The Thunderbird ("T-Bird"), is an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company in the United States over thirteen model generations from 1955 through to 2005. When introduced, it created the market niche eventually known as the Personal Luxury Car.

Overview Edit

Evoking the mythological creature of Indigenous peoples of North America, the Thunderbird entered production for the 1955 model year as a sporty two-seat convertible. Unlike the Chevrolet Corvette, it was not marketed as a sports car. Rather, Ford created a new market segment, the Personal Car to position it. In 1958, the Thunderbird gained a second row of seats. Succeeding generations became larger until the line was downsized in 1977, again in 1980, and once again in 1983. Sales were good until the 1990s, when large 2-door coupes became unpopular. In 2002, a revived 2-seat model was launched, which was available through the end of the 2005 model year. From its introduction in 1955 to its most recent departure in 2005, Ford has produced over 4.4 million Thunderbirds.[1]

Genesis Edit

A smaller two-seater sports roadster was created at the behest of Henry Ford II in 1953 called the Vega. The completed one-off generated interest at the time, but had meager power, European looks, and a correspondingly high cost, so it never proceeded to production. The Thunderbird was similar in concept, but would be more American in style, more luxurious, and less sport-oriented.

Three men are generally credited with creating the original Thunderbird: Lewis D. Crusoe, a retired GM executive lured out of retirement by Henry Ford II; George Walker, chief stylist and a Ford vice-president; and Frank Hershey, a Ford designer. Crusoe and Walker met in France in October 1951. Walking in the Grand Palais in Paris, Crusoe pointed at a sports car and asked Walker, 'Why can’t we have something like that?' Some versions of the story claim that Walker replied by telling Crusoe, "oh, we're working on it"...although if anything existed at the time beyond casual dream-car sketches by members of the design staff, records of it have never come to light.

Walker promptly telephoned Ford's HQ in Dearborn and told designer Frank Hershey about the conversation with Crusoe. Hershey took the idea and began working on the vehicle. The concept was for a two-passenger open car, with a target weight of 2525 lb (1145 kg), an Interceptor V8 engine based on the forthcoming overhead-valve Ford V8 slated for 1954 model year introduction, and a top speed of over 100 mph (160 km/h). Crusoe saw a painted clay model on May 18, 1953, which corresponded closely to the final car; he gave the car the go-ahead in September after comparing it with current European trends. After Henry Ford II returned from the Los Angeles Auto Show (Autorama) in 1953 he approved the final design concept to compete with the then new Corvette.

Generations Edit

First generation (1955-1957)Edit

Main article: First-generation Ford Thunderbird

The Ford Thunderbird began life in February 1953 in direct response to Chevrolet's new sports car, the Corvette, which was publicly unveiled in prototype form just a month before. Under rapid development, the Thunderbird went from idea to prototype in about a year, being unveiled to the public at the Detroit Auto Show on February 20, 1954. Like the Corvette, the Thunderbird had a two-seat coupe/convertible layout. Production of the Thunderbird began later on in 1954 on September 9 with the car beginning sales as a 1955 model on October 22, 1954. Though sharing some design characteristics with other Fords of the time, such as single, circular headlamps and tail lamps and modest tailfins, the Thunderbird was sleeker and more athletic in shape, and had features like a faux hood scoop and a Template:Convert speedometer hinting a higher performance nature that other Fords didn't possess. Mechanically though, the Thunderbird could trace its roots to other mainstream Fords. The Thunderbird's Template:Convert wheelbase frame was mostly a shortened version of that used in other Fords while the car's standard Template:Auto CID Y-block V8 came from Ford's Mercury division.[2]

Though inspired by, and positioned directly against, the Corvette, Ford billed the Thunderbird as a personal luxury car, putting a greater emphasis on the car's comfort and convenience features rather than its inherent sportiness.[2] Designations aside, the Thunderbird sold exceptionally well in its first year. In fact, the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by more than 23-to-one for 1955 with 16,155 Thunderbirds sold against 700 Corvettes.[3] With the Thunderbird considered a success, few changes were made to the car for 1956. Among the few were new paint colors, the addition of circular porthole windows in the fiberglass roof to improve rearward visibility, and a Template:Auto CID Y-block V8 making Template:Convert when mated to a 3-speed manual transmission or Template:Convert when mated to a Ford-O-Matic 3-speed automatic transmission.

