Car of the Week: 1955 Ford Thunderbird

There were 5,000 names considered for the all-new 1955 Thunderbird from Ford. Hep Cat, Beaver, and Detroiter were early, yet undistinguished frontrunners. Also suggested were Runabout, Arcturus, Savile, El Tigre, and Coronado. Ford executive Louis D. Crusoe was unimpressed and offered a $250 suit to anyone who could do better. A young Ford stylist, Alden “Gib” Giberson, submitted the name that would quickly earn approval and eventually acclaim: Thunderbird. He thought of the name because he had once lived in the Southwest, where the legend of the Thunderbird was well known. According to that legend, the Thunderbird ruled the sky and was a divine helper of man. The great wings — invisible to mortal man — created the winds and the thunder and provided rains in the arid desert, where fate had brought the Native Americans. The name was fitting for a car that has become an American icon.

Chief Stylist Frank Hersey, also a Southwesterner and an enthusiast, spotted the name on Giberson’s list and picked it for the new car. When it came time for Giberson to claim his prize, the modest young designer passed on what would have been the equivalent of a $800-$1,000 suit today and settled for $95 and an extra pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue.

With the name selected and a couple of last-minute appearance changes made, the Ford Thunderbird was ready to go to market. Its initial public appearance took place on February 20, 1954, at Detroit’s first postwar auto show. Thunderbird No. 1 came off the line at Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn, Michigan, assembly plant on Sept. 9, 1954. The press announcement of the new Ford sports car was September 23. It went on sale Oct. 22, 1954, starting a legend that would grow with each new generation of Thunderbird cars.

The 1955 Thunderbird was more of a personal car concept than a sports car because of a decision that Crusoe made during the winter of 1953-1954. The car’s more luxurious character created the personal-luxury car segment of the automotive market where the Thunderbird would enjoy almost uninterrupted leadership for decades.

The car was immediately a smash hit. Buyers of all ages and all walks of life described the car in terms such as “wonderful,” a “masterpiece,” “advanced automobile” and a “morale builder that is real fun and sport to drive.”

The magic of the name and the impact of the car made it a natural merchandising tie-in for manufacturers of a wide range of goods — coats, jackets, shirts, shoes, rugs, furniture, and toys, to name a few. Magazines also featured the Thunderbird in promotional campaigns. The Powercar Company of Mystik, Connecticut, offered the Thunderbird Jr., a child’s car powered by a 6-volt car battery and a Ford starter motor. Mechanix Illustrated offered a full-size Thunderbird as first prize in its 1955 Build Words Contest. Cluett-Peabody used the Thunderbird to promote and sell Arrow shirts. Worsted-Tex marketed Thunderbird-inspired coats, and many other clothiers used the car in promotions.

The public went for the Thunderbird in a big way, placing more than 3,500 orders in the first 10-day selling period. The planning volume for the entire model year was only 10,000 units. Ford had explored an uncharted market for unique transportation and came up with a winner.

The original Thunderbird had many outstanding selling features. Its styling was less radical than that of the other American sports cars. L.D. Crusoe, Ford Motor Company vice president and general manager of Ford Division, insisted that the new car be based on a full-sized Ford for “family” identity and to ensure that major parts would be interchangeable with other 1955 Fords. Parts sharing cut development time, too.

Designers were able to skip the time-consuming job of making mock-ups or models, going straight to the creation of full-sized drawings of the T-Bird’s profile instead. The car’s dimensions were based on those of the Corvette and the Jaguar XK-120. To save even more time, a used Ford sedan was obtained to serve as a designers’ “mule.” It was cut down with a torch and re-welded to fashion a small Ford with a 102-inch wheelbase.

Although the car-buying public got a few peeks at the T-Bird early in 1954, it wasn’t until October 22 that the production version was officially unveiled. Its introductory retail price was $2,695, less federal taxes and delivery and handling charges. This compared to $2,700 for a 1955 Corvette. Later, the price was increased when a fiberglass hardtop became standard equipment. Looking very much like a scaled-down Ford, the Thunderbird was trim, though not sub-compact.

The standard telescoping steering wheel allowed large T-Bird drivers to get comfortable inside the car. The styling of the car was quite pleasing. Its “frenched” headlights gave it a forward-thrusting look at the front, while the crisp tail fins seemed to “flip-off” a little message to every slower car passed on the highway. They seemed to be saying, “I’m the latest and the greatest thing for the young and the young at heart.”

In its September 1955 issue, Motor Trend selected the Thunderbird as one of the six best-looking cars of 1955. “Overall consistency of design. Width, height, length ratios show excellent proportion,” noted Motor Trend. “Its small hardtop version has a very classic look.” The low, square Ford look emphasized the car’s width and the production version featured only minimal use of chrome. “Pretty well de-chromed and clean-looking,” Motor Trend said. “First and foremost a car for comfort and looks.”

