Gaudy but Glamorous: 1958–1966 Ford Thunderbird

Like its younger sibling, the Ford Mustang, the Ford Thunderbird enjoys an impressive and loyal fan base whose adulation is somewhat out of proportion to the car’s tangible virtues. Admittedly, any model that survives for 50 years and 13 distinct generations has to have something going for it, but the T-Bird lacks many of the qualities that tend to make a car a classic. Particularly in their later, four-seat incarnations, Thunderbirds never had blazing performance, they’re hardly rare, and as for their styling, let us just say that they often flirted with the ragged edges of good taste. Still, people loved them and these cars inspired a host of imitators, so they were doing something right. Let’s take a look at the tumultuous and occasionally tacky history of the 1958-1966 Ford Thunderbird.

1965 Ford Thunderbird emblem

THE FORD THUNDERBIRD GROWS UP

There isn’t much doubt about why people love the original two-seat Thunderbird of 1955-1957, known to its fans as the “Little Bird”: It looked like a sports car, was far more civilized than a Corvette, and managed a fair turn of speed. The original design, developed by Frank Hershey and Bill Boyer, walked a finely drawn line between sportiness and class, managing to bridge the tastes of a wide spectrum of buyers of different ages, income levels, and social strata. In looks, price, and positioning, Thunderbird was an inherent desirable car, which also made it a fine showroom traffic-builder.

The only ones who didn’t love it were Ford’s accountants. Ford sold around 53,000 Little Birds in three years, a highly respectable sum for a sports car, but barely break-even volume for a major automaker. Ford Division general manager Lewis Crusoe had never expected the Thunderbird to be a high-volume car. As Crusoe saw it, it was basically a promotion and as long as it didn’t actually lose money, it had accomplished its goals.

In the fifties, though, Ford was a company increasingly dominated by financial analysts, including the so-called “Whiz Kids” like controller Robert McNamara, who would shortly succeed Crusoe at Ford Division. The bean counters took a dim view of unprofitable products no matter how much promotional value they might have. Even as the Thunderbird went on sale in December 1954, there was already talk of killing it.

There wasn’t any particular mystery to the Little Bird’s modest sales. Everyone loved the look, but it was pricey and its lack of passenger space crossed it off the shopping lists of single-car families. As early as March 1955, Crusoe, now group VP, ordered the Thunderbird design team to start working on a bigger, four-seat version, code-named project 195H (indicating simply that it was for the 1958 model year).

1956 Ford Fairlane Thunderbird badge
In the late fifties, other Ford products (and Ford advertising) name-dropped the Thunderbird incessantly, hoping its glamor would rub off on the lesser models. The Thunderbird badge, seen here on the fender of a 1956 Fairlane hardtop, signifies the optional 312 cu. in. (5,111 cc) Y-block V8.

THE FOUR-SEAT SQUARE BIRD

The four-seater Ford Thunderbird flew in the face of Ford’s usual development procedures. Ordinarily, new models started with Product Planning and then went to Engineering for validation before the stylists even saw it, to insure that the design stayed “on package.” Since Bill Boyer’s Thunderbird team had cooked up the 195H design on their own (albeit at Crusoe’s suggestion), there was no package. Naturally, Engineering didn’t like that at all and reacted to the four-seater with decided hostility.

McNamara, who became Ford Division general manager in January 1955, was no fan of the Little Bird — the two-seater’s allure was largely lost on him and he disliked its lack of profit — but he took a shine to the 195H project. At that point, the four-seater had little political traction and it looked like the Thunderbird would be dropped completely after 1957. McNamara thought the four-seat project was a unique product with a strong profit potential and became an ardent supporter.

1959 Ford Thunderbird  hardtop
The 1959 Ford Thunderbird could be ordered with the massive 430 cu. in. (7,050 cc) MEL-series engine found in full-size Lincolns, with 375 gross horsepower (280 kW), but most T-Birds had the FE-series 352 (5,766 cc) V8 with 300 gross horsepower (224 kW). The latter rating was optimistic; contemporary reviewers estimated its actual net horsepower at around 220 hp (164 kW). With Cruise-O-Matic and the 352, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took about 10.5 seconds; despite the 140-mph (225-km/h) speedometer, top speed was perhaps 110 mph (176 km/h).

Ford stylist Gene Bordinat later recalled with some amusement that the taciturn, no-nonsense McNamara was actually quite enamored of the four-seater Thunderbird’s styling, which Bordinat thought “hokey” and distinctly overdecorated. Still, however much McNamara liked the looks, he was probably more enticed by the numbers. Ford’s market research suggested that the four-seater might sell up to 100,000 units a year, which would make it a far more lucrative proposition than the Little Bird had ever been. Furthermore, a four-seat ‘bird could be built at Ford’s new Wixom Assembly Plant alongside the big Lincoln Continental, allowing Ford to better utilize the expensive new factory.

