Two cars that are mainstays at any classic car show or auction are Ford’s Thunderbird and Mustang. If you are at a North American car event that doesn’t have at least one of those, you may have entered the Twilight Zone. At auction week in Scottsdale, Arizona in January, I was reassured by the presence of many of Dearborn’s finest. Today I will show some T-birds that I saw, and in the coming days I will have two articles on Mustangs.
I happen to be a big fan of both models, but I realize that some folks consider them too common or even to be a classic car cliche of sorts due to their ubiquity. While immune from those feelings myself, I can understand them. After this, I have only two more Scottsdale articles I’m planning, which those with an interest in the less common should enjoy more. So, feel free to skim or skip this article but stay tuned. In the meantime, Blue Oval lovers can click through for some tasty T-birds.
I’d originally planned on just doing one article, but there were so many nice cars, I decided to expand the article and split it into three parts. Even so, this is still a pretty small sampling. There were cars I photographed that aren’t here and many others I didn’t take photos of. So, if you’re up for it, buckle in for a full dose of cool cars. As with my other auction articles, I’ll highlight what I think is neat about the cars I’ve highlighted, while throwing in a little history on the Thunderbird. Click on the embedded links below to go to the auction house page on each car.
First generation two seaters are the most popular Thunderbirds with collectors, not surprisingly. Barrett-Jackson had 26 ’55-’57 T-birds, while only having a handful of later generations.
This 1955, which is also in the top photo, was sold at Barrett-Jackson for $42,900. I think it has a great stance. I don’t believe the gold trim was available from the factory, nor was its leather upholstery or wire wheels.
Chevrolet’s Corvette spurred Ford to come up with their own two seater, but they took a much different path. Chevy made a sports car to compete with Europe’s austere but expensive two seaters, and within a few years matching them in performance and handling, and doing it with an American flair. Ford decided to make their two seater more of a “personal” car, with comfort and luxury as much a consideration as performance. It was a wise decision, because it met Ford’s sales targets and outsold the struggling Corvette many times over.
This 1955 with full wheel covers went for only $33,000. The hubcaps, which were shared with the regular Ford, were optional with dog dishes being standard. Simulated wire wheel covers were also available. Thunderbirds came standard with a fiberglass hardtop. For a small amount, buyers could substitute a convertible top for the hardtop, or for more get both tops.
For the Thunderbird’s inaugural season, the only engine available was the 292cid Y-block V8, making 193hp with standard transmission or 198hp with automatic.
Dashboard styling was similar to the regular Ford’s. Unlike the early Corvette which didn’t even have glass side windows its first few years, Thunderbirds had most of the regular Ford’s options available including power seat, power windows, power brakes and power steering.
Some owners prefer the open rear fender look and leave the fender skirts off. I don’t mind the look, my issue is that having been designed for skirts, the rear opening doesn’t have same lip that the front has. Also, there are little tabs (unless the owner cuts them off) that stick down to hold the skirts in place that are visible when the skirts aren’t there.
While T-birds were not originally available with Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels, there’s no denying they make this black 1955 look real sharp. It sold for $40,700 at Barrett-Jackson.
The Silver auction had a nice 1956 model. The most obvious change for ’56 was the standard continental spare tire. To get in the trunk or access the center fuel door, one pulled a lever to release a spring-loaded hinge which moved the wheel out about a foot. To improve visibility with the available hardtop, a porthole was optional, but pretty universally seen on ’56 and ’57’s. It also gained swing-out ventilation doors in the front fender and glass wind deflectors on the A pillar (both also continued with the ’57). A 312cid engine was now available, with either single or dual 4-barrel carburetors.
At Barrett-Jackson, the next-to-top-selling two seater was a pink (Sunset Coral) 1956 that sold for $82,500.
