1959 Thunderbird
1959 Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The 1955-57 two-seater Ford Thunderbird was a beautiful little car. It was introduced to compete with the Chevrolet Corvette which arrived in 1953, General Motors’ response to the increasing popularity of imported sports cars.

Although both the Corvette and the Thunderbird were derided by sports cars purists, in many ways the Bird was more in the idiom of an American sports car.

The Bird’s body was steel, compared with the Corvette’s fibreglass, and it had wind-up windows rather than drafty side-curtains. It also had a “proper” V-8 engine, unlike the Corvette’s six.

Alas, the two-seater Thunderbird was built for only three years. Ford was willing to incur the wrath of two-seater enthusiasts, and tap into what it saw as the more lucrative four-seater market.

Ford had planned to offer both two-and four-passenger Thunderbirds for 1958. Finally, however, Ford general manager Robert McNamara decided to discontinue the two-seater.

McNamara was one of the original “Whiz Kids” hired by Henry Ford II right after World War II to restore some order out of Henry I’s chaotic “management.” McNamara’s only goal was profit, and even though the two-seater Thunderbird had outsold the Corvette, it was not a big profit maker.

That’s how the second generation Thunderbird, nicknamed the “Squarebird” for its rectangular shape, came to be a four-seater exclusively. In the process it pioneered what would become known as the personal-luxury segment of the market.

In pursuit of lowness, unit construction was used in the new Bird. It would also be used on the large, new 1958 Lincolns and Continentals, and all three models would be built in the same Wixom, Michigan plant.

The new car was indeed low; the two-door, four-seater Bird was only 1,333 mm (52.5 in.) high, one of the lowest cars ever offered. In spite of this, the efficiency of unitized construction provided comfortable accommodation for four adults, even though the wheelbase was a relatively short (for that time) 2,870 mm (113 in.).

Reducing the height created a new problem. Although the body could be dropped down around the driveline, the transmission and driveshaft were still at the same height. The result was a very high tunnel running through the passenger compartment.

The Thunderbird’s designers dealt with this by dressing the tunnel up as a fancy console separating the individual bucket-type seats, creating a kind of aircraft inspired interior. The console accommodated such items as radio speakers, heater controls and electric window switches. This set a trend that would see the locating of all sorts of console-mounted instruments, controls and storage compartments.

In addition to its low silhouette, the Squarebird was attractively styled. Although appearing somewhat heavy and garish today, the massive grille, horizontal character lines dipping down into the doors, sculpted spears on the sides, tailfins, and hug round tail-lights, were very much in keeping with American 1950’s automotive styling tastes.

The new Bird came as a convertible and hardtop. The hardtop featured the convertible’s rear blind spot, known as the “formal” look, a throwback to the original Lincoln Continental.

It was powered by an all-new 5.8 litre (352 cu in.) overhead valve V-8, developing 300 horsepower. Available transmissions were a three-speed manual, with overdrive as an option, or a three-speed “Cruise-O-Matic” automatic.

Some delays were encountered and the ’58 Thunderbird didn’t get into production until January, 1958. In spite of this shortened model year, and an economic recession, the new Thunderbird was popular enough to sell 37,892, almost double the 21,380 sales of the ’57 two-door models. It vindicated Ford’s wisdom in moving to the larger car.

Few changes were deemed necessary for 1959. A horizontal bar grille replaced the honeycomb design, and the 7.0 litre (430 cu in.), 350 horsepower Lincoln V-8 was available. The convertible received a power top late in the model year.

Four-seater sales kept rolling, selling 57,195 in the 1959 model year. Not wanting to meddle with a good thing, Ford again carried it over into 1960 with few changes, although it did get the obligatory reworked grille. An even more successful sales year saw over 90,000 1960 Birds go out the door.

Contrast this with the 10,261 1960 Chevrolet Corvettes that were sold, and it’s easy to see which corporation made the right decision in the quest for profits.

The second generation Thunderbird was replaced for 1961 with a new model that was longer, lower, wider and rounder. It would not, however, enjoy the same sales figures as the 1960 model.

The 1958-60 Thunderbird was a Ford success story that showed the way for others to follow in the personal luxury car segment of the market.

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