History of the “Baby Bird” Ford Thunderbird

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The 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird also known as the Baby Bird was a direct response to Chevrolet’s new sports car, the Corvette.

It was a two-seat design available with a detachable fiberglass hard top and a folding fabric top.  Production of the Thunderbird began later on in 1954 on September 9 with the car beginning sales as a 1955 model on October 22, 1954. Though sharing some design characteristics with other Fords of the time, such as single, circular headlamps and tail lamps and small tail fins, the Thunderbird was sleeker and more athletic in shape, and had features like a hood scoop and a 150 mph speedometer hinting a higher performance nature that other Fords didn’t possess.  Mechanically though, the Thunderbird could trace its roots to other mainstream Fords.

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Though inspired by, and positioned directly against, the Corvette, Ford billed the Thunderbird as a personal luxury car, putting a greater emphasis on the car’s comfort and convenience features rather than its inherent sportiness.  Designations aside, the Thunderbird sold exceptionally well in its first year. In fact, the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by more than 23-to-one for 1955 with 16,155 Thunderbirds sold against 700 Corvettes.

 

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With the Thunderbird considered a success, few changes were made to the car for 1956. The most notable change was moving the spare tire to a continental-style rear bumper in order to make more storage room in the trunk, and an optional porthole in the removable roof was offered and often selected by buyers. However, the addition of the weight at the rear caused steering issues. Among the few other changes were new paint colors, the addition of circular porthole windows as standard in the fiberglass roof to improve rearward visibility, and a 312 cu in (5.1 L) Y-block V8 making 215 horsepower when mated to a 3-speed manual transmission or 225 horsepower when mated to a Ford-O-Matic 2-speed automatic transmission; this transmission featured a “low gear”, which was accessible only via the gear selector. When in “Drive”, it was a 2-speed automatic transmission (similar to Chevrolet’s Powerglide).

 

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The Thunderbird was revised for 1957 with a reshaped front bumper, a larger grille and tailfins, and larger tail lamps. The instrument panel was heavily re-styled with round gauges in a single pod, and the rear of the car was lengthened, allowing the spare tire to be positioned back in the trunk. The 312 cu in (5.1 L) V8 became the Thunderbird’s standard engine, and now produced 245 horsepower (183 kW). Other, even more powerful versions of the 312 cu in (5.1 L) V8 were available including one with two four-barrel Holley carburetors and another with a Paxton supercharger delivering 300 horsepower. Though Ford was pleased to see sales of the Thunderbird rise to a record-breaking 21,380 units for 1957, company executives felt the car could do even better, leading to a substantial redesign of the car for 1958.

 

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