For a 1955 American car, the Thunderbird offered excellent driving characteristics. Vision over the hood was exceptionally good, as the cowl stood just 37.2 inches above the surface of the road. The wraparound windshield created some distortion at the corners. Inside, the operator was greeted with a modern-looking dashboard featuring a tachometer, “idiot lights” (to monitor oil pressure and electrical output) and a clock with a sweep second hand that was great for rallying. A firm ride made the first Thunderbird feel like a sports car. Still, it was somewhat prone to understeering and would break loose in a tight turn, before drifting around it like a competition racer. However, it hung in the corners well enough to take them at 10 to 15 mph faster than most contemporary, full-size American cars.

The 1956 Ward’s Automotive Yearbook listed Sept. 7, 1954, as the day that Thunderbird production began, but the Classic Thunderbird Club International reports that the earliest production unit had serial number P5FH100005 and was made on September 9, 1954. This car was referred to in the Oct. 4, 1954, issue of Sports Illustrated, which carried three pages of Thunderbird coverage entitled “America’s newest Sports Car.” The writer documented that the car was “not a pilot model Thunderbird, but the Number 1 production model.”

In a variety of contemporary magazine road tests, the Thunderbird with the 198-hp version of the 292-cid V-8 did 0 to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds, 9.5 seconds, 10.75 seconds and 11 seconds. Typical quarter-mile times were given as 16.9 seconds, 17.1 seconds and 17.75 seconds (at 83 mph). Top speed was recorded as 120 mph. Thunderbirds were being raced before the year ended. They became fairly popular in the “A” Sports Cars class at drag races across the country. The T-Birds got noticeably faster after firms such as Edelbrock Equipment Company began offering dual four-barrel and triple two-barrel carburetor intake manifolds and high-speed distributors designed specifically for Thunderbirds.

THE FIRST T-BIRD
In the summer of 1965, a Thunderbird owner named George Watts found the remains of serial number P5FH100005 sitting outside a small, Southern California body shop. It had only 78,000 miles on its odometer, but had deteriorated from obvious neglect and improper storage. The car’s upholstery was bad, both tops were missing and it had been repainted several times.

Originally black, the car showed evidence of being refinished twice, once in white and a second time in blue. The man who owned the car had an unsatisfied loan with a finance company. He also owed the body shop owner for some work he had commissioned. The bills on the car totaled $500. This situation helped Watts purchase the remains for a price he considered fair. After towing the T-Bird home, Watts checked the serial number. He found it was very low. He thought it was the fifth 1955 T-Bird made. A restoration was carried out while his research into the car’s background continued.

In February 1966, a letter from Ford Motor Company’s General Counsel arrived at Watts’ home. It revealed that he had the first production Thunderbird. Watts put 10,000 additional miles on the car, driving it until 1973. He then did a restoration and repainted P5FH100005 in its original Raven Black color. Automotive historian James F. Petrik researched Thunderbird factory records and reported that a Thunderbird with serial number P5FH100004 had been discovered, but the Classic Thunderbird Club International agrees that P5FH100005 is considered the first production vehicle. According to Ward’s, Thunderbird production ended August 26, 1955. However, James F. Petrik discovered that a Thunderbird with serial number P5FH260557 was the last 1955 Ford product built. He found that the invoice for this car was typed on September 14, 1955, and that it was constructed on September 16, 1955.

PRODUCTION
Model #    Body Style #    Body Type    MSRP    Weight       Production Total
H               40                      2d Conv        $2,944    2,980 lbs.    16,156

STANDARD EQUIPMENT
292-cid Y-block V-8 engine, four-barrel carburetor, dual exhausts, 6-volt electrical system, 40-amp generator, 90 amp-hr 6-volt battery, three-speed manual transmission with all-helical gears and floor-mounted shift lever Hotchkiss drive, ball-joint front suspension, five-leaf spring rear suspension, five 6.70 x 15 tubeless tires, vinyl upholstery, Astra-Dial control panel with illuminated control knobs, 150-mph Astra-Dial speedometer, parcel compartment with locking-type push-button latch, inside hood release, tachometer, Telechron (GE) electric clock with sweep second hand, power seat, left-hand outside rearview mirror, full-width seat with foam rubber padding, adjustable steering wheel, built-in armrests, floor carpet, ashtray, four-way illuminated starter-ignition switch, cigar lighter, panel courtesy light with integral switch and automatic door switches, rearview mirror on windshield upper molding, dual horns, half-circle steering wheel horn ring, and (as a running addition) glass-fiber hardtop. Some Thunderbirds shipped to Europe had metric speedometers that read from 0 to 240 km/hr, which was basically the same as 0 to 150 mph.

