Ford Thunderbird History

Ford Thunderbird History

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Compared to the 21st century, vehicular choice was severely limited during the early '50s. There were sedans, coupes, station wagons, convertibles and even weird things like "sedan deliveries" back then, but essentially a Ford was a Ford and a Chevrolet was a Chevrolet — sedan, coupe, station wagon, convertible and sedan delivery were all straightforward variations on a common design. The domestic manufacturers didn't make compacts or subcompacts, SUVs were unheard of, and they didn't make sports cars until Chevrolet introduced the Corvette in 1953. And they didn't make a "personal luxury car" until Ford introduced the 1955 Thunderbird.

What the first Thunderbird delivered was style and sophistication that used to be available only from expensive imports like Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar with the simple construction and reasonable price tag of a Ford. What that first two-seat T-Bird didn't have was room enough for at least two more passengers. And it was when that room was added that the T-Bird really took flight.

Then more than 40 years later it was crushed under the churning knobby tires of the SUV craze. Only to rise — and fall — as a two-seater again.

First Generation (1955-1957): Classic Two-Seat Thunderbirds

If Chevrolet hadn't introduced the 1953 Corvette it's likely that Ford never would have felt compelled to develop the Thunderbird in response. But though the T-Bird was a response to it, Ford's two-seater was a distinctly different machine from GM's plastic-bodied sports car.

First of all, the Thunderbird's body, like that of all other Fords, was made of steel. Second, the Thunderbird was available solely with a V8 engine unlike the Corvette which started life with a straight six and only added the V8 as an option for 1955. And third, the Thunderbird wasn't trying very hard to pretend it was a sports car.

Like the Corvette, however, development of the Thunderbird was rapid. The development program, according to an internal corporate memo, was launched by Ford in February of 1953 just a month after the Corvette prototype's debut at the General Motors Motorama. In much the same way that GM developed the Corvette using standard Chevrolet mechanical pieces, the Thunderbird used very familiar elements. The frame was basically a cut-down version of the standard Ford frame with a 102-inch wheelbase identical to that of the Corvette and the 292-cubic-inch OHV V8 came straight from Mercury. The styling also carried over then-current Ford themes including the egg-crate grille, single headlamps faired into the front fenders, single circle taillights and stubby tailfins.

But while the standard Fords looked somewhat bulbous and awkward, the T-Bird was sleek, athletic and sophisticated. The half-covered rear wheel openings and whitewall tires didn't say much about performance back in '55, but the simulated air scoop on the hood, the engine-turned-dashboard and 150-mph speedometer all hinted that there was more aboard than in any normal Ford.

"Ford prefers to call it a 'personal car,'" explained Motor Trend back then. "The thinking behind this, as brought out in a discussion with W.R. Burnett, chief passenger car engineer for Ford, is that 'although the Thunderbird has the performance and attributes of most sports cars, management also felt that it should have a few more comforts to make it more appealing to a wider segment of the public.'"

All the original T-Birds were convertibles with a standard fiberglass hardtop (the canvas retractable top was actually an option). Breathing through a four-barrel carburetor, the 292 V8 was rated at 193 horsepower when backed by the standard three-speed manual transmission. Opting for the three-speed "Ford-O-Matic" three-speed automatic transmission brought with it a leap in engine output to 198 hp. The suspension was just as simple as that under any other Ford with the independent front suspension using coil springs and the solid rear axle on leaf springs. Braking was by a drum inboard of each oversize 15-inch wheel.

The Thunderbird went on sale October 22, 1954, and quickly overwhelmed the Corvette in sales volume. Ford had thought it would sell about 10,000 examples that first year, but found itself unable to keep up with demand and eventually knocked out 16,155 examples during the debut model year (production ran deep into September of '55 when the 1956 model Fords were already in showrooms). That was more than five times the number of Corvettes Chevrolet built that year — and all this despite a price tag that started at $2,695 but could run easily past $3,800 with options.

With such a solid start, Ford saw little reason to screw with the Thunderbird formula when it was time to develop the 1956 models. A "Continental Kit" was now standard that mounted the spare tire outboard of the car on the rear bumper. This cleared up more space for luggage in the shallow trunk, but made accessing that trunk more difficult because cargo now needed to be hoisted around the spare tire. The other big change was the addition of optional circular "portholes" in the fiberglass roof that eliminated some serious blind spots in the car. There were also new vents in the front fenders to bleed off heat before it cooked the driver's and passenger's feet into hams in Florsheims. Vent wing windows were also new and the car could be had in more colors and some two-tone paint schemes.

