Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Thunderbird – “The Choice Of The Person Who Wants To Be Envied”


This review puts the Thunderbird in proper context as “The supreme status symbol of the younger set”. It was the eminent car to be seen in; it turned heads like no other, even “in car blase Southern California”. And if one really wanted to be seen, then the convertible version was even more magnetic. Car Life tested one to see if it drove as well as it turned heads. You probably won’t be surprised at their conclusion.

“…you soon feel all eyes upon you…sometimes downright jealously“. Of course, all this attention didn’t come cheap, between its 11 mpg thirst and almost $6,000 price ($60k adjusted to 2022). But due to the Thunderbird’s very high resale value, the actual cost of ownership wasn’t quite as hard to come by as it might seem at first jealous glance.

color photos from the web

CL points out that anyone concerned about fuel mileage probably isn’t really qualified to be in the market for a Thunderbird. So what’s it like to drive?

It’s heavy, weighing almost as much as a larger Cadillac. Despite its 205″ length, it sits on a rather short 113″ wheelbase, 1″ less than a Comet’s. All those long overhangs are not exactly a good recipe for handling: “causes handling around curves at higher velocities to be somewhat uncertain.” The soft springs and “wishy-washy shock absorbers” play their part too, but CL notes that a set of stiffer aftermarket shocks can go some distance to improving that.

The steering was quick, but not surprisingly, lacking in feel. CL duly noted than manual steering was not available. Nor am manual transmission. I’m trying to imagine a Thunderbird with a three-on-the-tree and armstrong steering. Who else but Car Life (or R&T) would even ask these questions?

The degree to which it will take a curve at high speed depends much on the smoothness of the pavement. CL points at that a car like the T-Bird shouldn’t just “sit there and look pretty, but perform as well.” Good luck with that; these were just not a driver’s car, period. Remember, it’s all about being envied, while cruising, not racing.

Acceleration from 0-60 was 10 seconds, which CL deemed “the borderline between acceptable and unacceptable performance for cars consuming more than one gallon of gas for every 20 miles traveled”. How about for one that only goes 11 miles? Even less acceptable?

But the Bird redeemed itself with a decent 50-80 mph passing time (time not given), which is probably a more relevant criteria. It was never going to excel at stop light drags, but then it didn’t have to; it was an automatic “winner” thanks to its looks.

CL does speculate whether all of the 300 advertised horses in the 390 cubic inch V8 were really in attendance. This seems to come up not uncommonly with Fords in this time period; Roger Huntington was convinced that GM’s and Chrysler’s hp ratings were more credible, based on his thorough accelerometer tests which could fairly accurately determine an engine’s actual (net) horsepower.

CL recommended aggressively using the lower gears in the Cruise-O-matic transmission when descending grades, as the drum brakes were lacking, in part because of very limited cooling air flow over the drums due to the body styling and the full wheel covers. Fading brakes is a small price to pay for vanity.

Trunk space was severely lacking; if the top was stowed there was precious little room left for any actual luggage.

The optional 6-way power seats were deemed worth having on a long trip, thanks to the ability to change positions. And the expensive $500 ($5,000 adjusted) air conditioning “must be tried to be appreciated” as the fatigue reduction on a long trip was huge. True that.

Unfortunately, quality was not up to the lofty price: the right door didn’t want to close readily, the heater had a short which smelled of burning insulation, and the hood latches were not adjusted properly. That caused some disconcerting moments during high speed testing when one front corner of the hood started lifting up some.

In summation, CL couldn’t fault the Thunderbird’s envy-generating abilities, but for the money, they would have preferred that its dynamic qualities were more in line with the price. No surprises there.


My take on the ’61 Thunderbird convertible:

1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible – The American Dream Mobile  Paul Niedermeyer