ThunderStruck: The History of the Ford T-Bird

ThunderStruck: The History of the Ford T-Bird

No one with knowledge of the automotive industry can argue that the Ford Thunderbird has one of the richest histories of any vehicle ever created. From its inception, Ford’s response to the Chevy Corvette shook up the car world for the better part of half a century.

Giving America 11 generations in addition to its legendary NASCAR stent, the T-Bird remains an icon even after almost two decades of non-production.

The Fabulous Thunderbird

Touted as a “personal luxury vehicle,” the Thunderbird was Ford’s resounding response to Chevy’s Corvette. Its inception took place in the spring of 1953, mear weeks after Chevy unveiled its sportster. And the T-bird’s race to production was on.

The design of the Thunderbird is credited to George Walker and former General Motors’ man Louis D. Crusoe.

What’s in a Name?

Before the prototype rolled out, Ford found itself in a quandary: this new car had no name. The solution to that problem would be found in the form of a contest for Ford’s employees, and the winner would be awarded $250.

While enjoying his morning coffee, Ford employe Alden Giberson found inspiration in a two-headed bird on his cup with its roots in Native American culture. The Thunderbird’s name was born.

Take That, Chevy

Less than a year after the concept hit, in February of 1954, Ford unveiled the car’s prototype, and in October of that same year, the 1955 Thunderbird was released.

This new Ford gave the public what it wanted in a car at an affordable price. While retaining many of Ford’s standard features, the Thunderbird was unique to the line in many ways.

Though more compact, the two-seater Thunderbird didn’t scrimp on power. There was an option between two different V8 engines priced between $2,700 and $4,000. The T-bird showed an almost unheard-of 150 mph on the speedometer.

In its first year of production, Ford sold close to 17,000 T-birds. Chevy sold around 700 Corvettes. Enough said.

The Second Coming - The Generation 2 - ‘58 - ‘60

Despite its instant public appeal, Thunderbird sales waned in the coming years. America was over the two-seater, and they wanted more in terms of room than performance. The Second Generation of the T-Bird offered both.

This model promised a luxurious ride with a sporty engine. Its big back row and roomy font bucket seats delivered the posh interior people wanted. Under the hood, the standard V8 options bosted either 300 or an astonishing 350 hp in either a 3-speed manual or automatic version.

Its body was larger to accommodate the room necessary to house the second-row seating. It was also more square by design, and it held onto the public’s need for luxury by delivering in a package wrapped in chrome. America responded.

Ford proudly accepted the honor of becoming the first individual car to win the prestigious Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award.

During its three-year run, the sales for the Second Gen T-Bird totaled over 197,000 units.

Also of note, in ‘59, the Thunderbird made its appearance on the NASCAR circuit.

Shot Through the Heart: Gen 3 - The Bullets - ‘61 - ‘63

1961 proved to be a banner year for the newly redesigned T-Bird. With a more streamlined, rounded appearance of a bullet slicing through the air, the Generation 3 shot off the assembly line into near-record-breaking sales.

The Gen 3 brought the boom under the hood too. Initially, its only offering was a monstrous 6.4 L V8 herding a stampede of between 300-340 horsepower.

Number One with a Bullet

If Americans were still on the fence about pulling the trigger and buying one of these beauts, the newest Thunderbird tried to change its mind as it took the spotlight in front of the buying public.

The T-Bird flew onto the scene as the official pace car for the Indianapolis 500.

Product placement was now “a thing.” Finding an opportunity for some big-time advertising, Ford placed the sleek new T-Bird on the small screen in the hit TV series 77 Sunset Strip.

If that were not enough exposer for this bad bird, the Gen 3 found itself gaining even more prominence thanks to the U. S. Government. Former Ford exec Robert McNamara was named the U. S. Secretary of Defence during this year.

Commemorating his appointment, McNamara graced the country with his presence in a celebratory parade ushered through the crowd in a new Thunderbird. Next to him was none other than President John. F. Kennedy.

