1955 Ford Thunderbird

1955 Ford Thunderbird. Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

In the 1950s, British sports cars like MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars and Austin-Healeys brought a new element to North American driving. Although luggage space and weather protection were limited, and rides were often harsh, sporting types endured these for the low-slung bodies, four-speed transmissions and willing engines that set them apart from American cars.

There had been earlier domestic sports cars like the Stutz Bearcat, Mercer Raceabout, and Auburn Boattail Speedster, but they were too expensive to ever become very popular. It was those little English roadsters that lit our sports car fire.

American auto manufacturers picked up this trend, with the smaller ones responding first. Crosley Motors Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio, brought out its tiny Hotshot in 1949. Nash Motor Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was next with its lovely but expensive Anglo-American hybrid, the 1951 Nash-Healey.

The first of the Big Three to produce a post-World War II sportster was General Motors with its 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. It was a tentative step, however; GM only made 300 1953s, and fitted them with automatic transmissions.

Ford wasn’t about to be left behind, but would take a different tack. Whereas the Corvette was totally different from anything else in the model line, although based on Chevrolet sedan components, Ford’s Thunderbird was more like a cut-down full-size Ford.

Chevrolet emulated the foreign sports cars by fitting the Corvette with drafty side curtains and a flimsy fabric top. Ford preferred to call its new T-Bird a “personal car,” and gave it wind-up windows and the amenities of its full-size siblings. And whereas the Corvette had individual bucket seats, the Thunderbird was fitted with a bench type. And it could be had with a hard or soft top.

The Thunderbird used many existing parts, and carried a strong family identity. The horizontal fender line was characteristic of the redesigned full-size ’55 Fords, and the headlamps and tail-lamps were drawn from Ford sedans. Inside, the T-bird instrument panel and hardware resembled those of the big Fords.

Under the T-Bird’s hood was Ford’s corporate 4.8 litre (292 cu in.) overhead valve Mercury V-8, which developed 193 horsepower when mated to the standard 3-speed manual transmission (with overdrive available), or 198 with the optional 3-speed “Ford-O-Matic.”

Ford’s new two-seater was introduced as a ’55 model and became an immediate success. Whereas Chevrolet sold only 700 1955 Corvettes, even though it now had the new Chevy overhead valve V-8, Ford sold 16,155 Thunderbirds.

In fact the dismal Corvette sales had General Motors on the verge of discontinuing it, but the introduction of the T-bird convinced GM to keep it.

A performance comparison with the ’55 Corvette V-8 found the T-bird slower. Road & Track magazine (7/55) reported that the Corvette, in spite of its 2-speed “Powerglide” automatic, could sprint to 96 km/h (60 mph) in a quick 8.7 seconds, and reach a top speed of 188 km/h (116.9 mph). R&T (3/55) reported that the automatic Thunderbird took 9.5 seconds to reach 96 (60), and could only manage 177 km/h (110.1 mph).

The Thunderbird was carried into 1956 with the same body, although with more luggage space due to an externally mounted “Continental” spare tire. A larger 5.1 litre (312 cu in.) optional V-8 developed 215 horsepower with manual transmission, and 225 with automatic. Cowl vents were added for better cabin ventilation.

For 1957 the basic theme remained, but again with some changes. A new combination grille and bumper adorned the front end, and the trunk was stretched five inches, allowing the spare tire to migrate back inside, although the Continental mounting was still optional. In keeping with Detroit’s fin craze, little canted blades sprouted from each rear fender of the ’57 T-bird.

The bigger news was under the hood, however. The 5.1 litre V-8 could now be had with an optional Paxton-McCulloch, belt-driven centrifugal supercharger, bringing horsepower to 300.

Power for the base 4.8 litre engine was up also to 212, and the normally aspirated 5.1 developed 245, although a few modified versions put out more. The supercharged ‘Bird would prove to be very rare, with only 208 being produced.

Although it had a good year, selling 21,380 ’57 Thunderbirds, this would be the last of the two-seaters. Ford Division’s austere general manager, Robert McNamara, one of the post-World War II “Whiz Kids,” decided there was more profit in four-passenger Thunderbirds. In so doing it left the true sports car field to the Corvette.

McNamara would be proved correct. The larger “personal luxury” Thunderbird did earn far more money for Ford than the Corvette would for GM. But two-seater T-bird aficionados never forgave him.

Connect with Autos.ca