For half a century, under the Thunderbird brand, Ford produced large rear-wheel-drive sedans, coupes, and roadsters positioning them as prestigious vehicles for wealthy owners, who preferred to drive themselves.
Source: Sun Star Models
The fifties were not the brightest period for Ford’s muscle cars. The lack of powerful vehicles, according to many automotive historians, was rooted in the management of the corporation, which was then led by Robert McNamara. This gentleman was famous for his rationality and pragmatic thinking, which was confirmed by the affordable massive Falcon created in his time, which later formed the basis of the Mustang and the atypical four-seater Thunderbird.
Source: Fine Art America
In the early 50s, returning soldiers brought home a large number of sports cars from Europe. This enormously increased sports car popularity in the USA, however, American automobile manufacturers were in no hurry to produce them, preferring only small-scale and extremely expensive models such as the Auburn Speedster. Chevrolet was the first to catch on, with its legendary model Corvette released in 1953. Despite all its drawbacks, this model became extremely popular, which made other manufacturers develop similar machines. Ford’s first attempt was the Vega model prototype, which, however, never went into production. Nevertheless, when Henry Ford II went to Paris, he was impressed with the European sports models and returned with the solid decision to make such vehicles too. The result was a vehicle that looked far from being sporty, more Americanized, positioned at the time of release as a “personal car”. Of all the possible options, the name for this beauty was chosen appropriately – Thunderbird. As a result, production started on September 9, 1954, and on October 22, 1955, the first copies arrived at dealers.
The first generation of the model was released in 1955-1957. There was little sportiness in the new model, as a powerful engine and good dynamics were combined with the big weight, a rather soft suspension, and a spacious interior. That is why it was positioned as a personal car. In addition, the model was also the most expensive of all the company’s passenger cars: the price started at $2944. Its equipment was very rich – a steering wheel adjustable in 2 planes, side windows with electric drive, one-piece sofas, etc.
The 1960 four-seater Ford Thunderbird was created with the intent to ditch the sports car concept, replace glitz with function, and add a rear seat. It was the second generation of Thunderbird when the model was seriously changed. Already during the release of the first generation, the company’s marketers realized that it would be quite difficult to count on serious sales of a vehicle without a 4-seater saloon. That is why vehicles of the second generation significantly increased in size, especially in length, and received a second row of seats. In fact, the 1960 model could very well be considered one of the great American automotive achievements of the decade. It also earned this honor by not relying on the period’s technological dead-ends – air suspension, fuel injection, supercharging, and retractable hardtops. Although all of these characteristics were considered, still the management rejected them all. Thunderbird body chief engineer Bob Hennessey claimed that the model was revolutionary. He recalled that when the team was working on this particular model, the stock vehicle was about 61 inches off the ground – at shoulder height. But Blue oval’s “bird” was sitting 52.5 inches off the ground. To get the low look of a sports car, the team took 10 inches from the then-standard machine height. The four-seater “bird” also became a huge commercial hit, much more successful than the two-seater. The 1960 model dropped slightly in weight but increased in price. The base price was $3755 for the hardtop and $4222 for the convertible. There were no mechanical changes, and there were only a few styling differences—vertical hash marks added to the rear fenders, “Thunderbird” lettering on the door shell, a square grille with full-width horizontal stripes, and six tail lights instead of four. There were also minor changes to the emblems and decorations, as well as a standard rectangular exterior mirror. The door handles were more closely connected to the upper waist molding and the door trim was changed to include an integral armrest.
In 1960, Ford introduced the first retractable metal sunroof for the 1960 Thunderbird model. It not only looked good but also worked properly.
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