The Best Never Rest

While this one year held more exciting changes and opportunities than most cars receive during their entire run, Ford wasn’t finished firing this bullet. In the following two years of its production, the Gen 3 continued to improve and transform. Some modifications included:

  • The Landau package, featuring its signature vinyl roof, became available.
  • The Sports Roadster package was offered.
  • The rare M-Code engine was offered, producing only 200 units.
  • The Y-Code engine became an option for those seeking an air-conditioned ride.
  • Ford replaced generators with alternators in this generation, pushing the technology envelope.

In total, over 200,000 Gen 3 Thunderbirds left the nest. But, as 1964 was making its way around, Ford prepared to unleash the next round of the ever-popular car.

Diamonds Are Forever, So Is the T-Bird Flair - Gen 4 - The Flair - ‘64-’66

Gracefully bowing out of sports car contention and offering that spot to its sister car, the new Ford Mustang, the Thunderbird’s newest interpretation focused on providing consumers something special: flair.

With a more squared appearance than its predecessor, the Gen 4’s interior returned to its roots as a “personal luxury vehicle.”

This was the longest body yet for the T-Bird. Its seats were plush. Its dashboard was redesigned. Wood-trimmed accents made the driver feel they were cruising in a veritable home-away-from-home rather than just a car.

Improved turn signals and disk breaks became standard during this time.

The Gen 4 came in a hardtop, convertible, and ever-popular vinyl Landau versions, though this would be the send-off for the convertible until after the new millennium.

In this period in T-Bird history, its engine came in the standard 6.4 L V8. In the Gen 4’s final year of production, for the monstrous price increase of around $100 over the standard, consumers could opt for a ridiculous 428 7.0 L V8.

During this generation, a rare bird that came into existence was a 427 performance option reported to fly from 0 to 60 in an impressive six seconds. Less than ten are known to exist.

Glamourama - Gen 5 - The Glamour Bird - ‘67-’71

Finding itself too close in the shadow of its little sis, the Mustang, the Thunderbird was again redefined. In 1967, the Glamour Bird took flight, as Ford looked to put this car in a niche where it could stand out again.

The Gen 5’s body style was totally revamped. Wanting to move away from the sports car arena altogether, Ford pushed this T-Bird to flock with the likes of the luxurious Lincoln Continental.

Flexing its sophisticated muscles, this version came in a noise and vibration-reducing body-on-frame design. The headlights were hidden from view until they were turned on.

Still giving riders a roomy back row, Gen 5s saw the brief stent of a four-door model complete with suicide doors. This creature comfort was only found in this generation, however.

While full of Glamour, the Bird was also powerful. A 429 big-block 7.0 L V8 engine made for a quick ride.

As a salute to glamour, Neiman Marcus’ 1971 Christmas catalog offered a T-Bird novelty: “his and her” cars. These one-offs came with unimaginable features, including a tape recorder and telephone. Lucky patrons could snag the pair for around $25,000.

Bigger and Better? - Generation 6 - The Big Bird - ‘72-’76

The Gen 6 T-Bird was the biggest Bird ever manufactured. And it was heavy. Weighing close to 5,000 pounds, the struggle to support the enormous body was real.

Initially, the Gen 6 offered a standard 429 7.0L V8 and an optional 460 7.5L V8. Later models came standard with the larger engine.

Due to oil crisis mandates, even with some of the largest engines ever put into a Ford, T-Birds ran with lower horsepower. Calling them “gas guzzlers” was an understatement, as they averaged 8 to 12 mpg.

Though the ‘75 model offered more standard features than any T-Bird from inception through ‘97, it also suffered from some of the lowest sales on record.

Sales came back in ‘76, but everyone knew the ‘77 would come with changes.

