-tailored clothes, suggested “Saville,” after London’s prestigious Saville Row clothing district. Eventually, there was a contest, which stylist Alden Giberson won with the name “Thunderbird,” drawn from Native American myth.

1955 Ford Thunderbird tail badge
In Native American mythology, the Thunderbird creates thunder and lightning. Many different tribes of the American southwest, Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest have their own version of the Thunderbird, including the Lakota, the Ojibwa, and the Sioux.

That is the official version, but George Walker again had a different story. In 1985, Walker told Dave Crippen that the Thunderbird name was suggested by Ernie Breech, who had recently joined the extremely posh Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs, California. Walker claimed that the contest was an afterthought, a PR gesture. In any case, Giberson apparently never claimed his prize, so Walker may have been correct.

Whatever its origins, the Thunderbird name was formally adopted on February 15, 1954, a few weeks before a mock-up of the car was shown to the public at the Detroit Auto Show.

THE FORD THUNDERBIRD TAKES SHAPE

The Ford Thunderbird had a unique frame and body, but many of its components were shared with the normal Ford line. This was not entirely an economy measure; Ford execs had suggested more complex, far-out treatments for headlights and taillights, but the stylists had preferred the simplicity of the stock pieces. In any case, it gave the Thunderbird a strong family resemblance to the rest of the 1955 Ford line, which was no bad thing as far as the sales organization was concerned.

1955 Ford Thunderbird hardtop
Curiously, the basic 1955 Ford Thunderbird was a roadster, not a convertible, equipped with a detachable fiberglass hardtop rather than a folding top. A convertible soft top was a $70 option, while buyers could opt for both tops for $270 extra. The top’s familiar portholes were added in 1956 in an effort to improve rear visibility (although not all ’56-’57 hardtops had them).

The Thunderbird was rather large for a sports car and, thanks to its steel body, V8 engine, and plush trim, also rather portly for its size. Although early press releases suggested a weight of 2,837 lb (1,287 kg), a well-equipped ’55 Thunderbird with automatic and power accessories weighed around 3,240 lb (1,470 kg), more than half a ton heavier than a Porsche 356 or Triumph TR2.

Unlike the early Corvette, the Thunderbird came standard with a V8 engine. It was rated at 193 gross horsepower (144 kW) with manual shift, 198 hp (148 kW) with automatic. Where all early Corvettes had Powerglide, the Thunderbird could be ordered with a three-speed manual transmission, a three-speed with overdrive, or the three-speed Fordomatic. Suspension and brakes were standard Ford passenger car stuff.

1955 Ford Thunderbird front3q
Some 175.3 inches (4,453 mm) long on a 102-inch (2,591mm) wheelbase, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird is roughly the size of a modern Honda Civic or Mazda 3 sedan. It was one of the lowest cars in America: only 52.4 inches (1,331 mm) high, around 6 inches (152 mm) lower than a contemporary Ford sedan.

Although the Thunderbird offered a fair turn of speed for its era, Ford was cautious not to call it a sports car. Instead, Ford press materials described it as a “personal car,” a characterization that left many observers scratching their heads.

READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP

Ford Thunderbird production began in September 1954 and the car went on sale a few weeks later. Even before its release, it started a great furor in the automotive press, which had had its interest piqued by the promising but disappointing Corvette.

The Thunderbird was not cheap. Its initial list price price was $2,695, quickly raised to $2,944, which was over 30% more than a Ford Fairlane convertible and around $1,200 more than a basic Ford Mainline six. The T-Bird’s base price was also somewhat misleading; adding the convertible top, heater, radio, and other accessories quickly took the price well over $3,000. A fully loaded Thunderbird topped out at around $4,000, which was enough to buy two modestly equipped Ford sedans or for that matter a Jaguar XK140, which was faster and handled better.

Handling was something of a sore point for the early Thunderbird, with substantial body lean and desperately squealing tires in any aggressive maneuver. Testers who pushed the T-Bird too hard noted that despite significant initial understeer, its tail could break loose abruptly in hard cornering.

