Thunderbirds Are Go: Sixty Years and Counting
On February 20, 1954, Ford unveiled the very first Thunderbird at the Detroit Auto Show — the rest, as they say, is history
1955–1957: The Original Thunderbird Often referred to as the strictly two-seater ‘Baby Bird’, the first-generation Thunderbird went into production in September 1954, and was directly aimed at Chevrolet’s Corvette. Easily outselling the Vette during 1955, the Ford actually inspired Chevrolet to make significant improvements to its plastic-bodied sports car. Power came from Ford’s 4785cc (292ci) V8, with the larger 5113cc (312ci) motor becoming available in 1956, while a more powerful supercharged V8 was also an option.
1958–1960: The Squarebird Although the model was a good seller, Ford felt that more sales could be had from a four-seater Thunderbird — while retaining the previous model’s two-door design. Of course, the car’s size and weight increased, as did available power — rising from 220 to 260kw.
1961–1963: Aerodynamic Styling New, bullet-like styling was introduced with the thirdgeneration car, emphasized by the fibreglass tonneau cover available on the Sports Roadster model.
1964–1966: Refining the Image Reverting to a more squared-off design, disc brakes became available for the first time in 1965, while engine options included 6391cc and 7014cc (390 and 428ci) V8s.
1967–1971: Middle-aged Spread Moving the car upmarket, Ford abandoned the unibody construction that had been employed on the Thunderbird since 1958, opting instead for a fully-insulated body on a separate frame in order to enhance overall refinement. A fourdoor Thunderbird became available, while hidden headlights also featured.
1972–1976: Luxury Cruiser The conversion to fat-cat cruiser was now complete, with the sixth-generation car the biggest Thunderbird of all. With the ’70s oil crisis looming, this couldn’t last. 1977–1979: Downsizing Reduced in size, the Thunderbird now made do with the Ford Torino’s chassis. Despite this, the car was still racking up healthy sales. In 1978, Ford offered a special Diamond Jubilee Edition Thunderbird to mark its 75th anniversary.
1980–1982: Old Age Beckons Looking old and tired, the Thunderbird was losing power and failing to interest buyers — even an entry-level six-cylinder model did little to improve weakening sales.
1983–1988: Tough Times Hard times for US vehicle manufacturers called for tough decisions, and the Thunderbird was the subject of a thorough redesign — the result being a fresher, more modern car plus the addition of a turbocharged model.
1989–1997: End of an Era An all-new design based upon Ford’s MN12 platform, shared with Mercury’s Cougar, the 10th-generation Thunderbird continued the turbo theme, while some models could be optioned with a Mazda-derived five-speed manual transmission. With many changes along the way — and versions such as the 5.0-litre V8-engined Sport Coupe only being produced for a single year (1992) — the Thunderbird soldiered on but, as time passed, Ford slowly lost interest. The final car was built in September 1997.
2002–2005: Rebirth and Demise Having decided to resurrect the Thunderbird, Ford’s designers went right back to the original Baby Bird for inspiration and, in an era when retro-styled vehicles had become all the rage, the revitalized Thunderbird certainly attracted attention. Power came from Jaguar’s AJ-30 V8, a 3.9-litre motor that pumped out 188kw. From 2003, the variable-valve-timing AJ-35 V8 became available, investing the Thunderbird with a healthier output of 210kw. With no successor planned, the final Thunderbird rolled off the production line on July 1, 2005.