1955 Ford Thunderbird – To Be A Sports Car Or Not To Be A Sports Car, That Is The Question

The 1955 Thunderbird is commonly seen as Ford’s answer to the 1953 Corvette. Although that’s true, inasmuch as the revived and ambitious Ford Motor Company felt it too had to have a two-seater sports car. The sports car boom was peaking and had caught the public’s imagination, attention and dollars. But the Thunderbird’s real inspiration—even if it was subconscious—was not the typical hard-riding British sports car of the time, but the svelte 1940-1941 Lincoln Continental, a cut-down, mid-priced, superbly-styled Lincoln Zephyr that was the car to be seen in while cruising the sunny boulevards of California and Florida. It was the first “personal car” before that name was coined for the ’55 Thunderbird.

The Thunderbird took the concept, added the “personal car” label, and ran with it. But the question as to whether it was a sports car or not was not so easily settled; folks didn’t exactly think “personal car” when they saw a T-Bird roll by with its top down.

The Ford Motor Company’s revival in the early-mid fifties under a young and ambitious Henry Ford II was daunting. How could a company so run down take on the juggernaut GM? It took a cadre of seasoned executives, some poached from GM, as well as the “Whiz Kids” to come up with the answers.

There were two main thrusts: 1.) go up against GM’s five divisions mano-a-mano, which resulted in the creation of Edsel and the push upwards by Mercury and 2.) identify and exploit market niches that GM had no presence in.

That second one was based on a previous niche Ford had successfully exploited with the 1940 Continental, the pioneer of the mid-priced “personal car”, or personal luxury car (PLC) as it later came to be known. That segment eventually came to dominate the sales charts in the 1970s. But rather than build a true successor to the Continental, Ford bifurcated the concept, going both up and down: the ultra-expensive 1956 Continental MkII and the much more affordable 1955 Thunderbird.

The Mark II turned out to be a a huge money pit, which effectively killed the ambitious Continental Division. Meanwhile the Thunderbird was of course a hit, and established a long-running vaunted name. For what it’s worth, the Thunderbird was closer to the original Continental in concept and price than the MkII.

And of course in 1958 the Thunderbird became a four-seater, thus fully embracing the original Continental’s format, not that many passengers actually ever found their way into the back seats of either of them. These cars weren’t bought for that purpose; they were bought by childless folks or for a well-enough daddy that could also buy a Country squire for mom and the kids.

A bit of pricing history to help put this in context:

The 1940 Continental cost $2916 ($62k, adjusted)

The 1956 Continental MK II cost $9695 ($107k adjusted)

The 1955 Thunderbird, typically equipped with automatic, radio, PS, PB and a few other options, went for about $4000 ($45k), or about 33% more than a well-equipped Ford Fairlane.

Note: Straight inflation adjustments become less accurate going back further in time, but another way of looking at it was that the 1940 Continental cost one-half of a typical (senior) Lincoln K-Series and other serious luxury cars. It was roughly in the middle of the greater span of car pricing at the time. As was the 1955 Thunderbird, a car that the increasingly prosperous middle class could genuinely aspire to own.


It was Ford Product Planner Chase Morsey that came up with the “personal car” moniker, as a way to position the Thunderbird as not-a-sports-car despite technically meeting the established definition of the genre as well as being commonly referred to as one, generally by those that didn’t know better. Yes, the Corvette may have given Ford the incentive to build the Thunderbird, but the ‘Bird was not likely to chase a ‘Vette down a curvy road or on the track.

The Thunderbird, with its heavy steel body, soft suspension and not-exactly ambitious Y-block 292 V8 was destined to be a boulevard cruiser; a car to be seen in and for the pleasure of driving serenely. Yet Ford’s own advertisements reflected this dichotomy; they didn’t want it to be judged as a sports car, yet they were content to call it one.

Whether the original Corvette was a genuine sports car was also a point of contention for some. The hard-core British roadster-driving cult looked down their noses at it. Road and Track’s review was titled “Is It Really A Sports Car?” (the verdict was “yes”, but that it was not yet suitable for sports car racing).  But whatever performance and handling edge that the ’53-’54 Corvette lacked, it soon got it with the V8 in 1955 and some chassis tuning in 1956.

The 1955 Thunderbird hit the mark, with over 16,000 sold. In the process, it nearly killed the Corvette, whose sales plunged from 3640 in 1954 to a mere 700 in 1955. That was due to the T-Bird as well as the fact that there were still a lot of unsold ’54 Corvettes gathering dust. The Thunderbird’s proper side windows, optionally power-actuated (the ’53-’55 Corvette had “side curtains” that had to be installed), a wider and roomier cockpit, standard V8, available power steering and brakes and other amenities made for a vastly more appealing package for those looking to be seen driving a sports car but not having to make any of the compromises.