The Thunderbird was respectably quick. Road & Track, testing a well-equipped Fordomatic model, obtained a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time of 9.5 seconds and a top speed of 110 mph (177 km/h). Unfortunately, achieving such acceleration with automatic required some trickery. In order to reach the optimum 4,500-rpm shift points, testers had to start in Low, shift manually to Drive at about 45 mph (72 km/h), then back to Low at 50 mph (80 km/h), to keep the transmission from upshifting prematurely into third. Without such prestidigitation, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took a less-impressive 11 seconds. (Cars with the standard transmission or optional overdrive didn’t have this problem and were somewhat quicker.)

The obvious question is how the Thunderbird compared with its intended rival, the Corvette. Both rode the same wheelbase, although the Thunderbird was somewhat longer and notably heavier. The T-Bird was quicker than a six-cylinder ‘Vette, but couldn’t quite match one with the newly optional V8. Neither had impressive handling or brakes, but the Thunderbird was obviously far more civilized. Prices were similar, so it was no surprise that the Ford outsold its cruder rival by a vast margin. Corvette sales were a grim 700 units for 1955, while Ford sold 16,155 Thunderbirds.

(Ironically, the appearance of the Ford Thunderbird helped to rescue the Corvette from an early grave. Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote an impassioned letter to Chevy chief engineer Ed Cole, arguing that for Chevrolet to kill the Corvette just as Ford launched its own sports car would be a disaster for Chevy’s reputation. Just as the arrival of the Corvette revived the Thunderbird project, the appearance of the Thunderbird spared the Corvette the axe.)

1955 Ford Thunderbird hood  scoop
The 1955 Ford Thunderbird’s signature hood scoop was functional after a fashion. Thanks to its very low cowl height, the T-Bird’s hood was too low to clear the engine air cleaner, so stylist Dave Ash suggested putting a bulge in the hood and making it a styling feature.

PLANNING THE FUTURE

Even as the Ford Thunderbird went on sale, its future was in doubt. Frank Hershey assigned Rhys Miller and Bill Boyer to prepare facelifts for 1956 and 1957, but its long-term prospects were murkier. If the Thunderbird was indeed a promotion, as Tom Case said, there was little reason to continue it once its tooling costs were paid off.

Lewis Crusoe understood that the main impediment to Thunderbird sales, aside from price, was the car’s limited practicality. With no rear seat and almost no trunk space, it was for customers who could afford two or more cars. In the fall of 1954, he asked Boyer and crew to explore the possibility of a stretched, four-seater Thunderbird, known internally as project 195H (the H standing for the number 8, meaning the 1958 model year).

In early 1955, Crusoe was succeeded by a new general manager, Robert McNamara, one of the “Whiz Kids” Henry Ford II had hired after the war. McNamara had no personal interest in sports cars and he was philosophically opposed to any car that wasn’t profitable. The Thunderbird was selling better than projected, but it wasn’t making much of a profit and there was little hope of any sales growth. McNamara considered it a losing proposition, but he did like the 195H four-seater project, which he eventually championed to become the 1958 “Square Bird.”

1955 Ford Thunderbird louvers
Purists deplored the Ford Thunderbird’s assortment of fake louvers and simulated scoops, but the public seemed to love it. The Thunderbird nearly ended up with Ford’s characteristic “check mark” side trim, and later with chrome-plated scallops behind the front wheels (similar to those of later Corvettes), but neither feature made it to production. By comparison, the false louvers, added by Joe Oros, weren’t so bad.

FALL OUT

If Frank Hershey was truly the father of the Thunderbird, he was not well rewarded for his efforts. In May 1955, George Walker became vice president of Ford Styling, the first time the Ford Motor Company had such a position. Hershey had never cared for Walker’s team and being passed over in favor of Walker was a bitter pill to swallow. Shortly after Walker’s ascendancy, Hershey was gone; Dick Samsen says that McNamara fired him, but Hershey told Edson Armi that he resigned to avoid being fired by Walker. Hershey went on to work at Kaiser Aluminum.

Shortly before Walker’s promotion, Ford established a separate Thunderbird design studio. Headed by Bill Boyer, the Thunderbird studio had its own stylists and body engineers, allowing it a surprising degree of independence from the rest of the Styling department.

The studio’s first challenge was to turn the 195H four-seater concept into a production car, as we saw in our article on the four-seat ‘Birds.

