1975 Ford Thunderbird
1975 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Ford Division’s astute general manager Robert McNamara took the Thunderbird from a two- to a four-seater “personal luxury” car in 1958 because he correctly predicted it would be more profitable. Sales jumped to almost 38,000, more than the previous two years combined. McNamara had set the Thunderbird on a now size trajectory that would peak in the mid-1970s, and set his own career on a trajectory to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company.

The 1958 Thunderbird grew from its original 1955 length of 4,453 mm (175.3 in.), to 5,217 (205.4), where it stabilized until 1966, and then stretched to 5,331 mm (209.9 in.) for ’67. It was on its way to a whopping 5,740 mm (226 in.) in 1975, the largest T-Bird of them all.

With the arrival of the sixth generation in 1972, Thunderbird entered its real period of growth. Its ample 5,436 mm (214 in.) length seemed to be just what the market wanted, boosting sales from 57,000 ’71s to 87,000 ’72s. Its two-door hardtop (the only offering) shared its body-on-frame construction with the Lincoln Continental Mark IV.

Suspension was conventional, independent in front with A-arms and coil springs, and solid axle with coil springs at the rear. Brakes were power assisted disc front and drum rear, and the only transmission was a three-speed automatic.

Power came from the standard 7.0-litre (429 cu in.) overhead valve V8 or optional 7.5 (460) V8, both down significantly in power from the ’71s. The 7.0 litre had only 212 horsepower compared with 360 the year before.

There were a couple of reasons for reduced power. First, the method of rating horsepower was changed from the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) “gross” rating to more realistic SAE “net,” which required all accessories to be operating. The other reason was that compression ratios were reduced to accommodate unleaded gasoline required for the catalytic converters needed to meet tightening exhaust emissions standards.

There were no sporting pretensions in the ’72 Thunderbird. It was a large luxury car pure and simple, with a 3,058 mm (120.4 in.) wheelbase and nearly 2,032 mm (80 in.) wide. It had a classic long hood and short deck profile and taillamps that stretched from wall to wall. Weight was a hefty 1,996 kg (4,400 lb).

For motorists who purchased based on mass and size, it was irresistible. Consumers loved the big ‘Bird and sales jumped to almost 58,000 from the previous year’s 36,000. The millionth Thunderbird came off the line in 1972.

There were no large changes for 1973. It got an egg crate grille rather than horizontal bars, and opera windows improved visibility a little. A further compression decrease brought power down to 201 for the 7.0 litre (426 cu in.), but buyers still bought 87,000 T-Birds.

Unfortunately for Ford and other American auto manufacturers, disaster was on the horizon. The first “oil crisis” of the 1970s, caused by an Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries oil embargo, would arrive late in 1973. This tripled the price of oil, increased the price of gasoline and even more alarming, threatened its supply. It naturally reduced demand for large, V8 cars. The result was that Thunderbird’s sales of ’74 models, now with the big 7.0 litre (460 cu in.) V8 as its standard engine, fell from 87,000 to 57,000.

Model lead times being what they are, Ford couldn’t turn the T-Bird around on a dime and 1975 and 1976 models were little changed. A “quick defrost” option gave faster window defrosting via a thin gold film embedded in the glass, but it was a power hog and would be discontinued in 1976. The ’75s got optional four-wheel disc brakes, and thanks to government mandated five mph (8 km/h) bumpers it reached a length of 5,740 mm (226 in.), the longest Ford ever.

Times were running against the huge Thunderbird and 1975 sales fell to 42,000. But consumers have short memories and with the oil crisis over, sales rebounded to 53,000 for 1976.

But in spite of the improved ’76 sales it was clear that the future lay in smaller cars. With fuel economy legislation on the horizon the Thunderbird would start shrinking with its 1977 seventh generation. It would get a six-cylinder engine, and even a four in the ’80s, much to the disgust of many Thunderbird fans.

The 1972-1976 Thunderbird was caught in the transition to smaller more sensible and economical cars. It was the epitome of the big garish models that made Motor City rich, dominant and, some say, arrogant during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

But times changed and those big ‘Birds now stand as monuments to a more profligate time when gasoline was cheap and bigger was better. In an energy- and environmentally-challenged world, their ilk will never be seen again.

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