Ford Thunderbird started life back in 1955 as a personal luxury car. The production happened from 1955 to 1997 and again from 2002 to 2005. During these time periods, Thunderbird evolved into eleven distinct generations.
It was initially introduced as a two-seat convertible but eventually produced in a variety of body configurations including a four-door pillared sedan.
Ford initially targeted the two-seat Thunderbird as a luxury upscale model, but the second-generation car featured a rear seat and started its expansion of the personal luxury car market.
Despite having high-performance engines and sporty looks, it wasn’t marketed as a sports car. Chevrolet Corvette is a similar model that was marketed as a sports car. From 1955 to 2005, Ford produced more than 4.4 million Thunderbirds.
The beginning of the Thunderbird.
American World War II veterans were coming home after serving overseas in the years following the aftermath of World War II. Most of these people were returning with MGs, Jaguars, Alfa Romeos, and other European-made roadsters.
In 1951, Nash Motors began selling an expensive two-seat roadster called Nash-Healey. This car was made in partnership with Pininfarina and famed British automobile engineer Donald Healey.
GM decided to tap into the market and developed the first Corvette prototype which was unveiled in 1953.
Henry Ford II decided that he wants a two-seater roadster in his model line and ordered his engineers to do so. This resulted in the introduction of the Ford Vega concept in 1953. It was conceived as an entry to a Ford-sponsored design contest.
The contest rules specified a Ford Flathead V8 with dual carburetors mounted, high compression cylinder heads, and tube-type exhaust heads mounted on top of a Ford Anglia chassis.
Ford Vega had European looks. It was powered with a 2.2-liter Flathead V8 engine. The transmission unit was a three-speed manual. The underpinning was the front-engine rear-wheel-drive layout.
Ford Vega was Henry Ford II’s answer to the market demand for two-seat roadsters, a market untapped by any American automobile manufacturer on a considerable scale.
It was warmly received by the press and public, but it never made it to production due to high cost, and lack of performance.
The Thunderbird was similar in concept, but it was more American with luxury in mind instead of performance.
Thunderbird was conceived by Lewis Crusoe, an executive for Ford Motor company also a former GM employee, George Walker, chief stylist and a vice president, Frank Hershey, chief stylist for Ford, and Bill Boyer as the chief of the project.
The eventual concept was for a two-seat roadster with a targeted weight of 1145 kg and a top speed of 100mph.
Being pleased with the final design, Henry Ford II gave his permission to produce the car to compete with Chevrolet Corvette.
The first prototype was developed within a year and was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in 1954.
The story behind the name
Thunderbird’s name was chosen from thousands of proposals. Thunderbird’s name was a reference to supernatural flying creatures associated with power and strength from the legends of American indigenous people. Some say that the Thunderbird Country club in Rancho Mirage, California also inspired the Ford Motor Company to choose the name.
First Generation Ford Thunderbird
1955 to 1957 Ford Thunderbird
Official sales began on 22nd October 1954 as a 1955 model year car.
It shared many design characteristics with other Ford models of its time.
Single circular headlamps and tail lamps, tailfins, hood scoop, a speedometer with a 150mph limit, and the sleek shape made it look unique and stand out from other Ford models.
Most of the mechanical components that were used to build this car were from mass-market Ford models.
Thunderbird’s wheelbase frame was a shortened version and featured a 4.8-liter (292 cu) Y-Block V8 engine from Mercury division. This Y-Block was first introduced in 1954 and was more modern than its counterparts. It offered a good amount of power and delivered it smoother.
Ford market the car as a personal luxury car highlighting its luxury and creature comforts rather than emphasizing its performance.
16,155 Thunderbirds sold in 1955 compared to the 700 Corvettes, and 2200 Studebaker Speedsters.
1956 model year Thunderbird received several changes including changing the placement of the spare tire to a continental-style rear bumper to provide more storage room in the trunk. The car received a new 12-volt electrical system. Rear visibility was improved by the addition of a circular porthole window as standard in the fiberglass roof.
However, the increased weight resulted in steering problems.
To improve performance a 5.1-liter (312 cu) Y-Block V8 with 3-speed manual transmission was offered as standard. This setup delivered 215 horsepower.
The same engine was available with the optional Ford O Matic two-speed automatic, and this setup delivered 225 horsepower. Ford O Matic transmission featured a “low gear” which was accessible manually through a gear selector. In “Drive” it was performing as a two-speed automatic transmission. This system was similar to a Chevrolet Powerglide system.
