(first posted 10/21/2014) Yawn. Another restored squarebird convertible in resale red. Aren’t there a couple of these at every car show? But I didn’t find this one at a car show. Instead, it was on a quiet neighborhood street, looking just a little rough around the edges. Sort of like an elegantly dressed lady who has somehow found herself in a low class bar. This car had an air of mystery about it, which is fitting because for its entire history, the Thunderbird has always had some mystery as part of its aura.
There is no need to into the squarebird’s backstory again, as Paul Niedermeyer covered this ground so ably and eloquently here. Let’s just say that this was a groundbreaking and influential car.
General Motors is commonly given credit for being the styling leader for the entire industry, going back to the 1920s formation of its Art & Colour department under the leadership of a young Harley Earl. This is, for the most part, quite true. However, the Ford Motor Company never rolled over and played dead, making at least occasional forays into design leadership with cars like the prow-nosed 1936 Lincoln Zephyr (and its low-grille 1938 second act) and the 1949 Ford that led the way to the slab sided, square-cornered design that would be a nearly universal look in the U.S. by 1955.
As the 1950s progressed, both Harley Earl and Chrysler’s Virgil Exner led a trend of sharpened lines, a thinning of the greenhouse and an ever upward trajectory of the tailfin that came to typify the American car of the late 1950s. The rest of the industry seemed to follow these trends. Except the Thunderbird.
While Earl and Exner saw beauty in the wing or the wedge, Joe Oros and the other designers at Ford saw beauty in the rectangle, and the 1958 Thunderbird (and Lincoln) would put an abrupt end to the themes so ably developed by the competition.
Although the Thunderbird’s roof is one of its most striking differences from the typical 1958 car, lets come back to that one, because even more than the greenhouse, the lower body created a shape what was nearly a classic rectangle, albeit a highly sculpted one. The car had just enough tailfin to be modern, but the fin was not where the Bird’s design got its drama. Instead, the heavily sculpted center of the tail end as well as the dramatic downward slope of the hood between the straight, proud fenders was a look unlike anything else in the industry.
When you think about it, 1958 may have been the year where everything in auto styling went up for grabs. GM was pure Harley Earl, bold, brash and slathered with chrome. Chrysler’s forward look was proving hugely influential, so much that Studebaker spent it’s last bag of development cash on trying to make its aging 1953 body look like a ’57 New Yorker. Then there was the 58 Thunderbird (and the Continental) that began the rectilinear look that would eventually take over the industry during the following decade, and would last us until Ford would do it all again with the jellybean-influenced 1983 Thunderbird.
And if you think that the Squarebird’s shape was influential, consider the bucket seats separated by the prominent console – a configuration that remains nearly universal to this day. And what an interior it was in 1958-60. In an age where the jet fighter was the romanticized ideal for transportation, this car took the cockpit theme to a new level.
In the Squarebird, Ford found something that had eluded Mercury and even Lincoln for a very long time – real social status. That status showed up in the rate at which folks eagerly snapped up the 4 seated Bird. Production of the two seater hovered around 15,000 annual units. Though the ’57 model jumped to over 21,000 cars, it took a production year that extended into December of 1957 to get there. But from the time the Squarebird was tardily introduced, production jumped to levels never seen before: 37,892 1958 models, then 67,456 for 1959. It was the three year old 1960 version that really put an exclamation point on the Thunderbird phenomenon, with production of a whopping 92,843 cars. Over 11,000 were convertibles like this one.
The Squarebird’s jumping sales were certainly not due to discounting, either. In fact, this convertible would have originally listed at about $4,222, which was only about $700 under the entry level Cadillac hardtop. Is it overstating things to say that the Squarebird was the first widely aspirational car in America outside of the traditional luxury brands like Cadillac? That it was sold from the same dealer who supplied your grandfather (or the little woman?) with a six cylinder Falcon was certainly another nail in the coffin in the GM brand hierarchy as conceived by Alfred Sloan in the 1920s.
I have always liked big convertibles, and the Thunderbird is no exception. This car was unique among convertibles, in that the folding top did not nestle into a well behind the rear seat. Instead, the car took advantage of the engineering from the 1957-59 Ford retractable hardtop, in which the decklid would open to allow the top to splay itself across what should have been a trunk compartment. What – you want some luggage space? Then walk your brown shoes and suspenders over to the Ford sedans on the other side of the lot, you hopeless clod.