Like the ’58 Lincoln, the four-seat Ford Thunderbird had unibody construction, unusual for an American car of its era, but its main attraction was its styling. The two-seat Thunderbird had its share of gimmicks, including a false hood scoop and fake fender louvers, but overall it was a fairly clean, crisp design. The four-seater, by contrast, was a busy-looking hardtop with an odd combination of space-age accoutrements and a rather rigid and upright “formal” roofline.

1959 Ford Thunderbird hardtop rear 3q
The 1959 Ford Thunderbird shows off its formal roofline. Inspired by the roofline of the 1957 Ford Skyliner ‘retrac,’ the shape was much imitated, both within Ford (where it found its way onto the full-size Galaxie, the Falcon, the Mercury Comet, and the midsize Fairlane) and elsewhere in the industry.

The new Thunderbird, which quickly earned the nickname “Square Bird,” was quite a bit bigger than the Little Bird. The Square Bird’s wheelbase was 11 inches (279 mm) longer than the 1957 and stretched more than 20 inches (510 mm) longer overall. The two-seaters were never particularly svelte and the bulkier Square Bird added nearly 400 extra pounds (about 175 kg) to their curb weight. Unitized construction didn’t make the Thunderbird any lighter, but did allow the Square Bird to sit lower: only 52.5 inches (1,334 mm) overall, almost 5 inches (127 mm) lower than a contemporary Ford sedan.

The unit body also contributed to the new Thunderbirds’s other great stylistic claim to fame: its prominent center console and bucket seats. The new T-Bird had an obtrusive driveshaft tunnel, which also acted as a structural spine. Its low floor meant the tunnel intruded too far into the passenger compartment to allow a conventional bench seat. Instead, Boyer’s styling team substituted individual front seats and made the tunnel a decorative element, covering it with a console containing the heater and power window controls, the ashtray, and a radio speaker. The console gave the Square Bird’s interior a showy, airplane-cockpit feel that was widely imitated. (Indeed, center consoles are all but mandatory on modern cars.)

DEFINING A MARKET

Ford had always been cagey about calling the Thunderbird a sports car, preferring the term “personal car.” When the Square Bird appeared for the ’58 model year, it put the kibosh on any sporting pretensions the Thunderbird might have had. The four-seater had more power than the two-seater, but the extra weight meant it wasn’t any faster. Its suspension and steering were even soggier than before and its brakes were frankly poor. The racing team of Holman & Moody did convert eight 1959 Ford Thunderbirds into NASCAR stockers, but the standard models didn’t encourage vigorous driving.

Enthusiasts wailed in horror at the arrival of the Square Bird, but the buying public loved it. Many of the people who’d said they would buy a Thunderbird if only it had a back seat soon put their money where their mouths were; Ford sold almost 38,000 Thunderbirds in 1958 despite a nasty national recession and could have sold even more if the Wixom plant had been able to get production up to speed more quickly. More than 67,000 Thunderbirds were sold in 1959 and sales for 1960 were nearly 93,000. For once, the market research had been right on target. The Square Bird cost more to build than the two-seater had, but it was also more expensive and turned out to be a very profitable car.

Part of the reason the Ford Thunderbird sold so well was that there wasn’t anything else like it on the market. Its performance was nothing special, but it looked like an auto show concept car. There were cars with more prestige, but other than a handful of high-priced European exotics, few were more distinctive. The Thunderbird was also comfortable and reasonably practical, something that couldn’t be said of a contemporary Corvette. By 1960, the T-Bird had attained a level of brand awareness that any marketing executive in the world would kill to achieve. Everyone knew what a Thunderbird was and, discounting the disgruntled sports car fans, many people aspired to own one.

1961 Ford Thunderbird front 3q
The Bullet Bird’s sunken headlamps are its most awkward-looking aspect and weren’t well received by the public. Neither were the 1961 Ford Thunderbird’s list prices, which were up more than 10% from 1960 — another reason for somewhat lower sales than the Square Bird.

Ford’s rivals were perfectly aware of how much money Ford was raking in on the Thunderbird, but it took them an unaccountably long time to do anything about it. GM watched almost 200,000 Square Birds roll out the door before any General Motors division offered anything similar. The first riposte, the 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire, was a half-hearted gesture and the T-Bird promptly beat it like a gong. The 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix and 1963 Buick Riviera did somewhat better, but neither did much to steal buyers from their Dearborn rival.

THE 1961 FORD THUNDERBIRD: BULLET BIRD

The Ford Thunderbird was redesigned for 1961, retaining its four-seat configuration and basic dimensions, but trading the Square Bird’s angular lines for a streamlined fighter-jet look, developed by stylist Alex Tremulis. (An alternative concept developed by Elwood Engel became the 1961 Lincoln Continental.)

Mechanically, the new Thunderbird was much the same as before, although it was somewhat heavier, with a larger engine and standard power steering. Early in its development, engineer Fred Hooven had pushed for the Thunderbird to have front-wheel drive, but while Ford did seriously consider the prospect, even building several prototypes, the idea was eventually dropped on cost grounds.