Ford also added a new lifeguard safety package.
In 1957, Thunderbird was updated again with a revised front number, larger tail lamps, a larger grille, and tailfins.
The instrument panel was heavily restyled with round gauges in a single pod. The rear of the car was lengthened to reposition the spare tire back in the trunk.
The same 5.1-liter Y-Block V8 was offered as the standard powertrain, but it was reworked. Now, this system delivered 245 horsepower.
The 5.1-liter (312 cu) Y- Block V8 was also available with four-barrel or twin four-barrel Holley carburetors.
The same engine was also available with a Paxton supercharger. This setup delivered 300 horsepower.
In 1957, 21,380 Thunderbirds were sold.
Pleased with the success of the car, Ford engineers decided to improve the car for 1958.
Second-generation Ford Thunderbird
1958 – 1960 Ford Thunderbird
Despite the 1st generation Thunderbird being a sales success, Ford executives such as Robert McNamara were concerned that the car’s layout as a two-seater may have limited its sales potential.
This resulted in the car getting redesigned as a four-seater for 1958.
The gamble worked, and the second-generation Thunderbird began a sales momentum that other people didn’t even expect to see.
More than 200,000 units were sold in three years.
The Thunderbird was offered in hardtop and convertible body variants. The convertible was unveiled in June 1958, five months after the release of the hardtop model.
Now it featured a 113-inch wheelbase as it was lengthened to accommodate new back seats.
Inclusion of back seats, enlarged body dimensions, and safety equipment resulted in a weight gain of 363kg.
The Thunderbird now features stronger unibody construction and new styling changes including the quad headlights, a bolder chrome grille, prominent tailfins, a larger simulated hood scoop.
The standard powertrain was an all-new 5.8-liter (352 cu) V8 unit. It was available with either a three-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission.
In 1958, 37,892 Thunderbirds were sold, far surpassing previous years’ sales.
1959 model year car received a new grille, and an optional powertrain, a 7.0-liter (430 cu) MEL V8. This powertrain delivered 350 horsepower.
In 1959, a total of 67,456 units were sold.
For the 1960 model year, Thunderbird received another minor styling update such as a new grille.
A manually operated sunroof was also available as an option for hardtops.
The dual headlight layout was changed to a triple headlight layout.
A total of 92,843 units were sold for the 1960 model year.
Third Generation Ford Thunderbird
1961 – 1963 Ford Thunderbird
The 1961 Thunderbird was a completely restyled car and now featured a bullet-like body side appearance.
A new 6.4-liter (390 cu) FE V8 was offered as the standard engine for the Thunderbird. When mated to a three-speed automatic transmission, it delivered 300 horsepower.
A total of 73,051 Thunderbirds were sold for the 1961 model year.
It was chosen as the 1961 Indianapolis 500 pace car.
For the 1962 model year, a vinyl roofed Landau option with simulated S bars was added to the Thunderbird.
A new Sports Roadster performance appearance package was offered for convertibles.
This Sports Roadster package included a special fiberglass tonneau cover for the rear seats to simulate the appearance of a two-door roadster. This package wasn’t well-received due to the high cost and complexity of the tonneau cover. Only a few Thunderbirds were produced with this package.
Another powertrain option was made available for 1962, an upgraded version of the 6.4-liter (390 cu) V8 known as the M-Code engine. The M-Code variant of the 6.4 Liter V8 was mated to three two-barrel Holley carburetors and delivered 340 horsepower.
M-Code Thunderbirds are extremely rare and among the most sought after with only 200 being sold from 1962 to 1963.
For the 1963 model year, Y-Code cars came with the same 390 V8 engine mated to a tri-power carburetion system only if the buyer wanted air conditioning.
Fourth-generation Ford Thunderbird
1964 – 1966 Thunderbird
The 1964 Thunderbird was restyled in favor of a boxier appearance. It retained the quad headlights and a similar grille.
The third generation Thunderbird was offered in three body variants. A hardtop, convertible, and a Landau version.
The 6.4-liter (390 cu) V8 with an output of 300 horsepower remained as the standard engine option for the Thunderbird. The standard transmission was a three-speed automatic unit.
In 1965, sequential turn lights were added to comply with new safety regulations.
Front disc brakes and double-sided keys were offered as standard.
