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Image: 1955 Ford Thunderbird

1955 Ford Thunderbird

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Image: The world has never seen a car like the 1955 ThunderbirdWhen the American General Infantrymen (GI's) returned home after World War II, new cars were in short supply due to shortages of raw materials and the halting of automotive production to make room for production of military requirements. When automotive assembly resumed, the new cars were barely face lifted 1948 models, and some were delivered without chrome bumpers and whitewall tires due to the material shortages that lived on. Americans made do with their pre-war cars during the war years, but were buying anything new they could after the war ended, even if it did have old styling. While in the service, the GI's got to see first hand the European sports cars, such as the MG and Triumph, and they liked them. But no American car maker was building such a thing at the time. Chevrolet eventually responded to the demand with the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. A 1954 Kaiser Darrin was also built but was not a big seller with just 435 cars built.

At the time, Ford felt it needed to compete with Chevrolet model to model, so when news leaked that there was a sports car project at Chevrolet, Ford began to seriously consider building a similar car. The Chevrolet Corvette was introduced in 1953, and was a big hit. The public first saw the Corvette on January 17, 1953 as part of the GM Motorama held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. 45,000 people attended the opening day show, and the following day Chevrolet announced that the car would be a production model, available later in the year.

Powered by a six cylinder engine that was somewhat underpowered initially, the Corvette was a but utilitarian compared to other American automobiles. Instead of roll up glass windows, the Corvette had plastic side curtains. One color scheme was offered, white paint with a black convertible top and red interior. Options included a radio, heater, and whitewall tires. After Ford saw the new Corvette, it was decided that the Ford sports car would be more like typical American cars at the time, with things like an eight cylinder engine, roll-up windows, and a clock with sweep second hand as standard equipment. Luxury features such as power seats and windows would also be provided to personalize the car.

Ford had a short time frame to get its new car to market, so it used existing parts in many instances. This would give the new car a distinct Ford look, but it would have a unique, compact size and a more sporty appearance. The end result, of course, was a sensation. The pre-publicity prior to the introduction was enormous, and the new Ford sports car was featured on magazine covers, became the subject of multiple news stories, and was the topic of conversation at parties and gatherings across America. American was ready for the Ford Thunderbird, and on the day it was introduced, Ford dealers accepted orders for about 4,000 cars! This immediately put the Corvette in second place, as people recognized the special qualities of Ford's new little car.

The T-Bird was referred to as a "sports car" only in the beginning. Soon, the term "personal car" was used, and that is what stuck. Available in only one configuration, a two passenger convertible, the T-bird could be equipped with an optional folding soft top, or a removable hard top, or both. The T-Bird was all-metal construction, instead of the new and somewhat unproved fiberglass construction of the Corvette, and Ford made sure to note that fact frequently. The T-Bird and Corvette did have something in common, however: the hard top on the T-Bird was fiberglass, a necessity to provide the necessary strength while keeping weight down.

Many of the components on the Thunderbird were taken directly from other Ford products of the time. Things like headlamp doors, tail lamps, controls, knobs, lenses, and the like were used on other Ford cars. This provided a family resemblance for the Thunderbird, to help identify it as a Ford, and helped sell other Fords when the new T-bird became a sensation.

From the very beginning, Ford knew there was a limited market for a two passenger sporty car. Sales far exceeded the expectations in 1955, and unknown to many at the time, plans were already being made to change the T-bird into a four passenger car. The reason for this is due to its size and cost, the T-bird almost had to be a second car in an upper middle income family, or owned by a single adult. Many potential buyers loved the T-bird's looks but needed more room for a growing family.

There were a few issues with the new Thunderbird as well. The passenger compartment was rather warm during all but the coldest days, and with either top installed, there was a big blind spot to the rear sides. The spare tire took up much of the luggage space, so there was little room for groceries, let alone a set of golf clubs. No matter which top was used, the little Birds tended to leak in the rain. The fix for some of these items would come in 1956, but others—such as the leaky top, would never be corrected, no matter how many times seals were redesigned.

There are several things unique to the 1955 models that set them apart from the two that followed. The 1955 cars have six volt electrical systems, which means there is zero electrical parts interchange between 1955 and 1956-57. Sun visors weren't installed on the production '55 models, either, nor were vent panes on the doors. The heater controls featured wedge-shaped knobs in 1955 only. The seat upholstery patterns were different every year, even though the seat frames themselves were the same. 1955 is the only year a deep dish safety style steering wheel wasn't provided. Hard tops featured a Ford crest in the lower front corner, and were the only year to do so. Another Ford crest with crossed flags below was placed on the fuel filler lid in the rear deck, and matched the design on the hood. Later models got a stylized Thunderbird emblem instead. A "Y-8" emblem appears on the front fenders just behind the chrome stripes only in 1955.

Initially, just three paint colors (Raven Black, Torch Red, and Thunderbird Blue) were offered on the Thunderbird, with three matching vinyl interiors that were two-toned with white. During production, Snowshoe White was added as an exterior color and a month or so later, Goldenrod Yellow was added, along with a new Black/Yellow interior.

Driving a Thunderbird immediately became the cool thing to do. It was a hit with Hollywood celebrities, the country club set, and urban singles. The popularity of the T-bird forced Chevrolet to make changes to the Corvette to make it more luxurious, more powerful, and thus more appealing to a larger group of people. The Thunderbird was a sporty car, a boulevard car, a luxury car, a personal car. It sparked a passion in America that lives on to this day.


1955 Thunderbird | 1956 Thunderbird | 1957 Thunderbird