Customers were not quite as enthusiastic about the “Bullet Bird” as they had been about its squared-off predecessor, perhaps because the public was becoming weary of the rocketship styling cues of the fifties. Even so, the Ford Thunderbird remained the car to beat in the personal luxury market.

1961 Ford Thunderbird rear3q
The Bullet Bird looks sleeker from the rear from the front. Although the Ford Thunderbird looked unique, it shared various visual elements with other Ford products of its time. The “dog dish” taillights, designed by Joe Oros, were found on most Ford cars through 1964. The sharp-edged chrome fender tips are similar to the contemporary Lincoln Continental, which was built on the same assembly line and shared the T-Bird’s cowl structure and other components.

THE 1964 FORD THUNDERBIRD

By the time the fourth-generation Ford Thunderbird appeared for 1964, the Thunderbird design studio had a firm grasp of what their customers liked and didn’t like. Since the “banana-nose” design of the Bullet Birds hadn’t gone over well, Bill Boyer and his team revisited some earlier styling themes for its 1964 successor. The Bullet Bird’s unloved recessed headlights, tail fins, and dog-dish tail lights all got the ax.

The new ‘Bird — known today as the “Flair Bird” — was fractionally shorter than before, but looked longer thanks in part to sharp creases in the body sides and a pair of horizontal “skeg” lines extending through the doors into the rear fenders, reminiscent of the 1961-1962 Cadillacs. The hood was lengthened and the greenhouse shortened to give more muscular proportions, but the now-expected fake hood scoop and formal roofline were still present and accounted for. Boyer later denied trying to rehash the Square Bird, but he admitted that his goal for the 1964 Thunderbird was to synthesize the most successful elements of the previous generations.

1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau side
This somewhat battered 1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau shows off some of the Flair Bird’s major styling features: fake hood scoop, body-side “skeg” fins, and formal roof. The chrome “waste gate” trim on the front fender, not present on the 1964 cars, was added for 1965 and deleted the following year. The Flair Bird is an intermediate by sixties standards: 205.4 inches (5,217 mm) long on a 113.2-inch (2,875mm) wheelbase, 77.1 inches (1,958 mm) wide and 52.5 inches (1,334 mm) high. A well-equipped Thunderbird Landau weighs around 4,600 pounds (2,087 kg); convertibles are about 110 pounds (50 kg) heavier. Rear fender skirts are very common on these cars, but they were technically optional, costing an extra $32.70. This car’s ugly wheel covers are not original.
1965 Ford Thunderbird front
The Flair Bird returned the “eyebrows” over the headlamps that had been used on the 1958-60 Square Birds. The 1965 Ford Thunderbird can be distinguished from the 1964 T-Bird by its slightly different grille texture (with vertical as well as horizontal bars) and the chrome emblem on the nose; 1964 Thunderbirds have “T H U N D E R B I R D” lettering between the headlights instead.

1965 Ford Thunderbird convertible front 3q
Except for a few 1962 and 1963 cars with the very rare 340 hp (254 kW) M-code engine, all Ford Thunderbirds from 1961 to 1965 used Ford’s trusty 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) V8 and a single four-barrel carburetor, rated at 300 gross horsepower (224 kW) and 427 lb-ft (576 N-m) of torque. The 390 provides adequate power for undemanding drivers: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) takes around 11 seconds and absolute top speed is around 110 mph (176 km/h). The tiny chrome bullets on the fender tips are turn signal repeaters, a feature cribbed from early-sixties Cadillacs.

Under the revamped skin, the new Ford Thunderbird was the same old wine in a different bottle. The Flair Bird still had unitary construction, which was somewhat less novel in 1965 than it had been in 1958, but was otherwise a thoroughly conventional car, sharing its engine, transmission, and brakes with full-sized Ford sedans. Its main distinction was weight; the Thunderbird wasn’t terribly large by contemporary American standards, but it weighed more than 500 pounds (227 kg) more than a Ford Galaxie sedan, which was a significantly larger car.

1965 Ford Thunderbird rear
Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental convertibles of the early sixties borrowed their power top mechanism from the short-lived Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop of 1957-1960, although both the Thunderbird and Continental had soft tops. The entire deck flips up at the rear edge to stow the top beneath it. It’s an impressive sight to see, although its bulk means there’s essentially no trunk space at all with the top down.

Inside, interior designer John Najjar pulled out all the stops, jazzing up the familiar buckets-and-console theme with an array of toggle switches and flashing lights worthy of a B-52 Stratofortress. There was nothing that you wouldn’t find on a well-equipped family sedan today — just controls for air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power seats, radio, and heater — but it was a dazzling sight and could confuse the uninitiated.

1965 Ford Thunderbird convertible cockpit
This 1965 Ford Thunderbird convertible has nearly every available option. Although most T-Birds had air conditioning and full power equipment, everything except power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmission was technically optional, adding hundreds of dollars to the price. The only option that appears to be lacking on this car is the power vent windows; it has power windows, but manual cranks for the vents. Note that there is no glove compartment — interior storage space is limited to a small compartment under the console armrest.