But the best news was a new optional 312-cubic-inch version of Ford's OHV V8 that was rated at a throaty 215 hp when inhaling through a four-barrel carb and backed by an overdrive manual transmission. That output swelled to 225 hp when the 312 was mated to the Ford-O-Matic. Output of the standard 292 V8 rose to an even 200 hp and it was only available with the three-speed manual transmission.

With the Thunderbird novelty wearing off slightly, Ford sold 15,631 of the '56 model.

The 1957 Thunderbird was significantly restyled with a more chiseled body, a larger front bumper around a larger front grille, a redesigned trunk lid and more pronounced, sharper-edged tail fins. The new trunk lid allowed the spare tire to move back inside, but aftermarket firms still sold Continental Kits to those T-Bird owners who liked the appearance of the external spare. Inside, the instrument panel from the standard '56 Ford was transplanted into the Thunderbird with an engine-turned-insert adding distinction.

The 312-cubic-inch V8 was now standard on the Thunderbird with output pegged at 245 hp. A version of that engine topped by two four-barrel carbs was optional and rated at 270 hp or 285 hp when equipped with a special "racing kit." A few Thunderbirds were also sold with a Paxton centrifugal supercharger heaving into their Holley four-barrel carburetor to make a thrilling 300 hp.

With such a broad range of options, and such an attractive updating of the styling, Thunderbird sales grew to 21,380 units during '57. That may have seemed like a lot compared to the two previous years' sales, but it was only a hint of what was to come.

Second Generation (1958-1960): Four-Seat "Square Birds"

Though the two-seat T-Birds exceeded Ford's own sales projections, the market for two-seat cars was just too restricted for a manufacturer as wed to the mass market as Ford to bother with. So it was an easy business decision to move the T-Bird to a four-passenger configuration. And that business decision paid off in huge sales even though the cars themselves have never attained the classic status of the originals.

In a fundamental way the first four-place T-Bird was a more radical machine than the smaller original. Because the new T-Bird was Ford's first car built around a unitary body and frame. While today virtually all new cars are based on unibody structures, back in the late '50s this was a big deal.

Virtually nothing carried over from the '57 Thunderbird to the 1958 edition. Beside the new unibody construction, the new T-Bird used a longer 113-inch wheelbase (11 inches up from before) to accommodate the second row of seats and the new car was available both as a convertible and as a hardtop. While many styling cues carried forward, they were exaggerated in the new car with larger tailfins, a larger phony hood scoop and body sides that seemed to be sculpted by six drunk Las Vegas showgirls. The front grille was now contained within the massive chrome bumper and the then current mania for dual headlights was indulged. Was the new Thunderbird ugly? That's subjective of course, but, yeah, it was ugly.

All the '58 Thunderbirds were powered by Ford's new 352-cubic-inch V8 that was rated at 300 hp with either three-speed manual or automatic transmissions. But with weight up about 1,000 pounds over the previous T-Bird, the '58 wasn't particularly quick. The suspension continued to use A-arms and coil springs up front, but the rear's solid axle now rode on coil springs as well.

"'Widest doors in the industry,' says Ford, and I believe them," wrote Motor Trend. "Seem almost like pulling a side (48.8 inches of it) off the car. Duck a little to get in, or better yet use the sports car technique of backing into the front seats. This is where comfort begins. Each of the four seats (two separates in front and two-in-one for the rear) is an honest-to-goodness bucket job. Soft springs in the center and back allow your body to drop into (rather than sit on) the cushions. Then you become conscious of foam rubber cushion edges which ride up around your thighs and back to provide the most comforting support of all '58s. As one engineer said, 'It's almost like riding with someone's arms around you.' (How nice.)"

Whatever the artistic merits or demerits of the '58 T-Bird, it sold spectacularly well. Ford built 37,892 of the '58s — that's 16,512 more than the previous year.

A new grille with prominent horizontal bars announced the arrival of the 1959 Thunderbird, but little other change was evident. However a 430-cubic-inch V8 swiped from Lincoln was now offered as an option and was rated at 350 hp. Sales soared and Ford put a stunning 57,195 Thunderbird coupes and 10,261 convertibles on the road this model year.

