Few brands can claim to be as solidly American as Ford is. Since 1903, the company started by Henry Ford has been expanding the company’s influence well beyond America’s shores. Among all the vehicles the manufacturing giant has produced, few have had such long term impact as the Thunderbird. Taking the name of a powerful beast of Native American folklore, this Ford classic had a lot to live up to.
1955-1966: The birth of a legend
The Thunderbird actually came off the line in February of 1955 as a response to Chevrolet’s newest sports car at the time—the Corvette. Funnily enough, the T-bird was not marketed as a sports car but as personal luxury car to create its own segment. The very first Thunderbird had a two-seater coupe/convertible set up and, despite the rebranding, actually did look sleeker and more athletic than other Fords.
Other than the look, the Thunderbird was mechanically similar to its siblings: a 102.1 inch wheelbase frame and a 4.8-L Y-block V8 capable of 210-225 horsepower output. Of course, the whole point of the Thunderbird was to trounce the Corvette—this it did ably by a margin of 23:1. So successful was the first outing of the car that it remained wholly unchanged up until 1961.
The look of the Thunderbird was overhauled to give it a bullet-like appearance. It got a hefty 6.4-L V8 that produced a whopping 300 horsepower. As in 1955, the Thunderbolt sold fast and became very popular—it was pace car for the 1961 Indianapolis 500 as well as JFK’s inauguration. 1966 saw yet another upgrade—a new egg-crate style grille with a huge Thunderbird emblem and a bump in engine performance up to 315 horsepower.
1967-1997: A period of growth and evolution
The 1972 Thunderbird represented the first truly radical shift in the overall design paradigm of the model. Overall, it became one of the largest Thunderbirds ever built, sharing the heavy body and frame of the Lincoln Mark IV. The engine options were equally large: either a 7.0-L or 7.5-L V8! Sales peaked at 87,000 units in spite of the 1973 oil crisis.
1983 saw still another major redesign. This new Thunderbird was far sleeker, more aerodynamic, and had a shorter wheelbase. Ford toned down the engine to more efficient—but nonetheless powerful—3.8-L Essex V6 or 4.9-L Windsor 5.0 V8. Both engines benefited from fuel injection. Eventually, both of these were supplanted by a turbocharged 2.3-L OHC 4-cylinder engine that produced up to 155 horsepower!
The 1990s would see substantial improvements in the Thunderbird before it would go into hiatus for five years. A new engine, of course, was front and center in these changes: Ford’s brand new Modular 4.6-L OHC V8 replaced the Windsor. Ford also installed the 4R70W 4-speed automatic, which was more responsive and intelligent due to electronic control.
2002-2005: The last great flight of the Thunderbird
In 2002, the Thunderbird went back to its roots, sporting a retrofuturistic design that blended the original T-bird’s two-seat coupe/convertible layout with a lot of rounded curves and surfaces. The one engine for this last iteration was a Jaguar-designed AJ-30 3.9-L DOHC V8 which gave it an impressive 252 horsepower output—which was bumped up to an AJ-35, giving it variable valve timing, electronic throttle control, and 280 horsepower.
While sales were still impressive, they were not enough to justify the development of newer generations. On July 1, 2005, the last Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line.