For the 1966 model year, Thunderbird received a new egg-crate style grille with a large Thunderbird emblem and a single blade bumper. The rear bumper was restyled to house new full-width taillamps.
Engine choices were also revised.
The standard powertrain setup was a 6.4-liter V8 with a four-barrel carburetor. This setup delivered 315 horsepower.
The newest addition was a 7-liter (428 cu) FE V8. This engine option costed an additional $86.
The end of the fourth generation also marked the last year for the convertible variant.
Fifth Generation Ford Thunderbird
1967 – 1969 Ford Thunderbird
The second-generation Thunderbird saw a major redesign, but it was still a two-door coupe or a convertible with two rows of seating.
The Mustang and the Cougar were also two-door coupes/ convertibles with two rows of seating. The Mustang was comparably cheaper and had this advantage over the Thunderbird.
To prevent the overlap between the Mustang and the Cougar, Ford decided to move the Thunderbird upmarket. This resulted in a complete redesign to make it more luxurious and comfortable to make it more in line with a Lincoln.
The unibody construction was given up in favor of the body on frame construction with sophisticated rubber mountings between the body and the frame to reduce noise and vibration.
The convertible model was discontinued and wasn’t available for the fifth generation. A new four-door model was added, but it had suicide doors instead of the conventional four doors.
The scissor doors remained as a unique feature to the fifth generation Thunderbird because this feature wasn’t carried on after 1971.
The most noticeable design element of the fifth generation Thunderbird was the gaping fighter jet-inspired grille opening that incorporated hidden headlights.
1970 – 1971 Thunderbird
The 1970 Thunderbird shared the same body on frame construction as well as many mechanical components.
The front fascia received a major update. Now it had a prominent protruding nose resembling an eagle’s beak. Semon Knudsen was the one responsible for this change.
The Thunderbird was offered as a coupe or a sportsback. Sportsback body variant wasn’t available for previous generations nor for 197 to 1969 cars.
Neiman Marcus, an American luxury services and goods provider included the Thunderbird in their catalog for 1970. These Nieman Marcus Thunderbird cars came with car telephones, tape recorders, and many niche features. These Thunderbird cars were offered as “his and hers” and were only sold as a pair. The price of this package was $25,000.
1971 model year didn’t receive any major updates and was mostly carried over from the 1970 model. This was done as Ford was preparing to release a new larger Thunderbird for the 1972 model year.
Sixth Generation Ford Thunderbird.
1972 – 1976 Ford Thunderbird
The sixth-generation Thunderbird was unveiled in the fall of 1971 as a 1972 model.
The new car features a 120.4-inch wheelbase, and the overall length was now 214 inches.
The 1974 model year Thunderbird had an overall length of 225 inches.
It was the largest Thunderbird ever produced by Ford.
It had a curb weight of 2005Kg.
It was made in the same assembly line as the Lincoln Continental Mark IV.
To power the large car, Ford decided to make the 7-liter (429 cu) V8 the standard powertrain for the Thunderbird.
An optional 7.5-liter (460 cu) V8 was also available and this engine was made standard for the 1974 model year.
These 7liter V8 and 7.5-liter V8 engines became the largest displacement V8 engines ever installed in a production vehicle by Ford.
The curb weight of 2005Kg and the lower engine power output caused by the low compression ratio resulted in modest performance.
The high capacity 7-liter V8 and the 7.5-liter V8 working constantly to power the big heavy car resulted in poor fuel efficiency.
Despite all these issues, the Thunderbird was popular among the public and more than 87,000 units were sold despite the 1973 oil crisis.
Sales fell continuously to less than 43,000 by 1975.
The 1976 model year was a little bit more successful with total sales of 53,000 units.
The ever-tightening fuel prices and ever-tightening emission regulations ended up forcing Ford Motors to downsize the Thunderbird for the Seventh Generation.
Seventh Generation Ford Thunderbird
1977 – 1979 Ford Thunderbird
The seventh-generation Thunderbird was unveiled for the 1977 model year. It featured a shorter wheelbase of 114 inches and an overall length of 217.7 from the 1976 car’s 225 inches. This resulted in a weight loss of 408Kg.
It was based on the chassis that underpinned Ford Torino and its successor, the LTD II.
It was still a large car and Ford further downsized the car for the 1977 model year from 217.7 to 200.4 inches. This was done due to the market demand for fuel-efficient cars. Height and width remained the same without any significant change.