Yet another new grille came with the 1960 Thunderbird's appearance — this one an egg-crate style similar to the '58's, but with a larger egg crate imposed atop it. There were also trim changes along the car's flanks and a third taillight was added to each side. New to the car was a manually operated sunroof available as an option on hardtop versions. Sales took off again with Ford building an incredible 80,938 Thunderbird coupes and 11,860 convertibles during this model year.

When your company sells 92,798 cars under a brand name that three years earlier had been proud to sell 21,380, Ford's executives could only feel one way about the move from two- to four-seat Thunderbirds: vindicated.

Third Generation (1961-1963): "Bullet Birds"

The third Thunderbird was bigger, longer, wider, lower and one of the great signature designs of the 1960s. Stylistically related to the also new-for-1961 Lincoln Continental — the resemblance is most apparent in the grille, headlights and shared cowl — the 1961 Thunderbird was constructed around a new unibody structure with A-arms and coil springs making up the front suspension and the solid axle on leaf springs. With clean flanks and a nose that came to a sharp point, the car had an almost ballistic urgency and "Bullet Bird" was the name that stuck.

Once again the T-Bird was available as both a hardtop coupe and convertible. The coupe's formal roof was a bit discordant with the car's sleek lower body, but with the top down the convertible simply looked fantastic. Both were powered by a 300-hp version of Ford's new 390-cubic-inch V8 backed by a three-speed automatic transmission.

Inside, the new T-Bird took the concept of a wraparound cockpit to its logical extreme with a dashboard that curved at its ends to flow into the door panels. Getting into or out of the driver bucket seat was made easier (if not simpler) by a steering wheel that swung out of the way.

"Inadequate provision for luggage is the new Thunderbird's only serious fault and is a natural consequence of one of the car's greatest overall virtues, small overall size," wrote Motor Trend at the time — and indicating how what was considered small back then is big indeed today. "The idea of a luxurious, sophisticated design on a short wheelbase remains exclusive with Ford." Yes, the 113.2-inch wheelbase was relatively modest, but the car's overall length was hardly petite (the rear overhang was huge). And at nearly 2 tons, that 300-hp engine could only manage to push the car to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds according to Motor Trend.

The two-seat T-Bird returned (sort of) with the introduction of the "Sports Roadster" package for 1962 that covered over the rear seats with a stylish fiberglass tonneau that incorporated raised seatbacks for both the remaining seats. The tonneau was complex, expensive and, when the weather got nasty, a chore with which to deal if the driver wanted to put up the top. So only a few were built. And a small number of those were equipped with the new optional "M-Code" version of the 390 V8, which made 340 hp and was equipped with three two-barrel carburetors.

Some slight trim changes and a new vinyl-roofed "Landau" option were the only other changes for '62, and sales remained strong with 68,127 coupes and 9,844 convertibles being built and sold.

A new grille texture and three hash marks on each door were the most apparent changes to the 1963 Thunderbird line which otherwise carried forward intact — including the Landau and Sports Roadster. A total of 55 cars were equipped with M-Code option and of those 37 were Sports Roadsters. The M-Code Sports Roadster is generally considered the most collectible Thunderbird made since the original '55 to '57 models.

Though sales were still solid during '63, Ford was ready to redesign the Thunderbird once again.

Fourth Generation (1964-1966): "Jet Birds"

If the third-generation "Bullet Birds" brought style to the four-seat Thunderbird, the fourth generation was an expansion on that start — more an evolution of style than a whole new invention.

Where the Bullet Birds were rounded, the next-generation "Jet Birds" (or "Sculpted Birds") were squared off and sharp. The proportions, however, were similar in silhouette with both a long hood and a long trunk over a relatively short 113.2-inch wheelbase. Dual headlights, a low-placed sweeping grille and upright windshield all were similar to the Bullet Bird, but the deeply sculptured sides were new as were the large rear taillights. In fact those taillights would become the new Thunderbird's signature innovation — but not during '64.