The Thunderbird was revised for 1957 with a reshaped front bumper, a larger grille and tailfins, and larger tail lamps. The Template:Auto CID V8 became the Thunderbird's standard engine, and now produced Template:Convert. Other, even more powerful versions of the Template:Auto CID V8 were available including one with two four-barrel Holley carburetors and another with a Paxton supercharger delivering Template:Convert. Though Ford was pleased to see sales of the Thunderbird rise to a record-breaking 21,380 units for 1957, company executives felt the car could do even better, leading to a substantial redesign of the car for 1958.

Second generation (1958-1960)Edit

Main article: Second-generation Ford Thunderbird

Although the Thunderbird had been considered a rousing success, Ford executives -- particularly Robert McNamara -- felt that the car's position as a two-seater restricted its sales potential. As a result, the car was redesigned as a four-seater for 1958. Though retaining a design as a two-door coupe/convertible, the new Thunderbird was considerably larger than the previous generation, with a longer Template:Convert wheelbase to accommodate the new back seat. The increased size also increased the car's weight significantly by close to Template:Convert. Along with a new, more rigid unibody construction was new styling, including dual headlights (for a total of four), more prominent tailfins, a bolder chrome grille, and a larger, though non-functional, hood scoop. Powering the Thunderbird was a new, Template:Convert Template:Auto CID FE V8, available with a 3-speed manual or automatic transmissions.

With 37,892 sold in 1958—outselling the previous model year by well over 16,000 units—the new Thunderbird began a sales momentum previously unseen with the car. With little more than a new grille and a newly optional, Template:Convert Template:Auto CID MEL V8 for 1959, sales climbed even higher to 67,456. For 1960, the Thunderbird was given another new grille and other minor stylistic changes along with a newly optional manually-operated sunroof for hardtop models. Customers continued to approve of the car as it broke sales records yet again with 92,843 sold for 1960. In spite of this success, Ford went ahead with a redesign for the Thunderbird to debut in 1961.

Third generation (1961-1963)Edit

Main article: Third-generation Ford Thunderbird

The Thunderbird was redesigned for 1961 with sleeker styling that gave the car a distinctively bullet-like appearance. A new engine, the Template:Auto CID FE V8, was the standard and only engine initially offered in the Thunderbird. The V8 produced Template:Convert and was mated to a 3-speed automatic transmission. The new Thunderbird was immediately well received with 73,051 sold for 1961. The car was 1961's Indianapolis 500 pace car and was featured prominently in US President John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade, probably helped along by the appointment of Ford executive Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense.

A vinyl-roofed Landau option with simulated S-bars was added to the Thunderbird for 1962 as was a Sports Roadster package for convertible models. The Sports Roadster included 48-spoke Kelsey Hayes-designed wire wheels and a special fiberglass tonneau cover for the rear seats which gave the car the appearance of a two-seat roadster like the original Thunderbird. The Sports Roadster package was slow-selling due the high price of the package and complexity of the tonneau cover, resulting in few Thunderbirds being equipped with it.[2] Newly optional for 1962 was an upgraded version of the Template:Auto CID V8 called the "M-Code" (in reference to the letter M used as the engine code in the VIN in cars so equipped). The M-Code version of the Template:Auto CID V8 was equipped with three two-barrel Holley carburetors and could produce Template:Convert. M-Code V8 Thunderbirds are exceptionally rare with only 200 being sold between 1962 and 1963[4].

Few changes were made to the Thunderbird for 1963 as Ford prepared to introduce a new version for 1964.

Fourth generation (1964-1966)Edit

Main article: Fourth-generation Ford Thunderbird

For 1964 the Thunderbird was restyled in favor of a more squared-off appearance, which was mostly evident when viewing the car from the side or rear. Hinting at its roots in the previous generation Thunderbird that it was evolved from, the new model retained a similar grille design with dual headlights and a Template:Convert wheelbase. As before, the new Thunderbird continued to be offered in hardtop, convertible, and Landau versions. The Template:Convert Template:Auto CID FE V8 continued as the standard engine for the Thunderbird while a higher compression, Template:Convert version of the engine was optional. Both V8s were paired with a 3-speed automatic transmission. For 1965, sequential turn signals were added, flashing the individual segments of the broad, horizontal tail lights in sequences from inside to outside to indicate a turn. Also new for 1965 were standard front disc brakes.

