Ford’s Two-Seat T-Bird

Dan Carney
Jul 11, 2019

The 1955-’57 Ford Thunderbird was a low-slung two-seat roadster that built a reputation so strong that the company built its own replica version in tribute a half-century later.

Photo Credit: Ford Media Center

Post-World War II Americans had an appreciation for the tidier cars many of them had experienced in Europe as servicemen following the war, but U.S. manufacturers were building only massive full-size cars that seemed like too much for some drivers.

Chevrolet rolled out its response with the 1953 Corvette, a production sports car based on the company’s 1952 EX-122 Motorama concept car. The half-baked original Corvette was barely more than a concept car itself, and the underpowered, any-color-you-want-as-long-as-it-is-white roadster barely sold.

Ford was about a year and a half behind, showing the Thunderbird to the public Feb. 20, 1954 and releasing it for sale on Oct. 22, 1954. It was everything the Corvette wasn’t, including a sales success.

Photo Credit: Ford Media Center

Ford’s PR department trolled the Corvette in the Thunderbird’s press announcement, touting its all-steel body (in contrast to Corvette’s early uneven fiberglass) and bevy of comfort features, including power windows, a power seat (singular, a bench seat that let customers squeeze in three abreast for 50 percent more passenger capacity), power windows, power steering, power brakes and power door locks. And it came in a palette of gorgeous pastels.

The T-Bird offered an available removable hardtop in addition to the folding canvas roof too. The Corvette, on the other hand, employed removable plastic side curtains in place of roll-up windows.

Photo Credit: Ford Media Center

And most critically, Ford’s sporty car came with V8 power, while Corvette had launched with the Blue Flame inline six-cylinder engine. Ford’s assessment of consumers’ tastes was more accurate than Chevy’s and the company was rewarded with 3,500 orders in the first ten days and sales for the year of 16,155. Their optimistic forecast had been for 10,000 sales in the first year.

In its first year, the Corvette tallied 300 sales and in 1955, even with a newly available V8 engine, it still found only 700 buyers.

The Thunderbird’s base price at launch was $2,695, but most cars were optioned up with either the overdrive four-speed manual or two-speed automatic transmission in place of the standard three-speed manual gearbox.

Photo Credit: Ford Media Center

The standard four-barrel 292-cubic-inch V8 was from Ford’s “Y-block” family, the company’s first line of overhead valve V8s, and was rated at 193 horsepower for cars fitted with manual transmissions and 198 horsepower for automatics.

A Motor Trend test at the time found the car could accelerate to 60 mph in 11.5 seconds and it completed the quarter mile in 18.0 seconds. Ford’s press materials touted a top speed of more than 100 mph.

“The Thunderbird has three basic points in its favor: a rakish, ground-hugging style, performance to match good sports cars, and a design that has built-in comfort for driver and passenger, with no penalty whatsoever to pay for fun,” enthused Motor Trend editor Walt Woron.

1956 saw the arrival of the optional 312-cubic-inch version of the engine, and by 1957 the Thunderbird could be ordered with 2-barrel (212 hp) and 4-barrel 292s (245 hp), dual-4-barrel 312 (270 hp) and either of two supercharged versions (300 hp or 340 hp).

Sales ballooned to 21,380 for 1957, thanks in part to upgrades such as porthole windows in the hardtop roof’s rear pillars for improved visibility. Alas, Ford continued to accurately read market demand and saw that most prospective buyers really wanted the practicality of a back seat, and the Thunderbird became a four-seater for 1958.

Two-seater fans may have been disappointed, but sales ballooned to nearly 38,000 for 1958. Just four years later, NBC’s Today show looked back to pronounce the ’55-’57 two-seat T-bird “an American classic.” Fans got a bonus of three months extra production of the ’57, as the ’58 model was delayed.

Photo Credit: Ford Media Center

Nostalgia for that short run of beautiful roadsters has been strong ever since. Filmmaker George Lucas memorably cast a white Thunderbird as actress Suzanne Sommers’ ride in his debut feature film, American Graffiti in 1973.

Love for two-seat T-Birds by the American Graffiti generation has powered prices of these cars for decades, but as more of these owners are now selling than buying, prices that have long been at a plateau are falling.

Import and classic car dealer Gary Duncan, of Christiansburg, Virginia’s Duncan Imports and Classics, reports that prices for these long-beloved Thunderbirds, along with those of their cohort of Tri-Five ’55-’57 Chevrolets have slipped in the last year, as current collectors prefer cars from the ‘80s.

Classic car insurer Hagerty shows that an average supercharged ’57 T-bird has dropped $15,000, to $100,000 in the last nine months. A base ’55 Thunderbird now averages $27,200, down from about $30,000 a few years ago.

The classic Thunderbird’s immense reservoir of goodwill even motivated Ford to revive the concept with a 2002-2005 production model that was essentially a modernized version of the classic. Like the original, it was built on a chopped-down full-size car chassis, in this case, the Lincoln LS sport sedan.

As with the original, the resulting driving dynamics wouldn’t be mistaken for those of a sports car, and as before, the neo-classic Thunderbird also saw a brief production lifespan. It seems that Americans like the idea of sporty little two-seaters more than the reality.

Don't miss out on new content

An error occurred while submitting your email address to the mailing list. Please try again or contact us for assistance.

By submitting your email address you agree to receive email information, great offers, and more from Team Valvoline.

Thanks for signing up. Set your password and start earning reward points for everything you do on the site.

You already have a Team Valvoline account. Sign in here.

Did you forget your password?

About the Contributor
Dan Carney
Jul 11, 2019

A member of the North American Car of the Year jury, Dan is Popular Science magazine's automotive editor, writing car reviews as well as auto industry analysis and commentary. He specializes in analyzing technical developments, particularly in the areas of motorsports, efficiency and safety. He has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Motor Trend, Popular Mechanics, and others.

Comments from the Community
Tags: Culture




Cars of the Decade: 1965 Shelby Cobra 427

By: Dan Carney | March 13, 2019

Whips, Rides & Rods

Cars of ’88: The Chevrolet Monte Carlo

April 10, 2017

Whips, Rides & Rods

Cars of ’72: 1972 Ford Gran Torino

July 8, 2016