Both coupe and convertible models continued with the 1964 Thunderbird and the separate Landau model also carried forward. However, the Sports Roadster was gone. Two versions of Ford's 390-cubic-inch V8 were available both topped by Holley four-barrel carburetors. The base 390 used one Holley and a 10.0-to-1 compression ratio to make 300 hp while the optional high-performance version ran 10.5-to-1 compression and two Holleys and was rated at 330 hp. Both were backed by a three-speed automatic transmission.

"One additional item that should accompany milady when she drives her Thunderbird downtown for a shopping spree is an auto club membership," wrote Motor Trend. "Should a tire go flat, few women would be able to wrestle the heavy spare wheel and tire out of its high resting place or over the trunk's high lip…Ford's Thunderbird fills its intended purpose. It's a real prestige four-seater. Granted it's not everyone's cup of tea, but for bird lovers, it's the 'only way to fly.' Flight plans, anyone?"

Sales were strong once again with Ford building 92,465 Thunderbirds during this model year.

The taillights became spectacular for 1965 as they gained sequential operation. Each taillight was divided into three segments which, when the turn signal was turned on, would light sequentially in the appropriate direction — quite a show. New reversed scoops appeared in each front fender and there were a few other trim tweaks, but the car was otherwise virtually unchanged from before. The drivetrains also carried forward though the front wheels now sat outboard of disc brakes. Despite the fascinating taillights, sales drooped to 74,972 Thunderbirds.

Though the basic body shell remained intact, the 1966 Thunderbird was extensively restyled with a new, tight egg-crate pattern grille, and the two taillights were now connected into one massive piece of plastic. Generally speaking, it was the best-looking of fourth-generation T-Birds.

It was also — at least potentially — the quickest. While the base 390 V8 was now restricted by a two-barrel carburetor to 275 hp, a 315-hp version with a four-barrel was optional and a new 428-cubic-inch V8 with a four-barrel carb making 345 hp optional.

The '66 T-Bird sold a so-so 69,176 units but was destined for fame. A quarter-century later, it was a '66 Thunderbird convertible that Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff into oblivion in the film that wore their names as the title.

The next Thunderbird would take the car in an entirely new direction.

Fifth Generation (1967-1971): "Big Birds"

Unibody construction was abandoned as the all-new 1967 Thunderbird was now built on the ladder frame similar to (and on the same massive scale) as that under the full-size Fords. Some styling cues carried forward from the '66, including the large rear taillights, but many traditional Thunderbird elements like the phony hood scoop were gone. And, for the first time, no convertible was offered…and a four-door sedan was.

Sitting on a 115-inch wheelbase when it was a two-door and a 117-inch span when it was the four-door Landau sedan, the overwhelming styling element of the '67 Thunderbird was its massive blunt and oblong front grille with hidden headlights and a giant Thunderbird spreading its wings from side to side. The chassis was straightforward Ford with double A-arms in front and solid rear axle all suspended on coil springs.

No '67 Thunderbird weighed less than 4,200 pounds with the four-door (with Lincoln-style suicide doors) crushing the planet with 4,348 pounds of Ford fowl. But the selection of 390- and 428-cubic-inch power plants from '66 continued forward unchanged, so acceleration was muted.

The 1968 Thunderbird was a carryover of '67 with minor trim variations and new wheel covers. The 1969 edition featured another slight variation in trim with the front grille now divided by three vertical bars and the taillights redesigned.

A clever redesign disguised the fact that the 1970 Thunderbird was mostly a carryover from '69. A new nose with a pointed prow and exposed headlamps updated the front, while new taillights that seemed to droop at the ends brought up the rear. The hardtop had semifastback styling while the two- and four-door Landaus were more formal and had vinyl on their roofs. Sales totaled 50,364 Thunderbirds.

The 1971 Thunderbird was only barely updated from '70 with a new brighter grille and other slight trim variations. Sales sunk to 36,055 units as Ford was preparing a new — even bigger — car for the next year.

Sixth Generation (1972-1976): "Bigger Birds"

For all intents and purposes the 1972 Thunderbird and Lincoln's Mark IV were the same car with a scant few superficial differences. And that car was huge.

Riding on a 120.4-inch wheelbase and stretching out a monstrous 214 inches overall, the '72 Thunderbird was a full 38.7 inches longer than the original '55 edition and at 4,420 pounds it weighed in 1,460 pounds heavier. Available only as a two-door hardtop coupe, the Thunderbird had doors about the size of a county in Kansas and a hood so long it was rated a par five by the PGA. Parking was best accomplished by a trained harbor pilot with the help of three or four good tugboats.

