Chevy’s 1954 Corvette may have been a peach, but anything GM could do, Ford could do better. The ’55 T-Bird had none of the ’Vette’s fiberglass nonsense, but a steel body and grunty V8 motor. Plus it was drop-dead gorgeous and offered scores of options, with the luxury of windup windows. Nobody was surprised when it outsold the creaky Corvette 24-to-one.
But Ford wanted volume, and two-seaters weren’t everybody’s cup of tea, which is why by 1958 the Little Bird became the Big Bird, swollen by four fat armchairs. Nevertheless, as the first of America’s topselling two-seaters, the Thunderbird fired the public’s imagination. For the next decade American buyers looking for lively power in a stylish package would greedily devour every Thunderbird going.
NOD TO THE PAST
The styling was very Ford, penned by Bill Boyer and supervised by Frank Hershey. The simple, smooth, and youthful outer wrapping was a huge hit. A rakish long hood and short rear deck recalled the 1940s Lincoln Continental.
The hood needed a bulge to clear the large air cleaners. It was stylish too.
With the top up, heat from the transmission made for a hot cockpit; ventilation flaps were introduced on ’56 and ’57 models.
For 1955, this was an uncharacteristically clean design and attracted 16,155 buyers in its first year of production.
Road clearance was limited at just 5 in (12.7 cm).
Hardly short, the Little Bird measured 175 in (4.4 m).
Luxury options made the Thunderbird an easygoing companion. On the list were power steering, windows, and brakes, automatic transmission, and even electric seats and a power-assisted top. At $100, the push-button radio was more expensive than power steering.
Power steering would only cost the buyer a bargain $98.
The T-Bird’s motor was the new cast-iron OHV 292cid V8 with dual exhausts and four-barrel Holley carb. Compared to the ’Vette’s ancient six, the T-Bird’s unit offered serious shove. Depending on the state of tune, a very hot T-Bird could hit 60 in seven seconds.
The Thunderbird’s V8 played a major role in the car’s success.
Apart from the rather too prominent exhausts, the rear end is remarkably uncluttered. Hardtops were standard fare but soft tops could be ordered as a factory option.
The aeronautical windshield profile is beautifully simple.
The Thunderbird name was chosen after a Southwest Native American god who brought rain and prosperity. Star owners included the movie actresses Debbie Reynolds, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield.
Power output ranged from 212 to 300 horses. Buyers could beautify their motors with a $25 chrome dress-up kit.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Ford Thunderbird (1955)
PRODUCTION 16,155 (1955)
BODY STYLE Two-door, two-seater convertible.
CONSTRUCTION Steel body and chassis.
ENGINE 292cid V8.
POWER OUTPUT 193 bhp.
TRANSMISSION Three-speed manual with optional overdrive, optional three-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic.
SUSPENSION Front: independent coil springs; Rear: leaf springs with live axle.
BRAKES Front and rear drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 105–125 mph (169–201 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 7–11 sec
A.F.C. 17 mpg (6 km/l)