ENGINES
Base V-8 (with synchromesh or overdrive): 90-degree V-8. Overhead valves. Cast-iron block. Bore and stroke: 3.75 x 3.30 in. Displacement: 292 cid. Compression ratio: 8.1:1. Brake hp: 193 at 4400 rpm. Taxable hp: 45. Torque: 280 lbs.-ft. at 2600 rpm. Five main bearings. Solid valve lifters. Crankcase capacity: 5 qt. (add 1 qt. with new oil filter). Cooling system capacity: 19 qt. Carburetor: Holley four-barrel. Code P. (Early reports gave the horsepower rating of this engine as 190.)
Base V-8 (with Ford-O-Matic): Overhead valve. Cast-iron block. Bore and stroke: 3.75 x 3.30 in. Displacement: 292 cid. Compression ratio: 8.50:1. Brake hp: 198 at 4400 rpm. Taxable hp: 45. Torque: 286 lbs.-ft. at 2500 rpm. Five main bearings. Solid valve lifters. Crankcase capacity: 5 qt. (add 1 qt. with new oil filter). Cooling system capacity: 19 qt. Carburetor: Holley four-barrel. Code P.

CHASSIS
Wheelbase: 102 in. Overall length: 175.3 in. Overall width: 70.3 in. Overall height: 50.2 in. Ground clearance: 5.5 in. Front tread: 56 in. Rear tread: 56 in. Front headroom: (with hardtop) 32.2 in. Front hip room: 58.8 in. Front shoulder room: 53.3 in. Front legroom: 45.4 in. Top of door height: 34.2 in. Tires: 6.70 x 15 four-ply. Brake swept area: 175 sq. in. Turning diameter: 36 ft. Turns lock-to-lock: 3.5. Steering ratio: 20.0:1. Steering wheel: 17 in. diameter. Weight distribution: 50/50. Chassis type: X-frame. Front suspension: Ball-joints, coil springs, tube shocks and stabilizer. Rear suspension: Composite axle, 5-leaf springs, double-acting shock absorbers. Steering: Symetrical linkage type. Steering wheel: Three-inch in-and-out adjustable. Front brakes: 11-in. diameter double-sealed. Rear brakes: 11-in. diameter double-sealed. Standard transmission: Three-speed synchromesh with helical gears, ratios: (first) 2.32:1, (second) 1.48:1, (third) 1:1 and (reverse) 2.82:1. Optional transmission: Planetary overdrive with planetary gears, 27-mph cut-in speed and 0.70:1 ratio. Optional transmission: Ford-O-Matic torque converter transmission with planetary gears, ratios: (drive) 1.48:1 and 1.00 x torque converter with a 2.1:1 maximum ratio at stall, (low) 2.44:1 x torque converter, (reverse) 2.0:1 x torque converter. Standard rear axle with synchromesh transmission: 3.73:1, optional 4.10:1 axle was optional. Standard rear axle with overdrive: 3.92:1. Standard rear axle with Ford-o-matic transmission: 3.31:1.

OPTIONS
Full-flow oil filter. Oil bath air cleaner. Four-way power seat. Swift-Sure power brakes ($40). Master-Guide power steering.($92). Power-Lift windows ($70). I-Rest tinted safety glass ($25). Ford-O-Matic Drive ($215). Overdrive ($110). White-sidewall tires ($30). Tachometer. Electric clock. Cigarette lighter. Convertible fabric top in lieu of hardtop ($75). Convertible fabric top in addition to hardtop was originally $290 until glass-fiber hardtop became standard equipment. Special fuel and vacuum pump unit. MagicAire Heater ($85). Radio ($100). Rear fender shields. Full wheel covers. Simulated wire wheels. Engine dress-up kit ($25). Windshield washers ($10).

COLLECTIBILITY
Compared with Chevrolet’s sophomore Corvette two-seater sports car that sold 700 in 1955, the new Ford Thunderbird two-seater’s production run of 16,155 out-of-the-gate must have surprised even FoMoCo officials. The sleek new T-bird was reworked right up until it reached dealerships in October 1954, with its initial Fairlane-inspired side trim deleted at the last minute. Somewhat backwards to conventional offerings, this initial T-bird had a detachable fiberglass hardtop as its standard offering while the nylon soft top was the option.

Even with the revisions and differing standard equipment, the sporty T-bird caught the fancy of the auto-buying public and remains more than a half-century later one of most sought-after collector cars, both for investment purposes and driving enjoyment.

A pristine example, especially if equipped with both soft and hardtop, will sell for $60,000 to $70,000. If one of the rare prototypes that left the factory with the Fairlane-style side trim is discovered and authenticated as real, the value is inestimable due to its rarity and historical significance.

COLLECTOR VALUES
1955 Thunderbird
No. 1: condition: $66,000
No. 2: $46,200
No. 3: $29,700
No. 4: $13,200
*NOTE: Add $1,800 for hardtop

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