This generation also acted as the continuation of the 1974-1976 Ford Elite, which was discontinued in favor of the Thunderbird. Ford Elite was Ford’s first attempt at capturing the market dominated by the likes of Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
A small block V8 was chosen to replace the heavier big-block V8 engines that used to power the 1976 model year Thunderbird. This resulted in more weight loss and better performance.
The standard engine was a 4.9-liter (302 cu) Windsor V8 outside California.
Big block 5.8-liter (351 cu) V8 and 6.6-liter (400 cu) V8 engines and T-tops were available as options.
The 5.8-liter (351 cu) V8 engine was the standard powertrain in California. the 6.6 l (400 cu) V8 was available as an option.
1977 model year also included a wide fixed B pillar that wasn’t used by Ford or GM for their upscale models. The doors were still frameless.
For the 1978 model year, Ford unveiled a Diamond Jubilee Edition Thunderbird to celebrate the company’s 75th year as an automotive manufacturer.
The Diamond Jubilee Edition came with a price tag of almost $12,000.
It came with every option available other than the engine block heater or a moon roof.
A new Heritage package was introduced for the 1979 model year.
This generation is considered the most successful in sales with more than 955,000 units sold in its three-year run.
The eighth-generation Ford Thunderbird
1980 – 1982 Ford Thunderbird.
Despite the sales success of the previous generation, Ford decided to further downsize the Thunderbird due to the market demand for more fuel-efficient cars and every tightening federal emission regulations.
The Thunderbird was redesigned for the 1980 model year and now it was based on the compact Ford Fox platform. Ford Fox platform debuted in 1978 as the basis for the Ford Fairmont.
The Torino chassis-based Thunderbird had a 114 inches wheelbase and an overall length of 217.7 inches. The new Fox body-based Thunderbird lost 5.6 inches of wheelbase and 17.3 inches of overall length.
To accommodate the compact Fox platform, Ford had to style carefully without losing the boxy shape of the previous generation Thunderbird.
Frameless doors were not available for this generation and the doors came with a chrome metal frame instead. This gave the car look of a two-door sedan.
The standard powertrain was a 4.2-liter (255 cu) Windsor V8 engine and a C5 three-speed automatic with a 2.26 gear ratio.
Despite the compact body proportions, this engine wasn’t powerful enough to offer acceptable performance due to the low fuel compression ratio.
This resulted in negative feedback from the consumers and the media alike.
A 5.0-liter (302 cu) Windsor V8 with an AOD automatic overdrive transmission with a 3.45 gear ratio was available as an alternative to the standard powertrain, but still, its 131-horsepower peak performance was only enough for moderate performance.
A six-cylinder was introduced for the first time in the Thunderbird’s history for the 1981 model year. This engine was a 3.3-liter (200 cu) Thriftpower six.
For the 1982 model year, the Thriftpower six was replaced with a modern 3.8-liter Essex V6. This engine was equipped with a Motorcraft 2150 2V carburetor.
Essex V6 was now the standard powertrain for the Thunderbird. The 5.0-liter V8 wasn’t available for the 1982 model year, making the 4.2-liter (255 cu) V8 the only optional powertrain.
From 1980 to 1982, a total of 288,638 cars were made comparing to the previous generations more than 955,000 units.
Ninth Generation Ford Thunderbird
1983 – 1988 Ford Thunderbird
To address the huge sales drop the previous generation Thunderbird experienced, Ford redesigned the Thunderbird in a significant manner. It was still based on the Ford Fox platform, but it was given a sleek body, sporty looks, more aerodynamic body, and now featured a considerably lower wheelbase of 104.2 inches.
The standard engine for the Thunderbird was as same as the previous generation’s 3.8-liter Essex V6. An optional 5.0-liter (3025 cu) V8 with a CFI electronic fuel injection was also available.
The Essex V6 also received a CFI fuel injection for the 1984 model year.
A new variant of the Thunderbird was introduced for 1983, Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. This variant was powered with a turbocharged 2.3-liter OHC four-cylinder engine and it delivered 142 horsepower. It came with a five-speed manual gearbox.
This was the first time a Thunderbird was available with either a turbocharged engine or a five-speed manual gearbox.
The 1985 model year Thunderbird Turbo coupe featuring the same four-cylinder turbocharged engine received a power increase of 155 horsepower.