The 1957 model got a facelift (well, mostly a taillift), for a one year only look. Fortunately for Thunderbird lovers, it was a long year with production extended to December and the most built of the two seater era. This is my favorite first generation model. They put the spare back inside the newly elongated trunk, put attractive tailfins on, and gave it a nice looking new dashboard. The continental spare was actually still available as a seldom ordered option.
Early T-birds always look great in red, so this 1957 selling at B-J for $41,800 would look real good in my garage.
The new-for-1957 dashboard, taillights and fins again reflected that year’s standard Ford’s.
Silver had two 1957 Thunderbirds, both of which made their top ten sales list (the only results I’ve been able to find on the Silver auction). Unlike the majority of Silver vehicles, these were really high quality cars and sold for more than most of the Barrett-Jackson T-birds. This fetching white ‘Bird sold for either $56,160 or $59,400, I’m not sure which, but I’d guess the lower one since it has non-stock regular Ford hubcaps, rather than the correct turbine wheel covers.
As a point of interest, if you fantasize about owning a two seat Thunderbird, values cover a very wide range. You can buy a really nice car for 30 or 40k, but prices can reach nose bleed territory for the most perfect and rare examples. The top selling Thunderbird at B-J this year, by about 100k, was a pink (Dusk Rose) 1957 that sold for $183,700. A Gunmetal Gray 1957 sold in 2014 for $330,000 (then sold again two years later for $286,000), which seems to be about the upper limit.
At $68,200, this 1957 was one of the more expensive ‘Birds at Barrett-Jackson. The color is yellow, but they call it Sun Gold. This car has the E-code 312cid V8, which has dual 4-barrel carburetors.
The yellow in this picture is a more accurate image of the color. Engine choices grew for 1957, with two low production hot engines available. Buyers could get a dual four barrel 312 (E code, 270 or 285hp) or a supercharged, carbureted 312 (F code, 300hp). Early Thunderbirds had possibly the most attractive valve covers ever put on an engine. On ’57’s I’ve seen both plain black valve covers with a “Thunderbird Special” decal and these gorgeous chromed ribbed ones that are the only ones I’ve seen on ’55 and ’56’s. I haven’t found any documentation on that. Anybody know about this?
Also unlike the early Corvette with its mandatory Powerglide, buyers had a choice of 3 speed manual (with overdrive optional) or 3 speed automatic.
As you no doubt know, 1957 was the last year for the two seater. Ford made the coldly business-like, but very smart, decision to make the new Thunderbird a four seater in 1958. The ’57 ‘Bird was well loved even at the time and sold the most of the first generation, 21k. The ’58 model, which has never generated the affection enjoyed by the two seaters, nevertheless sold 37k in its first shortened (recession) year and sales grew to 92k by 1960. The car was more expensive, too, so it was obviously a big win for Ford even if it was a big loss to fans of the early T-birds.
I saw no 1958-’60 four seater “squarebirds” in Scottsdale, though B-J had a 1959 I apparently missed. Barrett-Jackson did have a few “bulletbirds”, the affectionate nickname for the 1961-’63 models. This was the nicest one, and the only one I photographed (poorly). It’s a 1962 convertible that sold for $55,000.
To make up for my terrible photo, here are a couple of owner-supplied photos from B-J’s website. It was a really impressive car, having been treated to a high quality restoration and winning multiple first place awards.
For 1962, Ford introduced a new model called the Sports Roadster. It had a removable fiberglass tonneau cover over the rear seats, to give it the look of a two seater, and Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels. It seems that almost all bulletbird convertibles that are seen these days at auctions or car shows have the tonneau cover and wire wheels even though only 1,427 were originally sold (out of 8,417 convertibles and 78,011 total T-birds in 1962, plus another 455 for 1963). The owner didn’t state if this was originally a Sport Roadster, as many regular convertibles are retrofitted. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the tonneau. It makes the rear deck look absurdly long and it’s obviously not a true two seat car, plus it says to your friends, “you can admire my car, but I have this pretentious cover over the back seat, so you can’t come along”.