GM was not going to give up; they doubled down and turned the Corvette into a genuine world-class sports car, adding proper side windows and a better cockpit in 1956 along with the performance upgrades. It never sold in the numbers that the Thunderbird did, but that wasn’t the point. It was a halo car, and a very successful one, whether sitting in someone’s driveway or on the track.

Although the Thunderbird sold quite well for a two seater, racking up 16k sales again in 1956 and 21k in ’57, it’s dubious whether it ever made a profit. The two-seater concept was seen to be too limiting for a personal car, and the ’58 got the definitive four passenger packaging. But the “Little Bird” served as an effective halo car and an image builder for Ford at a crucial time when its stock was going public for the first time ever. And unlike the albatross Mark II, the Thunderbird certainly wasn’t a money loser or required a whole new division to build and support it.


One could argue that the Thunderbird should have been a Mercury or even a Lincoln, but Ford absolutely made the right call here, unlike with their several expensive mistakes at the time. The Ford brand was of course the company’s bread and butter, and Ford was in a huge competition for the sales leadership in the low-price segment. The Thunderbird’s sheen was spread very effectively all over the Ford brand. If that came at the expense of Mercury or Edsel, so be it. There was no question as to the name on the buildings or of the CEO.

Under the hood scoop sat the 292 cubic inch Y-block V8, rated at 193 hp with manual transmissions (three speed; three-speed w/overdrive) and 198 hp with the Ford-O-Matic; a three speed automatic but not a very agile one. In a Road&Track test, the sprint to 60 took a rather leisurely 11 seconds, exactly the same as the oft-maligned 150 hp six cylinder Powerglide-equipped ’53-’54 Corvette. Oops.

Yes, it was a bit faster with the manual, but the great majority were equipped with the Ford-O-Matic.

One does wonder if Ford’s decision to position the Thunderbird as a personal car and not a sports car was in part due to the realization that their new (in 1954) Y-Block V8 was decidedly not “sporty”. Its tortuous ports, small valves and general cylinder head architecture resulted in modest power output (and potential) as well as a relatively poor power-to-weight ratio due to its heavy block.

This realty was of course driven home in an overwhelming way when Chevrolet’s brilliant new V8 appeared in 1955, almost the polar opposite of the Y-Block, in terms of dynamic qualities, size and weight. With the injection of the new 195 hp 265 cubic inch V8, the 1955 Corvette’s performance was instantly vaulted to world class standards. Even when teamed with the Powerglide, its 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds was superb for the time. How was it that a 195 hp Corvette with the two-speed Powerglide was almost three seconds quicker to 60 than a 198 hp Thunderbird with a three-speed automatic?  The T-Bird did weigh some 300 lbs more, but that doesn’t nearly account for the large difference.

The explanation? Noted automotive tech journalist Roger Huntington analyzed the acceleration of numerous cars at the time with an accelerometer (“PerfomOMeter”), resulting in remarkably accurate calculations of actual installed (net) hp and torque, and he quickly became convinced that Chevrolet’s advertised hp and torque numbers were consistently lower compared to other brand’s numbers. So much for inflated advertised hp numbers.

Of course that 195 hp 265 was just the beginning of the Corvette’s rapid climb in performance; with 225, then 240 hp versions in 1956 as well as the suspension and brake improvements it quickly became the car to beat at SCCA sports car races, drag strips and other venues.

Some of you will likely point out that the Thunderbird’s V8 also got some massaging in 1956, and especially in 1957, when in desperation to keep up with the new fuel injected 283 Chevy, Ford strapped a McCulloch supercharger to a small number of 312 V8s, resulting in ratings of 300 (automatic) and 340 hp (manual). These were fast, but NASCAR quickly banned them, and all of 212 Thunderbirds with the blower were built. The tricky variable-speed drive mechanism on these belt-driven superchargers developed a serious rep for having a short lifespan.

In a somewhat curious effort to look competitive, even though by 1957 Ford knew the two-door ‘Bird’s days were numbered, they contracted with DePaolo Engineering to build four “Battlebirds”; highly modified with some experimental factory parts including a stroker kit to create 348 cubic inches, and of course the superchargers. They had a few impressive outings, but the exercise rather missed the whole point: the Corvette was being snapped up by private owners because it was so competitive to start with, and it took only some relatively minor (and cheap) over-the-counter parts to make it more competitive on the tracks.

By 1957, the Thunderbird’s image and reputation as a softly-sprung, modest-to-mediocre handling two-seater “personal car” was very deeply entrenched, and nothing was going to change that. Why even bother to try? In order to justify the checkered flags on its hood? Ford had created a new niche, and although it wasn’t perhaps as sexy as having the fastest production sports car in the world, it was certainly effective in its original mission: a sexy personal car.

