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Thunderbird - A Case Study in Success and Failure in the American Automobile Industry

Updated on April 9, 2015

The Ford Thunderbird had one of the most volatile and, at the same time, most enduring product life cycles in automobile history. With eleven, count them eleven, different versions from sporty to spacious the bird wore many faces all while wearing the same name tag. To this day, the most revered and respected birds were hatched under the keen and watchful eye of Ford Motor Company Chief Engineer William Burnett. The 1955, ’56 and ’57 Thunderbirds or as they are affectionately known the “Early Birds” began life as elegant and sporty 2-seaters. By 1958, under pressure to sell more cars to the masses, the Thunderbird grew into the first of several iterations of a 4-seater. Amazingly, the Thunderbird in each debut outsold the much loved Corvette while alienating many purists along the way. The initial Thunderbird was a new "invention" of sorts - a personal sports car that added the element of luxury not found in the Corvette. The Thunderbird dared to straddle the true sports enthusiast who wanted power and speed with the owner who desired the finer elements of the automobile. Yet, the market was rather confused and the "invention" was modified in an effort to serve everyone. These modifications stressed the brand over time and ultimately led to its demise.

Journey with us as we dissect the eleven different transitions of the Thunderbird to see what flies and what versions had their wings clipped.

Ford Thunderbird - AKA "T-Bird"

The Thunderbird, also known as the "T-Bird" is an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company in the United States with over eleven model generations from 1955 through 2005.

When introduced, it created the market niche eventually known as the "personal luxury car".

"What the first Thunderbird delivered was style and sophistication that used to be available only from expensive imports like Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar with the simple construction and reasonable price tag of a Ford. What that first two-seat T-Bird didn't have was room enough for at least two more passengers. And it was when that room was added that the T-Bird really took flight." source:

"Ford prefers to call it a 'personal car,'" explained Motor Trend back then. "The thinking behind this, as brought out in a discussion with W.R. Burnett, chief passenger car engineer for Ford, is that 'although the Thunderbird has the performance and attributes of most sports cars, management also felt that it should have a few more comforts to make it more appealing to a wider segment of the public.'"

The Thunderbird went on sale October 22, 1954, and quickly overwhelmed the Corvette in sales volume. Ford had thought it would sell about 10,000 examples that first year, but found itself unable to keep up with demand and eventually knocked out 16,155

Differences Between a Sports Cars and a Personal Luxury Car

The Thunderbird was always marketed as a "personal luxury car". This has hurt it throughout the years because of the preeminence of sports cars. What is the difference? The difference is power. A sports car is renown for its power. A personal luxury car, on the other hand, is a car that is just that filled with luxury appointments such as a higher end stereo, more luxurious seating and dash displays and so on. Sadly, the Americans have confused the sports car with the personal luxury car and have blamed the Thunderbird for not having enough power. Silly thing, it never was supposed to have power. The marketing focus was always "personal luxury". Where did the marketing campaign go wrong? In not conveying the difference? No, in the author's opinion, the problem came when Thunderbird verved.... away from the personal luxury and tried to be all things. The creation of a four door was contrary to the target market. The consumer was confused and rightfully so.

Wikipedia shares with us that Ford produced "21,380 units for 1957, company executives felt the car could do even better, leading to a substantial redesign of the car for 1958." The subsequent redesigned to date now total eleven. To many car enthusiasts, the redesigns have simply over used the brand name.

Eleven Generations of the Ford Thunderbird

  • Generations
    • 1 First Generation (1955–1957)

    • 2 Second Generation (1958–1960)

    • 3 Third Generation (1961–1963)

    • 4 Fourth Generation (1964–1966)

    • 5 Fifth Generation (1967–1971)

    • 6 Sixth Generation (1972–1976)

    • 7 Seventh Generation (1977–1979)

    • 8 Eighth Generation (1980–1982)

    • 9 Ninth Generation (1983–1988)

    • 10 Tenth Generation (1989–1997)

    • 11 Eleventh Generation (2002–2005)

Wheelbase Throughout the Ages

1956 102.0 inches

1958 113.0 inches

1967 117.0 inches

(Introduction of the Big Birds 115 inches for the 2 door; and for the 4 door 117 inches)

1972 214.0 inches

1975 225.0 inches

1977 215.5 inches

1980 200.4 inches

1983 197.6 inches

Production and Sales Review Throughout the Decades

Production Statistics of the Ford Thunderbird

1954 Sales Projection 10,000; Actual Sales 16,155

1956 Ford sold 15,631

1957 21,380

1958 37,892 sold

1959 optional V8 introduced - sales climbed even higher to 67,456

(57,195 Thunderbird coupes and 10,261 convertibles on the road this model year.)

1960 broke sales records yet again with 92,843 sold

(80,938 Thunderbird coupes and 11,860 convertibles during this model year.)

1961 73,051 sold

1962 68,127 coupes and 9,844 convertibles being built and sold.

1964 92,465

1973 87,269

1974 58,443

1975 42,685

1976 52,935

1977 318,140

1978 333,767

1979 284,141

1984 170,533

1985 151,851

1986 163,695


Edmunds Reports - Ford Execs Vindicated in 1960

Many have argued that the change from the 2 seater to the 4 seater was the death of the true design beauty of the ultimate American luxury car and yet Edmunds reports:

"When your company sells 92,798 cars under a brand name that three years earlier had been proud to sell 21,380, Ford's executives could only feel one way about the move from two- to four-seat Thunderbirds: vindicated."

