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.
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, the Thunderbird was an inherently 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 excessive? 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 the Paris Las Vegas hotel-casino is European. Its buyers and fans knew that, of course, and they didn’t care. They recognized that the T-Bird was all about symbolism, and that symbolism was enough.
The 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.
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.