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Car of the Week: 1958-1960 Ford Thunderbirds

The second generation of the Ford Thunderbird expanded the bird's lines.
Car of the Week 2020

Surveying the impact of the 1958-1960 Thunderbird

1959 Thunderbird convertible

1959 Thunderbird convertible

The design had to be changed — no question about it. But with that change would come a shift in the direction of the Thunderbird concept.

It was early in 1956 when corporate thinkers at Ford Motor Co. began to press their ideas into practical form for the next generation of Thunderbird. The 1955 version was a sporty, personal car all the way around, but in an American manner. It was not meant to navigate the narrow streets and roads of Europe, nor was it intended to climb mountains. It could do those things, of course, but the car was designed with American roads and driving patterns in mind. It handled more like an American passenger car and not like a European sports car. Its suspension was American, its appearance was American and its drivers would be (mainly) American.

But there was one hugely significant drawback in the minds of select Ford thinkers. The car was impractical since it was intended for driver and one passenger. This limited sales and eliminated most families in search of a vehicle that could carry their bunch on vacations, short trips to grandma and grandpa, to school, to church and beyond. Ford relied on repeat business, and that meant families growing with Ford ownership would instill future Ford sales upon youthful minds. So it was an important focus for the company.

1958 Thunderbird convertible.

1958 Thunderbird convertible.

Granted, Ford had made convertible coupes, even with rumble seats, in its early days. But as the late 1950s and early 1960s loomed, that styling was passé. Ford’s meat-and-potato trade was based on family transport for the masses. A sports car motif was very limited amid that scope. It was possibly realistic if a second car was opted by families, even if that meant the kids had to stay home while Mom and Pop rekindled their youth in the small T-Bird.

This type of thinking was wishful more than accurate, so Ford targeted the personal luxury theme of the first-generation T-Bird, and made it available to more. More passengers, and more buyers. In doing so, it created the mold for a new personal luxury car category.

The second generation of the Thunderbird was to be hatched in the new Wixom, Mich., plant, slated for initial operation on April 15 of 1957. Also issuing from the plant was to be the Lincoln line. The T-Bird would be in prestigious company as production was planned.

1960 Thunderbird with the rare, optional sunroof and Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels.

1960 Thunderbird with the rare, optional sunroof and Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels.

The Thunderbird for 1958 was redesigned in concept to be a four-passenger vehicle with front bucket seats split by a console, and individual seating positions for the rear seat passengers. Granted, the new Thunderbird also carried sporty exterior lines that set it apart from other Ford products of the era. In contrast to the first-generation Thunderbird design, its features were bolder, larger and deeply sculpted in metal. Single headlamps became duals while the frontal appearance still echoed the first generation T-Bird. Gone was the rounded and removable hardtop of the 1955-1957 design. In its place was a fixed, square-topped coupe that made the car look like a two-passenger car at a quick glance. The car was also to be offered as a convertible. The Thunderbird’s wheelbase was stretched to 113 inches, nearly a foot longer than its original 102-inch span. Construction for the 1958 was unit-body form, a trendy move engulfing the thinking of American car companies at that time.

The 1958 model started its production run on January 13 of that year. First came the coupe. The convertible began its run on April 15. The cars were available at dealerships in June, which made it considerably late to buy a 1958 model given the fact that more than half of that model year had passed!

1958 Thunderbird Morning Star show car with unique wheel covers and a pleated headliner.

1958 Thunderbird Morning Star show car with unique wheel covers and a pleated headliner.

What was standard on that 1958 Thunderbird was a large, big-block eight of 352 cubic inches. The Lincoln version — with 430 cubic inches — was in store for the 1959 Thunderbird. The 1958 version cushioned riders with rear coil spring suspension, which was expected to be part of an air suspension system that never came to pass. For 1959, Thunderbird made a shift to rear leaf springs as the air idea dissipated.

Since production stood at more than 16,000 units for 1955, slipped several hundred for 1956, but rebounded to more than 21,000 for 1957, officials hoped the 1958 version would set the pace for an increase in future Thunderbird demand.

It did. Production of the 1958 coupe vindicated the larger-car version with more than 35,700 seeing production, and the companion convertible contributed more than 2,100 additional sales. The next year, 1959, saw a jump to more than 57,000 coupes and a whopping 10,200 convertibles. For 1960, the hardtop coupe nearly reached 78,500 units while its convertible variation was a hair less than 12,000. The 1960 version carried the sunroof option, which is appreciated by collectors today.

As with any type of car, there are challenges for collectors. The Thunderbirds of 1958-1960 were rigidly constructed. Ample welds in body construction and careful attention to production at the new assembly plant at Wixom resulted in prideful results. What was not foreseen was how dings could beome highly pronounced on the sculpted sides. Of course, dirt and salt and the adverse results of moisture were particularly harmful to the T-Bird’s unibody. Like other cars of the era, there were the typical pot metal issues, but as time passed, T-Birds could become plagued with weak suspension problems that can be expected for cars well over half a century old.

So, how did the first owners of 1955-1957 Thunderbirds accept the four-passenger version?

The inclination was to hold their early model. After all, many Ford owners had this in mind when they bought a new car. They generally planned to keep it between five to seven years. But when they wanted a successor, it was a roll of the dice as to which car company or model would be the successor to their dreams. Gone was the two-person car in the Ford line. Yet, the four-person Thunderbird would be available, if the buyer made the shift to this concept of a larger personal car.

Unpainted 1959 Thunderbird coupe body travels down the assembly line.

Unpainted 1959 Thunderbird coupe body travels down the assembly line.

This mandated a shift in the initial owner’s motoring desires. If early T-Bird owners made the jump to the four-passenger version, they realized more power, greater luxury and significantly more space. Though not as ample in space and luxury as Lincoln models, the four-seat T-Bird was a step upward for the Thunderbird name. Yet, the car retained the aura of a winner by name and lineage.

Overall demand among collectors has varied. The first-generation Thunderbirds retain high demand, as one might expect from the initial run of a hot new model, and the rarity of sportier two-passenger cars from American manufacturers. “Firsts” always account for something in value. The 1958-1960 T-Bird offerings lagged for years in collector demand and were, for a time, the target of negativism, much as the high-finned Cadillac of 1959 was seen by too many as a gaudy blunder. Not true for either today! The swirls of demand in the car industry for uniqueness and personal expression had deemed the second-generation Thunderbird and the high-finned Cadillac as cult cars. This they are, in all truth, since they reflect the era in which they were made — when bigger was better, stronger was demanded and luxury sold cars as a third feature.

Practicality leads a good number of collectors toward the four-passenger, second-generation T-Birds. They offer good quality, much more reasonable prices in comparison to the first-generation models and fine roadability for tours.

Collector circles today call the 1958-1960 version the “Square ’Birds.” In a totally honest description of the impact of the models, they may be called the “foursquare version” which, by application of the term’s meaning, stood for firm, and unwavering conviction, forthright in the aim for success in pleasing owners.

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