The Ford Thunderbird first came out in 1955 and was essentially meant to be competition to the Chevy Corvette the first American automobile that attempted to take some of the sales away from European sports car makers.
The Chevy Corvette had to start with only an inline six cylinder engine but the power would grow shortly. A Corvette prototype in 1955 achieved 150 MPH at Daytona with a V-8 engine. Many people have said that there was a good chance that the Ford Thunderbird would never had been developed and produced if Chevy hadn't come out with their novel Corvette.
One big difference between the first Ford Thunderbird's and the Chevrolet Corvettes, aside from the Corvettes having a fiber glass body, was the engine. Thunderbird's first hit the road with V-8 engines where the Corvettes first came out with the inline six cylinder engine. The first frames for the two cars were essentially the same with a 102.0 inch wheelbase. The 1955 Thunderbird's V-8 engine was taken from their Mercury model.
An interesting note is that, unlike the Corvette, the Ford Thunderbird was not produced from 1998 to 2001. The model was out of production for four years. Why did the Ford Motor Company discontinue the Thunderbird model during it's tenth generation just to bring it back four years later?
Below are some interesting production figures during the Ford Thunderbird's First three years of production...
1955 16,155 units
1956 15,631 units
1957 21,380 units
Below are Chevrolet Corvette figures for the same three year period...
1955 700 units
1956 3,467 units
1957 6,339 units
The First Discontinuance of the Ford Thunderbird
The main reason for discontinuing the Ford Thunderbird in 1997, a generation ten model, was just as you might have expected...slow sales. Why else would a major automaker discontinue a brand that had been around for decades.? In fact, Ford Thunderbird sales were pretty slow during the entire 1990's right through 1997. This was not a one or two year sales slump. To try to save money, Ford Motor mad very few changes to the 1997 model which was struggling as it was.
There was a lot said at the time that the Ford Thunderbird was a car from the past. It was old. But so was the Chevrolet Corvette. The Chevy Corvette had been introduced even prior to the Thunderbird in 1953 not long after it was a big hit as a concept car at the New York Auto Show. The Thunderbird was Ford's answer to the Corvette but there was always a big difference between the two. The Thunderbird certainly had more creature comforts and quickly went into four passenger production. The Chevy Corvette always stayed true to the two passenger bucket seat design and it's fiberglass construction was a unique draw.
The Ford Thunderbirds of the 1970's
Take a particular look at the Ford Thunderbird design changes that began in the 1970's. Compare these to the models of the mid 1960's and those all the way back to 1953. The Thunderbird models starting in the 1970's took on an image of a larger car. Nothing similar to what first came out during the late 1950's. The original sportiness gave way to a larger car with less sharp lines.
In some ways the Mustang, the Pony Car, took the place of the Thunderbird, at least as it tried to compete against the Chevy Corvette. The Ford Mustang, while not a fiberglass car like the Corvette, had a sporty flair and might have satisfied the taste for someone who desired a Corvette but couldn't or didn't want to pay the Corvette price. As it turned out, the Ford Mustang was one of Ford's most popular cars ever and continued so.
The 2003 Ford Thunderbird - Generation Eleven
The generation eleven Ford Thunderbirds, such as the 2003 Ford Thunderbird shown in this article, was a truly redesigned vehicle. Compare it to the 1978 Thunderbird model shown in the photo below and you can see how Thunderbird designs changed so much over the tears. The cars began to look like normal sedans, almost full sized at that.
These eleventh generation cars like the 2003 model shown came out after four years of no Thunderbird production whatsoever. Most were built with a 280-hp, 3.9-liter V-8 engine with a five speed automatic transmission.
The eleventh generation Thunderbird was almost an exercise in going back to the drawing boards. Ford essentially returned to the original 1950's formula for the Thunderbird. The eleventh generation cars had a two-seat coupe/convertible layout very much like the first-generation. It was almost as if Ford Motor discovered that they had gotten too far away from the car's original concept that sold so well.
Below are links to additional AutoMuseumOnline photo article you'll find interesting...
Ford Thunderbirds Disappear Again
The eleventh generation Thunderbirds which began being produced in 2002 after a four year lapse was discontinued again after 2005. This was also the year that marked the car's 50th anniversary.
Production numbers for the eleventh generation Thunderbirds, and the last to be built, at least as of this writing, show a steady decline from 2002 to 2005. Some of this decline could be attributed to the SUV craze which took off.
2002 31,350 units
2003 14,675 units
2004 12,752 units
2005 9,295 units
The basis of the first Ford Thunderbird was that it offered both style and sophistication that used to be available only from expensive imports like Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. Ford attempted,and was successful at, offering this kind of car in the 1950's at a reasonable price tag of a Ford.
Ford Motor Company essentially returned to the original basis for the Thunderbird when they came out with the eleventh generation 2002 model. As of this writing there appears to be no plans to reintroduce the model. It has been however said that there always is the possibility that the nameplate could come out again. Only time will tell. The last new car prices for the Ford Thunderbird were in the range of $38,000 to $43,000 depending on the options and exact model.
(Article and photos copyright 2013 AutoMuseumOnline)