Ford Thunderbird - Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review - Muscle Car

Ford Thunderbird – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review

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Written by Elise

29th October 2020

Ford Thunderbird – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review
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Ford Thunderbird – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review

By Lucy Hotchkiss

The Ford Thunderbird is one of the most iconic nameplates from the muscle car era. Given its plethora of film and TV appearances—including a feature at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration—the Thunderbird is practically a celebrity in its own right. 

Spanning eleven generations of models with over 4.4m T-birds produced, Ford’s sporty, sophisticated and elegant Thunderbird established its own market segment: personal luxury cars.

This short classic car review aims to give a glimpse of this trend-setter’s legacy. 

Background – Born Into Tough Competition

In January 1953, Chevrolet revealed their “new dreams sports car”- the 195hp, two-seat convertible Corvette boasted 260ft-lb of torque.

Little over a month later, Ford debuted the Thunderbird.

Having heard whispers around the industry of Chevrolet’s plans for nearly a year, the Thunderbird was both inspired by and a contender to the Chevy Corvette. With Ford keen to distinguish the Thunderbird from the already hugely saturated sports car market, they stressed that whilst the two-door coupe was a sporty car, it absolutely wasn’t a sports car.

Mid-sized, sophisticated and swanky, with a refusal to compromise between high performance and high style, the T-bird was equipped with a 4.8L, 193hp big block V8 engine that provided 280ft-lb of torque. With all the engineering feats over the last seventy years, 193hp perhaps doesn’t seem all that impressive, however, in the 50s, both the 193hp Thunderbird and the 195hp Corvette were remarkably agile pioneers of higher horsepower models.

Whilst the performance of the Thunderbird was on par with that of the Corvette, there was a large discrepancy in appearance: the Thunderbird was angular, smooth and glossy, with its main bulk offset by the undulations of the pop up headlights, creating an upmarket, glamorous look.

But unfortunately for Chevrolet, the Corvette’s high-performance engine got lost in the awkward and clunky hood and bumper. The Corvette didn’t look upmarket or sporty, just heavy and a little slow.

Unsurprisingly, the 1956 Ford Thunderbird’s sales surpassed that of the Corvette almost twenty-three fold. Whilst both had impressively high-performance engines, the Thunderbird’s highly stylised, glamorous frame propelled it miles ahead of Chevrolet’s Corvette, becoming an instant classic.

The Thunderbird’s New Look

1958 ford thunderbird

After an extensive review of market research revealed the T-bird’s two-door coupe style was too limiting for families, it became clear that Ford were missing a key group of potential buyers. In 1958, Ford general division manager Robert McNamara ordered stylists to make the Thunderbird more family-oriented, resulting in the addition of two extra seats, alongside a comfier bucket seat style and a roomier boot.

For once, stylists had trumped engineers: they transformed the Thunderbird into practically anyone’s dream car. Sold for a pretty affordable price, Ford defined and marketed the T-bird as a luxury not just for a privileged few as the price made it one of the first plush convertibles in reach for hard-working dreamers too.

In response, sales nearly doubled and the Thunderbird won Motor Trend’s ‘Car of the Year’ award. 1959’s NASCAR season proved to be another shining success for the Thunderbird, as modified second-generation body fit with a 7L, 350hp engine won six races against fan favourites like the Oldsmobile Super 88.

For these reasons alone, it’s easy to see why the ‘58 and ‘59 models remain the favourite T-birds of many Ford lovers and the most remembered models today- even better is their ever-affordable price. 

Today, you can find a multitude of Thunderbirds in mint condition for sale, with most prices averaging out at around £20k—a reasonable cost for an all-time classic.

The Golden Age

1964 ford thunderbird

1964 marked the beginning of a turning point for muscle cars. Petrol was cheap and the economy was booming, resulting in average Americans having more disposable income. The year also saw the release of three legends and instant rivals to the T-bird’s prowess: the Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO and Chevrolet Chevelle. 