1955 Ford Thunderbird taillight
The empty chrome gewgaw on the 1955 Ford Thunderbird’s rear bumper originally held the exhaust outlet, but a past owner relocated the exhaust pipes below the bumper. Stylists of this era liked the visual effect of the bumper outlets, but owners found they promoted rapid corrosion.

ENCORE PERFORMANCE

Meanwhile, Rhys Miller and crew were hastily readying the 1956 and 1957 two-seater Thunderbird. Hoping to increase the Thunderbird’s practicality, Lewis Crusoe had ordered Miller to improve cargo space. The initial solution was to remove the bulky spare tire from the trunk, replacing it with a Continental kit on the rear bumper. Unfortunately, the extra weight on the tail did ugly things to handling, leading Ford to soften the rear springs and slow the steering ratio in hopes of discouraging banzai cornering antics.

To compensate for the extra weight, the 1956 Thunderbird got more power. Cars with the three-speed manual transmission now had 202 gross horsepower (151 kW), while cars with overdrive or Fordomatic had a new 312 cu. in. (5,111 cc) version with either 215 or 225 hp (160 or 168 kW). Road & Track found that their Fordomatic ’56 was slightly quicker than the ’55, although they had some unkind words for its handling and brakes.

1956 Ford Thunderbird rear 3q  Greg Goebel
The 1956 Ford Thunderbird’s standard Continental kit presented many complications. The external spare, bigger bumper, and the bracing necessary to support them added nearly 300 lb (136 kg) to the rear end, making the T-Bird slightly tail heavy. It also sharply increased the polar moment of inertia, leading to tail-wagging in sharp turns. Furthermore, while it increased trunk space, it made trunk access more difficult. (Photo © 2007 Greg Goebel; released to the public domain by the photographer)

Thunderbird sales dipped slightly for 1956 to 15,631, perhaps because of a higher base price of $3,163. It also had renewed competition from the Corvette, which now also had a standard V8 engine, manual transmission, and roll-up windows.

For 1957, Ford abandoned the Continental kit in favor of a reshaped, longer tail, with room for both spare wheel and a modicum of luggage. Under the hood, the Thunderbird fought back against the Corvette challenge with even more powerful engines. The base engine was now up to 212 hp (158 kW), while cars with overdrive or Fordomatic had a more powerful “D-series” engine with 245 hp (183 kW). For buyers who wanted more than that, two “E-series” engines were available, with either 270 or 285 hp (201 or 213 kW). There were also a few F-series engines with a Paxton-McCulloch supercharger and up to 340 hp (254 kW). By 1957 standards, they were quite fearsome, although with an option price around $500, only 208 supercharged ‘Birds were built.

The 1957 model year would be the last round of the Thunderbird-Corvette rivalry, but it was also the two-seat T-Bird’s best sales year. Thanks to delays with the 1958 four-seater, the 1957 Thunderbird remained in production until December 1957, three months longer than usual; total sales reached a record 21,380 units. Time reported that an assembly line worker used a piece of soap to write the words “Bye, bye, baby” on the hood of the final two-seater.

1957 Ford Thunderbird rear 3q
At 181.4 inches (4,608 mm) overall, the 1957 Ford Thunderbird was slightly shorter overall than the 1956 model, but the body was actually 5.3 inches (133 mm) longer than before, mostly in the tail; the difference reflected the deletion of the Continental spare.

SCENES FROM THE RESURRECTION

Robert McNamara may have had no affection for the “Little Bird,” but many were sad to see it go. In September 1957, Tom Case called the Budd Company to ask how much it would cost to keep the two-seater in production as a supplement to the bigger four-seat ‘Bird. McNamara, annoyed, told him to forget it.

After Lee Iacocca became general manager of Ford in late 1960, he told Case to call Budd again and ask if the dies still existed. Budd not only confirmed that the tooling was still available, they began an enthusiastic lobbying campaign to persuade Iacocca to revive the two-seat T-Bird. Budd commissioned its own marketing survey and went so far as to build a prototype “XT-Bird,” created by grafting the body of a ’57 Thunderbird onto the platform of a Ford Falcon. Tom Case argued forcefully for the XT-Bird, which could be tooled for an amazingly low $1.5 million, but Iacocca eventually said no. Although he liked the Little Bird, he preferred to develop his own new product rather than resuscitating an old one.

