Curbside Classic: 1960 Ford Thunderbird – Fancy Meeting You Here

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Yawn.  Another restored squarebird convertible in resale red.  Aren’t there a couple of these at every car show?  But I didn’t find this one at a car show  Instead, it was on a quiet neighborhood street, looking just a little rough around the edges.  Sort of like an elegantly dressed lady who has somehow found herself in a low class bar.  This car had an air of mystery about it, which is fitting because for its entire history, the Thunderbird has always had some mystery as part of its aura.

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There is no need to into the squarebird’s backstory again, as Paul Niedermeyer covered this ground so ably and eloquently here.  Let’s just say that this was a groundbreaking and influential car.

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General Motors is commonly given credit for being the styling leader for the entire industry, going back to the 1920s formation of its Art & Colour department under the leadership of a young Harley Earl.  This is, for the most part, quite true.  However, the Ford Motor Company never rolled over and played dead, making at least occasional forays into design leadership with cars like the prow-nosed 1936 Lincoln Zephyr (and its low-grille 1938 second act) and the 1949 Ford that led the way to the slab sided, square-cornered design that would be a nearly universal look in the U. S. by 1955.

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As the 1950s progressed, both Harley Earl and Chrysler’s Virgil Exner led a trend of sharpened lines, a thinning of the greenhouse and an ever upward trajectory of the tailfin that came to typify the American car of the late 1950s.  The rest of the industry seemed to follow these trends. Except the Thunderbird.

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While Earl and Exner saw beauty in the wing or the wedge, Joe Oros and the other designers at Ford saw beauty in the rectangle, and the 1958 Thunderbird (and Lincoln) would put an abrupt end to the themes so ably developed by the competition.

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Although the Thunderbird’s roof is one of its most striking differences from the typical 1958 car, lets come back to that one, because even more than the greenhouse, the lower body created a shape what was nearly a classic rectangle, albeit a highly sculpted one.  The car had just enough tailfin to be modern, but the fin was not where the Bird’s design got its drama.  Instead, the heavily sculpted center of the tail end as well as the dramatic downward slope of the hood between the straight, proud fenders was a look unlike anything else in the industry.

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When you think about it, 1958 may have been the year where everything in auto styling went up for grabs.  GM was pure Harley Earl, bold, brash and slathered with chrome.  Chrysler’s forward look was proving hugely influential, so much that Studebaker spent it’s last bag of development cash on trying to make its aging 1953 body look like a ’57 New Yorker.  Then there was the 58 Thunderbird (and the Continental) that began the rectilinear look that would eventually take over the industry during the following decade, and would last us until Ford would do it all again with the jellybean-influenced 1983 Thunderbird.

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And if you think that the Squarebird’s shape was influential, consider the bucket seats separated by the prominent console – a configuration that remains nearly universal to this day. And what an interior it was in 1958-60. In an age where the jet fighter was the romanticized ideal for transportation, this car took the cockpit theme to a new level.

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In the Squarebird, Ford found something that had eluded Mercury and even Lincoln for a very long time – real social status. That status showed up in the rate at which folks eagerly snapped up the 4 seated Bird. Production of the two seater hovered around 15,000 annual units. Though the ’57 model jumped to over 21,000 cars, it took a production year that extended into December of 1957 to get there. But from the time the Squarebird was tardily introduced, production jumped to levels never seen before: 37,892 1958 models, then 67,456 for 1959. It was the three year old 1960 version that really put an exclamation point on the Thunderbird phenomenon, with production of a whopping 92,843 cars.  Over 11,000 were convertibles like this one.

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The Squarebird’s jumping sales were certainly not due to discounting, either.  In fact, this convertible would have originally listed at about $4,222, which was only about $700 under the entry level Cadillac hardtop.  Is it overstating things to say that he Squarebird was the first widely aspirational car in America outside of the traditional luxury brands like Cadillac?  That it was sold from the same dealer who supplied your grandfather (or the little woman?) with a six cylinder Falcon was certainly another nail in the coffin in the GM brand hierarchy as conceived by Alfred Sloan in the 1920s.

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I have always liked big convertibles, and the Thunderbird is no exception. This car was unique among convertibles, in that the folding top did not nestle into a well behind the rear seat. Instead, the car took advantage of the engineering from the 1957-59 Ford retractable hardtop, in which the decklid would open to allow the top to splay itself across what should have been a trunk compartment. What – you want some luggage space? Then walk your brown shoes and suspenders over to the Ford sedans on the other side of the lot, you hopeless clod.

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I will also say that the 1960 is my favorite year of Squarebird.  The triple taillights finally filled in those rear jet pods, and the understated “Thunderbird” script on the doors was the cleanest of any side treatment given to these cars.

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I started out by remarking that this car had a very mysterious air about it. Here we have one of the most desirable of all the Squarebirds – a red ragtop. I called it Resale Red, but it is actually Montecarlo Red. This one had all the markings of a very nicely restored example, and even a Vintage Thunderbird Club International badge on the grille.

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But why is this beautiful specimen of steel and vinyl sitting forlorn at the curb with evidence that it has been sitting there for awhile? Everyone knows that a Thunderbird belongs in a more genteel environment.  I found this car a day or two after some torrential rains in the area, and immediately had doubts about how well the drooping rear window had been able to keep the interior dry. The beautiful red paint appeared to be a touch weathered, too. Let me assure you, unlike so many we see here, this car was no “twenty footer”. It was a genuinely nice car.  I hope it does not follow in the footsteps of Dickens’ Miss Havisham, whose former elegance fell into ruin all around her.

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So, why was it here and in this condition? Perhaps the rotor sitting on the console gives us a clue. Did the car suddenly stop running while out on a Sunday cruise? Even Thunderbirds require ignition system maintenance. Maybe the owner walked to a nearby parts store but got kidnapped by ruffians. Or was the car stolen and being stripped of its valuable parts. “Quick Louie, start with that ignition rotor.” Or did some twenty-something inherit the car from Grandpa and think that it would make a cool everyday driver to mostly ignore between gigs playing drums in his garage band?  I thought about going off on a “how could someone treat a car like this” rant, but that would not really be cool without knowing the circumstances that brought it here.  Anyhow, the car was gone after a couple of weeks, and I have not seen it since. I hope it has found a garage and some love.

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What I can tell you is that I stumbled across one of the most culturally important cars of the mid twentieth century. The Tri Five Chevy may have set the curve for the next fifty years of automotive performance, but the four-passenger Thunderbird was the opening shot in a long battle that would eventually see Ford pass Chevrolet as a successful seller of a full spectrum of cars, from entry level strippo to country club prestige. That’s some powerful thunder.

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Further Reading

1958 Ford Thunderbird, the Most Influential Car of the 1950s