1965 Ford Thunderbird dash and instruments
A full set of instruments was an increasingly rare sight on American cars of the mid-sixties, but the Thunderbird’s “flight deck” dash wouldn’t be complete without them. Four eyeball-shaped gauges monitor oil pressure, fuel, coolant temperature, and battery charge. The horizontal speedometer works like a thermometer; it looks neat, but it’s difficult to read. The abundance of chrome is obnoxious on sunny days, particularly with the top down. Note the circular emblem on the brake pedal — it proclaims that this car has disc brakes, which were standard equipment starting in 1965.

1965 Ford Thunderbird dash upper right
These elaborate read-outs and toggles control nothing more exotic than the wipers, map lights, and vents, but they look like they should operate the landing gear of a 707. The switches and lights under the read-outs are the $58 “Safety Convenience Control Panel,” which includes four-way flashers, a vacuum control to lock or unlock all the doors, and low fuel and door-ajar warning lights.

Most of the Thunderbird’s interior gadgets were pure hokum, but again the public ate it up. Sales for 1964 nearly matched the 1960 peak despite increased competition both from GM and from Ford’s own Mustang, which bowed late in the model year.

As always, the Ford Thunderbird’s success confounded critics because as an automobile it was decidedly lackluster. It had adequate power, but it was definitely not a fast car and fuel economy was predictably dire. Like its predecessors, the Flair Bird rode comfortably on smooth pavement, but rough surfaces destroyed its composure. Its handling was dire even by the grim standards of 1964 Detroit and the brakes were wretched. For all its bulk, the Thunderbird still didn’t offer an abundance of interior space either, especially in back. It all was certainly elaborate, but its complexity did not translate into performance or utility.

1965 Ford Thunderbird rear 3q
The show-stopping feature of 1965-1966 Ford Thunderbirds: sequential taillights. Each taillight segment has a separate bulb; every time the turn signals blink, the lights illuminate in sequence from inside to outside. It’s a silly gimmick, but it’s very impressive, especially at dusk. It was originally intended for the 1964 Thunderbird, but problems with state lighting laws delayed it until 1965. The system was reused on the later Shelby Mustangs and the Mercury Cougar.

1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau roof
A 1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau cost $103 more than the standard hardtop and included a padded vinyl top, fake landau irons, and fake wood appliqué on the dash. Of course, since the roof doesn’t move, landau irons are hardly necessary (and the convertible’s power top mechanism would have made them superfluous, anyway), but T-Bird stylists seldom missed an opportunity for a little gratuitous brightwork. Note the outlets for the T-Bird’s “Silent-Flo” system, one of the industry’s first modern flow-through ventilation systems. High-pressure cabin air passes through the slots in the package shelf and exits through the slots hidden between the chrome gills at the base of the rear window. It works surprisingly well, allowing decent airflow even with the windows closed.

1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau Swing-Away wheel
The Swing-Away steering column was a novel Thunderbird feature, originally introduced on the Bullet Birds. With the shifter in Park, the entire steering column swung to the right, making it easier for tall (or very rotund) drivers to enter. This is a 1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau model, identifiable by the fake woodgrain trim on the dash.

However, utility was definitely not the point. People didn’t lay out $6,000-odd for a Thunderbird because they were worried about cornering grip or gas mileage. If buyers in this class had been interested in taste or performance, they could always have bought a Buick Riviera, which was classier, faster, and handled better. The Thunderbird’s raison d’être was inspiring envy in the neighbors and letting middle-aged businessmen pretend every trip to the store was an interplanetary mission.

1965 Ford Thunderbird rear 3q
The Ford Thunderbird’s rear seat wasn’t very big, but it was nicely trimmed, with a fold-down center armrest, map lights, and an optional rear radio speaker. The curved backrest was intended to give a chaise lounge effect, but it forces passengers into awkward positions on longer trips.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

The 1965 and 1965 Flair Birds were little changed in styling or features, but a useful addition was standard front disc brakes. The discs were enough to nearly double the Thunderbird’s previously anemic stopping power, helpful for a car that so encouraged daydreaming. For 1966, there was also an optional 428 cu. in. (6,990 cc) engine, essentially a stroked version of the standard 390 (6,391 cc) V8.

1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible grille crest
1966 Ford Thunderbirds moved the Thunderbird crest from the nose to the grille. Most still had the 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) engine, but buyers could now order Ford’s 428 cu. in. (6,990 cc) FE-series V8 with a nominal 345 horsepower (257 kW). The T-Bird was still much too heavy to be competitive in the stoplight Grand Prix, but the 428 did give it more grunt for highway passing maneuvers.

SIDEBAR: Sports Roadsters and Tonneaus

Since the two-seat Little Bird died in 1957, the astute reader may be wondering why the red photo car appears to have only two seats. Therein hangs a tale.

The two-seat Thunderbird was so beloved that when the Square Bird emerged in 1958, some dealers and aftermarket companies started offering fiberglass tonneau covers that would clip in place over the four-seater’s rear seat. Such tonneau covers were painted the same color as the body and styled to look like an extension of the rear deck.