The Thunderbird found itself remodelled again, as stylists favoured a more formal, squared-off appearance. In addition, the suspension became softer sprung, resulting in a smooth driving experience to fit with the Thunderbird’s luxurious branding. Unfortunately, this was at the detriment to the car’s performance as it became cumbersome to handle, with Ford compromising performance for opulence

The Pontiac GTO was one of many newly released cars that were poised to steal the Thunderbird’s spotlight. A 325hp V8 engine coupled with a light frame, mean looks and an affordable price made the GTO the first true muscle car America had seen. Its sporty style and performance-based body with optional wider wheels and bonnet scoops were in notable contrast to the Thunderbird’s more refined image. 

Dealers immediately knew the GTO would be an enormous hit with younger buyers; Pontiac sold 32,450 in the first year—not a number to sneer at, by any means, but still almost a third less than the Thunderbird. `

Chevrolet’s Chevelle posed a serious threat to the T-bird. Mid-sized, with a vicious semi-fastback design and racing stripes, it looked far meaner than the Thunderbird. Whilst its 220hp engine was weaker than the Thunderbird’s 300hp, Chevrolet’s entry into the muscle car battle- the Chevelle SS- could be ordered in 250 or 300hp options.  

A staggering 338,286 Chevelles were sold in 1964, dwarfing the T-bird’s 92,465 sales. 

The T-bird’s Classier Sibling

1967 saw the second major change in direction (after 1958’s upsizing) as Ford attempted to move the Thunderbird even more upmarket, fearing it would get lost in the Mustang’s colossal shadow. 

Becoming taller and slimmer, the Thunderbird was fitted with hidden headlights embedded in its full body grille—tthe 1967 look certainly was distinctively divisive, in a Marmite ‘love it or hate it’ way. Stylists also added two more doors, which whilst more convenient for most, a few hardcore Thunderbird fans felt the T-bird’s muscle had morphed into a weighty family sedan.

Another Ford model threatening to smother the Thunderbird’s success was the Lincoln-Mercury division’s Mercury Cougar

mercury cougar

Based on an alternative Mustang design and sharing the chassis, an engine lineup and a mishmash of parts, the Cougar was regularly referred to as “a Mustang in a tuxedo”—the ‘tuxedo’ being premium interior vinyl fabrics, a tilt steering wheel option and supremely thick, soft carpeting. 

Ford intended for the Cougar to combine the Mustang’s athletic youthfulness with the Thunderbird’s sophistication, targeting younger, affluent buyers.  

In terms of specs, the Cougar and T-bird are comparable. Fitted with a 6.3L, 315hp V8 engine capable of producing 465lb-ft of torque, the Thunderbird slightly outshone the Mercury Cougar’s 4.7L 320hp engine that could produce 305lb-ft of torque. 

It was clear by looking at both models that the Cougar and Thunderbird shared a considerable amount of DNA, but the Cougar simply looked fresher and sportier than the Thunderbird, capturing the true essence of a growing muscle car prestige. Additionally, the cost of the Cougar’s plethora of optional luxury features combined only just skimmed the base price of a Thunderbird. 

More than 150,000 Mercury Cougars were sold in its first model year alone—almost double that of the T-bird’s 77,976. For Lincoln-Mercury, a concerning pattern was starting to emerge: the Thunderbird was dying.

A Bittersweet Legacy

Ultimately, the Thunderbird’s death was slow and painful. Years of declining sales due to the Thunderbird’s meandering identity crisis in its later generations, combined with a stubbornly small interior, saw the car being formally discontinued in 1997. Then came the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, a peculiar rebirth that saw any remaining charm evaporate, leaving behind an awkward, fumbling lump. 

With fond memories of the stunning 1956 cream convertible in American Graffiti or Thelma and Louise’s 1966 turquoise T-bird seeming such a far cry away from what the Thunderbird became, it’s understandable that many Ford fans would rather forget the T-bird’s later years and remember the nameplate’s earlier, highly-esteemed models. 

Despite leaving behind a bittersweet legacy, the Thunderbird still remains an iconic nameplate… even if we wish this car review could permanently erase the terrible 2002 reboot from our minds. 

Author: Lucy Hotchkiss

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