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1957 Ford Thunderbird
Engine Options

Everything from a tame 212 horsepower up to 300 horses

Image: 1957 Ford Thunderbird engineThe standard 1957 Thunderbird engine was a 292 cubic inch V-8, rated at 212 horsepower and supplied only with the 3-speed manual transmission. This represented an increase in horsepower from 202 in 1956. A two barrel Holley carburetor supplied the fuel and air mixture. In this form, the T-bird was a spirited performer, certainly not the fastest car on the road, but it wasn't far behind, either.

The optional 312 cubic inch V-8, introduced in 1956, was now rated at 245 horsepower, and was available with either the optional Overdrive or Fordomatic transmissions. A Holley four barrel carburetor utilized the front two barrels for normal operation, and the additional rear two barrels kicked in for added performance, such as when passing or when additional power is needed going uphill.

Since horsepower and performance were all the rage in 1957, additional engine options were offered on the 1957 Thunderbird to satisfy those with a desire for more performance. The 312 could also be ordered up with dual four barrel Holley carburetors, bringing horsepower up to 270. This engine option was supplied with any of the three transmissions offered at the time. A Racing Kit version was also offered, it featured a special Iskanderian E-2 camshaft with a longer duration and dual valve springs, and it brought the horsepower rating up to 285.

If this wasn't enough, a limited number of 1957 Thunderbirds were built with a 312 cubic inch V-8 equipped with a McCulloch Variable Ratio Supercharger. The model number of this supercharger was VR-57, and it featured a unique sealed intake housing that fit over a special Holley four barrel carburetor. This was a different carburetor than those supplied with the other engine configurations. In addition to the supercharger and unique carburetor, this engine used a special camshaft and a dual point distributor. The upper fan shroud was notched to provide clearance for an additional idler pulley to drive the supercharger.

While the supercharger may seem exotic for the time, by 1957 Chevrolet had developed a fuel injection system it called Ramjet. It was designed in cooperation with Rochester. Standard on the 1957 Corvette, Chevrolet stated that this system provided increased power, more instantaneous acceleration, faster cold starts, smoother engine warm up, and better overall fuel economy. It also eliminated the possibility of carburetor icing in cold weather.

Ford and Chevrolet began looking into entering the racing circuits late in 1955. A win would add prestige and draw people into the showrooms. Ford set up an independent organization to handle its racing interests. Known as Peter DePaolo Engineering, it was based in Long Beach, California. Two units within the group were formed, one for the East Coast NASCAR racing circuit, and the other for the West Coast NASCAR racing circuit. The West Coast unit in particular was of importance, as it allowed even more modifications to the cars.

Several 1956 Thunderbirds were delivered to DePaolo so they could begin their work, and by December 1956, four 1957 Thunderbirds were also shipped to Long Beach. Two of the '57 cars were modified so heavily that they bore no resemblance to the original car, but the other two, which were intended for the "stock" class, were more modestly modified. Under existing NASCAR specifications at the time, the stock cars had specially-cast blocks that resembled the stock 312 engine. However, sections of the castings were heavier where necessary, and they had special camshafts, hydraulic lifters, a non-standard bore, and a stroked camshaft with a 1/4" extra throw. An experimental McCulloch supercharger was also fitted and tested, with the intention of making it available as a factory option on the 1957 Thunderbird later in the year.

One of the modified, but still "stock" Thunderbirds, was equipped with aerodynamically-designed body panels, and included aluminum panels in place of the steel doors and hood. In the 1957 Daytona Spring Speed event, this T-bird cleaned up with a clocked 138.755 miles per hour time for the two-way flying mile on the sand beach. The same car later set a new record of 89.708 mph for the standing mile, and at Bonneville, registered a top speed in excess of 160 mph!

The Thunderbird had beaten the Corvette, and Ford's moment of glory was exactly that—a moment of glory. In June of 1957, the Automobile Manufacturer's Association of Detroit, Michigan made a decision that factory racing must be suspended. This was based on complaints that some of the "stock" items used on these cars weren't actually available to the public, which was a requirement of the stock classification. So factory racing, and most of the components associated with it, disappeared. Except, in the case of the 1957 Thunderbird, for one item: the supercharger.

The standard 312 engine block was able to accommodate the high lift camshaft and the experimental supercharger was now available in a production version. Just 211 1957 Thunderbirds were built with this highly desirable engine, 14 with the Phase I 3-speed or Overdrive transmission, and 197 with the Phase II, equipped with any of the three transmissions offered for 1957.

There were warranty issues with the Phase I superchargers, and a Product Service Letter P-372, dated January 29, 1958, advised dealers to replace the Phase I units with Phase II units. This was a temporary fix, however, as by June 22, 1958, a Management Service Letter M-178 was released advising dealers to send defective Phase II units back to the manufacturer in Long Beach and order replacement parts from their regional parts depot. Repair procedures were also provided to dealers who wanted to repair the units in house.

In the interest of fairness, we should point out that the Corvette bettered the T-bird in other races, and it should be noted that many credit the Thunderbird for the Corvette's continued existence. From 1953-1957, Chevrolet sold 14,446 Corvettes. Compare that to Ford's production of the 1955-1957 Thunderbird, at 53,166...a three year period compared to five years for the Corvette. During this time, Chevrolet and Ford were highly competitive, and wanted to compete model-for-model. Chevrolet had considered canceling the Corvette due to slow sales, but refused to admit defeat when the T-bird came along. So, Chevrolet invested more money into the Corvette, put a V-8 under the hood, and improved the car to be more aligned with what Americans expected in their cars at the time. In many cases, when it came to sheer performance, the Corvette, especially those with the V-8 engine, were faster than the T-bird. But the Thunderbird had captured the affection and attention of the American people, and as such was overall the big winner as sales during these early years beat the Corvette, in 1956 alone by a ratio of 10 to 1.