Virtually all the traditional Thunderbird styling cues were banished from this generation. The centered and formal grille was framed by dual headlights on either side and virtually all T-Birds now had a vinyl top over a thick C-pillar that produced massive blind spots to either side. The full-width rear taillight was about the only element that tied this 'Bird to previous editions. And virtually all the luxury equipment that came on the Mark IV was aboard the T-Bird as well.

Built on a huge ladder frame with conventional double A-arm front suspension and a solid axle in the rear on coil springs, the '72 T-Bird wasn't in the least sporting. The standard engine was a 429-cubic-inch V8 that, thanks to the strangling effect of primitive emissions technology, was rated at a puny 212 hp. The optional V8 displaced 460 cubic inches and was rated at 224 hp. So despite the greatest displacement yet seen in a production Ford car of any sort, this new T-Bird was not quick.

But in the early '70s — before the fuel crises to come — this was a car America wanted and Ford sold 57,814 of them during the model year.

Trim changes, including new fender edge front turn signals, were part of the 1973 Thunderbird, but the essential car was barely changed. The most appreciated change was the adoption of a trapezoidal opera window in the C-pillar that added some needed visibility. For no apparent reason, sales spiked up to 87,269 Thunderbirds.

New bumpers built to meet federal 5-mph standards stretched the 1974 Thunderbird to a staggering 225 inches long overall. Also the 460-cubic-inch V8 was now standard but its power rating slipped to just 215 hp. Throw in some more trim and a fuel crisis, and sales fell to 58,443 units.

Four-wheel disc brakes were part of the Thunderbird package for 1975, but other changes were limited to trim modifications (half vinyl roofs were available!). Despite the adoption of a catalytic converter, output of the gargantuan 460 V8 actually rose 3 hp for a total of 218. Sales slumped again to 42,685 cars.

Trim changes were about the only distinguishing factors on the 1976 T-Bird. But Ford found another 52,935 buyers for the car despite its 4,808-pound base curb weight.

However, while Ford was selling those 52,935 '75 Thunderbirds it was also pushing out 146,473 units of its "Elite" midsize personal luxury coupe. Maybe the next Elite didn't need to be an Elite at all…and maybe the next Thunderbird didn't need to be a Lincoln.

Seventh Generation (1977-1979): "Torino Birds"

Ford redesigned its midsize cars for 1977 and in the process the Torino name was exchanged for "LTD II" and the Elite personal luxury car was replaced with a new car bearing the name Thunderbird. While the sheet metal was new on all of Ford's midsize machines, the basic structure and engineering elements were still derived from the Torino and the Fairlane that preceded it.

Midsize back in the '70s would be considered very large in the 21st century, but the move to the smaller platform produced a profoundly smaller Thunderbird than the car that wore the name the year before. Now riding on a 114-inch wheelbase, the '77 T-Bird was now 215.5 inches long overall — nearly 10 inches shorter than before. And at 3,907 pounds, its base curb weight was done just over 900 pounds. Beyond that the base price dropped from $7,790 to $5,063 — albeit at lower equipment levels. What wasn't down was interior room that, in many critical dimensions, actually went up.

Mechanically the '77 T-Bird was strictly conventional with a double A-arm front suspension and a solid rear axle on coil springs. The base V8 was now Ford's 302-cubic-inch small-block V8 equipped with a two-barrel carburetor rated at just 137 hp. Two versions of Ford's 351-cubic-inch "Windsor" and "Cleveland" small-block V8s were optional and rated at 149 and 161 hp, respectively, and there was a 400-cubic-inch small-block rated at 173 hp. All '77 T-Birds were equipped with three-speed automatic transmissions.

Handsomely clean in its styling with hidden headlamps, and a small opera window in the B-pillar just forward of a large trailing edge side window, the new Thunderbird was firmly planted in the mainstream of the midsize personal luxury car market against such cars as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix and Chrysler Cordoba. And it was a huge hit with Ford making a simply stunning 318,140 of them during this model year — more than tripling the sales of any previous year's Thunderbird.

