It was made for just three years but the 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbirds are one of the most iconic two-seater American sports cars ever built. They have been seen on television shows, movies and print advertisements, not to mention being pictured on a U.S. postage stamp. In George Lucas’ movie American Graffiti, Suzanne Somers, the blonde mystery girl, is seen driving around town in a white 1956 “T-Bird.”
The 1955-57 T-Bird was America’s second mass-produced sports car from a domestic automaker. The first, according to Palmer in Roswell, GA, a full service Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, was the Chevrolet Corvette which debuted a year earlier in 1953. Both Ford and General Motors wanted a piece of the action because they saw that British sports cars, such as the Austin Healy, MG, Triumph and Jaguar, drew lots of attention and sold relatively well.
General Motors was first
The Chevrolet Corvette was the first sports car from a big domestic automaker. It arrived late in 1953 and GM didn’t hesitate to call it a sports car, although it really wasn’t. The problem was that GM had no idea how to build a real sports car. The Corvette wasn’t very sporty being powered by a 150 HP, 6 cylinder in-line engine coupled to a two-speed automatic transmission. It was also bulbous, had clumsy side curtains instead of roll-up windows, lacked outside door handles and had a creaky fiberglass body.
In 1955, Ford released their brand new Thunderbird. Having studied the mistakes made by GM, Ford addressed most of the Corvettes short comings. The T-bird had a tight steel body with smooth, clean, youthful lines and long-hood/short-deck styling. Rumor was that the basic look came from the beautiful Jaguar XK series cars but echoed the styling theme of full-size 1955 Fords.
Powering the 1955 T-Bird was a V-8 from Ford Motor’s Mercury division. The 292-cubic-inch engine generated 193 horsepower with a three-speed manual transmission and 198 with the Ford-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission. Now this was the engine of a real sports car. It also handled better than the Corvette. In fact, a privately entered model beat rival foreign cars in the production sports car class at the famous Daytona Speed Weeks race in 1955, hitting 124.6 mph.
The 1955 T-bird also offered some refinements that most other sports cars lacked. These included including a push-button radio, power steering, power brakes, power windows and a power front bench seat designed to look like two bucket seats. It also came with a removable hard top or optional, snug power soft top -or both.
The second and third years
Ford didn’t want to mess much with success, so the 1956 Thunderbird had the same styling as its predecessor. The horsepower race of the 1950s was on, so a larger 312-cubic-inch V-8 with 215 HP was added. The 1956 T-bird had a “continental” spare tire put outside in a rear metal case because it occupied too much trunk space. The spare not only greatly improved trunk room, it also looked great.
The 1957 Thunderbird was arguably the best of the 1955-57 T-Birds. Although it lacked the cleaner lines of the first two models, it had a new combination front bumper/grille and longer rear end (which again held the spare tire.) You could also get a T-Bird such features as automatic windshield washers, a Dial-O-Matic power seat with front-rear, up-down memory and a radio with volume that rose as engine speed increased. Thunderbird sales dipped a bit in 1956 to 15,631 cars, but sales soared to 21,380 units in 1957.
The retro T-bird
After a great deal of lobbying from T-bird fans, Ford designed a modern retro-style Thunderbird two-seater. I was sold from just 2002 through 2005. While it was a decent car, it was just moderately successful and was discontinued in 2005.