Even though it was the last year of the generation, 1966 saw a stylistic revision for the Thunderbird highlighted by a new egg-crate style grille with a large Thunderbird emblem at its center and a new rear fascia with the brake lights restyled to appear as one unit. Engine choices were also revised for 1966. The base version of the Template:Auto CID V8 lost Template:Convert due to the use of a two-barrel carburetor in place of the previously equipped four-barrel carburetor. The optional version of the Template:Auto CID V8, now equipped with a single four-barrel carburetor instead of two, produced Template:Convert. Newly optional and taking the top position for performance was a Template:Convert Template:Auto CID FE V8.[2]

Fifth generation (1967-1971)Edit

Main article: Fifth-generation Ford Thunderbird

The Thunderbird's fifth generation brought the second major change in the car's design direction since its debut in 1955. From 1958-1966, the Thunderbird had remained fundamentally the same in concept as a sporty two-door coupe/convertible with two rows of seating. However, the introduction of the Ford Mustang in early 1964 had created a challenge to the Thunderbird's market positioning for it, like the Thunderbird, was also a two-door coupe/convertible with two rows of seating. Where the Mustang had an advantage was in the point that it was substantially cheaper. To prevent overlap between the two cars, Ford's response was to move the Thunderbird upmarket. The result, introduced for 1967, was a larger Thunderbird with luxury appointments more in line with a Lincoln.

The new Thunderbird abandoned unibody construction in favor of a body-on-frame construction with sophisticated rubber mountings between the body and frame to reduce noise and vibration. A pair of significant departures from the previous generation Thunderbird was the elimination of a convertible model and the addition a four-door model, which used suicide doors for rear seat access. The available four-door design would remain a unique feature to this generation as it was not carried on after 1971. One of the most noticeable design elements of the fifth generation Thunderbird was the gaping, fighter jet-inspired grille opening that incorporated hidden headlights.

For 1970, hiding the fact that the rest of the car was relatively unchanged from the previous year, the front fascia was revised to be more animalistic in appearance, featuring a prominent bird's beak-style projection out of the grille. The 1971 Thunderbird was mostly a carry-over from the 1970 model as Ford prepared to release a new, larger Thunderbird for 1972.

Sixth generation (1972-1976)Edit

Main article: Sixth-generation Ford Thunderbird

The sixth generation Thunderbird debuted in the fall of 1971 as a 1972 model. With a Template:Convert wheelbase, an overall length of Template:Convert (growing to Template:Convert by 1974), and a curb weight of Template:Convert (over Template:Convert when equipped with a Template:Auto CID V8), it was the largest Thunderbird ever produced by Ford. Matching the large size of the car were large engines, including a standard Template:Auto CID V8 and an optional Template:Auto CID V8 (standard after 1973). Though offering two of the largest displacement V8 engines ever installed in a production vehicle by Ford, the car's considerable weight combined with low horsepower output caused by restrictive emissions technology resulted in modest performance. As might also be expected from installing a large displacement V8 in a heavy car, fuel efficiency was poor. The big Thunderbirds were popular with sales peaking at over 87,000 units in 1973 in spite of the 1973 oil crisis, but sales had slumped to less than 43,000 by 1975. Finishing off the generation, sales saw an uptick to almost 53,000 units for 1976. Acknowledging increasing fuel prices and more stringent federal emissions standards, a new, down-sized Thunderbird would appear for 1977.[2]

Seventh generation (1977-1979)Edit

Main article: Seventh-generation Ford Thunderbird

For 1977 the Thunderbird was shifted to the smaller Template:Convert wheelbase chassis that underpinned the 1972-76 Ford Torino and its replacement, the LTD II which also debuted for 1977. It was Ford's first effort at downsizing the Thunderbird, reflecting rising demand for more fuel efficient cars. In essence, this generation was really a continuation of the 1974-76 Ford Elite, Ford's successful first attempt at competing in the market created by the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Compared to the previous generation Thunderbird, the new car lost Template:Convert of overall length and Template:Auto lb of weight, though height and width were relatively unchanged. A substantial part of the weight reduction was in the drivetrain, where a small-block V8 replaced the heavier big-block V8s of previous years. The standard engine outside of California was the Template:Auto CID Windsor V8, while the larger Template:Auto CID 351M and [[Ford 335 engine|Template:Auto CID]] and T-tops were available as options along with the 351W. In California, the 351 was the only engine available.