There were a few trim changes and special-edition models like the "Diamond Jubilee" Thunderbird for 1978, but otherwise the car carried over pretty much as it was in '77. The result was another record sales year with 333,767 T-Birds finding homes.

A new grille with thick crosshatch bars was the most obvious change to the 1979 edition of the Thunderbird. There were revised taillights as well as a few tweaks to the engines, but the status quo was otherwise retained. A solid 284,141 units were sold.

By the measure that matters most to a car company — sales — the midsize Thunderbird was a simply staggering success. And Ford was going to keep the car in that class with the next-generation machine. That would prove problematic, however.

Eighth Generation (1980-1982): "Fairmont Birds"

Ford's Fox platform was introduced during the '78 model year on the Fairmont compact replacement for the Maverick and a cleaved-down version of the Fox would underpin the Mustang all the way from '79 to 2004. But the first application of the Fox structure to the T-Bird was thoroughly disappointing.

All Fox platform vehicles were unibody structures with modified MacPherson strut front suspension and a solid rear axle on coil springs. While the Fox was a flexible platform, it was significantly smaller than the '79 T-Bird so the 1980 T-Bird would be smaller, too. That meant a 108.4-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 200.4 cubic inches — bigger than the Fairmont but down 5.6 inches in wheelbase, 14.6 inches in overall length from before. The new Thunderbird was also about 900 pounds lighter and rated to carry only four people instead of the previous six.

Unfortunately Ford retained most of the big-car styling elements for the new T-Bird and the formal upright grille, massive taillights and thick roof all looked awkward on the smaller car. Beyond that the standard power plant was now a 255-cubic-inch version of the Ford small-block V8 that made a pokey 115 hp. The only optional engine was the formerly standard 302 V8 carrying a two-barrel carb and rated at 131 hp. The 255 was quite simply the worst V8 Ford had ever built and rightly shunned by most buyers. The 302 was better, and it was helped along by the four-speed automatic to which it was lashed, but not great. The new smaller T-Bird was simply boring to drive.

Despite the presence of such options as Recaro front seats and a suspension tuned around Michelin's TRX tires, the new boxy Bird was soundly rejected by the marketplace. Sales crashed down to just 156,803 units — less than half what Ford had sold just two years previously.

So Ford compounded the problem in 1981 by offering a six-cylinder engine in the Thunderbird that year — the first time in the car's history something other than a V8 was available. Offered as a credit option (the price was dropped down from the standard T-Bird if the six was ordered), the 200-cubic-inch inline six was a version of Ford's ancient design and made just 88 hp. Obviously the six-cylinder '81 T-Bird was a simply awful package.

Recognizing mediocrity when it saw it, buyers continued to flee from the Thunderbird during this model year and sales collapsed to 86,693 cars.

Unbelievably the car got even worse for 1982 as the six became the standard engine, a new 3.8-liter OHV V6 making 112 hp was offered as an option and the only available V8 was the lousy 255. There were also some trim changes, but the public stayed away in droves and sales plummeted to just 45,152 units.

Something had to be done. But no one was expecting what Ford would do.

Ninth Generation (1983-1986): "Aero Birds"

Ford knew it had to do something radical to save the Thunderbird and that arrived in the form of the obviously aerodynamic 1983 model. Styled first and foremost with aerodynamic efficiency in mind, the new T-Bird was slick and sleek in a way no previous Thunderbird — or Ford for that matter — had ever been. And it set the style for Ford products throughout the '80s.

But under the new sheet metal, the Thunderbird still used the ubiquitous Fox platform. That was no bad thing really, as it was at least as good as the structure upon which the T-Bird's direct competitors were based. The wheelbase was now down to 104 inches and overall length to 197.6 inches. The standard power plant was now the 3.8-liter V6 making 110 hp and optional was the 302 V8 (now expressed as a 5.0-liter even though its displacement was closer to 4.9 liters) making 130 hp and fitted with electronic fuel injection.

There was, however, a third Thunderbird power plant available in the new "Turbo Coupe." This was a turbocharged and electronically fuel-injected version of Ford's 2.3-liter, OHC four making 142 hp. Mated to a five-speed manual transmission (the first ever in a T-Bird), the turbo four wasn't overwhelming in the more than 3,000-pound Thunderbird, but it successfully retrieved some of the sporting heritage that had been missing from the line since at least the '63 Sports Roadster. And it quickly developed a cult following that continues today.

