The Iconic Ford Thunderbird. A Short History of the T-Bird From 1955 - 2005

November 17, 2009

There are a few cars that you can expect to see at every car show.  There will almost always be a Tri-Five Chevy.  There will almost always be Corvettes.  There will almost always be Camaros.  There will almost always be Mustangs.

And there will almost always be some early Ford Thunderbirds.

1955 Ford ThunderbirdOver the years, the T-Bird has worked its way into icon status.  It is common throughout pop culture.  Who hasn't heard the Beach Boys song Fun, Fun, Fun (till her daddy takes her T-Bird away)?  Remember when Suzanne Somers was the mysterious beautiful blonde in the white 56 T-Bird in American Graffiti?  And who can forget the scene where Thelma and Louise tried to make their 66 Bird fly?

The Thunderbird first appeared in 1954 as a 55 model as Fords answer to Chevrolet's Corvette.  But aside from having two seats, the T-Bird was quite a bit different from its cross-town rival.

Unlike the Corvette, the T-Bird didn't try to be a purebred sports car.  It was more of a personal luxury vehicle.  It had the heavy, chrome-drenched feel of the full-sized 55 Ford, and in fact shared many of the same components. 

Fords strategy worked, as the Thunderbird consistently trounced the Corvette in sales in those early years.  Yet, Ford was not satisfied with just beating the Corvette.

In 1958, Ford tried something completely different to increase sales even further.  The second-generation, or Square-Bird style, featured more chrome, more glitz, and more room.  The two-seat T-Bird was no more, as now the personal luxury vehicle was a little less personal with the addition of a backseat.

1962 ThunderbirdFord continued to refine the T-Bird throughout the 1960s.  In 61, a new style, sometimes called the Bullet Bird debuted.  These cars featured beautiful dashboards, premium materials, and plenty of optional features.  Even today, it is obvious you are looking into something special when you peer inside a 61 66 Thunderbird.  There is so much style in one of these cars, it is easy to think of it as a dream car or concept car that actually made it into production.

Things changed in 1967, however.  The Thunderbird grew considerably in size.  The convertible, which was the only style available from 55 57, was discontinued, and a four-door Thunderbird was made available.  These cars completely lost their ways from the original concept.  But they still sold well, and they helped seal the fate of the sports-minded Thunderbird. 

Thunderbirds rolled with the times in the 1970s.  The continued to grow; and they continued to sell.  During this time, T-Birds competed with the likes of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  They were big, floaty, and plush.  But they were also tough and reliable.  Even today, it is not uncommon to see one of these big, old land barges living out their second or third lives on dirt tracks throughout the country.

In 1980, the T-Bird went on another diet.  Pretty much all full-sized cars were being downsized to meet government fuel regulations, and the T-Bird was no different.  The car was now built on Fords versatile Fox platform, which also underpinned cars like the Ford Fairmont and even the Mustang.  Unfortunately, people wanted their T-Birds to be more than a warmed-over Fairmont, and sales took a nosedive.

Things got better in 1983, when Ford redesigned the T-Bird with an aerodynamic new shape.  These Bathtub T-Birds proved to be very popular during their seven-year run.  They were also strong, recognizable competitors on the NASCAR circuit with drivers like Bill Elliott behind the wheel. 

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