Perfect for what this owner did on a splendid Oregon summer evening 68 years later: tooling along with the top down, enjoying the wafting air as it created an eddy behind the wraparound windshield.

As well as savoring the mellow burble of the twin exhausts. The Y-Block has a rep for its exhaust sound, as did its predecessor, the Ford flathead V8. That’s the result of both of them having the same 1-5-4-8-6-3-7-2 firing order, unlike most modern ohv V8s. The exhausts piping out back is a bit affected, but then so was the early Corvette’s, although its pipes were a bit better integrated into its body.

A key part of the Thunderbird program was to use as many parts a feasible from the passenger cars. The instrument pod is one of those. Less visible are the passenger car underpinnings, which consisted of a shortened frame with the front and rear suspension essentially intact.

On the left of the main pod is a tachometer, not exactly very visible. But it really wasn’t relevant, as the Y-Block disdained higher rpm; that would explain why it only went up to 5000 rpm. The 292 V8’s advertised gross power peak was 4,400 rpm; as installed (net) it was undoubtedly no more than 4,000. A Chevy V8 was just getting warmed up at that speed.

The Ford-O-Matic was an early and slow shifter. One could extend the shift point somewhat by starting in Low, but then one had to shift to Drive to allow second to engage, and then one had to quickly shift back to Low to keep restrain the shift into third. Futzing around with the shifter that way might shave a second or so off its 0-60 time. Why bother?

Keeping one’s foot mashed on the throttle would eventually yield a top speed of some 110 mph. As to handling, no one would accuse the two-seater Thunderbird of being an agile flyer. It wasn’t called the Seagull for a reason. The mythical Thunderbird was a large and heavy beast, and like its automotive namesake, did not take to changing directions abruptly with zeal or finesse.

The suspension settings were passenger-car oriented, resulting in a pleasant ride but it was too soft in corners. The issue only got worse in ’56 when the spare became a continental spare, adding a lot of weight at its extreme end, causing the rear end to mush out even worse in brisk curves. Once again, it was mission appropriate.

Unlike the Corvette, the Thunderbird’s stylistic family resemblance to the Ford passenger cars was both practical as well as reinforcing its place in life. The taillights are shared, and it makes the Thunderbird look like what it essentially is: a cut-down sporty Ford. In the mid-fifties, customizing passenger cars to turn them into sporty cars or such was a widespread hobby; with the T-Bird, Ford did all the hard work for you. And for a pretty reasonable price, a 31% premium over a new Fairlane convertible.

Frankly, those jet engine exhaust extensions do look like they might have come from a customizer’s shop or the J.C Whitney catalog.

That rather goes for the jet intakes in the front too. It would have looked cleaner without them, on both ends.

The noted author and historian Griff Borgeson, then a main writer at Sports Car Illustrated, acknowledged that the debate as to whether the Thunderbird was a sports car or not was moot: the T-Bird had created a new market niche, and a quite successful one at that (the continuation of that article is unfortunately not available).

The addition of the continental spare hanging on the back bumper of the ’56 only reinforced that the Thunderbird’s heart was not in the curves, as that worsened its handling.

The styling refresh put the spare back in the trunk, which was elongated; too much so, for my sense of proportions. As is so commonly the case, the original (1955) was the best of the bunch, stylistically.

By the time I arrived as a kid in the US in 1960, the two-seater Thunderbird was already a modern classic. It had created an intensely loyal following; its owners just didn’t take to the four-door and bemoaned the loss of the original. In 1963, a black ’55 with the hardtop showed up next door to us in Iowa City, owned by a top gymnast at the university. He was young and utterly infatuated with the Thunderbird legend. And taking me for a short spin made me see why, although I have to admit that when we passed the Corvette sitting in a neighbor’s driveway two blocks away, a skip of my heart confirmed where my true allegiance lay.

Note: I have not delved into the complicated and somewhat contentious origins of the Thunderbird and its styling. Ateupwithmotor has an excellent deep dive into those issues.


Here’s some other related CC reading:

Automotive History: The Short Life And Personal Times Of The 1955-1957 Thunderbird

Vintage SCI Review: 1957 Thunderbird – Do We Detect a Wee Bit of Corvette Envy?

Curbside Classic: 1957 Ford Thunderbird – The Most Perfectly Styled American Car Of The 1950s?

Curbside Classic: 1940-41 Lincoln Continental – A Creation of a Man of Taste and a Man of Talent

Curbside Classic: 1956 Continental Mark II – Caught In The Pincers