I will also say that the 1960 is my favorite year of Squarebird. The triple taillights finally filled in those rear jet pods, and the understated “Thunderbird” script on the doors was the cleanest of any side treatment given to these cars.
I started out by remarking that this car had a very mysterious air about it. Here we have one of the most desirable of all the Squarebirds – a red ragtop. I called it Resale Red, but it is actually Montecarlo Red. This one had all the markings of a very nicely restored example, and even a Vintage Thunderbird Club International badge on the grille.
But why is this beautiful specimen of steel and vinyl sitting forlorn at the curb with evidence that it has been sitting there for awhile? Everyone knows that a Thunderbird belongs in a more genteel environment. I found this car a day or two after some torrential rains in the area, and immediately had doubts about how well the drooping rear window had been able to keep the interior dry. The beautiful red paint appeared to be a touch weathered, too. Let me assure you, unlike so many we see here, this car was no “twenty footer”. It was a genuinely nice car. I hope it does not follow in the footsteps of Dickens’ Miss Havisham, whose former elegance fell into ruin all around her.
So, why was it here and in this condition? Perhaps the rotor sitting on the console gives us a clue. Did the car suddenly stop running while out on a Sunday cruise? Even Thunderbirds require ignition system maintenance. Maybe the owner walked to a nearby parts store but got kidnapped by ruffians. Or was the car stolen and being stripped of its valuable parts. “Quick Louie, start with that ignition rotor.” Or did some twenty-something inherit the car from Grandpa and think that it would make a cool everyday driver to mostly ignore between gigs playing drums in his garage band? I thought about going off on a “how could someone treat a car like this” rant, but that would not really be cool without knowing the circumstances that brought it here. Anyhow, the car was gone after a couple of weeks, and I have not seen it since. I hope it has found a garage and some love.
What I can tell you is that I stumbled across one of the most culturally important cars of the mid twentieth century. The Tri Five Chevy may have set the curve for the next fifty years of automotive performance, but the four-passenger Thunderbird was the opening shot in a long battle that would eventually see Ford pass Chevrolet as a successful seller of a full spectrum of cars, from entry level strippo to country club prestige. That’s some powerful thunder.
1958 Ford Thunderbird, the Most Influential Car of the 1950s
It wasn’t until I came across CC that I realised the significance of this model. Paul’s piece puts that argument across very persuasively, and this one has filled the gaps as expertly. That sales jump from 58 to 60 is astonishing! Great appraisal, JPC. I still thinks it ugly, but.
“…the dramatic downward slop of the hood between the straight, proud fenders was a look unlike anything else in the industry.”
I assume by slop you meant slope – the workmanship isn’t that bad!
The slope of the hood looks rather reminiscent of the front of the ’55-’57 ‘Birds to me, if you ignore the hoods over the dual headlights rather than peaks over singles and just look at the falling hoodline against the straight front fender lines.
In the excitement of writing up a car we like, it’s easy for one’s fingers to get carried away! 🙂
Of course. You should see how many times I check my responses! 🙂
Fugliest TBird design. Rococo spackled hot mess.
That Chrysler looks so clean and elegant in comparison even as the above illustration gives its derriere extreme proportions against its reality:
Sorry to have to disagree but of the 58,59, and 60 T-Birds, I prefer the 58 or 59 over the 60. The 60 looks like someone high up in Ford’s marketing department ordered the final model of this series to carry (much) more chrome than the previous 2 years. As a consequence, the grille lost it’s simple elegance, and the smallish “gills” that decorated the doors on the 58s got moved to the rear fenders on the 60s and were made larger. For that matter, all the 60s extra chrome seemed to be at each end. Okay, the triple tail lights now fill the spaces that the previous “twin” tail lights didn’t…but, except for the 60 full-sized Ford, single, round tail lights were a Ford design feature while 3 were to become a top-line Chevy feature.
Oh, well, at least the triple tail lights now match the triple instrument gauges.
What a terrific find! Back in my young years, I always thought these to be a slap in the face of the original Thunderbird. A four-seater? Scandalous. However, in retrospect, this was a very shrewd move on the part of Ford, and it certainly made Thunderbird desire more infectious.
