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1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible shown in Desert Gold
1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible
Official Pace Car of the INDIANAPOLIS 500
1961 Ford Thunderbird
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Unmistakably New, Unmistakably Thunderbird

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Indianapolis 500 Pace Car

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The new adventure in Elegance - Thunderbird 1961

Coming out of its most successful sales year to date, the Thunderbird was positioned to break all records for 1961, but something went awry along the way. Expanded in 1958 to accommodate four passengers, the T-bird was a sensation during the three years of that body style. Each year had outsold the previous one, and with all new styling for 1961, the T-bird should have been positioned to achieve even higher sales, but something went wrong along the way.

For the 1960 model year, 92,843 Thunderbirds were built, placing them in the top sales spot to date for the model. By 1960, the Thunderbird's styling was in its third year, a time in which cars normally don't sell as well, since people are waiting for something new, and this was especially true in the trendy styling-is-everything personal luxury market. However, a very becoming styling update gave the 1960 models a fresh look, and they still looked like nothing else on the road at the time. With virtually no competition, sales were very strong. If you wanted a personal luxury car in 1960, the Thunderbird was it, and it would be 17 years before the 1960 models would lose their number one sales status, a fact that proves just how popular the 1960 Birds truly were.

For 1961, the stylists had come up with an incredibly clean and distinctive design for the Thunderbird, a design which was pulled well into the development stage and given to the Lincoln Division, which had been experiencing slow sales and needed something really spectacular to incite interest in the brand again. And the new Thunderbird design that was in the works was just the thing for Lincoln. So, what eventually went to market as the 1961 Lincoln Continental was actually originally destined to be the 1961 Ford Thunderbird!

This rather abrupt about-face meant that a new design had to be readied for the Thunderbird, and in a shorter time frame than usual. The second design proposal had a familiar look to it when it was revealed. Similar to the somewhat boxy original design now awarded to Lincoln, the replacement was sleek, smooth, and cylindrical. Shaped like a rocket ship, it looked like something The Jetsons would drive, had they been created at this time. (Original show aired from September 23, 1962 until March 3, 1963 - just 24 episodes!)

Up front, the hood and bumper met each other at a point, with the chrome bumper bar sitting quite high off the ground. A massive chrome bumper guard ran below the bumper, which was inset with horizontal grille bars and a single vertical bar at center. Stainless trim ran atop the fenders, doors, and quarter panels and terminated at a small angled tail fin in back. In an ingenious move, the stainless trim itself became the door handle on the doors, further contributing to the uncluttered 1961 appearance. Below the tail fin, two large red taillamps looked like jet after burners. The taillamps were surrounded by chrome pods that had small fins on their lower extremities as well. Restorers today call them rear bumper "Qs" due to their shape. Everything on the car was very fluid, rounded, and smooth. There wasn't one bit of unnecessary body sculpturing to be found anywhere. The design was a sensation, and everyone knew instantly what it was, despite its very changed appearance from the previous series.

A new Thunderbird emblem featured a jewelled turquoise insert, and was featured prominently on the hood just above the bumper bar, on the roof side panels on Hardtop models, and on the deck lid. Full wheel covers were new to the list of standard items for 1961, and had a very elegant design. A series of four chrome spears were mounted horizontally on the rear quarter panels, these being the only additional decoration added to the car by the designers.

Inside, a completely new interior greeted delighted Thunderbird passengers. Both the front seat passenger and driver found themselves cradled in cocoons that literally wrapped around them. The color-keyed padded instrument panel was molded to emphasize the two separate seating areas, and ribbed aluminum trim flowed down the center console and wrapped its way across the instrument panel and onto the door panels where it swept backwards before terminating on the rear quarter panel just in front of the rear seat back. The anodized aluminum panels were tinted to coordinate with the interior color, and were available in several shades.

Interiors were upholstered in all crinkle grain vinyl, crinkle grain vinyl with nylon bedford cord inserts, or genuine leather. Front bucket seats returned for front passengers, and while the back seat could accommodate three passengers when necessary, the design was clearly intended for just two.

One of Automotive Mileposts' writers remembers traveling as a small child in a Laurel Green 1961 Thunderbird Hardtop to see the Ghost Light (also known as the Hornet Spook Light or Tri-State Spook Light), near Joplin, Missouri in the area where the Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas borders meet. (See The Joplin Spooklight, for more details.) On this particular trip, there would have been six people in that car! The couple who owned it sat up front, and he was in back, along with his parents and brother. The brother would have been about 2 or 3 years old at the time, so he was pretty small and likely sat in someone's lap. Cramped quarters, to be certain, but it's a vivid memory to this day, and one that is largely responsible for his lifelong love of cars, especially Thunderbirds.

Another memory this man has is of riding with his dad one night as they followed the female owner of this same car home after a dinner party. Her husband was out of town on business, and the family didn't want her to drive home across town by herself late at night. Those big, bright tail lights were easy to follow in the darkness. Later, the couple bought the house right across the street, and the Thunderbird was a frequent source of attraction that never faded. When the couple traded the Thunderbird in on a new 1966 Ford Mustang, it was a bit crushing to the guy, and the new Mustang was a huge disappointment!

