Jim Smart
September 1, 1998
Photos By: emap usa Archives

Step By Step

The all-new ’55 Thunderbird emerged as an upscale, yet affordable luxury two-seater personal car. Underhood was a 292ci Y-block V-8 with optional Ford-O-Matic transmission.
Inside, it was a lot like looking at the larger ’55 Ford, but the T-bird yielded specialized appointments—power windows, engine-turned aluminum, a 0–150–mph speedometer, and bucket seats.
The Thunderbird’s 292ci Y-block was topped with finned cast aluminum valve covers, chrome air cleaner, and—yes—the Holley T-Pot carburetor.
Ford kept the T-bird’s fin treatment tasteful, which is why this concept never made it to production.
Not everyone will agree with us, but we think the ’57 Thunderbird was the pinnacle of two-seat ’bird production because it was the refinement of the line with more trunk space, a longer rear deck, and a body honed to perfection. Power for 1957 included an optional 312ci V-8 with supercharged induction.
Realizing the two-seater marketplace was limited, Ford increased the T-bird’s size to four places, and a new generation of sport/luxury car was born.
Tipping the scales higher than its predecessors, the ’58 Thunderbird yielded the new “FE” 352ci V-8 and greater creature comforts.
Ford called the new ’61 Thunderbird the “third expression of the classic Thunderbird design….” Indeed it was, but the all-new ’61 Thunderbird was anything but classic. It was fresh and exciting, low to the ground, and decidedly aero for the era. This body style lived until 1964.
Nineteen sixty-four saw not only the new Mustang but a new Thunderbird as well, launching a new attitude of luxury in Ford’s flagship car line.
The interior was vast and luxurious, setting a trend for luxury cars to come.
Most believe Ford moved the Thunderbird away from its original mission for 1967–19’71. The car became huge and more like a Lincoln Continental or Ford LTD than a personalized car. Suicide doors on the four-door model didn’t win points with T-bird buffs.
The ’67 Thunderbird interior enveloped the driver and passengers in luxury with an abundance of power appointments and pod-style instrumentation.
Vintage T-bird buffs weren’t ready for the outsized T-birds of 1972–19’76. Based on the same body and chassis as the Lincoln Mark IV, the T-bird took on weight with its long nose and short deck yet had an air of elegance.
We’re of the opinion the T-bird improved for 1977 with a leaner, sharper appearance. The car showed and sold well through 1979.
In 1980, the Thunderbird celebrated its 25th anniversary with a more contemporary look built on the new Fox platform shared with the Mustang, Capri, Fairmont, and Zephyr. A new smaller V-8, the 255ci small-block, was short-lived for T-bird buyers. Ford’s automatic overdrive debuted in the ’80 Thunderbird. Despite these features, sales declined through 1982.
In 1980, the Thunderbird celebrated its 25th anniversary with a more contemporary look built on the new Fox platform shared with the Mustang, Capri, Fairmont, and Zephyr. A new smaller V-8, the 255ci small-block, was short-lived for T-bird buyers. Ford’s automatic overdrive debuted in the ’80 Thunderbird. Despite these features, sales declined through 1982.
This is the 1983–’88 Turbo Coupe’s performance mill, the 2.3L turbo four with an overhead cam valvetrain and reliable electronic fuel injection.
Refined for ’87–’88, the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe took on an intercooler and sassy lines. Sharp indeed.
This is the Thunderbird we saw from 1989 to 1997. The fascia and taillamps changed throughout the period. Modular SOHC V-8 power replaced the 5.0L OHV V-8 in 1994. It has often been said that the ’94–’97 Thunderbirds were the best value of their time, priced to sell at under $20,000 with most of the optional trimmings.

When the Ford Thunderbird debuted in the fall of 1954, it had two seats, a V-8 engine, abundant charisma, and a base sticker price of just $2,695. For those who wanted a two-seat personal luxury car, the price was unbelievable. Skeptics predicted Ford couldn't build the car for under $4,000. But the '55 T-bird proved that it could be done, and for less than three grand.