Agreed on all counts. It took me quite awhile to come to terms with this car, but I can finally say that I’m a fan. I have concluded that this is a more modern car than most others of its era in so many ways.
That this car, as it aged, suffered so much blowback in the court of public opinion tells us something about the cult-like status that the 2 seater enjoyed. The Squarebird was never just a car. It was proof that Ford ruined the Thunderbird. The poor thing’s rehabilitation is not complete to this day, I fear.
Thanks for fixing my typo. My main computer went out of service last evening due to carpet cleaning, or I would have fixed it before getting to work.
Yep, for not being a car guy Robert McNamara sure knew what would sell, and more importantly, what would make the most money for Ford. Although the purists were shocked, making the Gen 2 ‘bird a 4 seater was pure genius. Sales boomed as an expanded customer base was tapped. McNamara hit another home run with the Falcon, as its traditional, plain (and cheap) underpinnings were more in tune with American tastes than the controversial Corvair and weird looking Valiant. Too bad his luck ran out as Secty. of Defense, but that’s another story for another forum.
I may be in the minority here, but I like Gen 2 more than the first. Longer and sleeker, the lines just somehow worked better. And that interior was decades ahead of the competition. This was the dawning of the jet/space age and the T Bird (and its advertising campaigns) captured it perfectly. The triple taillights make the ’60 my favorite. Odd that the reverse lights were inboard, instead of in the middle. Also a bit odd is the column shift, whereas Gen 1 was on the floor.
The ’58-’60s aren’t my favorite T-Bird generation, but this example is nonetheless a very nice one. I love the dramatic center slope of the rear. The dual-cowl cockpit interior is something that Ford used here and there for decades after.
This would be one of my first choices for the quintessential American car of the ’50s. The ’59 Cadillac is more iconic, but I think the Square Bird better exemplifies its time. This is a car conceived in and launched in the last era when Americans regarded the High-Tech World of Tomorrow — which in many ways seemed almost within reach — with more excitement than fear. The Thunderbird is the perfect car for a period when it was still generally assumed that “today’s modern synthetic materials” were advanced rather than cheap and dreary and that if today’s planes could hit Mach 2, Mach 3 was sure to follow — and when you could drive something this gaudy and have it perceived as classy rather than vulgar, tacky, or kitsch.
Clearly, the ’60s and ’70s ‘birds demonstrated there was still a lucrative market for vulgar and overwrought, but much as I do love the Flair Bird’s silly flight deck controls (which really just take the direction of this car to its ultimate extreme), viewing that in a mid-60s context brings a certain creeping Camp irony that I don’t think the Square Bird had except for the snootiest observers.
Note that none of this is at all mutually exclusive with thinking it’s a complete aesthetic mishmash or the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.
Those comments remind of this tune:
Yes, exactly. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) was a scientific project that lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, nicely coinciding with the Squarebird’s arrival.
“And what an interior it was in 1958-60. In an age where the jet fighter was the romanticized ideal for transportation, this car took the cockpit theme to a new level.”
Yes! the interiors of Thunderbirds on through 1966 are among my favorites. The ’61 – ’63 is the very best, in my opinion. I love they way it embraces the driver and passengers, even in the back seats. The ’64-’66 perhaps is pushing the bounds of good (my) taste, but the exterior more than makes up for it.
Looking forward to the write-ups on those.
The word for this thing is not rectilinear, it’s “arbitrary.” Lines start and stop, blobs emerge and disappear, someone stole the tail off an amusement park rocketship.
I’m not opposed to a little bit of fantasy in car design, but there’s a basic compositional sense made by a ’59 Caddy or a ’57 Chrysler that’s just absent here. Its success confirms that most people don’t look at the whole car. They see flashy details and a nice interior, the end. Same thing with many newer houses and other consumer products.
Not Ford’s fault – I actually blame television for messing with our architectural common sense, but that’s another rant entirely.
I have to agree. In the side profile especially, the styling of this generation T-bird is a mishmash. I’ll take a 61-63 Bullet-bird over this any day.
Interesting observation. I think you have hit on what so many people unconsciously thought when considering this in comparison to the original T-Bird. It is certainly a very complex design. Some of those came out of Exner’s studios at Chrysler as well, but I think this one comes off better. Ford’s most outlandish designs always seemed to be contained within a much more conservative basic shape than were those of competitors.
