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
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Requiem for Misterl: The 1959 Cadillac and the Winter of Harley Earl

Even if you know nothing about cars and your only exposure to American automobiles is TV and movies, you probably recognize this shape. It’s been featured on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps, a quintessential icon of Fifties Americana in all its grandeur and absurdity. It is, of course, the 1959 Cadillac.

The ’59 Cadillac emerged from a seismic shift at General Motors and marked the transition between two very different eras in automotive design. This week, we look at the history of the 1959 cars and the final days of legendary design chief Harley Earl.

1959 Cadillac De Ville fins
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More from Less: The Pontiac Grand Prix and the Politics of Downsizing

Thirty years ago, the watchword of the auto industry was downsizing. Driven by high oil prices and ever-increasing emission standards, American automakers were forced to dramatically reduce the size and weight of their cars. Today, with spiraling oil prices and concerns about global warming, a new wave of downsizing can’t be far off. However, downsizing can be risky. Customers have been indoctrinated for decades in the idea that bigger is better, and you have to be careful that smaller size isn’t perceived as poorer value. Do it wrong, and you can end up with a sales disaster that could put you out of business. This week, we take a look at an early example of downsizing that succeeded. This is the history of the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix

1969 Pontiac Grand Prix badge
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Stuck in the Middle: The Mid-Engine Porsche 914

Sometimes there’s nothing worse than having an iconic, instantly recognizable product. How do you follow up an icon? Both Volkswagen and Porsche faced that problem in the 1960s. Volkswagen had the Beetle, Porsche the 911, but both companies knew that these highly successful products weren’t going to be enough to sustain them into the next decade. In 1967, they decided to collaborate on a new, affordable sports car that they hoped would expand their market. Unfortunately, they found out the hard way that the public had some very firm ideas about what a VW or a Porsche was supposed to be. This is the story of the 1970-1976 Porsche 914.

1975 Porsche 914
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The Unlikely Studebaker: The Birth (and Rebirth) of the Avanti

Once upon a time, a venerable and well-known automaker, realizing the end was nigh, tried desperately to show the public that while they might be down, they were not yet out. They called on the world’s most famous designer and asked him to design them a sports car: something so striking and unusual that buyers would come running back to dealerships just to see it and thus breathe life into a dying business. It failed, but the designer’s sports car rose from the ashes and went on to outlive its parent company by more than 40 years. This is the story of the Studebaker Avanti.

1963 Studebaker Avanti nose
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Getting the Lead Out: The 1970-1981 Chevrolet Camaro and the Rise and Fall of Leaded Gasoline

Pity the second-generation Chevrolet Camaro. Born late — a delivery fraught with complications — it was nearly snuffed out in adolescence. Although it survived to a ripe old age, the second-gen Camaro has never inspired the same nostalgia as its beloved 1967-1969 predecessor, perhaps because it arrived in the fray of one of the most contentious public debates of the 20th century: the battle over automotive emissions and the use of lead as a gasoline additive. This is the story of the 1970-1981 Chevrolet Camaro and the rise and fall of leaded gasoline.

1973 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 nose
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Dollar-Store Decadence: The Luxurious Ford LTD

The epoch-making success of the Ford Mustang and Thunderbird tends to leave other Ford cars of its era looking like poor relations, but in the 1960s Ford really led the pack when it came to new product development. One of the least-acknowledged — but most lucrative — new concepts was the Ford LTD: Ford’s cut-price luxury car.

1966 Ford LTD hardtop emblem
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Understanding Gross Versus Net Horsepower Ratings

There are a lot of misunderstandings among car enthusiasts and historians about vintage horsepower ratings. It’s easy to assume from a casual glance at ads or spec sheets that even quite ordinary American family sedans of the sixties were overwhelmingly powerful, with 300 horsepower or more, and yet by 1975, many of those same cars were down to 150 hp or less. When asked the reason for the huge difference, gearheads tend to shake their heads and mutter about emissions controls and anemic, low-octane unleaded gasoline — which is true, but only partly.

What complicates the issue and makes apples-to-apples comparisons difficult is the fact that those pre-smog horsepower ratings were not calculated in the same way as modern engines. “A horsepower is a horsepower, right?” you say. While a horsepower, pre-smog or post, remains 746 watts (or 736, for metric horsepower), the way that output was measured has changed quite a bit. Let’s explain:

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The Strange Tale of the Buick Special, Buick-Rover V8, and 3800 V6

From the “what tangled webs we weave” department comes this odd tale of how Buick’s efforts to build an economy car in the early 1960s gave birth to the premier British hot rod engine and a V6 that was still powering new GM cars some 45 years after its original demise. This is the story of the 1961-1963 Buick Special and Skylark, the aluminum Buick / Rover V8, and the long-lived GM 3800 V6 engine.

1963 Buick Special Skylark badge
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Romeo and Julietta: The 1954–1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta

It might be easier to overcome the various stereotypes that pervade the auto industry if they weren’t so often true, something of which Italy’s Alfa Romeo has long served as a case in point. Alfa’s products are generally attractive and compelling to drive, but they often have a well-deserved reputation for being temperamental and undependable and the politics behind their creation have often been the stuff of comic opera. Such was the case of one of the firm’s loveliest creations, a car named for a Shakespearean tragic heroine: the 1954-1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider 1300 front view
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