These accessories were popular enough that Ford itself eventually got into the act. In 1962, Ford began offering a Thunderbird Sports Roadster based on the Bullet Bird convertible. Stylist Bud Kaufman designed a slick tonneau cover with integral headrests that would neatly made with the backs of the T-Bird’s front seats. The Sports Roadster package also included sharp-looking wire wheels and a sporty grab handle for the front passenger.

The Sports Roadster was expensive, about 15% more than an already pricey Thunderbird convertible, and was thoroughly impractical: With the top down and the tonneau cover in place, both the rear seat and trunk were useless. Removing the tonneau cover was also a chore and required a garage or other storage space, as the cover definitely wouldn’t fit in the trunk. Fewer than 2,000 Sports Roadsters were sold in two years, although they’re relatively easy to counterfeit — there are probably more “Sports Roadster” clones today than Ford ever sold in the first place.

Ford also adapted the tonneau for the 1964 Thunderbird body, and although there wasn’t a formal Sports Roadster model, both the cover and the wire wheels were stand-alone options for regular convertibles. They weren’t offered by the factory in 1965 or 1966, but the tonneau would still fit the later convertibles and some were sold by dealers or added later by collectors.

1962 Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster tonneau front
1962 Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster tonneau rear
From four seats to two. The tonneau cover of this 1962 Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster completely covers the rear seat, blending smoothly into the line of the rear deck and making it look for all the world like a two-seater. The tonneau does not interfere with the operation of the convertible top, which is fortunate because there isn’t enough room in the Thunderbird’s trunk to store the tonneau cover. The photos above are of an authentic 1962 Sports Roadster; the tonneau cover on our red photo subject is a similar but not identical aftermarket replica.

1965 Ford Thunderbird wire wheel
Genuine Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels were optional on 1962-1964 Ford Thunderbirds. Although the wheels on this 1965 convertible have the Thunderbird-badged spinners of those optional wheels, they are not the factory wheels. The genuine articles were 14 inches and didn’t have enough clearance for the 1965 Thunderbird’s disc brakes. The knock-off spinner is just for show, concealing the lug nuts; real knock-off wheels have been illegal for road use in the U.S. since around the time this car was new.

A CHANGE OF FLIGHT PLAN

After the end of Flair Bird line in 1966, the Ford Thunderbird hit the wall. Bill Boyer subsequently admitted that by 1966, his team had largely exhausted the potential of the original styling themes.

The subsequent 1967 Thunderbird was cleaner looking inside and out, if no less ostentatious. Gone were the hood scoop, the fake louvers, the fender skirts, and the confounding array of lights and switches. The new Thunderbird also reverted to body-on-frame construction, which made it even more like a regular Ford sedan under the skin. For the design’s second year, the Thunderbird even lost its buckets and console, which moved to the options list in favor of a standard bench seat. That made sense from a practical standpoint, but it sacrificed much of what had once made the ‘Bird special.

The big showpiece for 1967 was a new body style: a four-door pillared sedan, the Thunderbird four-door Landau. Ford marketing made a big deal out of the four-door Landau, but Car and Driver dismissed it as little more than an overdecorated Ford Galaxie. The whole point of the Thunderbird and the personal luxury genre it spawned had been to offer an alternative to ordinary sedans; a four-door Thunderbird was a sedan. (Its platform, however, was used very successfully to create the Lincoln Continental Mark III.)

The 1967 sold well, thanks mostly to the continuing allure of the Thunderbird name, but by 1968, the competition was closing in. The only American marques that didn’t offer a personal luxury car by 1968 were Chrysler and Chevrolet. Many of the new rivals had a technological or performance edge over the Thunderbird. All things considered, it was probably a bad time to tone down the ostentatious styling and Walter Mitty fantasy gadgets.

1968 Ford Thunderbird Landau two-door front 3q
The 1967-1969 “Glamour Birds” sported a massive “jet-intake” grille with concealed headlamps, designed by Dave Ash. From the front, a casual observer might mistake it for the contemporary Dodge Charger were it not for the multitude of Ford Thunderbird badges. The four-door Landau had a longer wheelbase than the two-door, with center roof pillars and rear-hinged back doors like the Thunderbird’s cousin, the contemporary Lincoln Continental. Four-door Thunderbirds sold better than the previous convertible, but they never accounted for a high percentage of T-Bird sales and were dropped after 1971.

Throughout the seventies, Ford resorted to making the Thunderbird progressively bigger, plusher, and more expensive. By 1977, however, Ford was forced to trim half a ton of bloat and nearly $3,000 from the price tag, putting the Thunderbird back in the hunt with the popular Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix. Although the 1977-1979 Thunderbird lacked any real redeeming characteristics, it sold like mad. A second wave of downsizing in 1980 sent sales and prestige tumbling, although the sleek 1983 models — first wave of Ford’s “aero” revolution of the eighties — restored a certain measure of honor and brought the Thunderbird closer to its sporty roots. Still, none of the post-1966 cars will probably ever match the adoration that surrounds their fifties and sixties ancestors.

