The namesake of the Ford Thunderbird is a mythical creature known to many native North American tribes. First introduced to the public in 1955, this automobile was a a two-seat sports car, but unlike the Corvette. Ford marketed it as a personal luxury sports car, creating a new and different market segment for the discerning public. Over the years and for 11 generations, the Thunderbird got larger with rear seating added and then larger still before it returned to its roots as a two-seat luxury sports car. As of 2005, when the last unit rolled out, there were 4.4 million Thunderbirds with a multitude of variations.

Ford Thunderbird 1959 interior

© Peeler37 | 1955 Ford Thunderbird

Before the 1955 Thunderbird was finally a reality, Henry Ford II worked with designers on many variations with prototypes produced. The underpowered Vega was the last before they arrived at the T’bird prototype. The company wanted European looks, but the features and appointments had to be original American ones. The names considered were Apache, Falcon, Eagle, Tropicale, Hawaiian, Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang. The name “Thunderbird” wasn’t even on the list; the choice was a last minute one in 1953. It was given a go for production with 1955 set as the model year for it to be in showrooms. This was a knee-jerk response to Chevy Corvette landing on the market in 1953, and the plan had to be put into high gear. It took one year from idea until the final prototype, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in February ’54.

Ford Thunderbird 1956 rear

© Jiawangkun | 1956 Ford Thunderbird

Some of the body styling is similar to all mid-1950’s Ford products such as beauty rings on the round, single headlight configuration and the same small tail fins, but the T’bird is on 102-inch wheelbase; for a sleek look, a nonfunctional hood scoop, fender skirts, and exhaust pipes that exit through two guards bolted to the rear bumper are added features. The porthole windows were a no-cost option, if you liked them. The engine is a 292-cubic-inch (4.8L) V8 design borrowed from the Mercury division, and the speedometer shows 150 mph (240 km/h) insinuating it had more power but mechanically was no further advanced than any other vehicle Ford had on the market.

Ford Thunderbird 1956

© Steirus | 1956 Ford Thunderbird

The car was a big success, and Ford thumbed its nose at Chevrolet and the Corvette because the Thunderbird outsold it by 23 to 1 with 16,155 units sold in 1955. Not wanting to hurt a good thing, the ’56 version was very similar, but there was an added option of the Continental kit, the spare tire mounted in a flashy case sitting on the rear bumper giving a lot more storage area in the trunk. Another added optional choice was the removable porthole, hard-top roof. The roof was a popular choice, but the added weight created some steering problems with this version.

The convertible version looked great, very sleek and streamlined with the soft top folding down into the trunk without a trace, beautiful! The hinged trunk lid raised and lowered hydraulically, operating in conjunction with the roof, when activated from one switch on the dash; this is  an awesome feat of engineering. The system uses a maze of electrical solenoids and hydraulic cylinders that all had to work together for the top to raise and lower properly. The hydraulic system was trouble-free for the most part, but the electric wires and the solenoids in particular were subject to failure at any time without warning. Another problem with this system is the roof often had leaks so water rained into the luxury passenger compartment.