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.
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.
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.
I agree with your summary. I’ll add the first generation T-bird had a strong influence on the collectible car market as it moved from a used car to a desirable classic/collectible more quickly than just about any other mass produced domestic automobile, including the Corvette imho. I have various magazines from the early 1960s that lament the move to a 4 seater Thunderbird, and acknowledge the collectability of the 2-seaters. At this time the car was less than ten years old, and considered to be a classic. Ford never intended this to happen, it was a spontaneous market phenomenon, a byproduct of the near -perfect marketing and design of the car. It suited its market niche….. to a “T”.
My first memories of fantasizing that I had my own car date to 1962 or ‘63, when I was five or six. On warm summer nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would sit up in bed and pretend to drive my two-seater Thunderbird. But even then I preferred the relatively finless ‘55 and ‘56. Now, though, I think the ‘57 has better detailing and the modest fins look good. Nevertheless my interest in TBirds faded quickly and wasn’t revived until the turbo aeroBird, though not to the point of actually wanting to own one.
It would be interesting to see period road tests of the car with the supercharged 312, which was the “big dog” engine that year, or even one with the dual quads (certainly a closer comparison with the Fury or Golden Hawk). A 4 bbl 312 was probably as good as that engine ever got in terms of “normal” tune, but was nothing to brag over.
The early Corvette may not have been a great sports car, but it was an even worse fashion accessory, with its lack of even roll-up windows. The TBird was also not a great sports car, but I think that only in hindsight can we see that it was never a sports car at all, but the first credible American personal luxury car. The 55 Vette lacked roll-up windows, but the TBird gave you power windows and a power seat. But from the vantage point of 1957, it is easy to see why people called it sports car, because there were so few other categories.
I think the only explanation for Ford trying so hard to make them competitive in racing is the grudge HFII was carrying in the old Ford vs. Chevy rivalry. It is interesting to watch their trajectories that diverged almost immediately. Chevy (with people like Cole and Duntov around) doubled down on racing and performance (with excellent results) while Ford set its sights on places like the Grosse Point Club and ran away with the personal luxury market for the next decade or more.
I would say that the original Lincoln Continental was the first American personal luxury car.
Ford, to its credit, immediately realized that the Thunderbird was not a true sports car, and dubbed it a “personal” car from its introduction.
The line between a personal car and a sports car was blurred, as the average American at that time thought, “two seats in a relatively small car = sports car.” Plus, the initial desire to match the Corvette meant that Ford was going to race with the Thunderbird, which further muddied the waters.
The early Corvette may not have been a great sports car, but it was an even worse fashion accessory, with its lack of even roll-up windows.
Prior to about 1955, there were almost no two seat “sports cars” with roll up windows. Kaiser-Darrin, Nash-Healey, Jag XK-120, Austin-Healey, MG, etc. If you wanted a two-seater, roadsters were it (except the Porsche cabriolet). And the folks that bought them as fashion accessories (and there were plenty who did) drove them around their mild-climate locales (SoCal, Florida, etc.) and roll-up windows weren’t really an issue. Frankly, if you want to be seen in your fashion accessory, why have the windows up?
The original Corvette roadster was just like all the others in 1953. But clearly that was changing by about 1955, with the T-Bird and MB 190SL. The sports car fad was getting so huge, practical issues like better tops and roll up windows became priorities. The Jag XK-140 offered two body styles, roadster and drop-head coupe. And Austin Healey went with roll up windows on the 3000 in 1961. Well, by about then, just about every mainstream sports car had them, except Morgan.
“Prior to about 1955, there were almost no two seat “sports cars” with roll up windows.”
Good point. But those all sold in miniscule numbers to folks who at least aspired to be among the “leather driving gloves” set. For the midwestern orthodontist (or his wife) who wanted something sportier than a big Buick and suitable for year-around use, the Thunderbird was the first real alternative after the war. It wasn’t a huge niche, but it was big enough.
I find it interesting that Ford more or less accidentally discovered the TBird’s niche in 55-57 and also accidentally discovered how to perfect it in 1958. It was only when they really tried (Edsel, 58 Lincoln) that they failed, because GM did the traditional segments so much better.
K.T. Keller would beg to differ: seats two, plug-in side curtain ‘windows” roadster top. Isn’t this a sports car…?
Haha, which reminds me of the other Sports Car of the era!
The people in that car are 2 feet tall. How do they reach the pedals?
MG Midget. & it’s twin, the Austin-Healey Sprite finally got wind-up windows in 1965.
My ’64 Sprite (long gone) had removable “side curtains.” The entire roof frame could be removed & tossed in the trunk.
Now ~*that* was a nifty every day sports car in …… 1976 ……! ! ….
Those carburetors on the E-code dual quad engine are Holley 4000 series carbs, also called the “Teapot.” They were used by Lincoln, Mercury and Fords between 1955 and 1957. Holley describes the carb as a downdraft, concentric carburetor with a variable capacity (vaccum secondaries). The main difference is the fuel bowl is mounted on top of the carb rather than on the sides like a more traditional Holley. They had fairly limited CFM capacity. The carb is loved by some Ford enthusiast but hated by others who claimed they were a fire hazard.