With that, the two-seat Thunderbird was really dead, discounting the curious tonneau-covered Sports Roadsters of 1962-1963. The four-seaters inevitably sold better — even in their worst years, they outpaced the Little Bird’s best year by nearly two to one — so from a commercial standpoint, McNamara was correct. Similarly, the Mustang sold far better than a revived XT-Bird ever would have, so it’s probably for the best that Iacocca demurred.

GRADUATION DAY

The two-seater Thunderbird represented the end of an era: an era in which Ford was constantly reacting to everything Chevrolet did. After this, Ford took the lead in developing new product concepts. The Little Bird had been Ford’s answer to the Corvette and imported sports cars like the Jaguar, but the four-seater Square Bird was something new, as were the Mustang, <LTD, and Lincoln Continental Mark III that came after it, leaving the company’s key rivals struggling to catch up. Chevrolet, for instance, didn’t have a real personal luxury car until 12 years after the four-seater T-Bird debuted. Ford still didn’t consistently outsell Chevrolet, but it forced Chevy to follow its lead, rather than the other way around.

In July 1960, Henry Ford II fired Ernest Breech, who had been his chief adviser, mentor, and viceroy for almost 15 years. According to author David Halberstam, Ford’s parting words to Breech were, “Ernie, I’ve graduated.” In a sense, the demise of the Little Bird was also a coming of age: sad, somewhat painful, but necessary.

2002 Ford Thunderbird front 3q
The retro-styled modern two-seat Ford Thunderbird — the 11th Thunderbird generation and the last to date — was offered from 2002 to 2005. It shared the DEW98 platform of the contemporary Lincoln LS, along with its 242 cu. in. (3,980 cc) V8 and five-speed automatic. The DEW98 platform was not really stiff enough for open-top duty and Ford opted for modest power output and soft suspension settings so that the somewhat willowy structure would not be as obvious. (Photo © 2005 Rmhermen; used under a CreativeCommons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license)

That may be why the retro two-seater Thunderbird of 2001-2005 was such a flop. It was a studious modern imitation of the original’s styling, somewhat bigger (186.3 inches/4,732 mm long on a 107.2-in/2,723mm wheelbase) and heavier (3,750 lb/1,700 kg), but sharing the same concept and general character. The “Retro Bird” was not unattractive, but it lacked a purpose. It wasn’t a serious rival to a Corvette or anything else, and it was too concerned with looking backward to break any new ground. To our eyes, it resembled nothing so much as an overweight middle-aged man trying to stuff himself into his old college football uniform. The Retro Bird will probably become a minor collectible, but when the history of this century’s Fords is written, we doubt that anyone will be rushing to take credit for it.

Still, necessary or not, the demise of the original Little Bird is regrettable. It may not have been a brilliant performer or a ground-breaker, but even 50+ years on, it looks right, one of those rare designs that appeals to nearly everyone. It’s little wonder that almost everyone who ever touched it, whether during its conception or afterward, still wants a piece of it.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

The competing accounts of the origins of the Thunderbird were drawn from the following sources:

  • John F. Katz, Soaring Spirit Thirty Five Years of the Ford Thunderbird (Kutztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, Inc., 1989).
  • Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), which also provided information on the ascension of George Walker to the vice presidency of styling.
  • David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of George W. Walker” (April 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, The Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife. umd.umich. edu/ Design/Walker/ walkerinterview.htm (transcript), accessed 1 June 2009).
  • “The Cellini of Chrome,” TIME 4 November 1957, www.time. com/ time/ magazine/ article/ 0,9171,867903-1,00.html, accessed 1 June 2009) and “The T-Bird Grows Up,” TIME 6 January 1958, www.time. com/ time/ magazine/article/ 0,9171,868131,00.html, accessed 6 June 2009).
  • Richard M. Langworth, The Thunderbird Story: Personal Luxury (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1980).
  • John R. (Dick) Samsen, “‘Hatching’ the Thunderbird: History of Ford Styling 1952-1955,” 2005, collectibleart. net/ FordHistory.html and collectibleart. net/ T-BirdStoryP2.html, accessed 5 June 2009.
  • “Little Bird Meets Big Bird,” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 56-65.
  • C. Edson Armi, “Interview with Frank Hershey,” The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), pp. 185-202.