Tonneau Cover

The "Sports Roadster" package introduced in 1962 included a cover over the rear seats with a stylish fiberglass "tonneau". This cover included the raised seatbacks for both the remaining seats.

Tonneau Definition: " a. a detachable cover to protect the rear part of an open car when it is not carrying passengers b. a similar cover that fits over all the passenger seats, but not the driver's, in an open vehicle"

Racing Kit

A few Thunderbirds were also sold with a "racing kit" - a Paxton centrifugal supercharger heaving into their Holley four-barrel carburetor to make a thrilling 300 hp.

Continental Kit

"Continental Kit" was now standard that mounted the spare tire outboard of the car on the rear bumper. This cleared up more space for luggage in the shallow trunk.

Bullet Birds

Bullet Birds were rounded.

Jet Birds aka Sculpted Bird

The generation following the Bullet Birds became known as the "Jet Birds" because they were squared off and sharp similar to the shape of a jet.

Big Birds

Unibody construction was abandoned as the all-new 1967 Thunderbird was now built on the ladder frame similar to (and on the same massive scale) as that under the full-size Fords

M-Code Most Collectible

"The M-Code Sports Roadster is generally considered the most collectible Thunderbird made since the original '55 to '57 models."

Unibody Structures

unibody structures, back in the late '50s this was a big deal.

Speed Sensitive Wipers

The 2002 Ford Thunderbird Neiman Marcus Edition included "speed sensitive wipers." Speed sensitive wipers are a safety innovation that serve to "automatically sense when rain, snow or other debris are blocking the windshield and turn on at an optimal speed to keep the windshield clear."

The mechanism that makes this work is an infrared beam to sense any debris - sand, rain or snow.

Read more: What Are Speed Sensitive Wipers?

Why Was the Porthole Introduced?

The addition of a circular porthole window was a standard feature in 1957. The purpose was stated "to improve rearward visibility."

Purist continue even today to purse the body lines without the porthole. The special orders of Thunderbirds without portholes in 1957 was a rare event and greatly coveted even today, decades later.

Clever Horseless Carriages

These old time commercials were the first commercials and truly were targeted for the "clever horseless carriages".

Once I read about Howard Colman and how his children labelled his "garage" a barn for cars! Oh, how times have changed. We forget so quickly how our frame of reference is shaped by the technology around us - whether it is the barns or the smart phones. We live our lives in reference to the common every day things we see and do.

Let these commercials take you take a couple of decades and recall the wonders of the automobile - an invention that replaced the carriages with horses - the first and ever lasting "clever horseless carriage".

1956 Ford Thunderbird Commercial with Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby Commercial for Thunderbird

If you don't remember the old commercials or if you are not old enough to remember the commercials, you must play these videos to remind you how revolutionary this vehicle was - look at the room in side, pretty roomy and the hails of the new assembly line! My favorite is the telescopic twist! Stay tune til the end for the "full wardrobe".

1957 Ford Thunderbird Commercial

1957 Reshaped Front Bumper and Larger Grille and Tail Fins

In 1957, the fourth year of production, the Thunderbird was crafted a new front bumper along with a larger grille, tail fins, and larger tail lamps - a new front and a new rear but all the same great Thunderbird styling.

Art Drawing of 1957 Thunderbird

2002 Ford Thunderbird Chrome Wheels

Click thumbnail to view full-size
7 section  ~ 21 spoke Wheel Neiman Marcus Ford Thunderbird 2002Neiman Marcus logo on the doors of the 2002 Special Edition Ford Thunderbird
7 section  ~ 21 spoke Wheel Neiman Marcus Ford Thunderbird 2002
7 section ~ 21 spoke Wheel Neiman Marcus Ford Thunderbird 2002 | Source
Neiman Marcus logo on the doors of the 2002 Special Edition Ford Thunderbird
Neiman Marcus logo on the doors of the 2002 Special Edition Ford Thunderbird | Source

2002 Neiman Marcus Special Edition Ford Thunderbird

One of only 200 ever produced - Special Edition 2002 Ford Thunderbird
One of only 200 ever produced - Special Edition 2002 Ford Thunderbird | Source

Neiman Marcus Edition 2002 Ford Thunderbird

For the Christmas catalog for Neiman Marcus in 2000, 200 special edition cars were offered and sold out in 2 hours and 15 minutes, breaking all the sales records at the time. The orders were taken and delivered late September 2001. The 2002 edition was very special with the only Thunderbird ever produced with the porthole glass etched with the Thunderbird emblem. Other special features included the 6 CD changer and speed sensitive windshield wipers.

Thunderbird with Blue Angel

1957 Ford Thunderbird with the Blue Angels
1957 Ford Thunderbird with the Blue Angels

Fun Facts About the Ford Thunderbird and "The Burnett"

Fun Fact!

The car known around the world as the Thunderbird was originally named “The Burnett” and was later shortened to just “Burnetti” (because the development team thought it sounded more European). The original name was in honor of William E. Burnett, Chief Design Engineer for Ford Motor Company. Highly respected for his eye for design during the glory days of Ford’s 1950’s production, Mr. Burnett led the original development team for the Thunderbird in 1953. While not related, the current owner is proud to share the same last name and passion for the Fabulous Thunderbird!

Thunderbird on the Tarmac where the Airborne Thunderbirds Land
Thunderbird on the Tarmac where the Airborne Thunderbirds Land
Thunderbirds in Flight
Thunderbirds in Flight | Source
1955 Ford Thunderbird
1955 Ford Thunderbird

Did you know the product life cycle of this great American automobile before?

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Did you know the reason for the port hole?

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How do you like the Thunderbird best - with or without the port hole?

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