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)