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About the Ford Thunderbird

During World War II, Americans didn't have access to new automobiles. Many automobile manufacturers had shut down their assembly plants to build military equipment, such as tanks or engines for tanks. American GI's on duty in Europe had the opportunity to see European sports cars up close, and they liked what they saw. When the war ended, new cars were scarce for a couple of years, and the ones that did get built were often warmed over 1948 models, which lacked the flash of the sports cars they saw overseas. The first American manufacturer to answer this demand for a sports car was Chevrolet, with its 1953 Corvette. Powered by a six cylinder engine, the Corvette was pretty utilitarian compared to the cars Americans were accustomed to. Available in only one color combination, white with black convertible top and red interior, it had plastic side flaps instead of roll up windows, and was a little under powered. But it was catching the attention of the motoring press, and the motoring public, which required a response from Ford.

But Ford wanted something better, not just a sports car. It wanted a car with all the flash of a sports car, but one that also included the luxuries Americans were craving. Ford's new personal car was put on the front burner, and to save money and time, would need to be built with many of the components used on other Ford Motor Company vehicles. In an amazingly short time, a prototype was readied for public viewing. Given the name Thunderbird, the sporty convertible was an immediate sensation. Ford dealers took orders for around 4,000 cars the very first day they went on sale! The two passenger models had most of the conveniences available that Americans wanted, and had powerful V-8 engines under the hood, making them immediately more desirable than the competition.

As popular as the new car was, Ford heard criticism about them as well. This criticism included comments that the T-bird didn't have enough luggage space, and could only carry two people in comfort. This indicated a limited market for the new car, and Ford wanted something more than just an attraction to draw people into the showrooms, they wanted a car that could generate profit on its own. So the Thunderbird grew in 1958 to a four passenger car with a roomy trunk and a unique bucket seat and console interior layout. This trend setter was also an immediate smash, and sales skyrocketed for the next three years. There was nothing else like it anywhere, and America was in love with its new icon that symbolized success and the good life.

New models were introduced along the way, many of which are highly collectible today. In 1960, a Thunderbird Hard Top with Sun Roof was built, available for one year only with around 2,500 copies leaving the factory. For 1962, two new models were added: the Landau and the Sports Roadster. The Landau was the top of the line, basically a Hardtop all dressed up with padded vinyl roof and simulated S-bars on the roof sides. Simulated walnut paneling was added to the interior of this model in 1963, replacing the ribbed aluminum trim found on other models. The Sports Roadster was an attempt to create something for the folks who were still lamenting the passing of the two passenger T-Bird. It was actually a great idea: a fiberglass tonneau cover was placed over the rear seat area, making the car appear to be a two seater. When the rear seat was needed for passengers, the tonneau cover could be removed in a matter of minutes. This model was expensive, and didn't sell well, so it was dropped after just two years.

A 1963 Thunderbird Limited Edition Landau [links in this article will open in a new window] was introduced in January 1963. With production limited to just 2,000 cars, it was the most luxurious and exclusive Bird to date. The first car was used in advertising and was later given to Prince Rainier of Monaco as a gift from Ford Motor Company. The public announcement was held in Monaco, with a splashy party which included the Prince and Princess (the former American actress Grace Kelly) in attendance. A television special of the event was filmed, sponsored by Ford. A high fashion layout in Vogue Magazine appeared as well, with several different 1963 Thunderbirds splashed around the pages of the magazine, almost as if the car were the focus instead of the designer fashions on the models. Brochures announcing the Limited Edition Landau were mailed from Monaco to prospective buyers in the United States.

The T-bird continued to evolve over the years, becoming more luxurious each year, and offering the latest trend setting advances. Notable items include the concealed, power-operated retractable convertible top; Swing-Away Steering Wheel; coved rear seats; and sequential rear turn signals. In 1965, the Thunderbird and the Lincoln Continental, were the first cars to be built with power front disc brakes as standard equipment, a significant safety improvement the was very much needed by both makes at the time.

The 1965 Thunderbird Special Landau edition commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Thunderbird in 1965, featuring special paint and trim colors, unique woodgrain paneling inside, and nameplates identifying the car as a Special Landau. Only 4,500 were built. In 1966, two new models were introduced, the Town Hardtop and Town Landau. Created by eliminating the rear quarter windows, they had a new, very formal roof line that looked great with the car's lines. 1966 would be the final year for the Convertible, as Ford marketing determined that a drop top model was no longer necessary to support the luxury image now associated with the car. Sales were also very slow for the convertible, so there was no justifying the continued need for it. The Bird's competitors weren't rolling out any convertibles, either, further proof it was unnecessary going forward. But this change in the lineup would require something new to maintain the public's interest in the line, and that something new was ready to fly in 1967.

The success and popularity of the Thunderbird created growing competition as the years passed. Looking for something to set the Thunderbird apart from the competition in a now-crowded personal luxury market, Ford introduced the first four door personal luxury car in 1967. This stunning automobile featured center-opening rear doors, referred to as suicide doors (view image) by many, which were inspired by Lincoln Continental. Named the Thunderbird Four Door Landau (or "Fordor" Landau, as Ford referred to it), sales were very good for the first couple of years, but fell off sharply by 1970. In 1972, the four door model was dropped completely, and the new two door version became a clone of the also new for 1972 Continental Mark IV, which dictated the styling direction the T-Bird would take through 1976. Fuel shortages and the soaring cost of gasoline in the 1970's demanded a more efficient personal luxury car be marketed, as did buyers' tastes, which were being influenced by luxury imports. This meant a big change, and the Thunderbird responded to that demand with flying colors. Car buyers responded as well, making the 1977-1979 series the best sales period in the marques history.

The new downsized 1977 Thunderbird was still a luxury car, but many previously standard features were moved to the options list, which resulted in a much lower base sticker price. People loved everything about the new T-Bird! The size, the price, the styling, and the status the name provided. Sales shot into the stratosphere, with 1978 becoming the best sales year ever for the Thunderbird. A plush Diamond Jubilee Edition was built in 1978 to commemorate Ford Motor Company's 75th Anniversary, and it was a big seller.

Corporate fuel economy requirements mandated an even smaller T-Bird for 1980, and Ford delivered it, although sales were disappointing for this body style. In 1983, a new aero-shaped Thunderbird debuted, and initially sales improved drastically, but would maintain a see-saw sales trend for the next 14 years. Ford discontinued the Thunderbird in 1997, but brought it back again in 2002. The new Thunderbird returned to its roots, a two passenger personal luxury convertible, with a hint of styling taken from the classic Thunderbirds that preceded it. Sales of the new Bird got off to a robust start, thanks in part to upscale retailer Neiman Marcus featuring them in their 2000 Christmas Catalog. Priced at $41,995, only 200 of these special edition cars would be built, and orders started pouring in on September 25, 2000, the first day orders could be placed. Neiman Marcus sold out in 2 hours and 15 minutes, setting a new record for automobile sales through the catalog. Demand was stronger than supply initially, but huge dealer markups and a limited market for the new car soon resulted in sales that weren't substantial enough to justify Ford continuing to build it. On July 1, 2005 the final Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line in Wixom, Michigan. Ford has stated that the nameplate is being shelved for the time being, but that it would be kept "dusted off."

Where the Thunderbird road will lead next is anyone's guess. If its future is half as interesting as its past, it will no doubt remain one of the most recognized and most wanted automobiles in the world. An American icon that symbolizes the good life, and the car everyone would love to own, because it's unique in all the world!