Hemmings on Early Birds

FEATURE ARTICLE from Hemmings Motor News

Used with Permission


Hemmings Motor News - FEBRUARY 1, 2006 - BY MARK J. MCCOURT

Picture, if you will, a 1953 Ford Fordor sedan, sliced in half at the B-pillar and welded together minus its entire rear door and rear quarter area. The rearmost portion of the roof, including the window, is awkwardly moved forward about three feet, and the entire car finished in a rough fashion. This homely car was christened the "Burnetti" after its creator, Ford engineer Bill Burnett, and was designed to simulate the packaging of a European sports car for American tastes; it was a major step towards creating what would become one of America's most beloved and most collectible two-seaters of all time-the original 1955-'56-'57 Ford Thunderbird.


Noting the burgeoning popularity of European sports cars and custom-built hot rods, Ford executives Lewis D. Crusoe and George Walker walked around the Paris auto show in 1951 to see what was new and hot in the car scene. Crusoe's desire to have Ford introduce their own factory sports/custom car was fortuitous, as they soon learned that Chevrolet was developing the two-seater that would become the 1953 Corvette. Other forces within Ford, including Ford Division director Franklin Hershey and Bill Boyer, one of the 1955 Thunderbird's stylists, were already at work after-hours and in secret on drawings and clay models when Crusoe's call came through. With so many forces converging together on a two-seat sporty model, the Thunderbird was destined to be a star.

It was decided that the first Thunderbirds would share as many standard Ford parts as possible to keep costs low, so it was fitted with a Mercury-derived V-8 engine, Ford station wagon running gear, full-sized "Jet Tube" Ford taillamps and instrument housing, and many more common parts. When the $2,944 1955 Thunderbird came to market, it sat on a 102-inch wheelbase with a petite, 175.3-inch length (full-sized Fords stretched to 115.5 and 198.5 inches) and outpriced the premium eight-passenger Country Squire station wagon by $452. It featured a standard removable 85-lb. fiberglass hardtop (whose 'blind' rear quarters were based on the roof of the Continental Mark II), as well as a tachometer, a vinyl-trimmed full-width foam rubber seat, a six-volt electrical system and a V-8 engine. Options included a folding cloth top (which could replace or join the hard top), power steering, brakes and windows and an air-cooled, floor-shifted Ford-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission or overdrive for the floor-shifted three-speed manual gearbox.

The 1955 Thunderbird was a winner from the start. Its interior, with two-toned seat upholstery and engine-turned aluminum trim, was an attractive match for the low and lithe exterior. The standard engine was a 4-bbl. Holley-carbureted P-code Y-Block V-8; with its 3.75 x 3.30-inch bore and stroke, dual exhausts and 8.1:1 compression ratio, it made 193hp at 4,400 rpm and 280-lbs.ft. of torque at 2,600 rpm with a manual transmission. Ford-O-Matic-equipped cars had 8.5 compression and made 198hp and 286-lbs.ft. of torque.

The engine choices increased for the 1956 model year when the 4-bbl. Holley-equipped P-code Thunderbird Special V-8 engine was introduced; with its 3.80 x 3.44-inch bore and stroke and 8.4:1 (9.0:1 with Ford-O-Matic) compression ratio, this engine made 215hp at 4,600 rpm and 317-lbs.ft. of torque at 2,600 rpm (225hp and 324-lbs.ft. of torque, Ford-O-Matic). For those who didn't spring for the optional V-8, the standard unit's M-code V-8 got a bump to 8.4-compression and 202hp at 4,600 rpm and 289-lbs.ft. of torque at 2,600 rpm with a standard three-speed manual transmission.

On the styling and features front, 1956 Thunderbirds could be picked out by their new vent wing windows, side cowl vents and awkward yet stylish "continental" externally mounted spare tire and bumper-exiting exhausts. Optional "Lifeguard Design" features included a padded dashboard, padded sun visors and seat belts, and the new 12-volt electrical system was shared with full-sized Ford cars. A water-cooled Ford-O-Matic was phased in during the year along with an improved steering gearbox, and improved hold-down clamps for the convertible and hard tops.

The Thunderbirds that arrived in showrooms for 1957 carried a number of significant changes, the most obvious being to the styling. A larger grille was fitted to aid cooling, along with revamped bumpers front and rear; subtle tailfins marked the rear fenders, and a lengthened trunk now incorporated the spare tire again, but left room for luggage. A strengthened frame handled the car's extended trunk, and smaller 14-inch wheels replaced the previous 15s. New upholstery patterns and a round-dial instrument cluster derived from that in 1956 Fords also appeared.

Still more power could be had for 1957, not only inside with the complex Dial-A-Matic memory power seat, but under the hood; five engines were available, and they included the carryover 202hp, Ford 2-bbl.-carbureted V-8 and the single 4-bbl-carbureted D-code Thunderbird Special V-8, which made 245hp at 4,500 rpm and 332-lbs.ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm with 9.7 compression. Stepping up to the E-code Special 8V brought dual Holley four-barrels, 270hp at 4,800 rpm and 332-lbs.ft. of torque at 2,300 rpm, or with 10.0 compression, 285hp at 5,000 rpm. The rarest and most powerful original Thunderbirds, the F-series, were equipped with the Corvette-stomping Special Supercharged V-8, a unit with 8.5-compression, a 4-bbl. Holley and a McCullough-Paxton model VR-57 centrifugal supercharger that made an underrated 300hp at 4,800 and 345-lbs.ft. of torque at 3,600 rpm.

The last two-seat Thunderbird was built on December 13, 1957, and it was replaced by the far better-selling (but to many, less collectible) four-seat "square bird;" 53,166 units were built in the car's first three years. Although nearly all of the "luxury/personal cars" have disappeared from new car dealerships today, enthusiasts can thank Ford's Thunderbird for inspiring that genre, whose ranks included the Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado, Cadillac Eldorado, Lincoln Continental Mark IV and the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Although it wasn't the sales success Ford had hoped it would be, their reborn and retro-styled 2002-2005 Thunderbird was faithful to its ancestor, the beloved-and it seemed, irreplaceable-1955-1957 original.

Driving Impressions

Hemmings' sister publication Special Interest Autos tested first-generation Thunderbirds on two occasions. SIA issue #11 featured a 1956 model: "The two-seater handles very well, even with the heavy spare on back. Gassed and with two aboard, weight distribution is 47/53. It's stable, a bit stiff, and while we didn't corner it too hard, it goes just where it's pointed. Ride, though, tends to be jouncy. This particular car didn't rattle, but most Little Birds we've driven do-it's the rattling kind of car."

Former SIA feature editor Ken Gross tested a supercharged 1957 F-model in issue #54 and reported the following: "The engine's behavior bespeaks exciting performance, but unless you were told, you'd never know there was a supercharger under the hood. Once off and rolling, the non-power steering is reasonably light and gives good road feedback in straight-line driving. The non-power brakes did a good job in bringing the car to a halt. Snapping its nose upward, the F-Bird takes off with a menacing growl that grows in ferocity as the revs climb. For all of its breathtaking acceleration, though, the car can behave in a downright civilized manner when pottering through town, its dual exhausts quietly bubbling away as it docilely glides along at 25 mph in high gear without a stumble or stutter."


Prospective Thunderbird owners can rejoice because their beloved 'Birds have one of the best parts supply networks of any Ford vehicles; there are nine pages of Thunderbird-exclusive ads and specialists in last month's January issue of HMN alone. Any mechanical issue, from engine to transmission to brakes to suspension, can be solved with easily secured reproduction, used or NOS parts. Some trim and all mechanical parts are shared with 1955-1957 full-sized Fords and Mercurys, so everything that is required to keep a Thunderbird on the road can be located by picking up an issue of Hemmings and picking up the phone. Because the popularity of Ford's first personal cars shows no signs of ceasing, the two major international Thunderbird clubs are excellent resources for expertise, parts location and socialization.


"Because most Thunderbirds have already been restored at some point, we tell potential buyers to note the quality of the restoration, to look at a car's overall condition and check for rust and evidence of previous body damage," explains Rick Harbaugh, owner of Prestige Thunderbird, Inc. of Santa Fe Springs, California. "The nose area and front fenders were commonly damaged in accidents, and they weren't always repaired properly. Rust can appear in the rocker panels, rocker supports, the front floor pans by your feet, and the front air ducts, which rusted when mud and salt were thrown up on them. You also should check the inner fenders and the quarter panels in front of and behind the wheel openings."

Even if your dream T-Bird exhibits some of the aforementioned rust, don't worry. "Patch panels are made for all the areas that are prone to rusting," Rick says. "We can get used hoods and door skins, as well as complete nose panels if necessary. All the small trim and decals are sold as new reproductions today, but big items like bumpers have to be re-chromed-nice used ones are still available. You'll pay a price for some parts that are missing or damaged beyond repair," he cautions. "A complete front fender can cost between $3,500 and 4,500."

Alan H. Tast, past president of the Vintage Thunderbird Club International and author of Thunderbird 1955-1966 and Thunderbird- Fifty Years, offers sage advice: "Because they have been so popular over the years, they've been targets of thieves and chop shops, subjected to such nefarious practices as retitling with swapped or bogus data plates (which are located on the firewall). Buyers need to carefully check the car's paperwork to make sure that the title matches the serial numbers stamped into the frame and into the data plate."

"A person who's serious about finding a truly authentic T-Bird should look carefully at the car's serial number to determine what engine/carburetion combination it was originally built with," he continues. "The first letter indicates the engine code as noted above. It is not unusual, though, for cars like an "E-series" 1957 to be missing the twin four-barrel carbs and aluminum intake; finding and replacing these parts to bring it back to original condition can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition. "Matching numbers" for a T-Bird also means comparing the exterior and interior colors against the codes on the data plate, and checking casting date codes on various parts against the build date. Information on decoding a T-Bird's data plate can readily be found in books on the car, catalogs for T-Bird parts, on the Internet at enthusiast Web sites like the Thunderbird Cyber-Nest, and in manuals published by the national clubs."


Many consider the 1955-1956 Thunderbirds to be the "purest" designs, although the 1955 model's in-trunk spare tire eats considerable luggage space; the 1956 model's external continental spare is a compromise, although one that is a treasured 1950s automotive clich? Many enthusiasts also love the 1957 model due to its stylish new dashboard, its subtle fins and more commodious trunk. The widest choice of powerful engines was available in 1957, including the rare and desirable supercharged V-8; the Thunderbirds' removable hardtops gained their trademark porthole windows in 1956. No matter which early 'Bird you choose, you're guaranteed a stylish and comfortable classic.


In addition to 1955-1957 Thunderbirds being a premium auction staple, there are usually about 50 ads of early Thunderbirds for sale in each month's issue of Hemmings Motor News. The cars range from basket cases to 100-point trophy winners, so there is usually a T-Bird for nearly any budget. Hardtop-equipped 1955 models start around $15,000 for restorable examples, averaging $27,000 and topping out around $50,000 for concours winners. Nineteen fifty-six Thunderbirds range from $20,000 through $33,000 and $57,000, with last-year two-seaters starting and averaging the same; the best ultra-rare supercharged models can bring upwards of $90,000 in top condition.

Classic Thunderbird Club International

1308 E 29th St. Dept. HV
Signal Hill, CA 90806
Dues: $32.50+ $15 initiation fee/Membership: 8,000

Vintage Thunderbird Club International
PO Box 2250
Dearborn, MI 48123
Dues: $35/ Membership: 3,000

Parts Prices
Battery, reproduction 12V Ford "Power Punch"- $105
Brake drum, rear- $85
Continental spare hinge and mount assembly, 1956- $130
Engine gasket set- $106
Grille, 1955-56 reproduction- $336
Parking lamp lens, 1957- $8
Pedal pad, brake or clutch- $3.50
Porthole installation kit for hardtop- $200
Rocker panel, genuine Ford- $245
Shock absorber set, with bushings (front and rear)- $90
"Thunderbird" front fender script, 1957- $25
Trunk mat set, 1957- $65
Upholstery kit, complete 1956- $575
Water pump, new with gasket- $65
Windshield, used- $150
Wiper arm, "Trico" reproduction- $30

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