Columns and Letters

Column: Horsepower, Fins, and Chrome Cars of the ‘50s: Little Bird

March 23, 2022 

-Written by Clifford Collins / Illustrated by Barrie Fraser
    Was it a reaction to GM’s introduction of the Corvette in 1953 that led to the birth of the Thunderbird? Not likely, but it certainly sped up the process. After all, it was no secret in the auto industry that GM would introduce an answer to the foreign “sports cars” that were appearing on the scene in the early 1950s. Ford was well aware of the market, as more and more university students from well-to-do families were seen driving European two seaters. Ford had begun work on its own two seater in the early 1950s, so the plan to introduce one was already there when Corvette hit the market. But no doubt the rush for an answer was on.
    Suddenly, enthusiasts had two home grown sports (or sporty) cars to pick from. While early Corvettes came closer to being true sports cars, Ford never advertised the Thunderbird as a sports car, rather referring to it as a “personal” car. 1956 would add a third “sporty” car to the mix when Studebaker introduced its Golden Hawk – this time with a rear seat and room for five. Thunderbird would follow suit with a rear seat in 1958 – the “little bird” would be gone and what people referred to as the “big birds” would take over. It would prove to be much more popular in sales, but the 1955-57 “little birds” remain more popular with collectors today. So popular are they that Ford tried a re-introduction of sorts in 2002, again a two seater. Sales this time were disappointing and the idea was shelved a few years later.
    Thunderbird – the name which was finally chosen for Ford’s new “personal” car, got its name from a supernatural mythical creature in Indigenous culture believed to be responsible for thunder and lightning. Bill Boyer is credited as lead stylist, and final design approval came from Henry Ford II in 1953.
    Thunderbird hit the market in October 1954 as a 1955 model. Enjoying immediate success, over 16,000 were sold in 1955, far outselling Corvette. Impressive sales continued in 1956 although down slightly to approximately 15 and half thousand. 1957 would see the best year for sales of the “little bird” with over 21,000 sold.
    Based on a standard 1955 Ford, it used the same frame slightly shortened, and lots of regular Ford styling cues. Powered by a 292 cu. in. Y-block engine taken directly from Ford’s Mercury division, headlights and tail lights from Ford’s regular passenger cars, one look told everyone what company had built the car. Cars had removable fibreglass tops, and there were lots of complaints on poor visibility with tops installed. 1956 added small portholes to tops, but they didn’t improve visibility by any great amount. 1956 also added a larger 312 cu. in. engine which produced 215 hp with standard transmission, 225 hp with Ford-o-matic automatic. 1956 would also make the switch to 12-volt electrical systems. The 312 cu. in. would become the standard engine for 1957, which also saw design changes in the grille area, and larger tailfins. In spite of 1957 sales being the best yet, Ford felt they could be much higher. So 1957 saw the last of the “little birds,” 1958 introducing a rear seat and the beginning of “personal luxury” designation for the T-bird.
    1955 Thunderbirds came standard with a 150 mph. speedometer, tach, and clock. Power steering, power brakes, power seat, and automatic transmission were options. 1956 added cowl vents to try to eliminate engine heat, a continental kit and exhaust tips through the rear bumper as well as the previously mentioned window portholes and 12-volt electrics. The 292 cu. in. and 312 cu. in. engines were referred to as Y-blocks because the engine block was Y shaped, deep skirted, and heavy. Growth potential was limited due to the small block design, and this would lead to Ford introducing a big block in 1958.
     The Ford-o-matic automatic was designed by Borg-Warner and built by Ford under agreement. It appeared in many make cars over the years, known under various names – Merc-o-matic, Cruise-o-matic, Turbo Drive, Flight-o-matic – used by AMC, International and Studebaker along with Ford products.
    From “personal” car to “personal luxury” car, Thunderbird has gone through numerous design series over the years. Although people collect cars from many series depending on what they prefer, the “little birds” of 1955-57 remain the most sought after of all the Thunderbirds Ford ever produced.


















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