Thunderbird's recipe for success

How Ford mastered the sports-personal niche with the Thunderbird
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Tim Natarus owns this beautiful 1961 T-Bird Indy Pace Car. On these cars, white convertible tops set off a special shade of gold metallic paint.

Tim Natarus owns this beautiful 1961 T-Bird Indy Pace Car. On these cars, white convertible tops set off a special shade of gold metallic paint.

Ford’s Thunderbird started the sports-personal car trend that hit its stride in the ’60s. Like other car labels, “sports-personal car” has strengths and weaknesses. Trade publications such as Ward’s Automotive Yearbook originally called them “specialty cars.” The “personal” separates these vehicles from “family” cars. They are mainly two-door cars with limited rear seating room. The “sports” part of the name infers a sporty character, although T-Bird-like ’60s cars weren’t slap-the-leather-and-damn-the-wind sports cars.

There were cars of this “flavor” in the Classic era, such as front-wheel-drive L-29 Cord Cabriolets and Ruxton roadsters with wild, striped paint jobs. The Auburn Speedster was the two-seat T-Bird of the ’30s, while the Packard Darrin was a prewar preview of the T-Bird Sports Roadster. Can you see a spiritual link between the open 810/812 Cords and the T-Bird?

Practicality ruled immediately after World War II ended. With labor strife and material shortages, new cars stayed in short supply. When assembly lines finally started rolling out cars again, the focus was on building family transporters. Many automakers brought trucks and sedans back first, then later phased sportier body styles back into production.

A very well-preserved 1963 Thunderbird two-door hardtop. The Thunderbird trailed only the Pontiac Grand Prix in popularity in the personal-luxury niche in 1963.

A very well-preserved 1963 Thunderbird two-door hardtop. The Thunderbird trailed only the Pontiac Grand Prix in popularity in the personal-luxury niche in 1963.

The postwar car drought ended in 1950 and things returned to the point where there were more cars than buyers. From that point on, automakers had to create artificial demand for their products. Cars were no longer selling themselves; regular design updates and continuing product improvements were needed to bring in customers.

This was also the time of the sports car craze in America. Soldiers serving in Europe had been introduced to British, German and Italian sports cars that were unlike anything sold here. Some such cars made their way to the United States with returning G.I.s. Detroit reacted with its own designs for a sporty two-seat car. By 1953, Chevrolet’s Corvette was on the market. The following year brought the Kaiser-Darrin and, in 1955, Ford’s T-Bird bowed.

American manufacturers found small, two-seat cars to have limited appeal in the United States. The two-seat T-Bird lasted only three years and the sporty Ford eventually found success as a large, four-seater. In fact, there would even be four-door T-Birds in the ’60s.

Another great T-Bird in Tim Natarus’ collection is this 1963 Monaco Edition.

Another great T-Bird in Tim Natarus’ collection is this 1963 Monaco Edition.

As the battleship-grayness of the war years turned to the pastel colors of postwar America, sports-personal cars experienced a revival as sort of “super-sized” versions of the T-Bird-Corvette-Kaiser Darrin trio. The first two-door hardtops to arrive were merchandised as specialty cars. Car buyers of the day called them “hardtop convertibles” because they had the look of a ragtop with the convenience of a fixed-position steel roof.

Raymond Loewy’s award-winning ’53 Studebaker Starliner coupe captured the sports-personal concept so well that it eventually wound up in the Museum of Modern Art. Other cars that fit the bill included the Buick Skylark, the Cadillac Eldorado, the Chrysler 300, the Hudson Italia, the Nash-Healey, the Oldsmobile Starfire and the supercharged ’57 Pontiac Bonneville convertible. Still, it was the up-sized, back-seated ’58 Thunderbird that cleared the bases and drove the runners home in terms of sales numbers.

In addition to its stand-apart styling, the 1958 “Squarebird” featured an aircraft-like cockpit with front bucket seats, a full-length center console and bucket-type rear seats. A wide roof C pillar gave the T-Bird coupe’s cabin a more intimate feel. The 1958 Thunderbird was like a giant sports car and it was about as personalized as cars came in that era.

The ’58 Thunderbird defied gravity! While sales of all other American cars except the Nash Rambler dropped like lead balloons in that recession year, the sporty Ford saw its sales soar to 53,400 units — nearly as high as the combined total of 1955, 1956 and 1957 T-Birds. Its share of total Ford output climbed from 1.3 percent to 3.8 percent. The “Squarebird” would have been an even bigger home run had it not been for the temporary turndown in the national economy, which spurred increased interest in small, foreign economy cars. This sudden market shift lasted several years and kept the lid on a ready-to-explode sports-personal segment.

By 1963, that lid was finally ready to blow. The American economy had undergone a miraculous recovery. The demand for sporty equipment such as bucket seats, floor shifts and consoles steadily increased. There was also a surge in demand for sporty two-door hardtops, which hit a four-year high in 1962 with 15.5 percent of the total market. That number had been at 16.8 percent in 1958, before the economy-car wave started. It then declined to 14 percent (1959), 11.9 percent (1960) and 11 percent (1961) as buyers started scooping up economy cars. Enthusiasts were happy to see hardtops bounce back.

George Netzel brought his ’65 T-Bird to the Make-A-Wish car show in Milwaukee, Wis.

George Netzel brought his ’65 T-Bird to the Make-A-Wish car show in Milwaukee, Wis.

Enthusiasm is one thing — and an inspiring influence — but it was the economy that really drove the car market towards the “upscale” sports-personal cars. In the early ’60s, the disposable wealth of Americans was growing by $25 to $30 billion a year, which was enough by itself to buy all the cars, trucks, tires and parts made in a year! More than half of America’s families earned $7,000 per year and 25 percent had incomes greater than $10,000. Over three million households made more than $25,000 per year. This gave buying power to the people and allowed them to purchase cars on the basis of desire, rather than need. In other words, they could afford to be picky — and even ostentatious. This increased the demand for stylish cars with special features and equipment.

By 1964, American cars rode longer wheelbases with more body length and packed bigger engines. “Plush interiors adorned with wood grain steering wheels, bucket seats, offering all the comforts of air conditioning, stereo tapes and speed control devices — these are the signs of the times,” said Ward’s Automotive Yearbook. “Like the growing popularity of the hardtop body style (which is now the industry’s leader despite its higher cost) and the dressy vinyl top, they signify that the auto buying public is going first class.”

Changes in the ’64 sports-personal cars were modest. The T-Bird was the exception. B major restyling modernized the car and helped it fight its new competition from Buick’s 1963 Riviera. The ’65 T-Bird was mildly face lifted and included unique sequential tail lamps while front disc brakes were a new option. In ’66, T-Bird fans were treated to a pair of new vinyl-topped Sport Coupes with landau irons. The ’67 T-Bird was completely restyled and breaking the mold for cars in this segment was the aforementioned four-door sedan version.

In 1968, T-bird shoppers were offered a new four-door Town Sedan with the “baby-carriage” roof treatment, as well as a big 429-cubic-inch engine. Throughout the ’60s, even though the number of competitors in the sports-personal niche grew, the T-Bird was far and away the best-selling car in the segment, as the following chart illustrates:

1960s Sports Personal Numbers

T-Birds dominate the market

Now that we’ve surveyed the T-Bird’s success, let’s take a closer look at how the four-passenger T-Birds dominated their sports-personal car niche in the 1960s. Completely re-engineered and restyled for the first time, the four-passenger Thunderbird bowed in February 1958. The car was an immediate and enormous success with its 53,400-unit production run almost matching the total number of T-Birds made up to that point.

Another T-Bird at the Make-A-Wish show was Dale Lemminger’s red ’66 model.

Another T-Bird at the Make-A-Wish show was Dale Lemminger’s red ’66 model.

By 1960, Ford was selling five times as many T-Birds as it had when the car held two people. The ’60 model was the last “Squarebird” from the 1958-1960 generation. Like the others, the ’60 T-Bird rode on a 113-inch wheelbase. A 300-hp 352-cid V-8 supplied motivation. The suggested prices were $3,426 for the 3,799-pound two-door hardtop and $3,860 for the 3,897-pound convertible. Ford sold about seven hardtops for each convertible, so it was clear that T-Bird buyers were more interested in the personalized nature of the car than its sports car tradition.

