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Thunderbird: Power, Swiftness, Prosperity

1997

by Bob Kennon

The automotive world changed on February 20, 1954 at the Detroit Auto Show, when Ford unveiled the Thunderbird. The "sports car with luxury" was an automotive concept whose time had come.

In 1954 there was a changing market. There was a growing market segment of youthful, moneyed professionals who had tired of the "family sedan" concept. General Motors had already successfully tapped this group with its Corvette and Ford responded in kind.

From the beginning, Ford incorporated luxury into the Thunderbird. It has such features as an automatic transmission, power windows, power brakes, power seats, heater, and fancy radios. The car was designed in a relatively short period of time, mostly using existing components. For example, the engine came from Mercury.

Although the car was introduced to the public in early 1954, regular production did not begin until September 9, 1954. The Thunderbirds were built on the same production line as the regular passenger cars. By the end of 1954, 3,546 Thunderbirds had been built although they were designated 1955 year models.

During the months between the first public showing of the car until the production and shipment of the car, the press and advanced publicity raised the demand to a fever pitch. Ford had only planned to produce 10,000 units the first year, but by year end of 1955, Ford had built 16,000 units. This unprecedented demand led to dealers being swamped with orders, pricing at over list price and many complaints of non-delivery. Recognizing this demand, production was steadily increased as quickly as possible until by the end if the three-year production run, over 50,000 Thunderbird had been built.

Ford out-sold its competition, the Corvette, by a large margin. The Thunderbird had features not found on the Corvette, including roll-up or power windows, and the V-8 engine. The all-steel Thunderbird body was better accepted than the fiberglass Corvette.

Even with the luxury refinements on the Thunderbird, the performance was very similar to the more unsophisticated sports cars of the time, including the primary competitor Corvette. ROAD AND TRACK reported in March of 1995, a 0-60 mph time of 9.5 seconds for the Thunderbird and 11.6 seconds for the Corvette. MOTOR TREND reported in June 1956 the average gas mileage of the Thunderbird was 12.7 miles per gallon while the Corvette was 12.8.

Today, the popularity of these "small birds" continues, with both the enthusiast and the investor. The cars have steadily increased in value over the year and most likely will continue to be a very good and enjoyable investment. Prices range from the low twenties to over $40,000 for a fully restored "E"-bird with dual carburetors. Cars are being offered at lesser prices, but be careful. Many of these have rust problems, non-matching numbers, and sometimes are cobbled from parts of several cars. For the long term, buy the best example you can find or afford. Hopefully, if you invest in a Thunderbird, the American Indian's good luck omen symbolizing power, swiftness and prosperity will look over you as it did them.

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