(first posted 3/14/2016) Have you ever considered how odd it is that Ford, that manufacturer of solid, reliable, conservative transportation, produced a true competitor to Cadillac and Lincoln? The T-Bird, at least until the mid-1960s, was a status symbol for the rich and moderately well-off, a thing of beauty that really had a market all to itself until the Riviera came along in 1963; and even then, the T-Bird sold in greater numbers. What accounted for this cachet? Why was the T-Bird such a special thing?
Most likely, its popularity stemmed from its attainable distinctiveness. It was unlike any other Ford or Mercury, and it was luxurious and attractive. When Ford introduced the four-seater ‘Bird for 1958, sales immediately exploded because Ford had made its dream car practical. It looked special, and nobody else had anything like it.
Ford beat GM to the punch surprisingly often in certain market segments, the T-Bird, Mustang, and LTD being examples of “better ideas” that sent GM scrambling for their drawing boards. Ford, recognizing its own success, even copied the T-Bird’s roofline for certain Galaxie and Falcon models, creating the “Thunderbird look,” a move that could have diluted the image, but probably helped overall sales instead.
Therefore, one must assume that the Thunderbird’s styling had much to do with its success. The “Squarebird” had nice proportions, for sure, even if it arguably paled stylistically in comparison to the next two generations. Even so, its more compact dimensions and quality build, along with its interesting styling, gave it an undeniable presence. Some people just have “it,” and so do some cars. The T-Bird had “it.”
After the Squarebird came the Bullet Bird, which retained the Thunderbird roofline but introduced styling cues from some old Ford “dream cars,” like the X-100. The T-Bird’s styling and relative exclusivity in its size bracket created a car that, again, really had no direct competition until this ’63 model came along.
Perhaps the interior played an even more important role in the T-Bird’s success than its unique styling. Thunderbird interiors were always luxurious and well-styled, with wraparound dashboards and back seats, consoles and buckets, swing-away steering wheels and attractive instrumentation. Ford always got its money’s worth when it trimmed the T-Bird.
Even though I’m an avowed Riviera fanatic, I’m still susceptible to the charms of the Bullet Bird, as evidenced by my perusing this ’63 on an Upper Peninsula vacation a few years ago. Those jet age taillights, squared off roofline, and angled finlets were bound to make the Thunderbird a sales success. Its excellent resale value accentuated the esteem in which the buying public held the T-Bird.
And that brings us to the fourth-generation T-Bird, introduced in 1964. I’ve long asserted that the last really special Thunderbird was the 1966 model, which was also the last convertible until 2002. After 1966, every subsequent generation was a little less impressive, a little less in a niche by itself. Even though the ’60s T-Birds were based on the same platform as the Continental, no layperson would ever have known, creating that air of exclusivity. Alternatively, the differences between a ’72 T-Bird and a ’72 Mark IV are superficial at best, not that the buying public really cared at that point. Of course, the T-Bird continued to sell very well up until the last of the ’79 models, but none had quite the rarified air of this ’65.
It caught my eye at Greenfield Village’s Motor Muster last year because of its Vintage Burgundy paint and white interior, which is the same color combination as my ’65 Mustang. Although the Bullet Birds are by far my favorite T-Birds, I’ve long been warming up to the ’64 redesign.
By 1965, the Thunderbird’s once-exclusive market was shared with a handful of competitors. The first was the Buick Riviera, which sold at roughly half the Thunderbird’s sales totals, despite styling that is and was heralded as among the best of the 1960s. The Riviera was sporting and daring in a way that a T-Bird never was, and they likely attracted a different type of buyer. The T-Bird almost seemed like old money to the Riv’s nouveau riche, Tom Buchanan to the Riv’s Jay Gatsby.
The second and arguably only other serious competition to the T-Bird was the Pontiac Grand Prix, which came within 15,000 of the Ford in sales. The Grand Prix was a bit less of a direct competitor to both the T-Bird and Riviera, however, because it largely shared a body with the Catalina, while the Ford and Buick looked totally unique in their respective lineups. The Grand Prix, although beautiful, may have been a little more blue collar.
That the Thunderbird outsold these two is a testament to its attainability and class–rarely is something so available so highly regarded. The Thunderbird sold roughly 72,000 units in 1965, despite its more upright styling compared to the rakish 1965 GM models. The T-Bird was upright done right.
As had been the case since the 1961 model’s introduction, T-Birds were powered by the adequate although not really breathtaking 390 FE. After 1965, Ford traded in its black and gold engine scheme for the familiar Ford blue, which may or may not be an upgrade depending on your preference. The surprisingly cramped engine compartment became even more so when one opted for the de rigueur air conditioner.
As was always the case with T-Birds, however, the interior was the star of the show. The L-shaped console, the huge dashboard fascia, the compass-like gauge pods, the power windows and locks, and the swing-away steering wheel all added to an ambience that looked like it cost a lot of money. If one wanted to show off, there were worse ways to do it than by showing up in a T-Bird.
Even the headrests and back seat were not anything like your basic workaday Fords. The headrests were adjustable and the rear seats wrapped around, which was a style Ford tried to crib for the ’65 Mustang, although it used steel panels to create the same effect. The rear package shelf was slotted for a “flow-through” ventilation system that apparently extracted stale air from the passenger compartment.
The ’65 was even one of few cars to come standard with disc brakes, which made the T-Bird an even better value compared to its competitors.
And although they’re frequently discarded by modern owners looking for a little more bling, even the wheel covers show signs of intricate design and care. The deep draw spinner look evoked the 1950s if anything, which is appropriate, because the T-Bird was really a car of the 1950s.
The Mustang was, of course, Ford’s answer to the 1960s, and even though it was special in its own right, it may not have had that T-Bird magic. As Ford said, however, it was a car for the young and young at heart, and the T-Bird was a car for the older and more affluent. After 1966, its time had really past; the Swingin’ ’60s had finally begun. The Mustang was the Beatles to the T-Bird’s Rat Pack.
Thus, the last of the really special T-Birds, with their sequential taillights that later saw duty on Cougars and Shelby Mustangs, passed into memory. There would be great T-Birds to come, like the ’80s Fox “Aerobirds” and the MN-12 Super Coupes, and even the hot-selling brougham-like ’77s, but there would never be another that was “unique in all the world.”