The conventional wisdom says that the original Ford Thunderbird was a direct response to Chevrolet's introduction of the Corvette. The Corvette was shown at the 1953 Motorama, and immediately Ford designers pulled out their drafting pencils and went to work. But the real story is that the Ford Thunderbird was just the kind of car that many designers dream about, so when the official call to work on a two-seater came from management Ford designers just reached into their desk drawers.
The fact is, if you were an automobile designer in the early Fifties and you didn't know about the sports car craze, you had to have been spending too many nights in the styling dome. It was an era when exciting two-seaters were appearing everywhere.
The British led the parade with the MG-TC and the Jaguar XK-120. Ferry Porsche was fighting against incredible odds to establish his new sports car in war-ravaged Germany. Enzo Ferrari had finally begun to build sports cars bearing his name in Italy, and in America, Frank Kurtis and Powell Crosley each contributed their own unique sports cars to the mix. Every one of these cars was being sold in America by 1951, when Lewis Crusoe, Ford Division general manager, inquired about starting a two-seater program of his own.
Frank Hershey was the designer at the other end of that call, and he and one of his assistants, William P. "Bill" Boyer, were ready, willing and able to respond. Hershey was a Detroit native, who had worked at the famous Walter Murphy coachbuilding firm, at General Motors under the fabled Harley Earl, and at Packard before finally joining Ford Motor Company. While at GM he put the famous "Silver Streaks" on the hoods of the 1935 Pontiacs. He'd also served at Opel immediately prior to World War II and at GM's advanced design unit after the war, so he was well-acquainted with the European trends and leading edge design.
According to Hershey, when the summons came from Crusoe he and his team even had a back room clay model nearing completion, but the Ford division two-seater program didn't get an official okay until the Motorama Corvette concept car appeared. Then the designers really were off and running.
By June 1952 Boyer had submitted a sketch that bore uncanny similarity to the final version of the 1955 Thunderbird. Virtually all the distinguishing features were in place in Boyer's sketch, including the broad egg-crate grille, fender louvers and hood scoop. Extending from the fender louvers was the distinct "character line" that ran back to the tail to help define tastefully modest fins. The only major difference between the sketch and the eventual production car came in the windshield treatment. The sketch shows two tiny, competition-type windscreens was the car that was eventually built offered the de rigeur Fifties wrap-around windshield.
Though the Boyer sketch labeled the vehicle the Ford sports car, Ford's version of what constituted a sports car was certainly different from that of Ferry Porsche or Enzo Ferrari. Hershey knew that the two-seater would be relatively expensive, at least by Ford standards, so he knew he had to cater to the tastes of well-to-do Americans. Because of that, he made certain that the car had a more refined, tasteful look than the run-of-the-mill Fords of the era, which were be-decked with substantial amounts of chrome. Hershey told one interviewer that he wanted the Thunderbird to be a car a banker could drive with dignity.
What Hershey was doing without knowing it was inventing a whole new class of cars - the "personal luxury" class. Such cars have a sportier feel that sedans, but they are not all-out sports cars.
While the 1954-55 Corvette chased after the sports car ethos circa 1953 with its side curtains and lack of exterior door handles, the Ford Thunderbird offered standard American car amenities like roll-up windows and a reliable, fold-down convertible top. And the Thunderbird was built of stamped steel, not fiberglass like the Corvette. When one got up close and personal, the Thunderbird was much less like a sports car, and much more like a mid-Fifties American convertible that happened to have one row of seats instead of two. For that reason alone, some would despise the car while others would love it.
One thing Ford partisans didn't have to worry about was adequate power. While GM engineers working on the early Corvettes struggled to make the stovebolt six provide sports car performance, Ford engineers simply dropped in their big V-8. In Thunderbird trim the engine delivered about 195 horsepower, and it could be backed up by either a three-speed manual or Ford-O-Matic transmission.
With a big, easily hot-rodded V-8 under the hood, Thunderbird drivers were able to out-perform Blue Flame Six Corvettes, at least in a straight line, and give the early small-block V-8 'Vettes a run for their money. Top speed in stock trim was around 115 miles per hour, and the car could sprint through the quarter mile in about 17 seconds.
The Thunderbird's handling, however, wasn't nearly as good as the Corvettes. Of course, that's not surprising when one considers that the Ford car weighed about 800 pounds more than the Corvette and that many of its key suspension components came from the Ford station wagon.
On a fast track, at least in terms of development, the Thunderbird debuted in wood mock-up form at the February 1954 Detroit Auto Show, just a year after the program had received the official go-ahead. On September 9 that year the first production Thunderbird rolled of the Dearborn assembly line.
If the Thunderbird was no match for its Chevrolet competitor as an all-around sports car, it was more than a match for it in the showroom sales race. Priced $500 less than its rival and equipped with more amenities, the 1955 Thunderbird out-sold the Corvette by nearly four-to-one. It became a solid success in its first year, while the Corvette struggled on the edge of cancellation until V-8 power and the 1956 restyle put it on solid ground.
As to the Thunderbird, it would enjoy two more solid years - 1956 and 1957 - as a two-seater before Ford created the four-seat "Squarebird" version for 1958. Though an artistic dud compared with its predecessors, the '58 Thunderbird really set the sales pace afire. Nearly 50,000 were sold in 1958 alone, dwarfing the sales of the two-seat versions.
It was the 1955-57 Thunderbirds, however, that have won the hearts of the world's car collectors and it was those models that set the stage for the growth of the personal luxury car.