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

Hard as it may be to believe, in all of the years that curbside classics have been gracing the pages of Curbside Classic, we have never given the 1957 Thunderbird its day in the sun.  At least not without its older brothers along.  That day has now come.

It is generally accepted that General Motors was the long-reining king of automotive styling.  Names like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell are well known for the long stream of attractive and trend-setting cars that they guided from paper to clay and into showrooms everywhere during the company’s long term domination of the American auto industry.  However, it seems that once every decade it was the Ford Motor Company that hit the stylistic home run which made all other cars seem ordinary.

Think about it: in the 1920s it was the Model A, one of the most beautiful cars of its era, never mind its diminuitive size.  The 1936 Ford (or the ’39 if you are a contrarian like me) did the same thing the following decade in that each was virtually perfect in its own way.

Then there was the 1941 Lincoln Continental and the 1965 Mustang, two cars that reached a kind of styling perfection in the 1940’s and the 1960’s.  And the 1950’s?  Sorry, but it is not the ’57 Chevy.  It is this one: The 1957 Ford Thunderbird.

The basic story of the Thunderbird is well-known.  Sports cars were all the rage in the early 1950s.  In addition to the most famous one (the 1953 Corvette) there were many others.  The Nash-Healy, the Hudson Italia and the Kaiser Darrin all made it to production.  Even the 1953 Studebaker Starliner/Starlight was considered as something of a sports car, albeit a more practical one with a back seat.

Chrysler was busy with a series of Virgil Exner-conceived one-offs, any one of which could have made it to showrooms had K. T. Keller & Co. been less invested in revamping the standard lines.  And there were, of course, many sports car prototypes and show cars from various Divisions that made the rounds of GM’s Motorama shows.

And then there was the Ford Motor Company.  By 1952 the company had made amazing strides from the company of less than a decade earlier, which was closer than many realized to closing up shop.  Too Big To Fail was a thing in the 1940’s too.  As the second half of the twentieth century got underway, the most backwards auto company known for selling tough but thoroughly obsolete products had transformed itself into a modern company that was quite competitive.  By 1952 the idea of a sports car must have been on Henry Ford II’s mind.  When Chevrolet introduced the 1953 Corvette, it almost certainly was.

The story of Thunderbird’s birth in the fall of 1954 is another story for another time.  And one that Aaron Severson has ably chronicled at Ate Up With Motor.  The crib notes version is that the original Bird’s styling story is a bit murky.  There are versions crediting Frank Hershey, Bill Boyer and Joe Oros, each of whom worked under Ford’s styling VP George Walker.  Success, as we all know, has many fathers.

The 1955 Thunderbird turned out to be not a sports car, exactly.  However, in the way that seemed unique to Ford in those years the car and its designers stumbled on the secret to success.  While everyone else was trying to build an American Triumph or Jaguar, Ford created a uniquely American style accessory that was more of a cross between a Jaguar and a Cadillac.  The Thunderbird had two seats like a sports car, but was really meant for the boulevard or the country club.

Although Ford had projected a 10,000 unit initial run, the company sold 16,155 Birds in 1955.  Even with its new V8 engine, Chevrolet could only manage to move 674 Corvettes that year.  It has been argued that without the 1953 Corvette there would have been no 1955 Thunderbird, and without the 1955 Thunderbird there would have been no 1956 Corvette.

After two years of success the 1957 model would require a restyle.  What is fascinating is the way the 1957 restyle has received so little attention through the years.  If the story of the ’55 is murky, that of the ’57 has been almost ignored despite the fact that it was undoubtedly one of the most successful refreshes in the history of automobile styling.

Perhaps the 1957 Thunderbird’s styling became an afterthought in automotive history because the car was an afterthought during its development.  After all, immediately after the drama of the 1955 model attention shifted to Robert McNamara and his green eyeshade-style of automotive management.  Now, instead of an American “sports car”, the Thunderbird program was morphed into a larger unit “body buddy”  with the 1958 Lincoln so that both of them (and the Wixom, Michigan plant where they were to be built) could become paying propositions.  There are many fascinating things about the 1958 Thunderbird and it was an unqualified success in more ways than one, but there is one thing it was not:  Beautiful.  OK, maybe it was beautiful by the standards of new cars in 1958, but not the kind of beauty that makes you stop and stare today.

In 1986 Bill Boyer wrote “Thunderbird – An Odyssey In Automotive Design”.  Boyer ran a Thunderbird design studio within Ford styling beginning in early 1955, so he would have known the ’57 project as well as anyone.  In that roughly two hundred page book Boyer gave the exterior styling of the ’57 project a few paragraphs over perhaps two or three pages.  The 1955 and 1958 cycles got all the attention in both the book and in real life, so we have to take what details we can scrounge.

We know that the a larger grille was desired for better engine cooling and the dipped bumper met this criteria while allowing the front end sheetmetal to remain essentially unchanged.

We also know that the biggest change was a four inch stretch of the rear (with no increase in wheelbase) which allowed the spare tire to be put back into the trunk.  It is also clear that the ’57 Bird’s rear was designed mainly to maintain a family resemblance with the new 1957 Ford Fairlane – the company’s big project for the year.