1979 Ford Thunderbird front 3q
You’re looking at the most popular Thunderbird of them all. Although it was basically a redecorated Ford Torino intermediate, the 1977-1979 Ford Thunderbird was insanely popular, selling close to 1 million units in three model years. An aggressive price cut (the 1977 Thunderbird was about 30% cheaper than the heftier ’76) was the major reason, since the car itself is thoroughly undistinguished, not to say tasteless. This is a 1979 Thunderbird, identifiable by slight differences in its grille texture. If it was originally a California car, it has Ford’s 351 cu. in. (5,765 cc) small-block V8 with a meager 149 net horsepower (111 kW) to push its two-ton heft.

THE SYNTHETIC BIRD

What are we to make of those early four-seater Ford Thunderbirds? What makes a Flair Bird charming where its bloated seventies successors seem merely fat? The Thunderbird was never really a sports car, nor was it quite a luxury car. If it could be called glamorous, it was a tawdry and ostentatious sort of glamor, and it was about as sporty as Paris, Las Vegas, is European. Its buyers and fans knew that, of course, and they didn’t care. They recognized that the ‘bird was all about symbolism and that symbolism was enough.

The great charm of the four-seat Thunderbird lies in the fact that it is, as the great Italian author and semioticist Umberto Eco once wrote of the movie Casablanca, a synthesis of many genres, in this case ranging from sporty roadster to luxury landau. The 1958–1966 Thunderbird (especially the 1964–1966 edition, which we personally consider the apogee of the form) is a shameless, occasionally incoherent précis of every automotive fascination and stylistic fetish of its era, all rolled into one gaudy, crowd-pleasing amalgam. From a single 1964 Thunderbird sporting wire wheels and the Sports Roadster tonneau cover, one could almost extrapolate a complete automotive styling history of the late fifties and early sixties. By any rational standard, the four-seat Thunderbird was pointless, even absurd, but it was a grand and delightful absurdity and it’s hard (even for your cynical author) not to love it for that alone.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the development of the four-seat Thunderbird included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Mike Bumbeck, “Four-Place Ford Thunderbird,” Hemmings Classic Car #77 (February 2011), pp. 16–25; David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Eugene [Gene] Bordinat, Jr.” [interview], 27 June 1984, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife. umd.umich.edu/ Design/ Bordinat_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 17 July 2008; John Gunnell, ed., T-Bird: 40 Years of Thunder (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1995), and Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); John F. Katz, Soaring Spirit: Thirty-Five Years of the Ford Thunderbird (Kutztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, Inc., 1989); Richard M. Langworth, The Thunderbird Story: Personal Luxury (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1980); 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; “Little Bird Meets Big Bird” from Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972); Tim Howley, “1958 Thunderbird: Flying Off in a New Direction,” Special Interest Autos #151 (January-February 1996); and Arch Brown, “1966 Thunderbird: ‘Big Bird'” Special Interest Autos #106 (July-August 1988), all of which are 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), and Josiah Work and Vince Manocchi, “SIA comparisonReport: Two Kinds of Personal Luxury: Riviera and Thunderbird for 1963,” Special Interest Autos #94 (August 1986), pp. 34-41.

Additional information on the Sports Roadster came from the LoveFords.org site (www.lovefords. org, accessed 18 July 2008) and Michael Lamm, “1962 Thunderbird Sports Roadster,” Special Interest Autos #44 (March-April 1978), pp. 12-17, 56-57.

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Technical Study of the All-New T-Birds” and Ken Fermoyle, “Thunderbird Road Test,” Motor Life March 1958; “Road Test: Ford Thunderbird: Stop off here on your way from a U.S. sedan to a sports car,” Road & Track June 1959; “Thunderbird 1961 Analysis,” Motor Life November 1960; John Lawlor, “Special Report — 1961 T-Bird,” Motor Trend December 1960; “Car Life Road Test: Ford Thunderbird,” Car Life July 1961; “New Look for the T-Bird,” Motor Trend December 1961; “Thunderbird Sports Roadster: Chrome wheels and a tonneau cover add a bit of dash to Ford’s prestige car,” Car Life July 1962; and Jim Wright, “MT Road Test: Thunderbird,” Motor Trend September 1962, all of which are reprinted in Thunderbird 1958-1963, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990); and “No Thundering Noise in this Lightning Swift Thunderbird,” Auto Sports October 1963; “Thunderbird,” Motor Trend November 1963; “The Thunderbird Grows New Feathers,” Car Life October 1963; Martyn L. Schorr, “0-60 in 6 Sec., 135 mph Top Speed…This Is a T-Bird?” Cars October 1964; Bob McVay, “1964 Thunderbird Road Test,” Motor Trend February 1964; “Thunderbird Convertible: Who wants a Thunderbird? Every last Walter Mitty in the entire United States, that’s who wants a Thunderbird!” Car and Driver, August 1964; “1965 Ford Thunderbird: At Last, Brakes to Match Those Fancy Feathers,” Car Life November 1964; John Ethridge, “Thunderbird: More Fingertip Feathers for the Bird’s Plush Nest!” Motor Trend March 1966; “Ford Thunderbird vs. Cadillac Eldorado,” Car and Driver November 1966; “Thunderbird 4-Door: Ford’s Shapely Prestige-Maker Is also an Industry Pace-Setter,” Car Life February 1967; Brock Yates, “Viewpoint: Thunderbird: The Pursuit of ‘Luxury’ Is a Game Played by Another Generation’s Rules,” Car and Driver February 1972; Rick Busenkell, “’76 Thunderbird Driver Report: They may have gone too far this time,” Complete Ford Book 1976; and Tony Swan, “Farewell to the Big Bird,” Motor Trend February 1976, all of which are reprinted in Thunderbird Performance Portfolio 1964-1976, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).