I am having trouble thinking of a car that was obviously so successful when new but which was so poorly thought of (from a styling standpoint) just a few years later, and which still cannot claim to be completely rehabilitated.
An example of a car that was hugely successful when new, and poorly thought of later, is the entire 1957 Mopar line. And that process happened very quickly.
The Mopars were the hottest thing on the market for the first six months of the 1957 model year. Sales softened by the middle of 1957, and plunged for 1958. Granted, 1958 was a recession year, but Chrysler suffered more than anyone else. Chrysler’s market share continued to fall in 1959, even as the market recovered.
Chrysler did have quality woes, but it wasn’t just concerns over quality driving those sales results (and the decline in market share). GM’s attempt to beat Chrysler in 1959 by following the styling themes of the Forward Look had very uneven results. Talking to people who were buying new cars at that time, one gets the impression that they were almost embarrassed that they had bought ever bought into the entire “tailfin” styling theme.
The entire tailfin craze lasted for less than two years. The trend to glassier greenhouses was stopped dead in its tracks by this generation of Thunderbird. By 1963, the wide, flat C-pillar and flat rear window used on this Thunderbird were the norm for everything from Ramblers to Cadillacs.
The general public didn’t turn against the 1958-60 Thunderbird. It was the enthusiast press reviewers who never forgave Ford for dropping the two-seater.
I understand that the Chryslers were a more cohesive design, but this car still appeals to me more. And, if styling were the main criteria, I would much rather have been driving this car in 1963 than any 1958 Mopar or 1959 GM car. The tailfins and glassy greenhouses look dated to me, which, of course, is part of their appeal to collectors now. They scream “1950s” to everyone. But in the 1960s, people didn’t want a car that evoked the 1950s, just as women preferred to follow the style set by Laura Petrie as opposed to the style set by June Cleaver.
Somehow, I could see Laura Petrie driving this car. Not so much a 1958 DeSoto.
But nominally, one of the two (three) cars that we can assign to the Petrie Driving inventory was a 1957 Dodge Convertible (although in that episode, the interior shots look like they’re from a ’56 Mopar of sorts because of the windshield glass). They wouldn’t go Ford until Rob got the “Tarantula” (Mustang) in the ’64-65 season.
I’m with you up to the last part. A ’61 or ’62 Plymouth is even goofier than a Squarebird.
“I am having trouble thinking of a car that was obviously so successful when new but which was so poorly thought of (from a styling standpoint) just a few years later, and which still cannot claim to be completely rehabilitated.”
Really? I think this is what fashion does, for cars as well as clothes. Big fins were tacky by the late ’60s, big broughams were popular in the ’70s but rare and kinda weird by the late ’80s, at least in the rust belt. A huge number of fwd Pontiac Grand Ams were made, and I remember their design was generally well-reviewed at the time. Does anyone speak up for them now?
I think the last Hyundai Sonata is a genuinely bizarre design, but it seems pretty popular. I wonder if that will last, or if it’ll go the way of “cab-forward” Intrepids.
I wonder whether this design, blown up 150% or so, would have made a good Lincoln? I think it would’ve looked more coherent than what we got.
Close but no cigar for me also, the styling details are too heavy-handed in my opinion, such as the eyebrows over the headlights or the chrome around the tail. Possibly the worst part is the flared bottom edge of the rockers, that emphasises the car’s heavy centre section where it should curve under instead.
Regarding the sinister aspect – I can see this car as a villain in a “Cars” movie! There is a touch of Hannibal Lecter about the grille.
Irony about jet fighters, or any airplane, is that their instrument panels are all business, no flash or style whatever. Just a black, hooded panel with lots of gauges & switches stuck in them.
Brit sports cars came close to this degree of functional minimalism.
Gentlemen I think we are pickers of nits when choosing between any when choosing between the 58-60 birds. They were all beautiful. IMO Ford made birds from 55-60, then not so much till 87 or thereabouts with that aero bird.
I don’t know much but I know what I like.
Well that was strange. Posted with no opportunity to edit.
i LOVE these cars, especially the 60 with the 3 tail lights on each side.
I love the bling, the excess chrome and the sculpted sides.