It is remarkable how similar the Thunderbird’s 1957 styling story followed that of the regular Chevrolet.  Both cars involved a third year rehash of an attractive and popular car.  And both have gone down in history as one of the most successful designs of the era.  But where the ’57 Bel-Air became beloved because it was so common, the Thunderbird of that year was appreciated for its relative rarity.  Perhaps the secret to long-term styling success in the 1950’s was giving the stylists as little to change as possible?

It is easy to look back at the radical 1957 line coming from Chrysler Corporation and see how dowdy and old fashioned almost everything else looked in comparison.  The ’57 Ford Fairlane may have come closest to matching Virgil Exner’s impact over at Chrysler, but most agree that the front of the Ford was a bit hamfisted.  The 1957 Thunderbird, however, avoided this fate.

Look at this car.  Is there a single line, a single piece or a single feature that calls out for improvement?  The fender skirt might be the most controversial item today, but they can be removed for those offended by them.  Personally, I much prefer the skirted versions over the open-wheel look.

1957 models, clockwise from top left: Chrysler New Yorker, Pontiac Star Chief, Studebaker Champion, Chevrolet Bel Air


Up front the new bumper and grille transform the design from ordinary for the period to timeless.  The dipped bumper looked just right in a year that saw several of them.  The T-Bird’s dip was more dramatic than those found on the Chrysler (and on the ’57 Chevrolet, for that matter).  And it was far more successful than the awkward effort on the front of of the standard Studebaker line or the overly complicated one on the ’57 Pontiac.

Out back the thin, canted fins make Exner’s Forward Look fins look a little pudgy.  Ford’s small, canted fins may have come off as well as any fin design from the era, and it has certainly worn better than most of them as time has passed. The trademark round taillights over the bumper that drops down on the ends end up in perfect proportion.  This was likely due to good fortune as much as anything since the taillight lenses came directly from the ’57 Fairlane.  Really, how amazing is it that a facelift job largely dictated by other projects could come out this well?  And not just well but just right.

How right?  One look at some of the alternative ideas brings home just how many ways stylists could have ruined the final two-seat Thunderbird.

The big scallop behind the front wheel got fairly far along in the design process, and was eliminated only when the new 1956 Corvette came out with a similar feature.  The production design lost the slightly chunky look of 1955-56 and was far more pure than the 1958 unit-bodied Squarebird that succeeded it.  We could say that Ford kept the best parts of the already attractive 1955-56 car and added more goodness everywhere major changes were made.

And how perfect was it for me to find this one in this setting.  Geist Reservoir is an area northeast of Indianapolis that has been surrounded by expensive homes and has developed a bit of the flavor of lake living.  Near the marina is a building that has seen a series of failed restaurants.  But there is one that opened there last year which seems to be a success.  We met friends there last year and I was fortunate to find a CC-worthy Pontiac GTO in the parking lot.  And when we met them again recently, I was greeted by this gorgeous Thundering Bird as we left the building.

This T-Bird was in its element – a scenic, upscale locale with well-dressed people all around.  This car was not parked at a road racing course, and was never intended to be.  Nope, this car was made for settings where there are yachts or golf clubs or cocktails.  Elegant.  That is the word that sums up the Thunderbird alone among the offerings of almost everything else built by the U. S. Auto industry that year.

Most old cars look good in pictures, but let me  tell you this one was stunning in person.  No wonder the owner took the liberty of parking it along the curb near the establishment’s front door instead of between the white lines farther away where we of the proletariat parked our more plebeian wheels.  All the better to not mar the mirror-perfect Raven Black finish.  As I walked around this one during photographing, I was struck by the total lack of bad or awkward angles.  Just as some humans are made for the camera, so is the 1957 Thunderbird.

I did not, of course, lift the hood, but I like to imagine there a 4 bbl 312 for providing the kind of scoot-power a car like this deserves.  I’ll bet the exhaust note is lovely.  Ford offered some fairly strong powerplants that year, including a supercharged 312.  Fearsome performance was not, however, the Thunderbird’s real purpose in life.  Who really needs a supercharger or dual four-barrel carbs to live the beautiful life?

Like the 1957 Chevrolet, the ’57 Thunderbird sold well but not spectacularly.  It’s generation-high output of 21,380 cars was aided by a production year extended into December of 1957 due to delays in getting all-new ’58 model into showrooms.  The Corvette had a good 1957 too, though 6,339 vehicles was good only by 1950’s Corvette standards.

And just as the 1957 Chevrolet would be overshadowed by its new 1958 replacement, Ford would eventually show what real success looked like when the four-seat 1958 Thunderbird would introduce the concept of personal luxury to the American automobile market.

In truth, I am a little surprised that the ’57 Chevy and the ’59 Cadillac have become the alpha and the omega of 1950’s American automotive design.  But then popular tastes can be difficult to predict.  For my money the 1957 Ford Thunderbird may represent the decade’s actual styling peak.  How fascinating that the company with so few really good designs of the period would come up with the one that stands far above all the rest.

Only follow it up with the 1958 Edsel.

But boy did it ever.  Whether in shape or proportion, concept or detailing, the 1957 Ford Thunderbird may well have been the most perfectly styled car of its era.  There have always been stylish cars and cars with design that has withstood the test of time.  This one managed to be both.


Further Reading:

Garageside Classic – Maintaining And Driving Harold’s T-Birds (Jon7190)

Vintage Ads: 1955-57 Thunderbird – The Light Of Hand Performer (Paul Niedermeyer)