Umberto Eco’s essay “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball” — which your author enthusiastically recommends — has appeared, inter alia, in On Signs, ed., Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 35–38, and Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), pp. 260–264.


17 Comments

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  1. How much do 1962 thunderbird Kelsey Hayes wheels wieght?

    1. That’s a good question. Wire wheels were fairly heavy, particularly ones approved for OEM use on American cars of that era (which were [i]heavy[/i]; a ’62 T-Bird roadster weighed close to 5,000 pounds). My guess would be in the neighborhood of 25 pounds each, maybe a little more.

  2. I am trying to located I think a 1965 t-bird but the dashboard is like a thermometer. Have you ever seen this kind to dash board or what its called

    1. 1964 & 1965 T Birds both had this type of speedometer, and are interchangeable. It was actually a long tube like a barber pole with a red stripe that advanced across the MPH gauge which ran off the transmission. It looks like a red thermometer line when operating.

      I own a 64 T-Bird

      1. I’ve heard that style of speedometer called a ribbon speedometer. Many cars have had them. The Volvo 544, 122, and 144 come to mind.

      2. This speedometer was also used in Continentals from 1966 through the mid 70s. The way it actually worked is there is a white cylinder with a red line spiraling around it one time. The “ribbon” effect is achieved through the use of a magnifying lens in the speedometer. If you look closely, you can see that the red line in the speedometer is just a tiny bit off the vertical.

  3. Several corrections. The 58-60 Thunderbird was a work of art by Bill Boyer and his design staff.Introduced in 1958 in the mist of the auto industry which had a ression Thunderbird sales were near the 40,000 mark. Not bad for a new car in a ression that was not cheap. Thunderbird performance was not lame. Speeds of 120 were realistic and probably faster with the 430 (350 H.P) in 59. Ford would take the 430 Thunderbird special and run a close 2nd at Daytona 500 in 59. Several Thunderbirds were set up by Helmon and Moody to race at Nascar. Thunderbird handling was better than the average sedan although is was far from a sports car and Ford never advertized it as such. In 1960 where near 100,000 units were sold it became known as the world most wanted car. Things went down hill in 61. Th agressive looks were gone and more weight was added and the 390 just could not move the car. It also lost some of its handling ability. In 64 Ford went back to what was a sucessful formular, classey agressive looks, the 429 as and engine option,and styling gimicks that drove the public wild. The Thunderbird recieved its death blow in 67, and from then on the Thunderbird was never the same. The insult of the retro bird two seater was Ford biggest mistake since the Pinto.For those who wanted class, looks and power the two series of squarebirds fit the bill perfectly. Thunderbird caused GM to build the Rivera and the Toronado. GM knew Ford was onto something and they tried to play catch up.

    1. The 430 cu. in. engine was very rare on Square Birds — most had the 352 — and the Holman-Moody racers were extensively modified for track duty. The “Bullet Bird” had perfectly adequate performance with the 390 and was quicker than the heavier ’64-’66 cars with the same engine. (The 1961-63 ‘Bird was also faster all out, being somewhat more aerodynamic, although that mattered little in the U.S.) Ford tried offering a hotter 340-horsepower engine on 1962-63 Thunderbirds, but buyer interest was negligible; people weren’t buying Thunderbirds for performance. The 1964-65 Flair Bird had the same 390 as the previous car, with the 428 (not the 429) becoming optional in 1966. The 428 wasn’t a performance engine either; it was essentially just a bigger 390. The 429, which was an entirely new engine, arrived in 1968.

      The retro ‘Bird was a decent idea undermined by the lack of a really appropriate platform that wasn’t going to cost a mint to develop. They ended up having to share the DEW98 platform, which wasn’t conceived with convertibles in mind, and then had to make a lot of compromises to keep the price within the realm of reason. As automotive misfires go, there are lots of worse examples, although it was certainly a disappointing end to the line.

      1. I completely disagree about the retro Bird being disappointing. I have one, and couldn’t be more pleased. I also have 2 Flairbirds, a style I loved since I was a child. Nothing else looked like a Thunderbird, inside or out, from 1958-1966. Perhaps to some, this is ostentatious and tacky, but I do not agree with that point of view. The author of this article very clearly has a bias against just about all T-Birds, except for the originals.