Some additional behind-the-scenes information on Ford, including Henry Ford II’s purported final words to Ernest R. Breech, came from David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986). Facts about Ford’s Touring-bodied 1952 Ferrari came from the information card displayed with the car on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Road test data came from “Testing Ford’s ‘Personal’ Car: The T-Bird Shows its Claws (Road Test No. A-3-55),” Road & Track March 1955; “Flight Testing Ford’s Bird (Road Test No. 109),” Road & Track August 1956; Ken Fermoyle, “The 1957 Thunderbird,” Motor Life December 1956; Karl Ludvigsen, “Drivers Report: the 1957 Thunderbird,” Sports Cars Illustrated January 1957; and Bob Veith, “Bob Veith Tests and Compares: Corvette, T-Bird, Golden Hawk,” Speed Age May 1957, of which are reprinted in Thunderbird 1955-57 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2000).

Information on the proposed XT-Bird revival came from Frank Taylor, “Thunderbird: Three Years of Glory, 1955-1957,” Car Classics February 1975, which is also reprinted in Thunderbird 1955-1957. Other details on production Thunderbirds came from John Gunnell, ed., T-Bird: 40 Years of Thunder (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1995), Aaron Robinson, “2002 Ford Thunderbird Road Test: After hatching a few buzzards, Ford finally sires a swan,” Car and Driver Vol. 47, No. 1 (July 2001), pp. 58-62, and the Wikipedia® entry for “Ford Thunderbird (eleventh generation),” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Thunderbird_%28eleventh_generation%29, accessed 1 June 2009.


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  1. I get upset when people (then and now) think of the Ford Thunderbird two seater as a “failure” because it sold so few cars. Its real benefit was drawing people into showrooms, It was an exciting new care that brought people out in droves. I remember going to see the brand new 1955 Thunderbird in the first weeks of its release to the dealers. There were lines of people out the door waiting to get a look at this new car. My Father and I stood in line for about 40 minutes to be able to look at it up close and sit in the light blue hardtop. It would have taken 10 minutes just to get in close enough to see it fro 20 feet away. I will add that my Father was not usually Ford buyer – in fact it would not be until he bought a 1964 Ford used more than a decade later that he would even own a Ford. But he was willing to stand in a line for this one, with only a little pushing from me. Of course 1955 was a big styling change-over year and he indulged his seven year old son, the car nut, by going to several dealers. And I was impressed by a lot of what I saw- notably the Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” Chrysler products, of which I remember telling my cousin “they were so far out of this world beautiful it was had to believe they were in this world”. But the only dealer where we waited in line was for the T-Bird. That was its value to Ford.

    By the way, I am surprised that you didn’t add the side story that Studebaker could have had a two seater at the same time as the Covette and T-brd were launched. Raymond Loewy’s team had a mock-up of one at the same time that they presented the prototype for the two door 1953 Starlight Coupe. It was a bad set of management decisions by Studebaker that kept them from having a four door version of the sleek coupe and a sporty two seater as well. Of course there is no evidence, as far as I know, that Ford had heard of the Loewy design or that it influenced them in any way to build the T-Bird.

    1. In terms of return on investment, the Little Bird was certainly not a failure. I don’t think Ford [i]lost[/i] any money on it, which, combined with the publicity value, made it a worthwhile exercise.

      The long-term question that Crusoe and McNamara had to consider was whether it made sense to continue the two-seater beyond the first generation. If the two-seater had continued beyond 1957, its novelty value would have worn off, which would have returned to the question of whether it could be profitable in its own right. The same decision was made with the Skyliner retrac. There would have been a market for it in 1960 and beyond, but people wouldn’t have been lining up to see it work anymore.

    2. hi
      in 1957 my older brother and my dad visited the ford dealer in michigan city,ind to place an order for a 57 bird. color white,cruiseomatic no aire, just a garden variety bird.after completing the order they both went home,however unknown to my dad my brother revisited the ford dealer and upgraded the engine option to the 285 hp e code. when the car arrived my dad balked at the price increase(dont know what it was but he could afford it). the salesman convinced him to test drive the car and he was impressed.my brother became a major street racer beating a local golden hawk and a 300c(up to 60mph) he also did the downshift from hi back to low to hold the tranny in 2nd gear.dont think he ever raced a 270hp or fuelie vette (he would have lost) we drove the car back to indiana the following year after moving to california and got beat racing a tri-power pontiac. the car was sold to a lady schoolteacher from san diego in 1959(hope it survives) it wouldnt have in indiana.

