For the first fifty or so years of the company’s existence, the words ‘Ford’ and ‘Sports car’ would not normally have been heard in the same sentence. Come 1955 and that had changed.
Prompted by the arrival on the scene of the Chevrolet Corvette two years earlier, Ford in Detroit had decided to produce a motorcar to rival it. The outcome was the ‘Thunderbird’, which somewhat equivocally was described as a ‘personal luxury car’. With its 292 cubic-inch/4.8-litre V8 engine, manual or automatic transmission, and being only a two-seater with removable glass-fibre hardtop or as a convertible, plus its neat lines, the Thunderbird at least had sporting attributes.
How the name for the car came to be selected is a matter of some debate, but the Thunderbird in human history was a spiritual creature of the north-west coastal Native Americans and is variously described as a bird of power and strength, or the bearer of rain and prosperity.
The cars were produced at Ford’s plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and became available for the 1955 ‘season’, which actually started in October of the previous year. Over the following 12 months more than 16-thousand were sold, almost all on the home market. Outside of America the cars were scarce although they were theoretically available in Britain, and one was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1955. Only limited information about them was published in the European motoring press but the Thunderbird did appear in the first edition (1955) of that handy little volume: The Observer’s Book of Automobiles.
Quite when the cars became known in everyday parlance as the ‘T-Bird’ is unclear, but it was not until the American West Coast group the Beach Boys included reference to the abbreviated name in their 1964 hit song Fun, Fun, Fun, that awareness of the cars impinged on at least the younger generation in Britain. The pertinent part of the lyric is: “she’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’til her daddy takes the T-Bird away”, which was accompanied by the group’s surfin’ sound supported by what might be called a driving beat.
By the date of this song the Thunderbird had been radically changed from the original concept, which had only lasted for three seasons, and become a bloated four-seater which though it may have sold was about as attractive as a beached whale. One likes to think that when the Beach Boys sang their words about a T-Bird, it was one of the originals that they had in mind.