An America Classic – Ford Thunderbird

by: Brenda Williams

The Ford Thunderbird has been hailed as an American icon, preserved in film and song. The Beach Boys, the popular rock group of the 60’s, put the Thunderbird to music in their song, “Fun, Fun, Fun”

“And she’ll have fun, fun, fun… til her daddy takes the t-bird away”

One of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson, originally owned a 1955 T-bird. It is now in the Hollywood Stars Cars Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, fully restored with the Beach Boys’ autograph on the hood.

The T-bird is also remembered for her film debut in American Graffiti.

The T-bird was originally conceived to compete with the Chevrolet Corvette. The years following World War 2 witnessed the return of many veterans from the European front. While in Europe they had seen and fallen in love with the European sports cars. American manufactures took note of this and Chevrolet marketed the Corvette. So Ford was challenged to produce a competitor.

Three men were most instrumental in the creation of the original T-bird. Lewis D. Crusoe was a retired GM executive however Henry Ford II had enticed him to join Ford. George Walker was Ford’s chief stylist and a vice-president. Frank Hershey was a Ford designer.

Crusoe and Walker were visiting in Paris when Crusoe saw a sports car in the Grand Palais. They were impressed by the design and Walker then called Frank Hershey in Dearborn. Hershey started working on the design. It was to be an open car that would seat two passengers. It would be equipped with An Interceptor V8 engine and be capable of attaining a speed of over 100 miles per hour.

Although designed to compete with the Corvette, it wasn’t a true sports car. Ford conceived it as a personal luxury car.

For some reason, they encountered difficulty in creating a name for the car so Crusoe offered a prize, a $250 suit, to anyone who submitted an acceptable name. A stylist, Alden Giberson, entered a list with Thunderbird included.

The idea behind the name is controversial. Some sources say it was named for the Native American god of rain and prosperity. Palm Life Magazine stated the name came from an ultra exclusive housing district. It is also reported that Giberson got the idea when he witnessed an illusion of a bird struck by lightening during a storm.

The Thunderbird first met the American public at the Detroit Auto Show in February of 1954. However, it was not available at dealers until October of 1954. This model was a two-door convertible equipped with a V8 engine that could cruise between 110 and 120 miles per hour. The standard top was fiberglass but a fabric convertible top was an option. Featuring four way powered seats and push button interior doors, the T-bird was actually a small personal luxury car not a sports car.

However, it definitely appealed to the American public at the time and in the first ten days of sale, dealers received 3,500 orders. The total sales for 1955 amounted to 16,155 as Ford realized their goal of surpassing the Corvette.

Later however, owners of the ‘Classic’ would complain about the lack of a back seat and small trunk. This would lead to modifications and a new generation of T-birds however, the “Little Bird” remains an American icon.

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