I absolutely love ’60’s Thunderbird interiors, which I think are a high point for Detroit interior styling. Beyond that, I’ll let the picture speak for itself. Yowza!
At the time I was strolling past this car, the owner was holding forth to a few bidders about the car and all the work he put into restoring it. He also demonstrated the working of the convertible top, which is a pretty dramatic operation if you’ve ever seen one in action.
The next styling cycle for the T-bird was 1964-’66 (a.k.a. “flairbird”). Barrett-Jackson had five and Russo and Steele had this one, a 1966 convertible. I’d say it’s my favorite Thunderbird that I saw in Scottsdale. It has been restored and it sold for a relatively affordable $34,500.
The owner states that this car was built on the last day of 1966 production, making it “possibly” the last Thunderbird convertible produced (until 2002). It also has the new optional 428cid 345hp engine.
Interiors continued to be lookers. Ford had dropped the smooth flow of the dashboard into the door panels, but it’s still a striking design. I have always thought it is super cool the way the rear seats wrap around.
’64-’66 is probably my favorite generation of Thunderbird. I love the early two seaters, but these mid ’60’s cruisers are the ultimate in my book. Rear fender skirts were optional, and my personal ideal would look something like this 1966 convertible with open rear fenders at last year’s auction. Ford made 5,049 convertible T-birds for 1966 then sadly dropped the softtop ‘Bird for the new 1967 model, offering a four door sedan instead. They still had a sweet looking interior, though. At least for the first year.
If you like hardtops, this 1966 is a really nice example. I am not a fan of the Town hardtop and Landau models, which deleted the rear quarter window. Those outsold the regular metal-roofed hardtops like this one by 4 to 1. Surprisingly, the $30,800 it sold for at Barrett-Jackson is almost as much as the restored blue convertible above at Russo and Steele. It had the base 390cid 315hp engine and was billed as a 39,000 mile “very original” car, though exactly how original was not specified.
Gratuitous inside photo, because I can’t ever get too much of that swoopy Space Age interior, in that most ’60’s color of turquoise.
1966 was the last of the “collectible” Thunderbirds. Values and interest drop off significantly after that, as evidenced by the lack of any 1967-1997 models at any of the auctions save for one exception. That would be this 1976 Thunderbird on the back lot at Russo and Steele.
Here’s the rear, in all its full-bumpered glory. This car was not at all pristine, but was presentable and sold for only $3750. True curbside classic money.
By this time, the Thunderbird was completely given over to the Brougham theme it was flirting with in 1966 with the Landau models. It is basically the same car as the Lincoln Mark IV, except with a more restrained grille and square opera windows in place of the Mark’s oval ones.
Space Age flavor was long gone, replaced by the 1970’s Ford corporate dash and steering wheel. This owner-supplied interior photo strategically doesn’t show the upper dash pad, because it had a Grand Canyon sized crack, which is not uncommon on Arizona cars. Otherwise the interior was pretty decent, and of course the body was totally rust-free.
I think an interesting post script on the Thunderbird is that it has been said that it saved the Corvette. Early Corvette sales in 1954 and 1955 were underwhelming and many in GM were advocating terminating the Vette after 1955. The business case for that would have been very logical, but many speculate that GM’s pride kicked in when the Thunderbird vastly outsold the Corvette in 1955 and they didn’t want to be seen as fleeing a market after being beaten by Ford. So, Harley Earl and other champions of the Corvette prevailed and got to release a much improved 1956 model, which was a basis for continuous improvement and increasing sales while still emphasizing sportiness and performance. Of course, in 1958 the T-bird went in a completely different direction. Its character evolved several times and eventually lost a relevant place in the market, while the Corvette has stayed basically true to its original mission and is still with us. If you want to take a walk through Corvette history, check out my Corvette auction article if you missed it before.
Thanks for reading, please share your thoughts and opinions on these Thunderbirds below and look for more Flashy Fords in part 2 on Mustangs!
Other articles in my 2018 Scottsdale auction series: