By the early 1950s, the American car
market was being treated to new innovations and radical styling changes
at every turn. Bigger, more powerful V8 engines, "jet-age" styling, and
futuristic accessories were constantly being introduced. Clearly, the
trend was to bigger, more comfortable and faster, and not to more
nimble. That void was filled by an increasing number of imported
vehicles. A wonderful selection of European sports cars provided a
sporty alternative to the bigger American offerings.
Several American companies made half-hearted attempts to enter this
growing segment of the market, such as the Nash-Healey, the Crosley
Super Sport and even the little independent from Willow Run,
Kaiser, got into the act with the handsome Darrin. Of course, the
most successful (eventually) of this breed was the Corvette from
Chevrolet. However, Corvettes had two problems. One, they were
produced in very small numbers, and two, the old "stove-bolt six" really
didn't do the car justice.
Not to be left behind, Ford entered this personal sports car market in
the fall of 1954 with its own version of a two-passenger roadster, the
Thunderbird. With sleek styling and good looks that were shared with
full-size cars, this entry had something no one else did, a V8 engine
under the hood. But only briefly as the Corvette countered with its own
V8 later in 1955
The Thunderbird's body was constructed of stamped sheet metal, just like
the regular passenger cars in the line. Also unlike the Corvette, its
production numbers would not be limited to a few hundred cars, but to
thousands--as many as their dealers could sell.
Hailed by the press upon it release, the Ford Thunderbird was an instant
success. While in comparison to other Ford models it wasn't a volume
automobile, it did build showroom traffic and its shared styling
helped to sell thousands of Fairlane and Customline family sedans.
Round one clearly went to Ford.
| The T-Bird cut a sleek, classy profile.
spare out back was the big news for '56.
with the restyled front fascia
The first Thunderbirds featured body on
frame construction with a 102" wheelbase and an overall length of 175.3"
from bumper-to-bumper. Weighing in just under 2,850 lbs, they were also
the most expensive model starting at $2,944. Under the hood was a V8
engine of the "Y-block" family, sporting 292 cubic inches and rated at
193 horsepower @4,400 rpm. While this was not the most powerful V8 on
the market, the car sported one of the best hp-to-weight ratios around
and performance was peppy enough for most buyers. Not wanting to get
trapped by journalists and owners who would complain about the car's
less than stellar handling and speed, Ford choose to promote the car as
a "sporty personal car". Defining it this way, the press continued to
laud the vehicle and millions of customers came to the showroom to see
this exciting new vehicle from Ford.
Released in October 1954 as a 1955 model, it was initially offered in
just three colors, Raven Black, Torch Red or Thunderbird Blue. The sales
of these cars met and exceeded all projections, so in the early Spring
of 1955 Snowshoe White and Goldenrod Yellow were added to the
As with any motorcar of the day, the base price got you a pretty
stripped down vehicle. Options included radio, Magic-Aire
heater-defroster, and power equipment such as windows, steering and
brakes. Like the full-size Fords, these first year T-birds were equipped
with a six-volt positive ground system, and general mechanics were
shared between the two vehicle lines. While the base price included a
standard three-speed manual transmission, floor mounted shifter of
course, for a few dollars more one could opt for the Borg-Warner
supplied three-speed with overdrive or the three-speed Ford-O-Matic
Buyers could select either a manual folding disappearing soft-top, or a
removable fiberglass hardtop painted to match the body color of the car.
In a few rare cases, both tops could be ordered. By the end of the first
13-month selling season for the Thunderbird, a total of 16,155 had been
Featuring only a few minor styling up-grades, but plenty of new
features, the 1956 Thunderbird went on sale in early November 1955.
Under the hood, an enlarged V8 engine was optionally available, sporting
312 cubic inches and rated at 215 horses when backed with the manual or
overdrive transmissions, or 225 hp when the Ford-O-Matic was installed.
Also new was the switch to 12-volt negative ground electrics, another
improvement that Ford had lagged behind some of the competition with. In
the Spring of 1956, a dealer installed dual four-barrel intake option
was released, which boosted output to 245 horses.