In 1978, Ford offered the "Diamond Jubilee Edition" Thunderbird to commemorate the company's 75th year as an auto manufacturer. This option package escalated the price of the car to almost US$12,000, virtually doubling the standard price. Naturally, it included every option available except for a moonroof and an engine block heater. A similar option package, called "Heritage", was available for 1979. Though this generation was highly successful with over 955,000 examples produced in its three-year run,[1] Ford sought to downsize the Thunderbird further out of fuel efficiency and emissions concerns, leading to a redesign for 1980.

Eighth generation (1980-1982)Edit

Main article: Eighth-generation Ford Thunderbird

Reflecting a further industry-wide adoption of smaller vehicle designs in the interest of improved fuel efficiency and emissions compliance, the Thunderbird was redesigned for 1980 on the compact Ford Fox platform, which first appeared only two years prior as the basis for the Ford Fairmont. Compared to the previous Torino-based Thunderbird and its large Template:Convert wheelbase and Template:Convert overall length, the new Thunderbird lost Template:Convert of wheelbase and Template:Convert in overall length.[2] The squarish styling seen in the previous generation Thunderbird was favored for the new model, but the small car platform resulted in a poor translation with a distinctly upright appearance. Combined with the poor performing [[Ford Windsor engine#255|Template:Auto Lrev Windsor V8]] as a base engine, this Thunderbird generation was not well received by the public. The available Template:Auto Lrev Windsor V8 was a welcome alternative to the 255, but with only Template:Convert performance was only modestly enhanced. Significantly, though failing to generate any new interest for the Thunderbird, a six-cylinder engine was made available for the first time in the Thunderbird's history in 1981, the Template:Auto CID Thriftpower Six. For 1982 this was followed up with the replacement of the straight-six with a V6, the 3.8 L Essex, which was also now the Thunderbird's standard engine. Hurting the Thunderbird's sales performance further, the 302 V8 did not return for 1982, leaving the 255 as the only alternative engine. At 288,638 examples produced between 1980 and 1982, the eighth generation Thunderbird was barely more successful than the final model year of the previous Thunderbird generation.[1] In order to revive the Thunderbird's success, a redesign was needed and Ford would deliver one for 1983.

Ninth generation (1983-1988)Edit

Main article: Ninth-generation Ford Thunderbird

In response to the lackluster reception of the eighth-generation 1980-1982 Thunderbird, Ford executed a significant redesign for 1983. Though based on the Fox body like the previous Thunderbird, the new Thunderbird featured a radically sleeker, more aerodynamic body and a slightly shorter wheelbase of Template:Auto in. To power the new Thunderbird, the 3.8 L Essex V6 and [[Ford Windsor engine|Template:Auto Lrev Windsor 5.0]] V8 were carried over from the previous generation with the latter gaining electronic fuel injection (which was in turn replaced by multipoint fuel injection in 1986). All-new, and a Thunderbird first, was a turbocharged 2.3 L OHC 4-cylinder engine featured in the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. The engine initially produced Template:Convert, but by 1985 power was increased to Template:Convert. Another first was the availability of a 5-speed manual transmission with the turbocharged four.

Even though Ford was already at work on the next Thunderbird generation by 1986, the company sought to continue to cash in on the existing generation's success. As such, for 1987 the Thunderbird received a significant refresh complete with new sheetmetal and a revised front fascia with more aerodynamic single-piece headlamps. Mechanically the car was mostly unchanged. V6s models gained fuel injection while the Turbo Coupe's turbocharged 4-cylinder engine gained an intercooler, increasing output to Template:Convert. 1988 was this Thunderbird generation's last as Ford prepared to unveil an all-new Thunderbird for 1989.