        1. I am accused on a fairly regular basis of being biased, which as far as I can tell is intended to condemn me for failing to echo someone’s opinion with sufficient fidelity. Sure, I’m biased — as, I submit, are you, and as is anyone who reads articles like these (much less writes them).

          As the article explains at length, I don’t dislike the 1958–66 Thunderbirds at all. I find them silly in some respects, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with being silly. Had I gotten more direct exposure to the Flair Bird when I was about 11, it would have been one of my favorite cars ever, so it’s hard not to feel some affection for it for that alone.

          For the record, the only Thunderbirds I really dislike are the ones from the ’70s, about which the nicest thing I can say is that I like some of the colors available. I’m not especially fond of the 1980–82 iteration either, although it’s hard to summon any really strong feelings about it. The 1983–86 cars are okay, the 1987–88 a better rendition of the same idea, and the MN12 cars flawed but attractive.

          I don’t hate the Retro Bird, but I find it very disappointing, as I said. I’m not a big fan of retro cars in general, just as I’m rarely that happy with modern remakes or rehashes of old movies or TV shows. I see what they were trying to do, I can see the various practical reasons it didn’t quite come off. It could have been worse, certainly, but my net reaction is “Mehh.” I’m not alone in that, although I’m quite aware that there are some people who like them and are satisfied with what they are. That’s fine — if you like your car, there’s no reason you have to stop just because some people disagree.

  4. The main problem with the retro bird was the fact it only had two seats. Most 2-seaters are more sporty, so people wanting a luxury oriented convertible car wanted room in the back for people, pets, and additional storage. We see a perfect example of that in the 1950s, Ford just forgot their own history lesson.

    1. There’s something to that, but I think the fundamental issue was that a lot of people (not least at Ford) liked the *idea* of a modern reinvention of the two-seater, but Ford didn’t really have a suitable platform and trying to make the DEW98 work as an open car (which it wasn’t designed for) forced a lot of other compromises, both mechanically and in terms of content and design. (I also think it just didn’t look right; you see immediately what they were going for, but the proportions and detailing end up feeling awkward. To my eyes, the body-colored bumpers really don’t work aesthetically.) Being a two-seater, it was never going to sell like the old four-seat ‘birds did, but Ford expected that. They just thought it was going to do better than it did.

  5. I own a 1978 model. Non ttop or anniversary but very nice in Lipstick red. Just 46ppp original miles on the clock. A once a month drive

  6. That ’79 was my first experience of driving on the right.
    From New Zealand, via Fiji landed in LA in early 79. After 17 hours flying and waiting in Hawaii, as United were on strike so Continental were loaded to the max, I requested a Compact.
    Got a choice of an LTD or T’Bird. Took the ‘bird.
    The size was undaunting, we had had an Impala back home in Auckland, but the 351 with just 351 miles on the clock(yes!) was gutless. To add to the political lessons I arrived in the middle of the gas crisis, Socal trying to push the price over $1 a gallon, odds and evens for fill up days, cars stranded beside the freeways, you know the story.
    After 2 days, not wishing to spend ALL my first American experience in a queue (line), I turned in the T’bird and flew to ‘Frisco. The radio had The Beach Boys first up so I left it at that!
    The American dream!

  7. I learned to drive on my Dad’s “Sandshell Beige” 1962 Landau. I kept it after he passed away in 1967 but disposed of the car when the transmission failed and no one knew how to repair it. I went through a lot of cars from the time I went into the Army. A 1968 327 Camaro an Alfa-Romeo 1750 GTV, a Lotus Europa, another Alfa 1972 convertible and a few others including two Monte Carlos. My first T-Bird was a 1995 coupe followed by a 1993 Super Coupe with a five-speed stick. Very fast but nobody could work on it. It blew head gaskets regularly. I then purchased a 1964 triple-black T-Bird convertible in 1997. Purchased from the original owner, it has just been restored. Heavy, slow and gorgeous, especially with the wire wheels. I briefly considered the “Retro Bird” and found them disappointingly ugly and underpowered. I purchased my first Corvette instead. Two seats. No regrets. That Torch-Red Convertible is fast and I love it. BUT….It’s the Black T-Bird that gets all the attention, especially when the top mechanism is in action. I really am a T-Bird lover, but when I’m in a hurry, it’s the Vette.

  8. I just purchased a 1966 Thunderbird. Love it,but it is a little confusing.For instance,why no mirror on right side or where is the emergency flasher ? Help if you can.

    1. Four-way flashers were not required by law on new American cars until the 1968 model year, so earlier cars rarely have them. Similarly, passenger-side rear-view mirrors were uncommon until much later — even driver’s side outside mirrors were typically optional in this era — and so Thunderbirds of this era didn’t have them, unless someone added one aftermarket. Be glad it has turn signals! Those too were optional on most cars not that many years earlier.

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