Times They Are a Changing - Generation 7 - Torino - ‘77-’79

An answer to the need for more fuel-efficient vehicles, the Gen 7 was placed on the chassis of the now-defunct, smaller Grand Torino. Eventually losing 10” of length and around 1,000 lbs, this T-Bird was ready to change.

This Thunderbird delivered on style and performance, equipped with a standard small-block V8 engine. Still providing options for engines, Gen 7 came in between 4.9 and 6.6 L V8s, none of which disappointed.

Though prices were initially lowered from the previous generation, in 1978, to celebrate Ford’s 75th birthday, the Diamond Jubilee Edition went to market with an astounding price tag for the time.

The cost almost doubled as everything but the kitchen sink was offered as an option on this limited run.

1979’s Heritage edition proved to boost the line, leaving Gen 7 sales at almost one million units.

Thinking Too Far Outside the Box? - Generation 8 - The Box Bird - ‘80-’82

Once again, fuel economy drove this redesign, but for fans, Ford almost went too far.

Trimming down again, this bird was more compact than its downsized predecessor. Losing almost another entire half foot in length and 800 lbs, this body style decided it was hip to be square; however, its smaller frame did not support that choice.

Losing sight of its initial intent as a “personal luxury vehicle,” the Gen 8 trimmed much of what was expected from the line, especially under the hood. The most performance a Gen 8 engine offered was a V8 with a meer 131 horsepower.

Ford decided to offer a V6 option not readily accepted by the public and made it standard on late Gen 8 models, a bird-brained move.

Even with luxury options like power windows and one of the first keyless entries in automotive history, the total three-year sales of the Bird in a Box fell short of the previous generation’s last year of sales.

But the caged bird still sings. The T-Bird was yet determined to fly high.

Prepared to Take Flight - Generation 9 - The Aero - ‘83-’88

A redesign was required to turn this Bird around. Working to regain favor, the Aero Bird, whose rugged yet somehow aerodynamic appearance suggested any moment it might take to the sky, was its redeemer.

Offering everything from a turbo-charged 4-banger to a 5-speed manual, from an expected V8 to an engine achieving 151 horsepower, the Gen 9 proved a wise Bird, if nothing else.

In ‘85, the T-Bird celebrated its 30th birthday with a special edition model.

Super Trooper - Generation 10 - The Super Bird - ‘89-’97

By the end of this generation, the T-Bird proved a super trooper by holding on for over 40 years. The Gen 10 was all about different engine configurations, and its first offering was the first T-Bird not available in a V8.

Moving from golden child to redheaded stepchild position, the T-Bird felt the brunt of discourse at Ford during the time. After being told it was too expensive and fat, the Gen 10 was veritably tossed to the weigh side, not receiving the ad time nor the credit due for the job it performed.

While in production, the Super Bird brought about several super engines, including but not limited to:

  • A 3.8 L V6 engine with 140 horsepower and a Super Coupe hitting 210 horsepower.
  • 5.0 L V8 that came along in later models.

Due to neglect, the Gen 10 began to molt, dying a hard-fought death in ‘97.

Retrofitted - Generation 11 - The Retro Bird - ‘02-’05

Taking a well-deserved five-year break from continual production, this T-Bird seemed alleviated of the pressure generally felt by a car rolling off the production line. The Retro Bird seemed to kick back and enjoy its final years.

As if taking a trip back in time, the Gen 11 regained the original’s spirit as a two-seater tipping its hat to those who ventured before.

Under the hood, the engine offered between a 3.9 and 4.0 V8 engine bringing between 252 and 280 horsepower to the final roundup.

Without fanfare, on July 1, 2005, the last T-Bird rolled off the assembly line.

If I Had Wings, I Could Fly: The Ford T-Bird

Though a near impossibility to accurately capture the impact the Ford Thunderbird had on automotive history and American culture, tracing over its almost half-century production offers insight into how it changed over time and changed the world in the process.

It leads us to believe that if we had wings, we could fly, much as the Ford T-Bird, and no car would surpass it.

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