The 1950's Ford Thunderbirds are iconic 50's collector cars. Chevrolet came out a year earlier with their fiberglass Corvette and the Thunderbird was Ford's answer to it. In fact, designing for the Thunderbird came out immediately, only one month, after the Corvette was introduced. The 1955 Ford Thunderbird featured in this article is a beautiful representation of this popular automobile.
As a side note, the "Thunderbird" name was drawn from an in-house contest at Ford Motor Company. The winning employee, a Ford stylist, won a suit from Saks Fifth Avenue. The first 1955 Ford Thunderbird was built in September 1954 in Dearborn, Michigan.
Chevrolet introduced it’s Corvette at the 1953 Metrorama. Interestingly enough, Ford was well aware of the popularity of two seat sports cars prior to Chevrolet coming out with the Corvette. All they had to do was look at the British MG and it's success in North America. At the same time the economy was humming along fine and sport cars even as second vehicles were popular.
This popularity was not ignored. Designing for what would be the Ford Thunderbird began during the first years of the 1950's. As a result, when the Ford designers were given the job of designing the Thunderbird a lot of work had already been completed.
The 1955 Ford Thunderbird was introduced to the public at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show. This was a sporty two seat roadster that emphasized passenger comfort. Add to that performance and you had an all around sports car that had more creature comforts than the British imports. On top of that the car had a removable hardtop. This new automobile from Ford generated so much excitement that the company sold their first cars in October 1954, about one month ahead of schedule. It's been said that Ford had some 4,000 pre-orders for the 55 Thunderbird.
When you note that the Thunderbird was created to compete against the two-seater Chevy Corvette, you have to also point out the differences between the two cars. First off, the Corvette was had a fiberglass body. The Thunderbird's was all steel. The first Corvette had a straight six engine and the first Thunderbird came with a V-8. Corvette would add a V-8 as an option for the 1955 model.
Another important thing to note was that the Ford Thunderbird was not really built solely as a sports car like the Chevy Corvette. They were competing head to head, but as mentioned above, Ford appeared to put more creature comfort features into their Thunderbird. The two cars were really tow different machines from the exterior body material to the interior appointments. This fact probably led Ford to create a new automobile niche called the "personal luxury car". Really not a bad idea at all when you consider there was a market for a part sport car-part luxury coupe.
Motor Trend, in regards to the new Ford Thunderbird, pretty much summed up Ford managements goal for the automobile..."Ford prefers to call it a 'personal car. The thinking behind this, as brought out in a discussion with W.R. Burnett, chief passenger car engineer for Ford, is that 'although the Thunderbird has the performance and attributes of most sports cars, management also felt that it should have a few more comforts to make it more appealing to a wider segment of the public.'"
The First Generation Ford Thunderbird
The first generation of Ford Thunderbirds were the 1955 through 1957 model years. There were eleven generations in all from 1955 to 2005.
1955 Ford Thunderbird Specifications
The engines on these first generation Thunderbirds were Mercury 292 cubic inch V-8's.
Both three speed automatic and three speed manual transmissions were offered with the 55 T-Bird. The automatic was named the "Ford-O-Matic". The car equipped with the automatic could deliver about 198 HP. With the manual gearbox the horsepower was 193.
Suspension for the Thunderbird was really no different than other Ford cars. This was Independent front suspension using coil springs and a solid rear axle on leaf springs.
About 16,000 1955 T-Birds were sold. To illustrate how good demand was, Ford had planned on selling only 10,000 units. This far surpassed Chevrolet Corvette sale for that year. This was regardless any price difference. Base price for this Thunderbird was $2,700. If you started adding options that price could balloon another $1,000.
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First Generation Ford Thunderbird Collector Cars
The 1955 Ford Thunderbird is obviously a rare and valuable collector car. The 55 being the first year model may be the most valuable because of milestone status. Many of the models you're likely to see today have been restored to pristine like new showroom condition and if you wish to bid on one the price tag is not cheap. You can easily pay from $45,000 to $60,000 and even more for these 55 T-Birds. We've seen them at $89,000. Lesser 55 Thunderbirds can be found from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on condition, originality, miles and any degree of restoration.
Reference material for this article included the Ford Motor Company Archives, Motor Trend Magazine, and the 1955 Ford Thunderbird Handbook.
(Article and photos copyright 2015 Auto Museum Online)