The aerodynamic T-Bird was a hit, even if it didn't recover the enormous sales of the '77 to '79 editions. Ford sold 121,999 of them during the first model year.

Some model names were modified and there were trim changes, but the 1984 Thunderbird was a virtual rerun of the '83. Sales grew stronger with Ford putting 170,533 into customers' garages.

Better boost control thumped the output of the Turbo Coupe's four to 155 hp for 1985 and there were new taillights and other tweaks to the Thunderbird line. But those were all minor and sales dipped slightly to 151,851 units.

The Thunderbird got a new center high-mounted stoplight (CHMSL) like every other 1986 model car sold in the U.S., but other changes were slight. The 5.0-liter V8 now used multipoint fuel injection that brought its output up to 150 hp, but the other engines carried forward unchanged. Sales rebounded slightly to 163,695 Thunderbirds.

Besides its success in the showroom, the aerodynamic Thunderbird proved an amazing success on NASCAR racetracks with competitors like Bill Elliott (who won 11 races during 1985) driving it to unheard of speeds. At the 1986 Winston 500 at Alabama International Speedway in Talladega, Elliott qualified his T-Bird on the pole with a shocking 212.229 mph qualifying speed. In fact only one car would ever be a quicker stock car…the next T-Bird.

10th Generation (1987-1988): "Even More Aerodynamic Birds"

While the change between the '86 and 1987 Thunderbirds wasn't particularly radical at first glance, in fact all the sheet metal was new, the headlights now were aerodynamically shaped, the side glass now fit essentially flush with the doors and the Turbo Coupe now had vents in the hood and a new real front grille. It was an evolutionary step forward from the previous T-Bird and it was undeniably handsome.

But not much changed underneath the car as the Fox platform chassis carried through essentially unmodified. The base 3.8-liter V6 now had fuel injection and made 120 hp while the optional 5.0-liter V8 continued to offer 150. Thanks to the fitment of an intercooler, the Turbo Coupe's 2.3-liter four now ripped out 190 hp and was significantly more refined to drive. Sales of the '87 Thunderbird were solid at 128,135 units.

A new multipoint fuel-injection system boosted output of the 3.8-liter V6 to 140 hp for 1988, but other changes were slight and imperceptible. Sales bounced up to 147,243 units.

During qualifying for the 1988 Winston 500 at Talladega, Bill Elliott put his '88 T-Bird on the pole with a 212.809-mph run. But during that race Bobby Allison's Buick nearly went into the stands during a spectacular crash and NASCAR started fitting cars on their fastest tracks with power-limiting carburetor restrictor plates. So Elliott's 212.809 qualification run from way back then remains the quickest run ever by a NASCAR stock car. It may always be that way.

It was time for yet another T-Bird and this one would be the most technologically advance yet. And deeply controversial both inside and outside Ford.

11th Generation (1989-1997): "High Tech Birds"

At a time when many other cars were shrinking in size, the 1989 Thunderbird appeared significantly larger than its immediate predecessor and significantly more sophisticated in its engineering.

The all-new '89 T-Bird was truly all-new and the unibody structure was initially shared only with the car's Mercury Cougar near twin. This large car used a 113-inch wheelbase and was 1.6 inches wider than before. While overall length was actually down by 3.4 inches, the overall impression was of a much larger car. The suspension was, for the first time on a Thunderbird, an all-independent affair with short and long A-arms and coil springs up front and upper and lower arms in the back on coil springs. The big problem though was weight with the T-Bird coming in at 3,542 pounds in its lightest form — very porky. And there were no V8 engines around to push all that mass.

In fact the standard power plant was the 3.8-liter V6 used in the previous T-Bird and its 140 hp was severely taxed by the car's mass (the only transmission available with this engine was a four-speed automatic). A more engaging alternative was the new Thunderbird Super Coupe which replaced the Turbo Coupe and used a version of the 3.8-liter V6 fitted with an Eaton Roots-style supercharger that made 210 hp and was available hooked either to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. "The Thunderbird levels its competition," wrote Motor Trend while naming the Super Coupe its car of the year for 1989. "Nothing else in the price range offers the same irresistible blend of sporting performance and solid luxury." Ford sold a total of 107,996 Thunderbirds during this year.

