1962 Ford Thunderbird
1962 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The brand-new, two-passenger Ford Thunderbird burst on the scene in 1955 in response to Chevrolet’s Corvette and the increasingly popular imported sports cars. Although more popular than the Corvette, it didn’t remain a two-seater very long. Ford division general manager Robert McNamara, one of the original company-saving, post-Second World War “Whiz Kids,” moved it to a four-place car in 1958.

In so doing, he established the “personal luxury” category of the market. And, more important to him, the bigger Bird made a lot more money for Ford than the Corvette did for General Motors.

McNamara had read the market correctly: in spite of an economic recession, the four-seater ’58 sold 50 per cent better than the two-seater. It was soon dubbed the “Squarebird” due to its horizontal, angular lines. The third-generation T-Bird for 1961 changed its styling theme to become softer and rounder, thereby earning the nickname “Roundbird.”

When Ford introduced the ’61 T-bird, it used the slogan “Unique In All The World.” In the true sense of the word, it was unique, although the catchphrase still had a hint of hyperbole.

The Roundbird was pretty well received in the marketplace, although its sales would not prove as strong as the Squarebird. Indianapolis Speedway officials were so impressed with it that they chose the ’61 T-Bird as their pace car for that year’s Indy 500.

One of the unusual features of the ’61 was its optional “Swing-Away” steering wheel. A hidden track under the instrument panel, and a universal joint in the steering shaft, allowed the wheel to slide 254 mm (10 in.) to the right to aid entry and exit.

It was a gimmick that would be adopted by others, but would gradually disappear from the automotive scene, replaced by the tilt-and-telescope steering wheel. It did make good advertising copy, however, as in, “the steering wheel moves over to welcome you in.”

The ’61 Roundbird was virtually identical in size to the Squarebird, riding on the same 2,870 mm (113 in.) wheelbase; at 5,207 mm (205 in.) in overall length, was just 8 mm (.3 in.) shorter. It came as both a hardtop and convertible.

Under the sleek new body were some interesting engineering features. Ford had adopted unit construction for the ’58 T-Bird and Lincoln Continental. It was carried on in the ’61 T-Bird, using what Ford called “dual-unitized construction” in which the front and rear of the car were made separately, and then welded together at the cowl. The 1961 T-Bird and Continental had more in common under the skin than was generally recognized.

Under the hood was Ford’s corporate 6.4-litre (390 cu in.), overhead-valve V-8, a stretch of the 5.8 (352). It developed 300 hp at 4,600 rpm and 427 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm.

The only transmission was the three-speed Cruise-O-Matic. According to Car Life magazine’s July 1961 road test, the combination worked well enough to take the big T-Bird from zero to 96 km/hr (60 mph) in a respectable 9.7 seconds, and reach a top speed of 190 km/hr (117 mph).

The testers also reported that the 2,041 kg (4,500 lb) convertible had weak suspension and brakes, and that it consumed gasoline at the rate of 11 mpg.

And with the top folded into the trunk, there was no room left for luggage beneath the rear-hinged trunk lid, an idea left over from the 1957-1959 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop.

The testers noted, however, that even in blasé California, the T-Bird attracted a great deal of attention and admiration.

Just over 73,000 of the ’61 Roundbirds were sold, down from almost 93,000 of the 1960s, in what turned out to be a depressed sales year for the whole industry.

The 1962 T-Bird was a carry-over model with some trim changes. The swing-away wheel was made standard, and a 340 hp version of the V8 was now available.

In an attempt to recapture some of the magic of the two-seater T-Bird, a Sports Roadster version of the convertible was added. It wasn’t really a roadster, but tried to look like one with a fibreglass tonneau cover that fitted over the rear seat.

The cover had moulded headrests for the front-seat passengers and gave the Bird a long, sleek appearance, although it had to be stowed when not in use. The Sports Roadster was also equipped with wire-spoke wheels. Of the 69,554 1962 T-Birds sold, only about 1,400 of them were Sports Roadsters, making it a rare collectible today.

The Roundbird was facelifted for 1963, but not substantially changed. A significant new challenger in the form of the Buick Riviera appeared on the scene, and T-Bird sales slipped a little to 62,593, of which just 455 were the Sports Roadster.

It was time for a new-generation Thunderbird, and Ford obliged with the rakish 1964, although some of its thunder would be stolen by the trend-setting new Ford Mustang.

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