  2. Hi! I recall seeing a picture of the mock up
    in an old Auto magazine some time in the 1970’s
    which I unfortunaty failed to hang onto. Do you have or know where, one would be able to get a copy of any pictures of the Studebaker mock up?
    Thanks!

    1. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. I looked in several likely places ([i]Cars Detroit Never Built[/i], [i]Cars That Never Were[/i], Dave Holls’ and Michael Lamm’s book on styling), and couldn’t find any images of it.

    2. There are about three photo references of the Studebaker two seater proposal. Gene Garfinkle sketched it for Road and Track. John Bridges and The Stude Drivers Club has published the clay in fuzzy ¾ front and rear shots. I cannot furnish those owing to the copyright issue seen below. It was an open car, and with no roof would not reveal a great deal of profile charisma, although it was pleasant. It would have looked better than the 1955 revision to the Starliner, and been on a foot and a half less wheelbase. But, nobody at Studebaker had much appreciation for real roadworthiness or speed despite having several Indy drivers in their employ.

  3. When it’s not on display it’s downstairs in “The Vault” where the museum keeps the rest of the collection. There’s some great stuff down there!

  4. The 55 & 56 Corvettes were considerably faster than the T-birds. So were the 57’s at first. But a 57 “F”Bird (the supercharged one) would flat-ass blow ANY Corvette right off the road!!

  5. Robert S (as in “Stupid”) McNamara did more to damage Ford’s reputation than any man in Ford’s history. He was a beancounter’s beancounter who didn’t give a damn about completely destroying the company’s credibility by continually over-rating the horsepower of their engines by about 50%

    1. McNamara certainly accumulated many enemies, both at Ford and later as Secretary of Defense, and it seems fair to say most of the people who dealt with him professionally had mixed feelings. On the other hand, at Ford, he was largely responsible for the Falcon (which became the best-seller among U.S. compacts, the basis of the Mustang, and the cornerstone of Ford’s Australian business), the 1961 Lincoln Continental, the four-seat Thunderbird (likely Ford’s most profitable model, at least until the advent of the Mustang), and probably the Fairlane. And of course it was during his time at Ford that Ford Division reclaimed the number one spot in overall sales, albeit briefly and by a narrow (and arguable) margin.

      As for engine output figures, in the days of gross ratings, MOST published American horsepower and torque figures were generous, to say the least, probably dictated more by marketing needs than anything else. There were occasional exceptions, but they were more likely to be racing homologation engines, rather than the bread-and-butter choices. That was hardly exclusive to Ford, and I doubt it had much of anything to do with McNamara.

  6. The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has Henry Ford II’s 1952 Ferrari Barchetta. Apparently there are pics of this car in the Thunderbird design studio. This car has the hood scoop, egg crate grille, exhausts that port out the body work and taillights that are remarkably similar to those on the T-Bird.

    1. Very interesting. I’ve been to the Petersen many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that car there. The front end similarities are pretty pronounced — you couldn’t say the T-Bird was a knockoff of that car, but there are definite parallels.

  7. what is the difference between a first year and second year? im trying to figure out my code on car. it reads 40atc4cse136. thanks

    1. The first three digits of that number are the body code: 40A means it’s a Thunderbird. (If it were a Country Squire wagon, it would be 79C and if it were a Fairlane Victoria two-door, it would be 60B.) The fourth and fifth digits indicate the original paint and interior colors: In this case, “Thunderbird Blue” with white/turquoise interior trim. The “4C” digits are the build date, which in this case translates to March 4, 1955. “SE” indicates the region of the country for which the car was originally ordered and “136” is an assembly order sequence number; I don’t have a chart for the dealer codes, so I don’t know to what “SE” corresponds.

      Please note that the build sequence number is not a serial number and has nothing to do with where the car fell in terms of total ’55 Thunderbird production; for that, you’d need the VIN.

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