Tenth generation (1989-1997)Edit

Main article: Tenth-generation Ford Thunderbird

On December 26, 1988 a completely redesigned Thunderbird was introduced as a 1989 model alongside its sister car, the Mercury Cougar.[5] The new Thunderbird was developed on Ford's MN12 (Mid-Size North American Project 12) platform, which had been in development since 1986. Featuring a nine-inch longer wheelbase than the previous generation Thunderbird and a short-long arm (SLA) four-wheel independent suspension, the car offered excellent handling and ride quality. Significantly, the 1989 Thunderbird was the first in the car's history not to offer a V8 engine, instead offering two different versions of Ford's 3.8 L Essex OHV V6. Standard versions of the Thunderbird received a naturally aspirated version of the V6 producing Template:Convert while the high performance Super Coupe model received a supercharged and intercooled version of the engine producing Template:Convert. Both engines came with a AOD 4-speed automatic transmission standard while a M5R2 5-speed, Mazda-derived manual transmission was optional in the Super Coupe.

For the 1991 model year a V8 was offered in the Thunderbird once again, slotting in between the standard and supercharged versions of the 3.8 L V6. The V8 was the revered [[Ford Windsor engine|Template:Auto Lrev Windsor 5.0]], now with more power and torque relative to the last time the engine was used in the Thunderbird in 1988.

In 1994, the Thunderbird received a substantial refresh, including stylistic changes inside and out and mechanical enhancements. In particular, the Template:Auto Lrev Windsor 5.0 was replaced with Ford's new Modular 4.6 L SOHC V8 while the Super Coupe's supercharged V6 was enhanced to produce more power and torque. Simultaneously, the AOD automatic transmission was replaced by the also-new 4R70W 4-speed automatic in all instances where the AOD was previously used in the Thunderbird.

By 1996 Ford began to reduce its investment in the tenth generation Thunderbird. While the Thunderbird received minor changes for 1996, the Super Coupe model was discontinued the previous year and the options list for the remaining models was condensed. In 1997, Ford decided to discontinue the tenth generation Thunderbird with the last example of the car rolling off the assembly line in Lorain, Ohio on September 4 of that year.

Eleventh generation (1999-2001)Edit

Main article: Eleventh-generation Ford Thunderbird

A T-Bird was introduced in 1999 as a clone of the Mercury Cougar. It goes on record as the least popular T-Bird in history.

Twelfth generation (2002-2005)Edit

Main article: Twelfth-generation Ford Thunderbird

Ford introduced a new Thunderbird for 2002. Returning to the original formula for the Thunderbird, the latest version had a two-seat coupe/convertible layout like the first-generation Thunderbird and retrofuturistic styling to match. The twelfth generation Thunderbird was built at Ford's Wixom Assembly Plant and was based on the company's DEW98 platform, which was shared with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type. Though the Thunderbird's exterior styling was very much unique relative to its platform mates, the interior, particularly the appearance of the dash area, instrument panel, and steering wheel, was very similar to that of the Lincoln LS. The sole engine of the Thunderbird was a Jaguar-designed AJ-30 3.9 L DOHC V8, a de-bored variant of the Jaguar AJ-26 4.0 L V8, making Template:Convert and Template:Auto lbft of torque. The engine was mated to Ford's 5R55N 5-speed automatic transmission. The AJ-30 V8 was replaced by the AJ-35 in 2003 and later Thunderbirds, bringing with it variable valve timing (VVT) and electronic throttle control (ETC) as well as Template:Convert and Template:Auto lbft of torque. Complementing the extra power and torque provided by the AJ-35 V8, a manual shift feature for the 5-speed automatic called SelectShift was available as an option in 2003 and later Thunderbirds. With sales dropping off significantly after its first model year, Ford decided to make the 2005 model year the Thunderbird's last with no scheduled successor.


During the 1980-1990s, the aerodynamically clean Thunderbirds were quite successful in NASCAR stock car racing before they were replaced by Taurus-based bodies.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Tast, Alan H. and David Newhardt. THUNDERBIRD FIFTY YEARS. Motorbooks. October 15, 2004.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Edmunds Inc. "Ford Thunderbird History." 2009.
  3. Gower, Colin. GREATEST AMERICAN CARS. January 1, 2004. Colin Gower Enterprises, Ltd.
  4. "Ford Thunderbird - History: 1955-1963." 2009.
  5. Cool Cats. "1989 Cougar." Cool Cats. 17 November 2007.

See alsoEdit

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