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Image: 1956 Ford Thunderbird

1956 Ford Thunderbird

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Image: 1956 Ford ThunderbirdWith one model year under its belt, Ford introduced the second version of America's favorite personal car to great fanfare. The 1955 model was not without its problems, as would be expected with anything new that was mass produced at this time. Man's capabilities were somewhat limited, but by constantly pushing those limits, better designs and more technological breakthroughs happened.

Complaints of an overly warm passenger compartment were addressed with the addition of new front fender cowl vents, which directed air from outside directly into the interior foot well areas. Manually operated from inside the car, a lever could be moved to open of close the doors on the front fenders. A rubber seal prevented water from entering when closed, and a bug screen kept bugs out when opened.

Inside, a chrome casting of vertical louvers initially directed the incoming air toward the rear of the car; however, the interior still seemed to be too warm and it was discovered that air circulation improved with the louvers directed toward the front of the car, so the interior castings were flipped and some degree of relief was provided. Later during the production run, the transmission fluid was piped through the radiator to help keep the transmission cooler and thus reduce interior temperatures, but even with these changes the interiors still tend to be a bit warm on these cars.

Another complaint about the '55 cars was wind noise and turbulence in the passenger compartment. This was solved with the addition of wind wings attached to the front door frames. These glass windows were on the outside of the car, and could be manually adjusted to direct the air flow away from the open window, cutting down on drafts and reducing the noise level created by the forward movement of the car.

Another issue for potential Thunderbird buyers in its virgin year was the lack of luggage space. With the spare tire in place, there was very little room in the trunk of the '55 cars, the tire took up nearly half of them room, as it was secured lying flat on the floor on the right side. And even though it was recessed into the right fender somewhat, it still consumed a great deal of space. The jack was tucked under the left fender, out of the way. This meant that a couple of small suitcases could be placed in the trunk, or several bags of groceries, but little else. Golf clubs? No way. This was a rather big issue, and Ford knew it must be addressed.

The easiest answer was to get rid of the spare tire, but what to do with it? The solution came with a redesign of the rear of the car. The spare tire was placed in a carrier perched on the rear bumper, and decorated with a two piece color-keyed cover to hide the tire. A hub cap or wheel cover that matched the others on the car was placed in the cover to provide decoration. The rear bumper was modified to house the assembly, and the exhaust outlets were redirected to the outside ends of the new rear bumper. The center section of the bumper projected outward to allow room, and the spare tire assembly leaned forward, hovering over the rear of the deck lid.

To open the trunk or reach the gasoline filler tube, the spare wheel assembly must be tilted backward. It is generally easier to access the gas filler once the deck lid has been raised, although that isn't a requirement. The spare wheel must be properly adjusted at all times, or it can strike the rear bumper and damage the cover section and/or wheel cover. A stone guard under the spare tire carrier protects the lower portion of the cover from damage from road debris.

Moving the spare tire to the rear in this manner became an instant styling sensation, and resolved the issue of no luggage space. However, even with the spare tire gone there was less than generous storage, but it was now certainly adequate for a two passenger automobile. A rubber mat covered the floor, and a matching rubber curtain hung at the front of the compartment. A cardboard panel was placed between the jack and left rear fender to prevent damage to the fender when removing or storing the jack, but no such protection was provided on the right side. Late during production, a new "Burtex" composition fabric would replace the rubber mat and curtain, which would dress up the luggage compartment considerably.

Placing the spare tire at the extreme rear of the car caused some changes to the way the car handled. Drivers soon became familiar with the tendency of the rear to fishtail, and experienced some instability during strong crosswinds. This was a new concern, and one that Ford would need to address before the next model year.

Other exterior changes were minimal, the Ford crest with crossed flags emblems were removed from the hood and fuel filler door. On the hood, a new stylized chrome Thunderbird emblem appeared with a Turquoise-colored plastic insert that spelled out Thunderbird in script lettering. The front grille, bumper, bumper guards, parking light assemblies, and other chrome trim were identical to the previous year. The headlamp door (the round color-keyed frame around the headlight opening in the front fender), was modified and included a new "rib" on the underside of the lip at the top.

The "Y-8" emblems on the front fenders behind the chrome hash marks were replaced by a small Ford crest, which had a plastic mult-colored insert. It was used on the hard top on the 1955 cars. The standard hub cap for 1956 measured 10 1/4" in diameter and had a chrome domed section at the center, which was surrounded by a white band with the letters "FORD" spelled out twice.

Most of the exterior changes were in the rear, and in addition to the new spare tire carrier, new tail lamps were used which included a round reflector at the top. The metal insert or back-up light lens (if equipped) were below that, and a chrome ring outlines a center protruding section of the red tail lamp lens.

Inside, a new pattern appeared on the seat. The pleated inserts returned as before, but were no longer interrupted on the seat back cushion. The contrasting bolster along the top of the seat back now ran uninterrupted across the full width of the seat, and the center section of the seat was no longer split in half. The center panel on the seat back only extended about 3/4ths of the way up the seat, with the white pleated section now separating it from the upper bolster. A Ford crest was embossed into a circular design in the center panel. The door panels now featured an embossed stitch design in the horizontal creases of the panels.

The big news at Ford for 1956 was its Lifeguard Design safety features. In conjunction with major universities, police departments, leading medical groups, and other experts, Ford participated in studies that showed many injuries were caused by doors that opened on impact in an accident, or hard objects such as dashboards, sun visors, steering wheels and columns, upon which they were thrown during an impact. As a result of these studies, Ford introduced several optional Lifeguard Design options, including a padded dashboard cover, padded sun visors, and seat belts. Included as standard, however, were Ford's Lifeguard Design deep-dish steering wheel and double-grip door latches, which Ford called Lifeguard Door Locks. The optional items weren't big sellers, although the safety belts were the more popular of the choices offered.

A more extensive color selection was offered for 1956, both inside and outside. New interior colors included Tan and White and Green and White. A Buckskin Tan was introduced as a new exterior paint color, as were revised shades of white, red, and Peacock Blue replaced Thunderbird Blue. In March 1956, Thunderbird Gray, Thunderbird Green, Goldenglow Yellow, and Sunset Coral were introduced. The hard top was now available in a contrasting color as well.

In order to provide a solution to limited vision with the hard top installed, Ford designers came up with the first generation Thunderbird's most notable styling feature: the port window. These simple, round windows surrounded by a band of chrome greatly improved rearward and side vision and at the same time gave the hard top an attractive new styling element. At first, Ford wasn't sold on this design, and offered the hard tops with or without the port windows, at no additional charge. It soon became clear that the public loved them, as orders for cars with the port windows far exceeded those without.


1955 Thunderbird | 1956 Thunderbird | 1957 Thunderbird