Curbside Classic: 1958 Ford Thunderbird – The Most Revolutionary American Car Of The Fifties

NB: The car pictured here is a 1959 Thunderbird, but my article is about its near-identical 1958 predecessor due to its historical significance. As a kid, I could never tell them apart anyway. I hope such dissonance won’t upset the purists here. 

Behold the mythical winged dream machine: The 1958 Thunderbird. It literally embodied the dream that everyday folks could soar above the humdrum of a dull workaday existence and dowdy sedans. Suddenly, luxury and exclusivity were no longer in the realm of a privileged few, but within the grasp of every hard-working dreamer; after all, the T-Bird was a Ford. If Ol’ Henry could fulfill his once-unattainable dream of putting every American on wheels, then surely Hank II and his Whiz Kids could fit them with wings. For a dozen or so years the Thunderbird soared, revolutionizing the industry by creating an entirely new genre: The attainable personal-luxury car. Perhaps, like Icarus, it tried to fly too high, or maybe the dream changed, because it soon fell back to Earth. After it crashed, its wings were tacked onto a blinged-out Torino, and so died a piece of the American dream. 

If we identified the two most revolutionary vehicles of the fifties, the list would undoubtedly comprise the T-Bird and the VW Beetle. Each car carved out a significant new segment in the mainstream market, albeit on opposite ends of the spectrum. These cars, like their respective buyers, are polar opposites–yin/yang, right brain/left brain, thrifty/exuberant, grounded/aspiring–that foreshadowed the complete fragmentation of a modern marketplace once dominated by full-sized cars. The industry has never been the same; think Mustang. Revolutionary enough?

The Thunderbird was born in response to other manufacturers’ sports cars, chiefly the 1953 Corvette. Its’55-‘57  two-seat incarnation did convey a sporty image, but it was all pretense, and the antecedent to the long line of Mercedes SL soft-roadsters and such. Nevertheless, it outsold the ‘Vette, and by a huge margin. That first taste of the personal-luxury market was juicy, and Ford was hooked, leaving the marginal sports-car market for Chevy to pursue.

But if the Thunderbird really was going to inspire the soaring aspiration of late-’50s suburban optimism, it needed to be a social vehicle–in other words, a four-seater. The T-Bird was for taking your suitably impressed friends to the supper club for steaks after enjoying Mai Tais in the Polynesian-themed rec room of your new rancher. Or getting the kids to the game while Mommy was out shopping in her Country Squire. Two-seaters are intrinsically anti-social, the province of sports-car fanatics, boors or the snooty upper crust. Even if no one would ever sit in the back seat, a T-Bird hinted at an invitation inside to share the dream.

The new ’58 “Squarebird” was also revolutionary in its development and production. Reflecting a new paradigm of style over function, the roles of designers and engineers were reversed, as the Thunderbird was fully styled before it was engineered. For the first time in memory, Detroit’s entrenched development hierarchy had been turned on its head.

It was also the first vehicle built at Ford’s new Wixom, MI plant; designed specifically to assemble big unibodies, it was revolutionary in its own right. Unless I’m mistaken (and recognizing that the Wixom plant also built the big 1958 Continental), the T-Bird (and Lincoln) was the first unibody from the Big Three (in terms of construction, the 1934 Chrysler Airflow was more of a hybrid).

Speaking of styling, probably the less I say the better, lest I offend the lovers of these beasts. Although the T-Bird’s distinctive roof (pioneered on the ’57 Ford Skyliner) became a classic–it ran through the mid- to late-’60s–the upper and lower halves seem disproportional, making the top look like it’s melting into the lower body. A common design gimmick of the time that Ford took to extremes.

The front end looks like a cross between the Batmobile and a catfish. It’s really quite crude as well,  resembling something cobbled up in fiberglass by a customizing shop. The 1961-1963 “Bullet Bird” is a profoundly more inspired, refined and better-executed design.

The rear end is an exuberant display of protrusions, curves and afterburners, and is perhaps the best angle from which to view this rocket ship. It’s at once camp, Googie and ridiculous, and hopefully not meant to be taken seriously; of course, that might not have been intended back in 1958.

After I first arrived in the states, in 1960, I was distracted by one of these Squarebirds and a similar vintage Corvette on my mile-long walk to second grade. The ‘Vette I understood: It was all buff with a sexy big ass. The T-Bird, however, was an enigma. Don’t get me wrong; I obsessed on it, especially that interior, which looks like a cross between a ski-boat’s cockpit and a space-ship control console from late-’40s Hollywood. Compared with all the dumpy Ramblers and Larks along the way, the T-Bird was one of the highlights of my day, every day. Still, I struggled to figure out what Joe Oros and his stylists were trying to communicate. I learned English quickly enough, but Squarebird-ese was a bitch. In any case, the car surely held my attention, and I’m certain its owner wondered how all those smudges and drool got on his side window every morning.

Speaking of consoles, the ‘Bird’s was the mother of them all, and for a good reason. The Thunderbird may have flown metaphorically, spiritually and mythically, but in reality it was strictly earthbound: This low-flyer had barely five inches of ground clearance even when new. Factor in a few years of spring sag and, well, it looks like an empty creeper would barely fit under this one. The console covered a drive shaft located practically at elbow level.

The engine compartment was a snug affair as well. My first look at it was a bit of a shock to me, since I was so used to the typically barn-sized engine rooms of tall ’50s sedans. The T-Bird was truly futuristic in portending the nightmare engine compartments of the ’70s. Under that big flat air cleaner sat Ford’s brand-new 352 cu in (5.8-liter) FE engine. Fed by a big Holley four-barrel carb, it was rated at a then-impressive 300 horsepower, about the same as a new Caddy. However, the T-Bird was priced closer to a Fairlane than a Coupe DeVille.

The 352 isn’t enough? Then order up the 350 hp MEL 430 cu in (7.0-liter) monster from the Lincoln, the biggest engine currently available in the land, if not the world. A Bird endowed with its extra fifty horsepower and truckloads of torque probably was among the fastest sleds of its day. Undoubtedly, handling–at least such as it was–didn’t benefit from all that extra iron sitting over the front wheels. It’s all Thunderbird mythology anyway, because mighty few MELs were ever actually shoehorned into that cozy engine compartment.

The ’58 model was a bang-up success, despite a short production year and the lack of a ragtop until almost the end. But that was only the beginning: There were 67,000 sold in 1959, and some 93,000 in 1960–almost five times the sales of the two-seater in its best year, and ten times Corvette sales. Nineteen-sixty also marked the apex of the T-Birds flight trajectory; except for a blip in 1964, the T-Bird’s long glide into the depths of the ’70s had begun. We’ll hold our noses and talk about the T-Bird’s demise and resurrection as a zombie another time.

Amazingly–or maybe not–it took GM five years to take the Thunderbird seriously and launch some real competition. The ’63 Riviera was a gem, but it sold at half the T-Bird’s numbers. Ford had established a pretty solid beachhead in the luxo-coupe wars, at least for a while, and it provided a hell of a lesson: Attack GM from the sides, not head-on. In future years, Ford would apply that lesson more than once.

The T-Bird’s luxo-coupe market dwindled away, as dreams and fads inevitably do. New dreams to take its place were invented by the Mad Men, and as long as buyers remain willing to fall for their seduction, the clapping of the mythical wings of the Thunderbird can be heard.