But despite Motor Trend's accolade, the Thunderbird came in overweight, over budget and it was too expensive to build. Inside Ford, heads rolled as the car's development became a case study in how not to develop a new vehicle.

Except for the introduction of a special-edition 35th Anniversary model of the Super Coupe with specific paint and wheels, little changed for the 1990 Thunderbird. Sales dipped slightly to 104,602 cars.

Thanks to a rush development program, the 5.0-liter V8 returned to the Thunderbird during the 1991 model year. Available in the upmarket LX model, the fuel-injected 5.0-liter was now rated at 200 hp and mated to the familiar four-speed automatic transmission. Otherwise the T-Bird was very much a carryover product and sold 77,688 units.

A redesigned front bumper, slightly tweaked taillights and new paint colors came along with the 1992 Thunderbird. But not much else changed and sales stalled at 73,892 cars.

The base Thunderbird was excised from the 1993 model lineup and the car was now available either as an LX with either the 3.8-liter V6 or 5.0-liter V8, or as a Super Coupe with the supercharged version of the V6 aboard. Sales rebounded impressively this year with 129,712 units finding homes — or increasingly a spot in rental fleets.

Dual airbags were standard equipment in the 1994 Thunderbird that also featured a new front fascia with a slight wedge shape and the suggestion of a grille opening. Ford's SOHC, 4.6-liter V8 replaced the 5.0-liter V8 and offered 205 hp and much more refined manners. Sales were a solid 120,320 units. During a carryover 1995 model year, another 114,823 were built.

The Super Coupe didn't live to see 1996 as the Thunderbird line was reduced just to the LX model with either the 3.8-liter V6 or 4.6-liter V8. Sales dropped to 85,029 cars.

There was a new instrument cluster in the 1997 Thunderbird plus some new colors and a new deck lid spoiler, but the car itself was obviously doomed as Ford shifted its concentration to the increasingly profitable SUVs and trucks. After building another 73,814 Thunderbirds, Ford shut down the production line after 43 model years. And that was that. Right?

12th Generation (2002-2005): Retro Birds

At the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford displayed a concept car that brought the Thunderbird back to its roots as an open two-seat roadster. The response Ford got was electric and three years later it had a production version ready for public consumption.

"The 2002 Thunderbird is meant to recapture the romance of the original while simultaneously looking to the future," wrote our Erin Riches on first encountering the reincarnated 'Bird. "Rather than create a replica of the '50s classic, designers incorporated distinctive Golden Age design cues into an overall modernistic shape. The new 'Bird's 186.3-inch overall length is 11 inches longer than the original 1955 model, and it, too, features a short front overhang, reverse wedge shape — which makes the car appear taller in front than in back — and egg-crate grille. A decorative hood scoop, round head- and taillights, understated chrome chevrons and an available removable hardtop with porthole windows tie the 2002 version beyond a doubt to the classic T-Birds of the late '50s."

The substance of the new Thunderbird was a chopped-down version of the chassis and mechanical components used in the midsize Lincoln LS sedan. That included its all-independent suspension, 3.9-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8 making a modest 252 hp, and five-speed automatic transmission. John DiPietro wrote our full test and observed "[t]hat same heft that blunts off-the-line acceleration may be to thank for this convertible's impressively solid structure. Bounding over potholed and tar-stripped roads in Greater Los Angeles elicited barely any cowl shake from the T-Bird. We did notice some occasional squeaking coming from the front seats and the dash, a quality that doesn't belong in a near-$40,000 automobile. In its defense, this was an early production car that had been subjected to a long tour of duty as a press car, and we all know that means this poor car hasn't been treated with kid gloves….

"Nope, this car is not about driving hard. Rather, it's about destressing by putting the top down, throwing in a Beatles or Beach Boys CD, taking a long, scenic ride and going back to a time when pleasures were much simpler than they are today."

While the initial mania for the new Thunderbird was intense, that mania quickly cooled. By 2003 the T-Bird was in plentiful supply and by 2004 Ford had announced that it would leave production. And it will after the 2005 model year.

It seems that two-passenger T-Birds weren't a sustainable business proposition in the '50s. And they aren't in the 21st century, either.

Hi there! This archived History article is a snapshot from a previous era. If you enjoyed reading it, please see our full model overview, which has up-to-date information and links to the latest model years.


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