The very popular Ford Thunderbird came about as an answer to the Chevrolet Corvette. The first Ford Thunderbird rolled off the Dearborn Michigan assembly line on September 9, 1954. The two seat Thunderbirds are very popular collector's cars. The start of design work for the Thunderbird came right after Chevrolet introduced it's Corvette at the 1953 Metrorama. It's a well known fact that auto designers during the early 1950's at Ford were well aware of the potential of a two seat sports car and when the assignment was handed to them they were quite ready. Everyone knew of the popularity of the British MG.
The 1955 to 1957 Thunderbirds were two seat vehicles just like the Corvette. The styling added a few more creature comforts than the Corvette. Interestingly enough, when the first Thunderbird rolled off the line for the 1954 model year, Ford Motor Company already had plans for a four seat version for the 1958 model year. This fact alone virtually guaranteed that the two seaters would become a collectors model. Relatively low total production figures of sporty cars eventually make that automobile valuable.
Production Figures and Specs
Production figures for the two seat Ford Thunderbird were 16,155 cars in 1955, 15,631 in 1956 and 21,380 in 1957. Ford Thunderbird 1955-57 specs included a length of 173.3 inches for the 1955 model...185.2 inches for 1956 and 185.2 inches for the 1957 model year. The wheelbase was 102.0 inches for all three years and the weight for the three years the two seat Thunderbirds were built ranged between 2,980 to 3,145 lbs. Available engines were the 292 Overhead Valve V-8 for all three years and a 312 Overhead Valve V-8 for the 1956 and 1957 models.
You'll also enjoy our article and photos on the 1955 Gull Wing Mercedes, a very unique and quite different high performance sports car. Also our article on the compact muscle car, the 1964 Ford Falcon Futura Convertible
Thunderbird vs Corvette
Since the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevrolet Corvette were in direct competition with each other, the question that arises is what were their primary differences? The body material was different since the Corvette body was made of fiberglass. The Ford Thunderbird was made with stamped steel.
The Corvette was also modeled in many ways toward the European idea of a racing car. The Ford Thunderbird on the other hand presented a "California flavor" in auto design. The Thunderbird was really built more like a mid 1950's convertible than a true sports car. Ford's Thunderbird was in the "personal luxury" class. While the Corvette had such true sports car features of the time such as no exterior door handles, the Thunderbird had these as well as roll up windows and a fold down convertible top. Such cars had a sportier feel that sedans, but they were not all-out sports cars. Some contend that the design of the 1955 Thunderbird ushered in an era of a totally different class of car. It was a luxury personal car that a "banker could drive to work". It wasn't a luxury sedan but a luxury two seater.
Car handling went to the Corvette. The Thunderbird handled quite well but with about 800 lbs more weight that the Corvette, the Chevy product won the prize. The Ford Thunderbird delivered every bit the power of the Chevy Corvette. It's V-8 outperformed the 1955 Corvette 6 cylinder engines and pretty much matched the power of the Corvette V-8. Corvette changed to V-8's in 1956.
The Four Seaters
When the four seat Thunderbirds came out in 1958 they were very popular. Although they really didn't offer the artistic design element of the two seats, their sales figures were very impressive.
As an example, during the first 1958 model year, sales figures totaled about 50,000, several times the sales figures of the two seaters. I would assume the four seat design simply added more potential buyers who either wanted of needed a four seat vehicle but weren't big on standard luxury sedans. Since the 1958's delivered that along with the Thunderbird sports flare, many more buyers were hitting the dealer showroom floors.
While the two seaters didn't match the sales figures of the four seat Thunderbirds, the first Thunderbird model year of 1955 certainly did well against it's perceived competitor Corvette. The 1955 two seat Thunderbirds, priced about $500 less than the Corvette, outsold the 1955 Corvettes at a ratio of about four to one. The year 1955 was not a good one for the Chevrolet Corvette although things improved a lot during the 1956 model year with it's V-8 power and some restyling.
(Article and photos copyright AutoMuseumOnline)