But then, you should know I even think the 58 Buick is gorgeous.
Only 3 cars in my life have stopped me cold when I first saw them as a youngster; the 59 Caddy, this and the 58 Chevy Impala.
The Caddy’s are out of my league now as are the 58 Chevy, but I still harbor some small hope to someday own one of these beauties.
Great article and point about the center console and seats JPC. When I would scout the neighborhood on my bike for old cars to check out, the things I fell in love with on the 58-60 T-birds were the seats, console and power window switches at the back of the console. IIRC they were white and went sideways?
There was something a little frightening about the styling though, especially the front end and taillights. In that sense these remind me of late 50s Chryslers. The 61-63 T-birds were friendly and happy. The 64-66 were kind of in-between, with the ’66 looking a bit more angry than the 64-65.
I mentioned how a ’57 T-bird was a $10,000 classic in 1974. In that same year you could buy a mint Squarebird for maybe a few hundred. They seemed to take off maybe 15 years ago and now fetch the same price or more than the baby Birds. Supply and demand I guess.
The conflicting comments reflect my reality as well. The second gen was mostly gone from the road when I was a kid. I knew a few people thought them to be special, as you’d see a few non operating cars sitting beside homes awaiting that restoration project.
As a kid in the early ’70s, there was something sinister and severe about these cars compared to a 1972 anything. Even for its era, it still goes down that path for me. The 8 year old me would have cast this car as Stephen King’s Christine.
To put it another way, there is a lot of ’58 Ford in this car, a car that few covet for any reason.
Still, I’ve lightened up a lot about these in recent years, to the point that I’d actually consider one in my garage.
No argument, it was influential. I never realized that ’59 and ’60 sales reached the levels they did. The final year sales were amazing for a four year old design. Rather clearly, this is the car that caused GM to kick it into gear with the Grand Prix, Riviera, Toronado and the ’67 Eldorado. This is made more interesting as GM tried to play the luxury full size coupe / convertible game through the ’50s with the Skylark, the ’53 Olds Fiesta convertible (a true unicorn), the first year Bonneville and Impala, and Eldorado. And, then lost interest in ’59, only to ramp up again in ’63.
Ford got it right: Truly unique sheetmetal and interior parts vs. tricked out standard cars won them sales at a relatively high price point. Their earlier effort with the Continental Mark II was a good effort, but the price doomed it.
Nice rehab job! 🙂
Seriously, you’ve helped me appreciate them better, which probably is also due to the passing of time. You’re right that in many ways, they were the most ahead of their time in 1958.
But these things practically scared me as a little kid, and I knew then what I still know now: they are a stylistic mess despite the rightness of the basic configuration. And I fully understand the indignation of the small-Bird crowd: it was a very clean and classy design, an instant classic, and the garishness of the square-bird only accentuated the loss of the small-bird’s two-seater uniqueness.
This car was lodged in my consciousness at a very early age by the Matchbox version that was released in the early 1960s. I had one of the Matchboxes, and thus knew what a Thunderbird was before kindergarten.
The two-seat version was already recognized as something special by the late 1960s. Hot Wheels came out with a version in 1969, and I remember immediately pestering my mother to buy one. It seemed exotic and special even then.
Post cereal company put 1/43rd scale 1960 Thunderbird convertibles in boxes of Rice Krinkles (a cereal like Rice Krispies, but sugar frosted) back in 1960-1961. Thanks to me, my family (quickly) devoured at least a half dozen boxes of Krinkles so I could amass a small fleet of these tiny plastic cars. They came in a range of pastel colors, let down by white tire/wheel/axle assemblies…but at 8 years of age I wasn’t looking for perfect authenticity.
I can’t remember if hardtops were also offered, or if it was convertibles only.
Now craving Frosted Krispies.
And it’s just turning 5 PM when both traffic and the supermarket are at their most crowded…
If only they still put little cars in cereal boxes!
Here in Australia one cereal company (possibly Uncle Toby’s) did a range of Matchbox-scale assemble-it-yourself Australian cars like little model kits around ’65 – I remember a blue Falcon sedan and a red Valiant wagon, and possibly a yellow Holden ute. I think there were some trucks also. is there another older Aussie who remembers these?