If the Squarebird was a Buck Rogers machine, the cigar-shaped ’61 T-Bird was Sputnik on wheels. The pointed front end made the cars look like an amusement park rocket ride and the gigantic circular tail lamps resembled a jet’s exhaust outlets. A stroked 390-cid version of the old 352 was the sole engine in this “Battleship Galactica.” In their era, these low-slung cars were eye catchers and the fact that nothing else on the road looked like them emphasized their “personalized transportation” image. They were cool!

T-Birds for ’62 and ’63 didn’t change much. A few styling details were tweaked and a 340-hp “Thunderbird Special” tri-carb 390 was released. Landau and Sport Roadster models were added to the offerings. The Landau was a hardtop with the “baby carriage” roof treatment and the Sport Roadster was a ragtop with a fiberglass cap covering the rear seat to make it into a giant “two-seat sports car.” The Sport Roadster included wire wheels. It was expensive — $5,439 — and didn’t sell well. That made it a rare car. Ford turned out just 1,882 of them and the ’63s were the rarest (455 built). The tonneau cover fits later T-Birds, too, and was often added as a dealer accessory item.

The classic look of the T-Bird was further accented in the 1964 redesign with a longer hood, a shorter roof line and all-new sculptured side panels. Wider-spaced and higher-set head lamps and a fully integrated bumper and grille contributed to the leading sports-personal car’s distinctive appearance. The massive rear bumper enclosed rectangular tail lamps. Options included reclining front bucket seats and seat belt retractors. Hardtop and Landau models had a Silent-Flo ventilation system with a vacuum-controlled rear vent. A 300-hp 390 was the only engine. The T-Bird had a 113.2-inch wheelbase and stretched 205.4 inches end to end. It was 52.6 inches high and 77.1 inches wide. Production climbed towards 100,000 units this year, but never quite achieved that level.

New features for ’65 included grille and trim, front disc brakes, “movie marquee” turn signals, a dome light for convertibles, keyless locking and reversible keys. On the standard equipment list was the 390-cid 300-hp V-8. Ford advertising often stressed an aircraft theme for the Thunderbird and a cockpit-inspired interior helped drive home the fact that this was a car designed for the driver’s personal taste. Most T-Birds carried a long list of extra-cost options and there was no shortage of luxury on the exterior or the inside of these cars.

The Thunderbird Town Landau Coupe was one of the best-looking new cars on the road in 1968.

The Thunderbird Town Landau Coupe was one of the best-looking new cars on the road in 1968.

The Town Landau and Town Hardtop were added to the Thunderbird line for ’66. The hardtop also returned and the convertible was back for its final appearance. Very few buyers opted for the open car and they are extremely rare. The “Town” look in the new models was created by eliminating the rear side window and extending the pillar to the front window. New extra-cost options included a 428-cid V-8, a Stereo-Sonic tape player, a fingertip-controlled Auto Pilot speed control system (integrated into the steering wheel) and an overhead console to hold the “idiot” lights that monitored various systems.

Ford was big on marketing studies in the ’60s, polling people from new-car shows to the Ford Rotunda at the New York World’s Fair. For the most part, surveys indicated that the T-Bird’s big appeal was as a luxury car, so Dearborn went more and more in that direction. A complete restyling for 1967 replaced the convertible with, of all things, a four-door Landau. Naturally, it was designed to be distinctive with suicide-style rear door hinging and a 117-inch wheelbase. Two-door models like the coupe and Landau Hardtop coupe had a 115-inch wheelbase. By giving buyers of four-door cars the opportunity to be a T-Bird owner, Ford boosted production by some 8,800 units, but only temporarily.

Minor styling changes were made to 1968 and 1969 models, but after the initial surge of enthusiasm for the four-door ’Bird, its popularity dropped from 25,000 units to under 16,000. And the two-door models of these years also proved unpopular. It seemed as if FoMoCo had changed the Thunderbird into too much of a luxury version of the standard Ford.

The look of the later T-Birds, while slightly unique, resembled a Galaxie or LTD of the same vintage. Ford had miscalculated. While buyers wanted luxury in their T-Birds, they continued to prefer a car that was more sporty and personalized than a standard Ford.

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