1961 Thunderbird production hit 73,051 units, not a poor showing by any means, but it did result in a reduction of 19,792 cars from the previous year, which had to be a concern for Ford Division. The Thunderbird had the personal luxury market all to itself in 1961, but there were whispers that GM would soon have a new car ready to compete directly with the T-bird, and it would be on the market before the next restyle was scheduled for the Bird in 1964.

Two new models would be introduced for 1962, and they would help increase sales somewhat by expanding the Thunderbird's model choices, making it more attractive to a wider group of car buyers, but Ford knew that its new styling wasn't being embraced like the previous styling had been, and that concern would be addressed for 1964.

To promote the Thunderbird, Ford's advertising featured the car in various lush settings, normally with a young attractive couple nearby. One depicted a couple preparing for a pool side party by hanging party lights in trees, with their Diamond Blue Hardtop posed by the pool; another showed two couples watching the sunset on a secluded beach, with their Monte Carlo Red Convertible waiting nearby, its tire tracks clearly defined in the sand; a Corinthian White Hardtop is parked in front of an ivy-covered stable, its attractive male driver having stopped by to chat with friends before they go for a ride on their horses...overhead, their dog peers out from an upper window; another ad featuring a Corinthian White Convertible depicts a couple out for a picnic, she enjoys a tree swing while he sits on the rear deck of the T-bird and watches; and one of the most dramatic poses a Corinthian White Hardtop on a hill, behind it a blazing pink sky, with a couple dressed in formal wear...he's in a black tuxedo, she is in white gloves with a full-length pink cape that matches the pink in the sky. The ad copy reads: "Thunderbird Country is a place where everything is magic. The horizons are closer, the roads are straighter and the distance between two points is enchantment. It happens this way only in a 1961 Thunderbird."

One television ad spoke of something new, and featured a Thunderbird Hardtop and a Convertible with their attractive young owners out enjoying a Fall day. The Hardtop kicks up fallen leaves as it flies down a country road. The narrator encourages the viewer to visit their Ford Dealer. The ads were all very high society, but that was the target market, and how enticing would an ad be that showed the car being loaded with sacks of groceries at the market? Or picking up the dry cleaning? The T-bird was associated with a young, well to do crowd, even though many of its owners were more middle aged, and lived a more mundane life. All of the ads were effective at getting their message across, and that message was that your life would be so much better if you owned a new Thunderbird. And even if you didn't take sunset walks on the beach, or attend fancy dress balls, you could if you wanted to, because you were a Thunderbird owner.

The new Thunderbird was front and center for two of the nation's biggest events in 1961. The Orange Ball and Inaugural Parade festivities of President John F. Kennedy utilized 50 1961 Thunderbird Convertibles. Most were painted in a dark brown metallic called "Presidential Mahogany," (paint code Y), which was a Lincoln color that wasn't listed as available for the Thunderbird. White convertible tops and Pearl Beige Metallic Vinyl (code 54) interiors completed the package. Cars built for this special order can be identified by their ROT sheets, which are often found tucked in the springs under or behind a seat, under the carpeting, etc. The cars were delivered to Region District 26 (Washington), with a scheduled build date of "30M", and would have the designation "ORANGE BALL INAUGURAL PARADE" printed on the bottom section. There are reports of one car painted Honey Beige as well as another painted Corinthian White, but it's not clear if these were part of the 50 built for the event, or if they were last minute replacements.

The other big event was the running of the 1961 Indianapolis 500 Race, in which a 1961 Thunderbird Convertible was honored as the Official Pace Car of the May 30, 1961 race, and a total of 34 Thunderbird Convertibles (including the Pace Car) were built to serve as official cars of the Golden (50th) Anniversary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Built under PAO (pre-approved order) 8479, the space for the paint code on the door VIN tag was left blank in recognition of the special gold metallic paint finish (code J 56949) used on all the cars. The Official Pace Car was the only one with a Pearl Beige Leather interior (trim code 84), the rest had Black Leather (trim code 86). For more details, visit our 1961 Ford Thunderbird Indianapolis 500 Pace Car page [opens in new window].

Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. with 1961 Thunderbird Convertible on set of 77 Sunset StripPopular television shows of the time would make the 1961 Thunderbird a star in America's living rooms each week. 77 Sunset Strip (Aired Friday nights on ABC from 1958-1964, starring Roger Smith, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Edd Byrnes) would feature a 1961 Thunderbird Convertible on many of its episodes that year. At the time, this show was the coolest of the cool, "It's really the ginchiest" as Kookie (Edd Byrnes' character) would say.

The cool Corinthian White Convertible with Light Beige vinyl interior was often seen in the parking lot of Dino's Lodge, which was a real restaurant that was owned by Dean Martin at the time, hence the name, Dino's. It was located at 8524 Sunset Boulevard near Alta Loma, in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the structure was torn down in 1989, but the building located at that address today displays a plaque indicating it was once the filming location for 77 Sunset Strip.

77 Sunset Strip
77 Sunset Strip
77 Sunset Strip

The street that wears a fancy label,
That's glorified in song and fable.
The most exciting people pass you by,
Including a private eye.

77 Sunset Strip
77 Sunset Strip
77 Sunset Strip

You'll meet the high brow and the hipster,
The starlet and the phony tripster.
You'll see most every kind of gal and guy,
Including a private eye.

77 Sunset Strip
77 Sunset Strip

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