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Image: 1958 Ford Thunderbird Hardtop

1958 Ford Thunderbird Hardtop

Motor Trend Magazine's 1958 CAR OF THE YEAR
1958 Ford Thunderbird
1958 Thunderbird Auctions

Production Numbers

The Wixom Thunderbirds

Mechanical Specifications

The 1958
375-Horsepower Engine

Exterior Paint Colors

Interior Trim

Standard Equipment

Optional Equipment




1958 Ford Thunderbird:
Personal Luxury 101

Image: 1958 Ford Thunderbird - America's Most Individual Car

This is the car that started the personal luxury car market segment. Before the 1958 Ford Thunderbird appeared on the scene, luxury cars were all big, sports cars were all small and somewhat utilitarian, and compact cars were almost unheard of. All of that changed with the new four passenger Thunderbird. Smaller than the traditional luxury cars most were accustomed to at the time like the Cadillac, Lincoln, or Imperial, the compact T-bird provided all the luxury and convenience items one would expect in a luxury car, but in a new smaller size that was easier to park and manipulate in congested areas. Just the thing for those who wanted to stand out from the rest of the crowd at the country club or resort. The sporty new four passenger T-bird was powered by a new 352 Interceptor V-8 engine with 300 horsepower, enough to move it swiftly from a stop, although most would not call it a high performance car. And that didn't matter, because most didn't buy it for its performance, but rather for its prestige.

So revolutionary was the personal luxury car concept, the 1958 Thunderbird was awarded Motor Trend Magazine's coveted Car of the Year designation for its compact size, and unique interior, which provided individually adjustable seats up front, separated by a functional panel console that ran down the middle of the car between the seats and housed controls for the optional heater, radio speaker, and power windows, along with ash trays for front and rear passengers. A padded instrument panel was standard, and featured brushed and highly polished ribbed aluminum trim to dress up the panel. Plush loop pile carpeting ran door to door, and the door trim panels and rear side panels were covered in soft vinyl. The seats featured pleated vinyl or cloth inserts with vinyl bolsters color keyed to match exterior paint colors.

The change between 1957 and 1958 was so revolutionary, production of the 1957 Thunderbird was carried over for a few extra months to allow additional time for the new Wixom Assembly Plant to gear up for production of the new 1958 car. It was a bit strange to see the 1957 Thunderbirds advertised right next to the all new 1958 Ford models, but Ford wanted to keep the car in front of the public, and this was the best way to do it. The new Wixom plant was built specifically for the assembly of the Lincoln and Continental automobiles, but had enough production capacity to handle the new Thunderbird as well. The Lincoln and Continental were all new for 1958 as well, and featured a unitized body just like the Thunderbird, so building these unibody cars at the same location would allow for strict attention to quality control, and would spread the costs out over an additional car line as well.

On February 13, 1958, the new Thunderbird Hardtop was formally announced, and became an instant sensation. Movie star Dick Powell filmed a television commercial for the car, and it was featured in many popular television shows of the time as well as appearing in a few hit movies. (For details, see our Movie and TV-Birds pages—links in this article will open in a new window.) The Thunderbird Convertible, with its unique power top that lowered into the luggage compartment and didn't require a top boot, was delayed until June 1958 due to production issues.

Classic car enthusiasts today refer to the 1958-60 Thunderbirds as "Squarebirds," in recognition of the somewhat square, sculptured lines of the car. Long before these cars were even 10 years old, the little two seater Birds were considered classics, which led to strong interest in the series that followed them. In the Fall of 1968, two men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Don Brix, Jr. and Don Harris, Jr., formed a club dedicated to the Squarebirds, and this club has now grown into a large international organization that today welcomes Thunderbirds of all vintages. The result of this early collector interest is a lot of these cars survive today, and a wealth of knowledge about them exists since interest in collecting them occurred when they were relatively young.

Compared to other cars of the time, the Squarebirds are quite nimble to drive, but few would describe them as agile. They are a bit burdensome to stop and steer, but this is more a reflection of the time rather than anything else. The rear coil spring suspension of 1958 was a bit unstable as it was designed to accommodate Ford Aire air suspension, which (thankfully) never made it into production. Most cars offering an air suspension system during this time experienced severe issues with it. Most notable was the exclusive Cadillac Eldorado Brougham series, the most expensive American car made to date. Owners would sometimes discover their cars sitting very close to the ground, and were forced to idle the engine for long periods to "pump up" the air bags before they could depart. Not a good thing for an expensive luxury car, which resulted in numerous complaints from owners, causing most of the cars to be modified to remove the air bags and replace them with conventional coil springs when they were still fairly new. For this reason, very few original air suspension Cadillac Eldorado Broughams still exist today. For 1959, the T-bird's handling was greatly improved with the incorporation of rear leaf springs which provided much better ride and handling characteristics.

There are many car lines that have existed over the years because of the success of the 1958 Thunderbird. These include the Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado, Cadillac Eldorado, Continental Mark III, and to a lesser degree, the Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and perhaps even to some extent the Ford Mustang, Mercury Cougar, Chevrolet Camaro, and Pontiac Firebird, as the compact T-bird proved there was a market for specialty two door coupes, a segment that would flourish during the sixties.

There is no doubt that the little Squarebird almost by itself changed the automotive landscape in the late fifties, and had a huge influence on many models during the sixties as well. That's quite a responsibility for a car that was so controversial when it was first announced. Many fans of the little two passenger Thunderbirds of 1955-57 were not kind in their comments about the new larger car, but sales of 37,892 units in a short production year that was also a bad year overall for the auto industry due to a recession, was proof enough that changing the Thunderbird to accommodate two more passengers was a good move on Ford's part.

As distinctive as the 1958 Thunderbird was when it was new, it has remained so five decades later, an endorsement which will no doubt continue for decades to come as the car continues to be timeless. Thunderbird was America's Most Individual Car in 1958, and in many ways it still is today.

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