Other touches included a revised front grille, taillights and interior
appointments, but the biggest difference for the 1956 Thunderbird was
the rear bumper mounted Sport-Tire Carrier, or continental kit. Some
liked it, some didn't, but it certainly didn't help the already
soft-handling 'Bird. Refinements included opening air vents in the front
fenders to help ventilate the passenger compartments and the
introduction of "porthole" style windows to the detachable hardtop,
which helped rearward lateral vision somewhat.
Also growing was the selection of exterior colors which grew to nine
including Raven Black, Colonial White, Fiesta Red, Buckskin Tan, Sunset
Coral, Goldenglow Yellow, Thunderbird Green, Thunderbird Gray metallic,
and Peacock Blue.
Technically, the 1956 model year for Thunderbird was only eleven months
long, which helps to explain the drop in production totals to 15,631.
Another explanation was the hefty price increase, to $3,151.
For its third year, the Thunderbird
received an attractive updating that kept its styling theme in line with
the full-size models. A wide open-mouth styled front grill was used
filled with a chrome plated squared mesh, and starting in the center of
a doors, a fashionable pair of fins topped the rear quarter panels. The
spare tire moved back into the trunk and an attractive rear-bumper
finished off the styling.
Inside the passenger compartment a redesigned instrument cluster and new
convenience options included two versions of power seats, four-way and
Memory-Matic, which would roll back and down whenever the car was turned
off, and would return to a pre-set location when the car was restarted.
While the addition of fun little extras is fodder for car buffs of
today, the real news for the 1957 Thunderbird was under the hood.
Included in the new base price of $3,408 was the Thunderbird 292 cid V8,
which could only be ordered with the manual three-speed transmission.
With either the overdrive or the Ford-O-Matic, the single four-barrel
312 cid V8 was on tap. Two very special engines were offered for the
1957 Thunderbird, the "E-code" 312 cid V8, which belted out 270 horses
and for those looking for a truly "hair-raising" experience, there was
the supercharged "F-code" Thunderbird engine, which sported 300 horses.
To clear up a little confusion, the terms E-code and F-code refer to the
letter at the start of the identification number which signifies the
engine installed at the factory. For 1957, the base 292 cid V8 carried
the letter "C", while the very popular 312 cid V8 with a single
four-barrel carburetor was identified by the letter "D" at the start in
the VIN. "E" represented the dual four-barrel set-up while "F" was for
the supercharged edition. According to surviving production records, it
has been found that only 212 of the 21,380 Thunderbird built for the
1957 model year were equipped with the "F-code" engine.
A very wide selection of colors was offered for the 1957 T-bird customer
to choose from, and while single-tone editions were quite popular, a
number of these were done in a two-tone combination with the removable
hardtop receiving the contrasting hue.
This was also the most popular model year for the Thunderbird due in
part to the acceptance by its customers and in part to its 15-month
model year. Ford planned to replace the two-seater with totally new
four-seat version for the 1958 model year, but due to assembly problems
on the new T-bird, it was decided to keep the 1957 model in production
for as long as possible. While the 1958 Fords went on sale in late
October 1957, the two-seat Thunderbird stayed in production until
December 13, 1957.
AN INSTANT CLASSIC
Almost from the day it went on sale, the two-seat Thunderbird was hailed
as a classic. By the mid-1960s, they were becoming a treasured vehicle
when other models of the same time period were nothing but old used
cars. By the early 1970s, several clubs had been established to
recognize these little Ford jewels and through their efforts, a lot of
these cars destined for the scrap yard were kept, saved and preserved.
Working with Ford, as well as a number of parts suppliers, nearly every
body and trim item produced for the 1955 to 1957 Thunderbird has been
available to restorers and owners for many years. Intensive research and
historical documentation of these cars has also helped owners and
collectors. In the mid-1970s, Lois Eminger, an employee of Ford Motor
Company, discovered that Ford was disposing of all the original orders
and invoices for the cars produced at the Dearborn assembly plant, where
all of the 1955 to 1957 T-birds were produced. She asked if she could
have just the T-Bird orders so they could be made available to the
Classic Thunderbird Club International members. Ford was more than glad
to help her, but said she had to take all of the invoices for each year
and weed through them for the T-birds herself.
