Past Collection – 1956 Ford Thunderbird Convertible
The Ford Thunderbird was a car manufactured in the United States by the Ford Motor Company. It entered production for the 1955 model year as a two-seater sporty car but, unlike the similar Chevrolet Corvette, the Thunderbird was never sold as a full-blown sports car.
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 (some say the car Crusoe pointed to was a Jaguar XK120) 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.
Unlike the Corvette, the Thunderbird was never a full-blown sporting vehicle; Ford’s description was personal luxury car, and the company essentially created this market segment.
There was some difficulty in naming the car, with suggestions ranging from the exotic to the ridiculous (Hep Cat, Beaver, Detroiter, Runabout, Arcturus, Savile, El Tigre, and Coronado). Crusoe offered a $250 suit to anyone who could come up with a better name.
Stylist Alden “Gib” Giberson submitted Thunderbird as part of a list. Giberson got the idea during a lightning storm when he saw an illusion of a bird getting hit by lightning, but this happened because of his view. Giberson never claimed his prize, settling for a $95 suit and an extra pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue.
According to Palm Springs Life magazine, the car’s final name came not from the Native American symbol as one might expect, but from an ultra-exclusive housing tract in what would later be incorporated as Rancho Mirage, California: Thunderbird Heights.Generations
The car was shown at the Detroit Auto Show on February 20, 1954. The first production car came off the line on September 9, 1954, and went on sale on October 22, 1954 as a 1955 model, and sold briskly; 3,500 orders were placed in the first ten days of sale. Ford had only projected building 10,000; eventual 1955 sales were 16,155.
As standard, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird included a removable fiberglass top; a fabric convertible top was an option, although commonly specified. The engine was a 292 Y-block V8. The car had fender skirts. The exhaust pipes exited through twin bumper guards, which are bolted to the rear bumper.
Created to act as a retort to the Chevrolet Corvette, it was also the first mass produced edition of all the Ford Thunderbird models. Exactly 53,166 models were produced. It was produced with a Fordomatic or Overdrive transmissions, and featured four-way powered seats and pushbutton interior door handles.
Equipped with a V8 engine, the Thunderbird could hit 110-120 mph. It was a smaller two-seat “personal luxury car”, compared to the wallowing barges that roamed all the roads in the 1950s. It was designed to be a brisk luxury tourer, and not a sports car.
For the 1956 model, more trunk space was added, the spare wheel was mounted outside, the exhausts were moved to the ends of the bumper, and air vents were added behind the front wheels to improve cabin ventilation. To improve rear-quarter visibility with the removable hardtop in place, “porthole” windows were made available as a no-cost option. An optional 312 Y-block V8 was made available for those that wanted more performance. 1956 sales were 15,631, the lowest of all three 2-seater Thunderbird model years.