An Early Classic / A Red 1961 Ford Thunderbird

The 1961 Ford Thunderbird represented the beginning of the third generation Thunderbirds and they were sleeker than the ones before them.

1961 ford thunderbird

1961 Ford T-Bird

Chevrolet was the first of the Detroit automakers to test the sports car market with the introduction of their Corvette. Ford of course wanted to follow suit and did so with it's first Thunderbird. The first Ford Thunderbird was introduced at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show.

Thunderbirds were the cars from Ford which in 1955 started out competing directly against the Chevy Corvette. After several years each model went their separate ways. The Ford Thunderbird was always considered somewhat sporty but in a luxurious way. Ford called their Thunderbird a personal luxury car. Chevrolet Corvette went the sports car route and never looked back.

the bullet bird thunderbird

The 1961 "Bullet Bird"

The 1961 Ford Thunderbird

There were several designs on the drawing board for the 1961 third generation Thunderbird. As it turned out, Elwood Engel’s design proposal lost out to the winning one by Alex Tremulis. Ford President Robert McNamara saw the Thunderbird design and liked it so much he also turned it into the 1961 Lincoln. This was advantageous on a production standpoint since both the Thunderbird and Lincoln were able to share many aspects of their unibody construction and the cars were both built at Ford's Wixom production plant. It should be noted that Engel's design did have a lot to do with the Lincoln Continental design.

The chassis design was similar to the second generation Thunderbirds, 1958-60, but was modified slightly to provide better handling and a smoother ride.

1961 ford thunderbird dashboard

61 T-Bird interior and dashboard

In 1961 the Thunderbird went through a complete redesign. The car was lower. longer, wider and bigger. In fact the Ford Thunderbird was lower than just about any car on the road in 1961.The third generation cars came with many firsts. The body shell was all new with a prominent pointed front prow, modest fins above the Thunderbird's large round tail lights. Many referred to the third generation Ford Thunderbirds as the "Bullet Birds". Others referred to these automobiles as the "Projectile Birds".

A Cutting Edge Interior

The interior design featured a dash which curved at its outboard ends to blend in with the door panels, and the first "Swing Away" steering wheel, which would swing to the side when the car was in park and the door was opened to help with entry and exit.

The new hard-top model had softer roof lines than its "Square-Bird" predecessor. On the convertible models, the forward end of the trunk lid was still rear-hinged.

Options for the 1961 Ford Thunderbird included air conditioning, power windows, power seats, AM radio, fender skirts and white wall tires. Standard features which cost extra on other models included power steering and power brakes, back up lights and bucket seats.

1961 ford thunderbird taillight

Large round Thunderbird tail light

1961 Ford Thunderbird, A Milestone Car

As an added honor the 1961 Ford Thunderbird was the pace car during the 1961 Indianapolis 500 Race. Also, President John F. Kennedy rode in a 1961 Thunderbird during his inauguration parade.

See the AutoMuseumOnline articles on the links below...

The Big 1958 Continental Mark III

The 1962 Chevy Corvette

An excellent illustrated book about the Ford Thunderbird is...Thunderbird! An Illustrated History of the Ford T-Bird (The Ford Road Series, Vol. 4) by author Ray Miller.

1961 Ford Thunderbird Specifications

The only engine available in 1961 was the 390 cubic inch V8 with a Holley four barrel carburetor which delivered 300 horsepower. As a side note, a small number of 1962 and 1963 third generation T-Birds were built with M version engines. These were comprised of 390 cubic inch six barrel carburetor V-8's putting out 340 horsepower. The 300 horsepower engine did the Zero to 60 MPH in 8.8 seconds.

Transmission was a three speed automatic. This was Ford's Cruise-O-Matic.

The 1961 Ford Thunderbird had a wheelbase of 113,0 inches and an overall length of 205.0 inches, width of 75.9 inches and a height of 52.5 inches on the hardtop. Weight averaged about 4,200 lbs for the hardtop and about 4,130 lbs for the convertible.

The two door hardtop 61 Thunderbird cost about $4,300 new.

Thunderbird production numbers for 1961 were 62,535 hardtops and 10,516 convertibles.

1961 t-bird rear

61 T-Bird rear

Third Generation Ford Thunderbird Collector Cars

There has been and still is a lot of interest in early generation Ford Thunderbirds. The styling of the third generation models was a big upgrade over the first "Square 'Birds" following the conversion to a four-seater offering a sleek profile. Personal luxury was the Ford Thunderbird's primary goal and as a collector car the early Thunderbird has a unique place.

As prices go for the early Thunderbirds, the third generation cars depending on condition, originality, mileage and degree of restoration are relatively inexpensive collector cars. In general, you should find asking prices in the $15,000 to $35,000 range with non restored cars with very high mileage being below those figures.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 AutoMuseumOnline)

2003 Ford Thunderbird Vs. 1955 Thunderbird

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.

2003 Ford Thunderbird

2003 Ford Thunderbird

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.

2003, Eleventh Generation Ford Thunderbird

2003, Eleventh Generation Ford Thunderbird

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

1968 Chevy Corvette

1968 Chevy Corvette1957   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.

First Generation Ford Thunderbird

First Generation Ford Thunderbird

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.

1978 Ford Thunderbird, public domain photo

1978 Ford Thunderbird, public domain photo

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...

1962 Chevrolet Corvette

First Generation Ford Thunderbirds

1970 Corvette Stingray

2008 Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera

2003 Ford Thunderbird sports car styling

2003 Ford Thunderbird sports car styling

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

1955 Ford Thunderbird

1955 Ford Thunderbird

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)




1955 to 1957 Ford Thunderbirds

1956 Ford Thunderbird

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.

Ford Thunderbird Two-Seater

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

Two seat Ford Thunderbird front end with sporty hood air scoop

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 famous Ford Thunderbird logo on front of car

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)