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.
Iconic fifties car
Interest has begun to wane
Some restored F-Birds may not be authentic
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 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 2,850lbs, 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 selections.
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 automatic.
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 produced.
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 225hp 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 292ci 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" 312ci 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 292ci V8 carried the letter "C", while the very popular 312ci 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.
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.
Thanks to Ford and a number of specialty 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.
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 and 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 culprits.
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.
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.
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 double the 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.
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 credible report of an F-series 1957 model trading hands in a private sale for nearly $200,000.
2016 update article
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review
(C) Copyright 2003- VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the November 2003 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide.