The Ford Thunderbird's classification is that of a Personal Luxury Car. Although the Thunderbird is among a long list of Personal Luxury Cars, it takes all the credit for having created that niche. The T-Bird was never meant to be a sports car; it was created to contend with the Corvette that hit the market in 1953. When the Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line in 1955, it sold 16,155 units against 700 Corvettes making the numbers 23-to-one for its very first year. With the T-Bird's great styling, muscular steel body, high performance and sophistication, it was plain to see that there was a new Sheriff in town.
The First Generation was between 1955 and 1957. The Ford Thunderbird was originally designed as a two-seat personal luxury car for those who wanted something fast, sleek, sporty-looking, and luxurious. It must have worked because 3,500 orders for the T-Bird were made within the first ten days of its going on sale. Production had only planned on 10,000 units but the year closed out with 16,155 units sold hot out of the oven.
The standard model offered a removable fiberglass top while a canvas convertible top was optional. The T-Bird housed a 292 Y-block V8 that made 193hp with the standard three-speed transmission. If you opted for the automatic three-speed "Ford-O-Matic" you would get 198hp. The interior was plush and offered four-way power seats and push-button door handles, along with a tachometer, and a telescoping steering wheel.
For 1956, an optional 312 Y-Block V8 was offered that made 215hp and you could get 225hp with the Ford-O-Matic transmission. Also for 1956, the iconic porthole windows were added for better visibility. More trunk space was now available due to a standard Continental Kit that mounted the spare tire onto the exterior of the rear bumper.
In 1957 the spare wheel was moved back inside the trunk instead of being mounted on the exterior bumper and a new Dial-O-Matic feature for the front seat allowed it to slide back for easier exits from the car when the ignition was turned off. The 312 engine was now standard, and horsepower went up to 245. If you opted for a racing kit, you could get two four-barrel carbs that made 270-285hp. Some T-Birds were also equipped with a Paxton centrifugal supercharger with a Holley four-barrel that made 300hp. The 1957 would be the last two-seater sold for a few generations.
The Second Generation was between 1958 and 1960. The T-Bird was completely redesigned and was now a four-seater. It was available as a hardtop or convertible and it was much larger in order to accommodate two extra people. The new styling was something you either really liked or really didn't like; regardless, people continued to gravitate toward it because it sold 37,892 units in 1958. It made history with Motor Trend magazine as "Car of the Year" as an individual model line instead of the company taking the award.
Huge tailfins, dual headlights, a chrome grille that begged to be noticed, and a faux hood scoop-this baby wanted to be seen. It gave you 300hp with its 352 cubic inch V8, 3- speed automatic or manual transmission. There was also an optional 350hp V8 available in 1959 when record-breaking sales soared to 67,456 units. In 1960, sales hit 92,843 units when a new grille was offered along with an optional manually operated sunroof for hardtop models.
The Third Generation was between 1961 and 1963. In 1961, the T-Bird offered a "swing-away" steering wheel for an easier exit and its design was again changed: It was larger, and it was a "beaut"! Sheer luxury and style surrounded you. The T-Bird was a rock star and it was invited to serve as President John F. Kennedy's ride for his inaugural parade, and it was also invited to be the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car in '61.
Another Ford first was the "floating" rear-view mirror. Back in the day this was a big thing that went on to become standard in all automobiles. The T-Bird could be had with all the creature comforts we take for granted today such as air conditioning, power seats and windows, AM radio and of course, white wall tires. Standards included back up lights, bucket seats and power steering which were options on most other cars at that time.
The Thunderbird saw the introduction of the Landau model in 1962 which sported the S-bars on the rear pillars and the T-Bird would strut this roof for the next 20 years. In 1963, more luxury additions such as vacuum assisted door locks and an AM/FM radio were added.
The Fourth Generation was between 1964 and 1966. The T-Bird gained a sharp, squared look and it could be had in either convertible, coupe and Landau models. Fans of the Sports Roadster model would be disappointed, as it was discontinued. The Thunderbird offered two versions of the 390 cubic inch V8 four-barrel Holley carb and the first was the base at 300hp or you could opt for a high performance that gave 330hp.
In 1965, the Thunderbird was given some pretty cool tail lights that everyone was excited about. They were divided into three segments that created quite the stir when in use.
In 1966, the T-Bird underwent a fairly large restyle that sent it over the moon. It was a real looker with the new egg-crate patterned grille, and oh-it also became faster. You could go with the base, which was never, ever shabby, and get the two-barrel carb with 275hp or you could opt for a four-barrel carb with 315hp, or you could also opt for a new 428 cubic inch V8 four-barrel carb that made 345hp.
Any choice you made there it was sure that you were gonna have fun, fun, fun, until someone took your T-Bird away. And because this particular T-Bird was so beautiful it should come as no surprise that "Thelma and Louise" chose it as the perfect ride to take them to "somewhere better."
The Fifth Generation was between 1967 and 1971. Although previous years had only minor changes to the T-Bird, '67 brought about a major change and the T-Bird saw a jump in upping the luxury appeal. Gone was the unibody construction and now it was based on the body-on-frame platform. This helped to give it a quieter, smoother ride. The convertible was dropped and the throw-back suicide doors were added to the new four-door model until 1970, making this particular model unique. A fighter jet inspired front grille was added that housed hidden headlights.
In 1968, although the T-Bird had become larger and heavier, Ford made this generation one of the fastest and most powerful by incorporating wedge style heads and a new 385 series big-block 429 cubic inch V8 engine that made 360hp. In 1970 the Thunderbird acquired its prominent "beak" look on the front grille that gave this generation its signature look. It's fun to note that in 1971, Neiman Marcus offered the Thunderbird in their catalog as a "his and hers" exclusive item that sold for $25,000 for the pair. Gotta love that.
The Sixth Generation was between 1972 and 1976. If you wanted a really, really big car, this generation was for you. Too bad the gas crises had to come along and change a great thing. The 1972 T-Bird emerged all bulked up at 4,800 pounds when housed with the 460 cubic inch V8, making it the biggest Thunderbird, ever.
In 1973, the T-Bird offered opera windows for the first time as an option, but they soon became a standard. Power windows, manual air conditioning, and tinted glass became standard in this year with options such as an AM/FM stereo with an 8-track tape deck, power sunroof, cruise control, an early anti-lock braking system, and power door locks. This would be the last year for leaded gas and the 429 V8 engine.
In 1974 a few minor changes were made by moving the gas cap to the driver's side rear panel instead of it being behind the license plate. A buzzer reminded you to "buckle-up" for safety, and 5-mph bumpers were added to the rear. A special luxury group trim option became available to include dual power front seats, automatic climate control, front cornering lights, a power moon roof and power mini-vent windows.
In 1975 front and rear stabilizer bars were added and the seatbelt alarms were dropped. More luxury packages became available such as the Copper Luxury Group, the Silver Luxury Group, and the Jade Luxury Group. In 1976, rear windows became stationary, and a whole slew of options came about to include a driver's lighted vanity mirror, power lumbar driver's seat and a cool Quadrasonic 8-track tape deck. Although restrictive emissions technology reduced performance, sales were still good at 87,000 in 1973, and in 1976, sales reached 53,000 units. But the fuel crises demanded changes, and the T-Bird would be downsized for the following generation.
The Seventh Generation was between 1977 and 1979. Downsizing the T-Bird in this generation turned out to be a huge success for Ford and it quickly became America's best selling personal luxury car. Down by eight inches and 900 pounds by replacing the heavy big-block V8 with a small-block V-8 allowed the T-Bird to remain the same width and height and this proved to be a very good move.
To commemorate Ford's 75th anniversary, a Diamond Jubilee Edition Thunderbird was offered in 1978. This special edition was sold at double the price due to the loaded options that came with it. In 1979 an additional options package called the Heritage became available that left you wanting for nothing. The Seventh Generation was highly successful for the Ford Thunderbird upping sales to 955,000 units sold during this time.
The Eighth Generation was between 1980 and 1982. This generation saw the T-Bird completely redesigned due to the continuing fuel crises and it was now based on the Ford Fox platform. Down by 900 pounds and 16 inches shorter than the 1976 model, it would be the most radical example of downsizing in the American auto industry. The boxy body style was carried over into this generation, and frameless door glass was replaced with a chrome frame, and the T-Bird took on the look of a two-door sedan.
In 1981, the Thunderbird gained a six-cylinder engine for the first time in its history and in 1982 a straight-six engine was offered as the T-Bird's standard engine leaving the 255 cubic inch V8 as the only alternative. Given all the changes, total sales during this generation were at 288,638. What was Ford going to do?
The Ninth Generation was between 1983 and 1988. Ford bounced back with another first: A turbocharged 2.3L OHC 4-cylinder engine that produced 142hp, but by the time 1985 rolled around, it made 155hp. This engine was placed in the new 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. Also new was a 5-speed manual transmission for the turbocharged 4-cylinder.
This generation Thunderbird was the first to receive an aerodynamic exterior and it was also a first for Ford, in general, which would set the precedent for future sedans. In 1984 the loaded Thunderbird Heritage was renamed the Elan and a European-like model called the FILA edition was introduced that offered a unique interior and exterior. The Thunderbird celebrated its 30 year anniversary in 1985 by offering a 30th Anniversary Edition that was loaded with options and sported a special blue paint color and stripes.
In 1986 a center high mount stop light was added and this year saw the end of the FILA edition. In 1987, the Elan was discontinued and the LX replaced it leaving the LX and Sport models to chose from. The LX was equipped with a V6, the Sport offered a V8 and Turbo Coupes added an intercooler which made its powertrain pretty much that of the Ford Mustang SVO. The 1987 Turbo Coupe was awarded Motor Trend magazine Car of the Year award.
In 1989, the Turbo Coupe was replaced by the Super Coupe which housed a 3.8L supercharged V6 instead of the turbo 4-cylinder. Sales started to climb again for the revamped T-Bird and rose to 163,695 units sold. It was not only making a comeback with the general public, but due new aerodynamics, NASCAR driver, Bill Elliott (an 11-time NASCAR winner in 1985 alone) drove the T-Bird to unprecedented speeds in this generation, qualifying it on the pole at 212.229 mph. This was during the 1986 Winston Cup 500 at the Alabama International Speedway in Talladega.
The Tenth Generation was between 1989 and 1997. The Thunderbird was completely redesigned. It was more aerodynamic, and had a nine-inch longer wheelbase. It now featured SLA (short-long arm) four-wheel suspension and a modified MacPherson strut front assembly which was major during this time. The T-Bird was the only car to offer four-wheel independent suspension during this period except for the Corvette, and it was the only rear-wheel U.S. automobile, along with the Cougar, back in the day.
The Thunderbird Super Coupe was offered with a supercharged and intercooled version of the 3.8L V6 and it won Car of the Year from Motor Trend magazine in 1989. It boasted 210hp and 315 lb-ft of torque. In 1991, a new V8 Windsor 5.0 engine became an option for the Thunderbird and it was available through 1993. It produced 200hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. Also in 1993, Ford wanted to focus more on its interior and the redesign included a wrap around cockpit-style instrument panel, climate control and sweeping curves on the dashboard and door panels.
In 1994, dual front side airbags became standard on all Thunderbird models. A new Modular V8 replaced the 5.0 Windsor engine and it made 205hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. It was mated to an electronically controlled 4R70W 4-speed transmission. The Super Coupe saw a boost in horsepower up to 230 and 330 lb-ft of torque and made its best time ever of 7.0 seconds from 0-60 and competed the quarter mile in 15.2 seconds at 88.1 mph. Although Ford gave it the old college try, the Super Coupe was discontinued in 1995 due to declining sales.
Ford was going to make a significant comeback with its Special Vehicle Engineering division (SVE) and had great plans for the beloved Thunderbird as an SVE model. It would have elements such as a new front fascia and body side cladding, 17" five spoke Cobra R wheels, a unique spoiler and prominent cowl hood and it would have had a supercharged 4.6L V8 engine similar to that of the SVT Mustang Cobra. But alas, the high performance T-Bird, or any T-Bird for that matter would come to a screeching halt. Can you hear the song "Turn out the lights, the party's over"? Or was it?
The Eleventh Generation was between 2002 and 2005. It is said that everything old is new again. During the retro-inspired cries of the public, many favorites were resurrected and the T-Bird was one of them. Ford designed a retro T-Bird. It came back as a two-seater, true to its roots, and it was offered in vibrant, saturated colors of the day. It was the same, but different.
The egg-crate grille, round tail lights, round head lights, removable hardtop, porthole windows, hood scoop, it was all there, but better of course due to modern technology. If you want to have fun, this generation is the one; it's laid back, easy, comfortable, quiet, and just plain cool. It was fun while it lasted as 2005 was the final year. Or was it? Ya just never know. The eleventh generation may have well been called the eleventh hour, but you honestly can never say. The heart wants what the heart wants, so time will tell.
NASCAR: The Thunderbird had a great presence in the racing arena. Bobby Allison drove the Thunderbird across the finish line to win 13 races between 1977 and 1980 with the "boxy" style T-Bird. The aerodynamic T-Bird of 1983-1988 would routinely break the 200 mph mark. Davey Allison and Bill Elliot had tremendous success with the T-Bird, and due to restrictor plates being placed in the cars after Bobby Allison's car almost went into the stands, Bill Elliot may well forever hold the fastest stock car qualifying time in history at 212.809 mph run he made in 1988 in Talladega. Alan Kulwicki won the championship in 1992 in his "Underbird" nicknamed for his underdog reputation as a driver.
Angela Krause Ford has a full inventory of Ford Trucks, SUVs, Sedans, and used cars of all kinds. We invite you to come in and check out our extensive lineup and drive off the lot in just what you want. Our outstanding Ford service department has some of the best ASE certified technicians that can do routine maintenance on your new or used auto and will keep it running in tip top shape.
If you are in the market for an eleventh generation T-Bird, we may just have one. We are right off Mansell Road in Alpharetta off GA 400. Come see us from Milton, Buford, Cumming, Gainesville, Duluth, Smyrna, or Marietta. We are near North Point Mall and next door to the Atlanta Humane Society on Mansell Road.