The first generation Thunderbird has never been a car I’ve paid much attention to, but seeing this one outside a European carshow in its patinated glory I was struck by how well the design holds up against its transatlantic contemporaries. Thunderbird week gives me the ideal opportunity to share a personal take on this model.
In the US during the early fifties, burgeoning suburbs and paypackets were bringing with them myriad consumer delights. Powered appliances allowed us more personal time. Multiple bathrooms enhanced our sense of personal space. Double garages were the excuse and station wagons were the enabler. With all that extra room in your family’s wagon, your second car could have a commensurate reduction in space. The second age of the personal car was about to commence.
Of course, personal transport first entered history about the same time rich people did.
By the 1920s and 30s, the personal car was enjoying its first peak. During this jazz age of conspicuous consumption, there were few greater expressions of wealth than the personal car. Gargantuan in scale and price, these two-seaters were invariably custom-bodied and paraded around by movie stars, rich playboys, bon vivants and the like. This 1935 Lincoln V12 Convertible Roadster by LeBaron existed towards the end of this period, while the Great Depression was still taking its toll.
In 1934, Edsel Ford built a personal car that was a harbinger of the future. It was a labor of love for Edsel; he was closely involved in its conception though he wisely left the shaping of the body to the sure hand of Eugene ‘Bob’ Gregorie. Inspired by the European racing car, it was a masterpiece of brevity and detailing.
Edsel’s brevity of length made its way to Earl’s brevity in height. Despite the fact that Harley Earl was a very tall man, his 1951 Buick LeSabre was still a very low car. This much-storied vehicle was Earl’s vision of the future; a concept car. But it was also his personal transport, used to ferry him from home to work or to the golf club. Very visible during Earl’s tenure, it was this car more than any other that reignited consumer dreams and desires for something more personal for themselves.
Unfortunately for buyers, the LeSabre was built to a production number of one. Sydney Allard and Donald Healey, both of Great Britain, were early to recognize the potential of this market. US industrialist Stanley ‘Wacky’ Arnolt was another; he ordered a series of Bertone-bodied specials based on an essentially pre-war MG platform and they sold well enough for him to do it again with the Arnolt Bristol. But these cars weren’t exactly cheap.
Personal cars were not just for the man in the grey flannel suit. For people who wore their undershirts out of doors, George Barris and his ilk were starting to customize and improve upon the Detroit production line unit. Chopping, channelling, nosing, decking, frenching, and shaving machines bought off the second-hand car lot became another way of the telling the world – or your neighborhood – of your personal tastes. But taste is in the mouth of the beholder (or something like that), and this sort of customization was not of broad appeal.
Fibreglass initiated the democratisation of the personal car. Now any man (or woman) with relatively basic mechanical skills could place an almost-individual, almost-European-looking two seater body over an older platform. The industry flourished in the early fifties with legion backyard and professional businesses churning out fibreglass bodies in the thousands. But accessibility in price came with its own price; these cars were crudely designed and constructed when compared with the production tightness of Detroit’s output.
Flashpoint: January 1953
Chevrolet displays the fibreglass bodied Corvette at the GM Motorama.
The story of the internal development of the Ford Thunderbird is thick with contradictions. What follows is a grab-bag of highlights from the time; for a more accurate assessment of the competing accounts I suggest you look at Aaron’s analysis at Ateupwithmotor.
First, where to start. For years the benchmark had been the Jaguar XK120/140. Released in 1948, William Lyons had wisely prioritised the US export market for this model, and the US fell in love with it. Despite the fact that it was designed using pre-war visual cues, this car had no equal for years after its launch. Here was a vehicle with the looks and refinement of a concept car and the speed and road-holding ability of a racecar. Never again would Jaguar build a single car as capable across all competencies.
Henry Ford II had already tried to mimic the Jaguar with not much success. Commissioned by the Ford Motor Company, and financed by Henry himself, the Vega was not ashamed of its styling influences. Built over two years by external designer Vince Gardner, this aluminium-bodied roadster was shown during Ford’s 50th anniversary in 1953. After that it was displayed at the Rotunda Exhibition Hall in Dearborn, then it just disappeared.
Hank the deuce had another car to spur the yet-unnamed Ford personal car’s progress. In 1952, Enzo Ferrari had presented Henry with this black Touring-bodied 212/225 barchetta. For a time it sat in the design studio and was an obvious influence on early sketches.
Frank Hershey, Bill Boyer, Bob Maguire, Damon Woods, Dave Ash, Dick Samsen, Alan Kornmiller and Joe Oros are all stylists named with the project, however it is difficult to say who penned the final design. There were competing factions within the Ford styling community, and accounts seem to be conflicted along those lines. The Thunderbird name was apparently suggested by stylist Alden Giberson.
Offered for sale in October 1954, the steel-bodied 1955 Thunderbird trounced the Corvette 16,155 sales to 700. It was a great year of design for Ford. The full-size range looked smart and cohesive, and the new Thunderbird was a welcome addition to the family. Cues were shared between the ranges, particularly the hooded headlights and taillight treatment. At one point, the ‘uptick’ chrome featured on the full-size bodyside was considered for the T-bird, but thankfully was omitted.
Though it was fast, but it could not really be called a sportscar in the same sense as something like the Jaguar XK120. It was based on a shortened full-size coupe platform with not much extra development to improve its roadholding. So the sporting aspect was better left inferred by its minimally adorned and rakish bodyshape. Ford promoted its Thunderbird as a ‘personal car’.
For 1956, the Thunderbird received a ‘Continental Kit’ covered spare tyre hanging over the rear bumper. Of course, this only made handling worse but at least the model was given more power, softer rear springs and an optional midget tweedsman behind the wheel.
The 1957 Thunderbird featured a redesigned grille and bumper at the front, and also lost the twin nacelles from the previous two years. At the rear, the Continental Kit was ditched and the spare tyre placed inside a longer redesigned rear end. This final (extended) model year was the best in sales with over 21,000 coming out of the factory. But by now, Ford was developing the next generation of T-birds and this attractive little two-seater body was about to be made redundant.
In a final ignominious touch, the Budd Company, who had built the original Thunderbird bodies for Ford, attempted to resuscitate the first T-bird shape over a shortened Falcon platform. Presented in early 1962, Ford rejected the XT-Bird and Budd had the body redesigned and shown to American Motors as the XR-400. Again, Budd was turned down.
And what of the Thunderbird’s sporting pretensions? By 1957, Ford was offering a supercharger mated to the 312 V8 that produced 300 hp and could take the car to a theoretical top speed of 124 mph when optioned with the Fordomatic. Only 208 supercharged Thunderbirds left the factory that year.
There were still some within Ford who felt the Thunderbird needed to compete with the Corvette on the track. In 1954, Alex Tremulis was engaged by Fomoco to conduct wind-tunnel tests on a variety of 3/8 scale models. The result of this was the supercharged 1956 Thunderbird Mexico which, alas, never made it to full scale. This sophisticated shape embarrasses the fairy-floss that Ford was putting out as display concept cars at the time, and featured pioneering ground effects and flow-though aerodynamics.
Meanwhile, with engineer Zora Arkus Duntov involved, the Corvette was developing into a more distinctly sporting-type of car.
But the Ford Thunderbird was headed in another direction. For its next generation, the fairly nebulous idea of a personal car was about to undergo another transformation.