At first this might have seemed like a simple task, but it soon became a
monumental chore. In addition to the 53,166 Thunderbirds built during
that time frame, nearly 400,000 other Ford products also came off those
lines. Unfortunately, 1955 production up to July 1, 1955, had already
been disposed of. However, through Lois Eminger's foresight of
historical preservation many production questions such as the number of
cars with F-code V8s for 1957, or the most popular versus least popular
paint colors could be researched. As a service to members of the CTCI,
their original invoices are available from Eminger for a nominal fee.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
When looking to buy a 1955, 1956, or 1957 Thunderbird, there are a
number of areas of concern. If you are looking for an authentic example,
the type of car that groups like
CTCI or the
Antique Automobile Club of
America award judging honors for, then take time to learn what is proper
for the particular model you want.
Common areas where changes occur include: 12-volt conversions for 1955
models, addition of after-market chrome wire wheels (an accessory that
was not offered, and not to be confused with wire-wheelcovers used in
conjunction with the base hubcaps, addition of air conditioning
(something not offered at all for these models), and non-authentic
colors and soft trim.
Body condition is always important and rust is the biggest determent to
these little sports cars. Using a unified body with no fender or
quarter-panel seams, repairs are not a simple matter of panel
replacement. As a result, a number of restored examples exhibit
less-than-perfect body work with rocker panels being one of the biggest
Mechanically, the Y-block V8 is a good design when properly maintained.
For those looking for authenticity, check the engine code on the data
plate with the engine on the car. A number of 1957 models have had the
dual four-barrel or superchargers added. Be sure that the engine code
corresponds to the engine. If the car has a replica data plate, check
out the frame numbers located on the top face of the right frame rail
just in front of the body mount.
For the purist, knowing the proper color and interior trim codes that
apply to these early Thunderbirds can be a major asset. There are
several publications and websites that can assist you.
THE MARKET TODAY
Since the early 1970s, Thunderbirds from 1955 to 1957 have been at the
top of collectors' lists. Prices have always been strong, with some of
the more desirable versions bringing exceptional money.
Considered a bonus by many T-bird owners and buyers are those models
equipped with what is commonly known as "two-tops", those having both
the folding soft top and removable hardtop. For 1957, a third option was
also offered with a snap-in tonneau cover and there were a few models
that came with all three varieties. Other popular items that were
actually accessories included radio, heater and fender skirts. While the
exterior spare tire carrier was standard with the 1956 models, 1957 did
offer a factory unit.
Most popular by far are the 1957 models, with their stylish fins, wide
selection of colors and options, and the uprated E- and F-code engines.
Even though the '57s are the most common by production, this is one more
example where "rare" and "valuable" are not synonymous.
Prices for the three models have fluctuated over the past decade and are
currently running at their highest points. Prices for outstanding
examples of 1955 models have been approaching the high $40,000 range,
while 1956 and 1957 models with a straight four-barrel V8 engines, have
been moving in on the $50,000 range.
For 1957 Thunderbirds with the "E-code" dual four-barrel set-up, prices
can jump 25% or more, while those with the "F-code" can add
value of the basic models. A premium for having both the soft top and
the hard top can range from $1,500 for decent drivers up to $3,000 for
fully restored editions. (Current values:
When new, a number of Thunderbirds were purchased by major celebrities.
When these cars can be documented, prices can escalate. To date the
highest price paid for a celebrity owned Thunderbird occurred on the
Barrett-Jackson auction block a couple of years back when a fully
restored Gunmetal Gray metallic 1956 model purchased new by Frank
Sinatra was hammered sold for $164,000! A sale like that, however,
really has no bearing on the T-Bird market in general. While this was very strong
money, we have a report of an F-series 1957 model trading hands in a
private sale for nearly $200,000.
In 1997, Ford discontinued the Thunderbird line, but left the door open
for a successor. In 2000, the Thunderbird prototype was unveiled and
everyone could immediately tie its design to the famous two-seaters from
1955 to 1957. Almost immediately, a renewed interest in the early
examples seemed to reverberate throughout the hobby. Many people who had
never considered owning one of these original classics took a new look
at an old friend. With the new 2002 T-birds unveiling at $34,000, it
made the price for originals look pretty good.
Prices should remain strong for all three model years of these cars.
With continued interest in American cars from the 1950s, plus the recent
announcement from Ford that the new Thunderbird will be discontinued
during the 2004 model year, a wider audience has been introduced to the
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car
Dual 4bbl "E" code 312ci V8
This profile first appeared in the
November 2003 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide