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Retro Review: First-Gen Ford Thunderbird

As Ford’s answer to the Corvette, the Thunderbird blazed a trail all its own.

“Fun, Fun, Fun”

1957 Ford Thunderbird - media.ford.com

1957 Ford Thunderbird – media.ford.com |  Shop Ford Thunderbird on Carsforsale.com

The Ford Thunderbird is a classic of the 1950s that, despite its V8 engines and two-seat design, was not marketed as a sports car but instead as a “personal car of distinction.” While the C1 Chevrolet Corvette was struggling to emulate British-style roadsters, the Ford’s decision to market the Thunderbird as a more luxury-focused car proved decisive, with the early Thunderbird outselling the Corvette by more than 20-to-1.

Despite the marketing push, the Thunderbird is still remembered as a performance car that would go on to build a serious racing resume. Through ten consecutive generations and another brief return in the early 2000s as a retro revival, the Thunderbird was a mainstay of the Ford line-up even as if was consistently an afterthought to the iconic Mustang.

1970 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com
1970 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com

Over that span of decades, the Thunderbird was often, to put it bluntly, not an attractive car. From generation to generation, the Thunderbird went from nondescript in the 1960s to odd (consider the 1970s update with its distinctive beak nose design) to, by the 1980, downright ugly. The later Fox-body generations may have improved the car mechanically, but it remained aesthetically deficient. The retro-styled 11th-generation Thunderbird took some of the best design elements from the original first-generation and gave them a modern gloss that failed to excite car buyers young or old.

But it’s that first-generation Thunderbird that has rightly (hopefully) stuck in our memories. Beautifully proportioned, the 1957 Ford Thunderbird in particular features some of the best elements of 1950s design with a restrained execution lacking in cars like the Cadillac Eldorado, for instance. Bold, elegant, yet simple, the first-generation Thunderbird was indeed a “car of distinction.”

Development

1955 Ford Thunderbird assembly - media.ford.com
1955 Ford Thunderbird assembly - media.ford.com

Back in the early 1950s, Ford and GM had begun flirting with the idea of an American sports car in the vein of European and British roadsters of the day. At the time, small and light was the exact opposite of what Detroit was selling. While GM hoped to produce something sporty, Ford designers pitched their two-seater as sophisticated luxury convertible. The idea had its origins back in 1951 with Lewis Crusoe and George Walker, with help from Frank Hersey, Ford’s head of design. They wouldn’t get full approval for the project until 1953, after Henry Ford II had witnessed the debut of the Corvette.

There are a few competing narratives on the Thunderbird’s naming. The first holds that the name came form Ford chairman Ernest Breech, who was a member of the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. The other, more well-founded story says the Thunderbird name resulted from a naming contest won by Ford designer Alden Giberson who was inspired by an emblem of the Thunderbird (a Native American symbol of power) on a diner coffee cup. For the winning name Giberson was awarded a $95 dollar suit. Other suggested names included the Apache (good), Beaver (not so good), and the Tropicale (love it, but, no).

First-Gen Thunderbird Specs

’55 Thunderbird

1955 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com
1955 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com

The first-year Thunderbird debuted in February of 1954. It featured a 292 cu-in (4.8L) Y-block V8 and either a 2-speed automatic transmission or 3-speed manual with overdrive sending power to the rear wheels. The car came as a convertible only, with either a retractable soft top or removeable hard top. Among its charming design elements were tailpipes integrated into the Thunderbird’s large chrome rear bumper.

’56 Thunderbird

1956 Ford Thunderbird - media.ford.com
1956 Ford Thunderbird - media.ford.com

The ‘56 Thunderbird receive some significant updates for its second year in production. First of these was a new larger 312 cu-in (5.1L) V8. Next, the removeable hardtop was given pothole windows to reduce the car’s blind spot. The spare wheel was moved to the trunk lid, this gave the car an additional flare of sophistication as well as freeing up additional cargo space.

’57 Thunderbird

1957 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com
1957 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com

The 1957 Ford Thunderbird saw still more updates, both visual and mechanical. The grille and taillight grew, as it the rear fins. A high-performance version was offered that added a 4-barrel Holley carburetor and superchargers to the 312 cu-in V8 for 300 horsepower and 439 lb-ft of torque. For comparison, the ’57 Corvette, even when equipped with fuel-injection, topped out at just 250 horsepower.

Subsequent Generations and Legacy

1958 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com
1958 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com

The first generation of the Ford Thunderbird was short-lived. For 1958, a new generation debuted with major changed that included a four-seat version and a squared-off body that earned it the nickname the “square-bird.” A more aerodynamic design arrived in the third generation, as well as a larger V8. The fifth-generation Thunderbird ditched the drop top in favor of a sedan body style with suicide doors. The sixth-gen car received Ford’s largest displacement V8 ever, at a hulking 460 cubic inches (7.5L). The Thunderbird moved to the Fox-body platform for much of the 1980s. That decade it won Motortrend’s Car of the Year award twice (once in ’87 and again in ’89). The Thunderbird was discontinued after the 1997 model year but briefly revived five years later with a retro design that directly echoed the first-generation car. For more on the Thunderbirds many generations, click here.

1957 Ford Thunderbird - netcarshow.com

1957 Ford Thunderbird – netcarshow.com |  Shop Ford Thunderbird on Carsforsale.com

With a total of 11 generations, the Thunderbird was one of Ford’s longest running nameplates. And while many of those years were unremarkable, a few, like the 1957 Ford Thunderbird or the supercharged 1989 model standout. The Ford Thunderbird might not have maintained the initial promise of a “personal car of distinction” for its full run but looking at the first-generation it’s hard to not appreciate its mix of sophistication and rollicking fun. No wonder the Thunderbird was the inspiration for the Beach Boys song, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” one of our top 25 car songs on all time.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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