1957 also marked the year the traditional side fuel bowl 4-bbl Holley was introduced and this 312 -4bbl T-Bird would have used one rather than the Teapot carb.
This SCI road test seemed to be a little on the slow side. Even Motor Life got a 0-60 time of less than 11 seconds with a 245hp 312 Fairlane in 1957. I have a road test by Speed Age where they compare the T-Bird, Corvette and Golden Hawk. The T-bird is the slowest, but the 245 hp Bird gets much better times than SCI’s car. Mind you the cars were driven by a professional race car driver for the tests. The times are as follows:
T-Bird 245 hp 312, Auto, 3.56 gears
0-30 3.65 s
0-60 8.49 s
Top Speed: 119.3 mph
Corvette 245 hp 283, Auto, 3.55 gears
0-30: 2.82 s
0-60: 6.93 s
0-100: 17.59 s
Top Speed: 122.5 mph
Studebaker 275 hp Supercharged 289, 3sp with OD, 3.56 gears
0-30: 2.63 s
0-60: 7.46 s
0-100: 23.73 s
Top Speed: 127.5 mph
I think it is also important to point out that while the T-Bird used a shortened Ford chassis, unlike the Corvette, it was never really tuned for anything beyond a smooth ride. Maurice Olley used standard Chevrolet chassis components on the original Corvette and improved the chassis performance. By 1956, with advice from ZAD, the Corvette chassis was heavily revamped for further improvements to the handling. Despite the ancient underpinnings, the Corvette held its own in terms of handling. The T-Bird on the other hand had the rear springs softened in 1956 and the spare tire was moved outside so that golf clubs could fit in the trunk. This obviously had a negative affect on handling, which resulted in the stiffer springs and longer trunk for 1957. Ford never marketed it as a sports car and it certainly wasn’t, despite the fact it may have chased the same consumer for the early Corvettes.
“teapot”. That makes sense. 🙂
The three year original T-Bird, not the Corvette nor anything else, was the vehicle that sparked my life long obsession with cars. The 190SL, because my dad owned one from ’58 to ’61, influenced my life long interest in the Mercedes brand. But the T-Bird alone was the spark for the love of automobiles.
Of course as a kid I knew nothing about the performance, the engines, the chassis, the suspension, etc. But I knew what looked good and the T-Bird was exceptional. I never noticed the Corvette. The impact on me of the Thunderbird made me a long term adult owner of various Fords and eventually the buyer of two “retro” birds.
Same here. The 57 Bird looks much more attractive than the Corvette. However, when 1963 came a round that Corvette took on a whole different look. Probably one of the most massive changes in look from one Gen to the next Gen in one year.
I’m 65 years old and these early Birds have been desirable cars as long as I can remember. These never spent time as cheap beaters. Looking at this baby blue example you can see why. I’ve always felt that the later Mercedes SL450s re-channeled the magic but at an even higher price. ( hint: market prices for these is still pretty low) Yes they are not sports cars, but who cares. They are just fun cruisers. I even like the last two seat models. Some of those came in similar attractive two tone color combos.
One little “T-Bird Fact” that I recall from a T-Bird parts catalog was that the 3 year production of 51,000 plus cars exceeded that of the Corvette, Mercedes 190,
and Jaguar 140 combined!
But the only thing anyone remembers is that Ford sold double the ’58 Birds than the ’57.
Ford actually lead the market in sales in mid to higher end two seaters, but gladly gave it up.
Well, they actually “led” the market, but they also seem to have about 50 lbs of lead in them too! (I couldn’t edit the post)
It’s amazing GM was able to stay in business with all of the garbage they built, at least according to this site.
The blue Tbird in the pictures is a great looking car.
Part of the Tbird’s sleekness is the concealed soft-top, which was generally considered to be a first at the time.
It wasn’t quite first…. The 1917 Stevens-Duryea was first, with similar sleekness by the standards of the time.
Part of the Tbird’s sleekness is the concealed soft-top, which was generally considered to be a first at the time.
According to whom?
The ’53 Corvette also had a concealed top.
The racer Thunderbird with mag wheels sans bumpers and fender skirts looks strikingly more the part of a legit sports car than the boulevarder look of street 57s. I prefer the 55 body but I’m thinking the bulkier front bumper of the 57 is what turns me off of it more than the longer rear overhang or fins.
Rather than being considered illegitimate sports cars I look at the 55-57 Tbirds as more of a fork in the road in what it could have been. Had the thunderbird been committed to performance the way the Corvette did there’s a very real possibility there wouldn’t have been a Mustang, which Ford went to much greater effort to campaign in racing, with success, despite being nothing special engineering wise itself.
“And we’ll have fun, fun, fun till your daddy takes the T-Bird awa-aa-aay.” Nice comments fellas!
The speedometer error seems quite large on the test car in article…..70mph indicated being 63 actual…..I wonder why Ford had such a large discrepancy in speedometer calibration.
The 1956 Tbird.A true classic!
All of these photos of the Blue 1957 Thunderbird , are from Amos Minter’s web site , the leader in 1955-57 Thunderbirds.