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

Given the Corvette’s miserable sales in its first few years, it was a very good move on Ford’s part to reposition their sports car project Thunderbird as a “personal car”. Although one could argue that’s really what the early Corvette was too, with its six cylinder engine and Powerglide; the two were a lot more similar than not: both sat on a shortened sedan chassis, although the Thunderbird’s was more modern. They both had a 102″ wheelbase and a sporty, low slung two-seater body. The Corvette’s fiberglass body gave it a bit of a weight advantage, although the T-Bird’s heavier Y Block V8 was at least responsible for some of the disadvantage. Both had a good ride and neither of them had particularly great handling, although the Corvette’s was somewhat better.

But Ford’s positioning and its standard V8 and presumably its styling made the Thunderbird a minor hit, at least compared to the Corvette. But that’s not to say Ford was resting on its laurels; they could see that the ‘Vette was gaining, at least in terms of image thanks to its hot new V8 engine and success on the tracks. The ’57 redesign of the T-Bird improved its handling by ditching the continental spare and it also sported some new significantly hotter engine options, all the way to a 300 hp supercharged version of its 312 cubic inch V8. And Ford even went racing with it, having some specially built to go up against the Corvette and other sports-racing cars. Ford didn’t want to totally forgo the sports car image either, hedging their bets.

SCI tested two more typically-equipped T-Birds: with the 245 hp four barrel 312 and the Fordomatic; one an early factory pre-production car and a later production car. SCI started off making it clear that the Thunderbird has started life with a shortened Ford sedan chassis. Well, the Corvette did too, and with an older chassis at that, with king pins and all, whereas the T-Bird at least had Ford’s new 1952 ball-joint suspension to work with. Obviously the Corvette’s fiberglass body made for a somewhat lighter car, which along with its lighter engine and manual transmission accounted for a 270 lb advantage. And the Corvette’s chassis was set up to be a bit firmer, although in its initial incarnation it was hardly typical of the classic European sports cars of the times, and was praised for its relatively comfortable ride. And with its standard Powerglide in its first three years, there were plenty of folks (and R&T) asking “Is It Really a Sports Car”?

As to the Thunderbird, SCI states: “The Bird is not truly a sports car; it’s not meant to be. It is a compromise resulting from sports car looks on a workaday chassis.”  Well, the exact same applied to the early Corvette, so it’s not surprising magazines were questioning its sports car pedigree too. But by 1957, that was pretty much a moot question, once the Corvette went racing with some considerable success starting in 1956.

New Smyrna Beach Airport Races, New Smyrna Beach, FL, 1957.
Marvin Panch driving “Battlebird” Thunderbird (#98) beside Carroll Shelby driving a 4.9 l Ferrari.

As mentioned earlier, Ford saw the Corvette becoming a genuine sports car that could succeed on the street and track, and wanted some of that racing halo effect too. They contracted with Peter DePaolo Engineering for four cars; two “stock”, and two all-out experimental sports-racing cars. The stock cars were to be pitted against the Corvette in SCCA events, and the two experimental cars against the exotic machinery to be found at events like Sebring and other top races. Dubbed “Battlebirds” The two experimental cars were heavily redone from the chassis up, and one featured a Paxton supercharger blowing through a Hilborn racing-style fuel injection system, and the other a heavily-reworked NASCAR-style MEL 430 engine, both set back in the chassis and using Jaguar four speed transmissions.

New Smyrna Beach Airport Races, New Smyrna Beach, FL, 1957.
A 1957 Thunderbird “Battlebird” on the Track at the 1957 New Smyrna Beach Airport Races in February. Drivers selected for these Races included Troy Ruttman, Danny Eames, Chuck Daigh, Marvin Panch, and Curtis Turner.

Due to the manufacturers’ ban on racing, their entry in the Sebring 12 hour race was scotched, but they set some speed records and were then turned over to private racers, one of which battled Corvettes for several years. More on that here.

The engine lineup in the ’57 Bird changed mid-year. It started out like this, with the base 292 and the 245 hp 312, by far the most common choice. There was also a dual-quad carb 270 hp version, and an even hotter 285 hp version is also mentioned in the initial brochure. The 312 did get new heads in 1957, which improved on the intrinsically challenging head architecture of the Y-Block.

The brochure revision for February 1957 now lists the supercharged 300 hp version, but the 270/280 hp versions are absent. In the brochure, Ford makes a point of mentioning that the Thunderbird was the only one in its class to offer a 300 hp engine. The blower is a Paxton unit, like the one used on the 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk, and similar to the ones used on the supercharged R2/R3 Studebaker engines in 1962-1964. Ford was clearly doing whatever it took to stay ahead of the Corvette in terms of horsepower.

As noted, the handling for ’57 was improved some from the ’56 by reducing the pendulum effect of the ’56’s standard continental spare tire. But obviously the extended tail of the ’57 still contributed somewhat to that, although probably the original ’55 was best in that regard.

With the 245 hp engine and the automatic, it was bound to not to put ripples in the drag strip pavement. Actually, for a 245 hp 5.2 L V8 two-seater, it was rather pokey: 0-60 came in 11.2 seconds, or a smidgen slower than the 1954 Corvette, with its 150 hp six and Powerglide. Hmm; that’s not so good. It was  right about the same ballpark as several others of the sports cars tested in this compendium: AC Ace, 190SL, A-H 100-6, but then they were all in the 90-120 hp ballpark. The 1/4 mile came up in 17.0 seconds and with 80 mph in the traps.

The Fordomatic could be forced to hold each of its three gears, but only with silly trickery, meaning starting in L, then moving the floor mounted shifter to D for the upshift to 2nd, then moving it back to L to hold it in second, until moving it back to D. the upshift into third. Why didn’t they just offer a 1-2-D quadrant?

This blue car I got from a Hemmings ad has the overdrive, which means the B/W T85/R11 combo that also graces my F100. That would be an interesting combo, with a lower axle (higher numerical). But I’ve never seen one in the flesh.

That car also has the early-year dual quad engine. But please, someone help me out to make sense of these carbs. I sure can’t. They don’t look like any four barrel carbs I’ve ever seen; bizarre! Maybe they didn’t work so hot either, which would explain why they were dropped mid-year for the supercharger (and a single carb).

This was the least comprehensive test of all of the sports cars in this series (there’s several more to come yet), but then it’s rather understandable. The Chrysler 300C and Plymouth Fury spanked the T-Bird, despite the Fury being priced comparably. And of course there just wasn’t much to talk about either in terms of the subtleties of its handling and performance. Whereas the 190SL was the forerunner of most modern sports cars, the Thunderbird was the forerunner of the Mercedes R107 series of SLs. Flashy top-down motoring, more to to be seen in than driving actively.