Many perceived the '55-'57 T-birds as sports cars, but they weren't. And many saw the original T-bird as Ford's answer to Chevrolet's Corvette, but it wasn't. The Thunderbird was a personal two-seat luxury car with a removable hardtop, bucket seats, overhead valve V-8 power, and a host of nice appointments that could be had for a bit more money. It was an excellent value in a booming, promising post-war era.

What made the original T-bird affordable was logical engineering. Much of the sporty fun car was borrowed right off the shelf from the '55 Ford, which kept manufacturing costs down. The T-bird was a '55 Ford with its hair down and clad in a striking bikini. Ford's 292ci Y-block V-8 yielded 190 hp from its 3.75-inch bore and 3.30-inch stroke. An optional Ford-O-Matic transmission and power steering made driving effortless by '50s standards. Unlike the Corvette, the T-bird had adequate storage space, with a sizable trunk and easy access. The interior was inviting, with plenty of legroom and a four-way adjustable seat. Cool... Fuel mileage was nearly 20 mpg highway in one road test, which is astonishing considering fuel system technology in 1955. Zero-to-60 times were around 10 seconds. Not bad for the early Cold War years.

The T-bird didn't sit still very long, however. Nineteen fifty-six brought with it significant improvements, including a 12-volt electrical system, a revised interior, and a 312ci Y-block V-8. Same lovable two-seat design and affordable base sticker price, just like the '55. The T-bird became downright sexy in 1957, with a honed body and the best-looking fins of any nameplate in the '50s. What made the fins sexy was Ford's subtle approach to the concept, just like with the larger '57 Ford. The 312ci V-8 returned for 1957 with an optional supercharger, though few were produced. A coveted F code supercharged 'Bird today would be the find of a lifetime, even if you didn't like Thunderbirds.

Generation II, 1958-1960

Ford saw the writing on the wall early in the T-bird's life. There weren't enough being sold to justify mass production, despite its charm and appeal. So the T-bird grew to be a four-place sport/luxury car for 1958, which is where it stayed until 1967. During the years in between, Thunderbird evolved with more and more luxury features, including a growing lineup of FE series V-8s. One V-8, the MEL series Lincoln big-block displacing 430 ci, made a brief appearance in 1960.

Generation III, 1961-1963

Ford stylists made a quantum leap with the redesigned Thunderbird for 1961. The body took on an aerospace facade, looking like it could take on Bonneville and not break a sweat. With the redesign came Ford's 390 FE series big-block sporting plenty of power for the nation's growing interstate highway system. The T-bird didn't change much until 1964. Before the '64 redesign, Ford made the '62-'63 T-bird convertibles extra fun with an optional Sport Roadster feature equipped with a double-hump two-seater tonneau cap and a 390, 6-V powerplant yielding 401 hp. Wow!

Generation IV, 1964-1966

T-bird's mission began to change in 1964 with a complete redesign, sharper lines, a more stodgy profile, and an increased emphasis on luxury. The 390 lost its optional six-barrel carburetion, making do with four throats instead. Despite decreasing emphasis on sportiness, the '64-'66 Thunderbirds had a lot of charm. They were four-place personal luxury cars to be seen in. Ford dressed up the package for 1966 with an optional Landau formal roof line notched for effect, although the option was available a few years earlier.

Generation V, 1967-1971

Most T-bird buffs don't like to talk about the marque after 1966. Truthfully, a lot of people wonder what transpired at Ford Design when the '67 Thunderbird was conceived with four doors and a fishmouth grille most of us in the Ford camp would like to forget. Like the Lincoln Continental, the four-door 'bird had suicide doors coupled with sloppy construction. Though the interior was more spacious and luxurious than ever, the Thunderbird had lost its charm by 1967. It just wasn't the same, and never would be again. Ford boss Bunkie Knudson stepped in from General Motors just long enough to give the '71 Thunderbird that memorable Pontiac pucker. The Poncho pucker would find its way into the completely redesigned '72 T-bird, making a lot of us "pucker" in a different way for years to follow.

