A New Role -- and Back Seat -- for the 'Bird
For many car folks, the Ford Thunderbird lost all of its appeal when the last two-passenger models were produced in
1957. However, for Ford Motor Company, the introduction of the 1958 Thunderbird was a profit maker from day one. When the new four-passenger "Square"
T-birds hit the market in the late winter of 1958, the United States was recovering from a major recession. The
new-car sales market was off for some makes by as much as 60%. However, when all the sales figures for the year were in, the new Thunderbird was one
of only two models to see a marked increase over 1957 model year performance. (The other was the Rambler American). When the relatively expensive
Thunderbird was released, production could not keep up with demand. In its first model year, the newly expanded T-bird nearly outsold the 1956 and
1957 model years combined! For 1959, production increased by nearly 40% over the 1958 totals, and while three-year models usually saw a dip in numbers
in the last season, the 1960 model year boosted its sales by another 40% over 1959's record year.
For the first time, the T-bird was offered in two distinct body styles: a hardtop and a convertible.
Due to initial body build-up problems, the convertible in 1958 was delayed, which makes this model the rarest for these three years. These Square-birds
were Fords first use of unibody construction. (body shell and chassis being built as one integral
unit). Assembled at the new Wixom, Michigan, facility where new Lincolns and Continentals were also produced, these were the most expensive cars up to that time to carry the Ford name. The Wixom plant took pride in its product, focusing on quality rather than quantity. The fit and finish was
superior to that of other cars.
ENGINEERING AND FEATURES
A positive feature of the 1958 Thunderbird was the new
352 cid V-8 rated at 300 horsepower. While the standard transmission was a three-speed manual, nearly all of these cars were equipped with the new Cruise-O-Matic automatic shifter. Standard equipment was limited to the basics: padded dash and sun-visors, "deep-dish" steering wheel, inside rear-view mirror, and an electric clock. Options included Magic-Aire heater and defroster (or the Select-Aire heater and air conditioning), lots of power equipment such as windows, seats, steering, and brakes. Also considered as options were the exterior fender shields, exterior rear view mirrors, and full wheel covers.
Underneath, coil springs served at all four corners for 1958. Engineering had hoped to have had an air-cushioned suspension ready for production,
but it never came to light on the T-bird. The 1958 convertible possesses a rather curious characteristic for a luxury car. Unlike most full-size cars of the day, the top was not power operated, but rather required the manual assistance of at least one
person. On the inside, the 1958 T-birds used vinyl bolsters with a choice of vinyl or linen fabric inserts, but no leather. Deep loop color keyed rayon carpets were standard in both the hardtop and convertibles. Convertible top colors were limited to black or
white. In 1959, several improvements were available for Thunderbird buyers. A new optional 430 cid V-8 with 350 hp topped the list. Leather seat fronts were also offered as an extra cost option this year, as was a factory issued continental rear spare tire
kit. The third year of the "Square" birds looked very similar to the early versions. However, under the sheet metal was a number of changes and some very interesting optional and standard items added. The convertible top was now operated hydro-electrically. Another major improvement for 1960 was the use of leaf springs for the rear axle. This greatly improved the ride and handling ability of these cars, a plus for those who plan to drive these sporty, personal luxury
Fords. One of the most interesting options was the availability of the first factory sunroof for a post-war Ford. There were a total of 2,536 T-bird hardtops equipped in 1960. The offering of the 430 cid V-8 continued this year, as did leather seating surfaces and a full assortment of power
accessories. When the last 1960 Ford Thunderbird rolled off the Wixom assembly line in September 1960, a total of 198,146 "Square-birds" had been produced. Thats a ratio of better than three to one when compared to the "little" two-passenger units from 1955 to 1957.
To the untrained eye the 1958-1959-1960 Thunderbirds look pretty much the same. However, there are a number of exterior
trim cues to distinguish one from another.1958-Honeycomb pattern mesh grille, five chrome "hash" marks on the door bullets, "Thunderbird" script on
front fenders, two taillights with honeycomb pattern background, and the round medallion on hardtop "C" pillars. 1959-Eight horizontal chrome bars in
grille, chrome arrows on leading edge of the door bullets, "Thunderbird" scripts moved to the doors, two taillights with horizontal bar pattern
background, and the winged Thunderbird logo on hardtop "C" pillars.1960-Egg-crate mesh grille with chrome center bar, three sets of three chrome hash
marks on rear quarter panels, three taillights with egg-crate pattern, horizontally spread winged T-bird logo on hardtop "C" pillars.
(Note: the rear quarter panel
hash marks at the start of the model year were attached with body screws. These were later changed to pins retained by barrel clips. Also the 1959 style wheelcovers were retained.)
TAKING THE BIRDS TO MARKET
Often held in the shadows of the little two-passenger models, the Square T-birds in recent years have seen unparalleled
interest from collectors around the world. Most popular are the convertibles, with the 1960 model being the most highly prized due to its automated
top mechanism. Prices in recent years for top examples have been in the $30,000 range, which is equal and in some cases surpasses comparable 1955 to
1957 models. Sunroof models from 1960, especially those with the 430 cid V-8, are highly sought after. They have been trading in the $15,000 to
$18,000 range for well-restored examples. Mechanically, these cars are very reliable, but the prospective buyer should still ask for a test drive.
Probably the weakest spot on these cars is the coil spring front suspension. Fatigue and wear of the components can become apparent with a simple road
test. A quick stop from under ten miles per hour with both hands firmly planted on the wheel, can detect shift and vibrations and can reveal possible
loose parts in the front end related to steering or braking. While not available from the factory, one popular option seen on many of these
"Square-Birds" are wire wheels. Based on a 52-spoke design on 14" rims, these do not seem to hurt the value even for those looking to strict authentic
COLLECTING THE SQUARE BIRDS
As the American economy continues to be very healthy, all collector cars are enjoying a
strong market. The 1958 to 1960 Ford Thunderbirds may find their share of the growth to be a bit larger than many other cars. Their unique styling, dependable mechanics, and interesting
features -- such as an early electric sunroof -- attract collectors to these cars.
Due to the unibody construction of these cars, careful inspection of the body and under-carriage should be made. Check for possible repairs, especially under the hood where inner fender shields have been welded together. Be aware of rust-out repairs, especially in the rocker panels, luggage compartment, floor, and door bottoms. Rear axle coil spring mounts on the 1958 and 1959 models should also be carefully
inspected. Proper engine installation should be checked with the cars vehicle identification number, or
1958-Engine code first digit of VIN H=352 cid/300 hp V-8, 4-barrel
1959-Engine code first digit of VIN H=325 cid/300 hp V-8, 4-barrel
intake; J=430 cid/350 hp V-8, 4-barrel intake.
1960-Engine code fifth digit of VIN Y=352 cid/300 hp V-8, 4-barrel
intake; J=430 cid/350 hp V-8, 4-barrel
Due to the rising popularity of these vehicles, the reproduction of interior and exterior trim items, as well as mechanical parts, have been on the increase for the past few years. Complete front-end rebuild kits, including new coil springs, padded dash boards, and even gas tanks can be found in the pages of magazines that specialize with these
cars. Probably the biggest plus about the "Square-birds" is the same factor that made them a success when they were
new -- they're stylish, and there is room enough for mom and dad, and a couple of kids too!
- end -
A 1960 model with the vertical hash
marks at the rear