When America fell in love with the Thunderbird back in 1954 it was a lively two seater. Yet the Ford Thunderbird has continued to evolve into many different auto market segments over its lifespan and miles of the product. Yet nothing seems to hold T-Bird fans attention and rapt attention at the original 1955 “bird”.
“Thunderbird” is undoubtedly a fine name for a motor car, with its connotations of power, flight with just a hint of mystery. Yet Ford Thunderbirds is also a truly American car badge and label, the icon being a magical one for the Pueblo Indians of the South-West United States. That is more than appropriate because the “T-bird” was and still remains the essence itself of the American car illustrating over it more than 50 year most of the foibles as well as many of the strengths of that particular breed.
Every story on the Thunderbird begins with the idea that the car was conceived as an “answer” to the Chevrolet Corvette. This is not entirely true, for both designs evolved in response to the growing demand in the post-war American market for cars with more style and performance, cars best typified by the stunning Jaguar XK120.
The birth of the T-bird was surely hurried along by the introduction of the Corvette. One story among the many holds that Louis D. Crusoe, vice-president of design for Ford and George Walker then a design consultant for the company saw a prototype for the Corvette at the 1953 Paris Motor Show. Crusoe told Walker that he liked it, and Walker replied that “We have something like that going.” As with most innovations of mankind innovations are often being dreamed up by not one person or group, but often by a number simultaneously in case at the Chevrolet design centers and at Ford’s.
Billy Boyer, who worked in Ford’s Design Center at Dearborn Michigan, picks up the story. “That same evening Walker called our Design Studio from Paris with instructions to “put some clay on that thing” and build that car. “That telephone call, gave us instant authority”, said Boyer, who at the time was senior designer on the yet un-named project car.
Boyer’s boss, Frank Hershey tells it differently. Quoted by Dennis Adler in a “Car Collector’s ” magazine some time ago, Hershey said that he and Boyer had worked out the design but the Production Planner Chase Morsey actually personally sold Ford management on the project.
In any event a prototype appeared on 20 February 1954 at the Detroit Auto Show to thunderous acclaim, although it can be said that at this point the car was “nameless”.
A “name that car” contest resulted in Ford car stylist winning a new suit of clothes for submitting the winning moniker.
Following a very short final push at Ford, the first T-bird rolled off the line on 9 September 1954, as a 1955 model. The two-seater drop-head coupe had overall length of 175.3 inches (445 cm (and weighed in at 2833 lb (1285 kg). That these dimensions made it the smallest Ford to be built in decades surely says a lot about American cars of that time period of the 1950’s.
Throughout its history the Thunderbird has seldom been a technological high tech leader. That is unless you count sequential turn-signals and Swing-A-Way steering wheels as technological leadership. It has no innovations like the Corvette’s glassfibre bodies, fuel injection or fully independent suspension.
Yet for most American male drivers especially teens at that time the 1955 Ford Thunderbird holds permanent enchantment in their mind.