I remember ‘stuff’ being in cereal boxes, I don’t know that it happens any more, but I’m not quite old enough to remember those cars. Having said that I think even the McDonalds happy meal toys have been banned due to restrictions on marketing to children. I put it down to a good thing that was spoiled by being overdone.
I’ve never had much affection for the squarebirds and I still think there’s quite a bit that doesn’t work right in the design, but this article does make the case for the underestimated influence. Nice write-up!
my intro to these was in the 80s, saw Perry mason roll up in one o these in his show, b&w, the show and the car, think his was a 59 maybe, but yes- i do like these jet age design interiors of about 58- 64; sleek, exciting, inspirational, cockpits; and quad lights in front with quite the chrome! 😉 of course the only trouble nowadays to own, you must have quite the money.
Love the white steering wheel on the featured car. Used to be quite common pre 1960 going back to the thirties, but I haven’t seen one in years. Wonder when the last one was?
Maybe the 65 (and possibly 66) Studebaker?
Considering 1958 in general was not a outstanding year for car styling, these cars have aged fairly well. Really do like the interior. And they did sell much better than the 2 seat 55-57. I do like them better now then I did in the past. Hope that car just somehow lost it’s way temporarily and is back in protective custody.
In the early 60s my dad ran a dance hall/tavern called “Club 38” on highway 38 in northern Minnesota and we had a gigantic Wurlitzer jukebox and the first time I seen a ’58 T-bird it reminded me of that jukebox; so these always had “jukebox styling” to me.
I must say it took articles like this for me to fully appreciate the 58s, I was aware of the 55-57s from a very young age(I’d say they’re one of the top 5 gateway cars for a little car enthusiast), and the 58s just seemed off when I became aware of them. The 4 seat concept really didn’t sink in with me, nor did the physical growth from the two seaters, it was those busy bodylines. If I squint at it from a far I can almost see the styling evolution from the 57, but the business of the execution makes it very difficult to make out up close
see video 59 t bird with dane driver .
at st Mary’s .
Was good to see .
Another trip down memory lane. To hear my dad tell the story, he was one of the few people that lost money when he traded in mom’s ’57 for a ’59 Convertible. Our first… and last… convertible. That car was traded on a ’61 Coupe, which turned out to be mom’s all-time favorite car. Mom loved T-Birds.
In retrospect the ’58 “Squarebird” certainly wa$ a very influential automobile in the sales race. When they were new my young eyes had no idea about that; I simply knew I liked the car’s styling, AND Efrem Zimbalist Jr drove one every Friday night on 77 Sunset Strip…..therefore it HAD to be both suave and “KOOL” as Kookie would say.
The ’58, to me, is the cleanest looking of this version of the T-bird; hence my favorite. Compared to the horrid, chrome jukeboxes on wheels that GM came out with that year, the T-bird was almost austere, but creatively sculpted. Of course, at the time I could not have expressed it in those terms, but the pleasing visuals have remained through the decades.
The noted Kustom painter Larry Watson did up his ’58 T-bird with a paint job that really caught my eyes as the paint did a great job of emphasizing the car’s sculpted shape without-at least to a young car custom car fan-being over the top.
Very nice writeup…thanks! 🙂 DFO
I was wondering if I had missed something with the chromed moldings around the tail lights and up the fins on the 1960 model. Nope, that was aftermarket. Those bits are body color normally just like on the previous years. The 1960 version was already crapped up enough the grille bar thing and three tail lights per side. All of it was 1950-60’s’s style retrimming to differentiate each year’s model. I always thought the ’58 and ’59 versions were fine but the ’60 jumped the shark.
Oh, just noticed the aftermarket chromed molding around the headlights. Them too. Wrong and detrimental at either end.
Having seen sixty years of automotive styling (including front buckets and consoles) since then, it’s simply impossible for me to see this car with 1959-60 “this is the latest thing” eyes. Yeah, ever time I see a photo, I realize it’s not exactly the way I remember it in my mind’s eye; the proportions seem to have shifted, I wanna widen the track and so on. Just as the Ford GT is a slightly morphed/reproportioned version of the original, it’d be fun to have a way to just slightly tweak this car into the way I **think** of it looking.
(Sorry if the above too philsophical, etc. If I could have any one pre-1980s Thunderbird, it would probably be a Squarebird….)