Generation VI, 1972-1976

The T-bird became enormous beginning in 1972, sharing the same chassis and body structure with the Lincoln Mark IV. The two beasts would house huge 460ci big-blocks until 1976. The T-bird lost weight in 1977, sharing its chassis and body with the Mercury Cougar and Montego and Ford's own LTD II. The T-bird had crisper, leaner lines from 1977 to 1979 and sold very well.

Generation VII, 1980-1982

In a fierce attempt to shave more weight off the T-bird in a period of escalating fuel prices, Ford moved the nameplate once again to the new Fox platform shared with the Fairmont, Zephyr, Mustang, and Capri. The '80-'82 "square 'birds" were little more than a stopgap between old and new technology. Power evolved to the 302 small-block V-8. Styling was lackluster at best.

Generation VIII, 1983-1988

Few of us expected the Thunderbird Ford introduced for 1983. It simply did not look like any T-bird we had seen before. Slippery aerodynamic lines, outstanding fit, finish, and workmanship--simply the best the Thunderbird had been in generations. The all-new Thunderbird sported cowl doors with hidden driprails, which reduced cabin noise at highway speeds. At 80 mph, normal conversation could take place without raising one's voice. Improved Ford Premium Sound, new for the '80s, made the T-bird a wonderful driving experience. Also new for 1983 was the turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection in the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, which had a very sporty persona. It was fun to drive with the standard five-speed transmission and outhandled nearly anything in its class.

It has often been said that the '83 Thunderbird launched a new era at Ford, with greater attention to quality, fit, finish and driveability. The marque had finally come of age, with integrity it never had before. The '83 T-bird led to better 'birds to follow. Nineteen eighty-four was little changed from 1983. The '85-'86 Thunderbirds received redesigned instrument panels, with the horn button back in the steering wheel where it belonged. They were solid value for the money, with lines that will endure for generations to come.

The '87-'88 Thunderbirds were a refinement of what Ford brought us in 1983, with more slippery lines, composite headlamps, and a taillamp treatment few us will ever forget.

Generation IX, 1989-1997

The '89-'97 Thunderbirds were undoubtedly one of the more controversial generations because they were very high-tech, but overweight and down on power, and they wore out their welcome quickly with enthusiasts. We like the slippery, aerodynamic ninth-generation Thunderbirds because they were an excellent value for the money and a good-looking automobile. But they didn't represent the Thunderbird name as well as some of their predecessors. Full independent suspension made these wide-track 'Birds a design to be admired. The Thunderbird SC sporting a 3.8L supercharged V-6 didn't much impress anyone. So a good many buyers opted for the 5.0L V-8 instead. Marginal sales of Thunderbird SCs lead to the demise of that option early in the '90s.

The new 4.6L Modular V-8 found the Thunderbird in 1994, making the Ford flagship nameplate a great value at well under $20,000 for a loaded package. Despite a value-added T-bird, Ford decided to call it quits during the '97 model year, leaving dealers responsible for moving out remaining stock at bargain basement prices.

Generation Next...

A lot of folks have been asking where the T-bird is headed. Will it survive? Will it be a front-wheel-drive? Will it be worthy of the Thunderbird nameplate? Good questions. Reliable sources at Ford tell us the T-bird's future is looking bright, with an all-new introduction planned for model year 2001. Sources also tell Mustang & Fords the T-bird will be a V-8, rear-drive two-seater personal luxury car constructed on a planned Jaguar platform sporting a world-class suspension system. Aside from what we have just told you, Ford isn't saying much else about the redesigned Thunderbird. As soon as we know anything, you'll read about it here.