In 1985, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Thunderbird, a new edition was unveiled with special medium Regatta blue metallic paint, and special graphics. It also featured exclusive trim.
The 1987 Thunderbird received a significant redesign with a revised front fascia with more aerodynamic composite headlamps. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine received an intercooler system, increasing output to 190 horsepower.
Tenth generation Ford Thunderbird
1989 – 1997 Ford Thunderbird
On December 26, 1988, a completely redesigned Thunderbird was introduced as a 1989 model year car along with the Mercury Cougar.
The new Thunderbird was based on the Ford MN12 platform, which had been in development since 1984. The Ford Mid-Size North American Project 12 or MN12 was specifically developed for personal luxury cars such as the Mercury Cougar and the Thunderbird. A variation of this platform, known as the FN10 was later used on some Lincoln models.
Now the car featured a 113.2-inch wheelbase, 9 inches longer than the previous generation’s car.
It also came with four-wheel independent suspension with short and long arms and a sprint strut assembly in the front and multiple links in the rear. This suspension setup resulted in improved comfort, ride quality, and overall handling.
It was also the first Thunderbird not to come with a V8 engine, as ford only offered two different versions of Ford’s 3.8-liter Essex OHV V6.
The standard powertrain was the naturally aspirated 3.8-liter Essex OHV V6 mated to an AOD 4 speed automatic transmission unit, delivering 140 horsepower.
The high-performance Super Coupe variant came equipped with a supercharged 3.8-liter Essex OHV V6 with an intercooler system. This setup delivered an impressive 210 horsepower. A Mazda-derived M5R2 five-speed manual transmission unit was the standard for the Super Coupe. An optional AOD 4 speed automatic transmission was also available. The supercharger was an Eaton M90 Roots style, it was designed for mounting the intake manifold. The boost pressure under ideal conditions was rated at 12psi approximately.
The Super Coupe came with the same 3.8-liter Essex OHV V6 and the displacement of the engine was the same as before. But, most internal components of the engine were upgraded to handle the increased torque and higher temperature levels generated due to the addition of a supercharger unit. Engine block and heads were modified to enhance coolant flow, billet roller cam had a unique profile, pistons were made of a stronger hyper eutectic alloy, and the crankshaft was upgraded to a fully counter-weighted forged unit.
The 1991 model year Thunderbirds were offered with V8 engines once again. Still, the standard engine was the 3.8-liter Essex OHV V6. The optional 5.0-liter Windsor V8 was designed to produce more power and torque than the V8 engines of the past.
In 1992, a limited-edition Thunderbird Sports model was unveiled. It came with the 5.0-liter Windsor V8 as standard. It featured a Super Coupe front fascia with fog lamps, and color-coordinated lower body side stripes.
The 1994 model year Thunderbird received a considerable mid-generation refresh with stylistic changes in both exterior and interior. The 5.0-liter Windsor V8 was replaced with a more powerful and modern Modular 4.6-liter OHC V8.
The Super Coupe still came with a supercharged variant of the standard V6 engine, but it was enhanced to produce more power and torque.
The AOD automatic transmission was replaced with a new electronically controlled 4R70W four-speed automatic for all Thunderbirds.
1995 model year marked the 40th anniversary of Ford Thunderbird. Ford did not much to celebrate the 40th birthday as the 10 generations were already getting closer to its end.
1996 model year Thunderbird received minor design changes and the Super Coupe model was discontinued due to high research and development costs.
The last tenth generation Thunderbird rolled off the Lorin, Ohio assembly line on September 4th, 1997.
Eleventh generation Ford Thunderbird
2002 – 2005 Ford Thunderbird
After a five-year production halt, Ford decided to reincarnate the Thunderbird for the 2002 model year.
They decided to pay tribute to the original Thunderbird of 1965. So, the new Ford Thunderbird was designed as a two-seat convertible or a hardtop with a removable roof.
The eleventh generation Thunderbird was based on the Ford DEW platform and shared the platform with Lincoln LS, Jaguar S Type, and Jaguar XF.
most of the interior equipment such as the instrument cluster and panel, steering wheel, and much other trim was shared with the Lincoln LS.
The only engine option for the Thunderbird was a Jaguar-designed AJ-30 3.9-liter DOHC V8. This engine was a variant of the Jaguar AJ-26 4.0-liter V8. This engine was then mated to a Ford 5R55n five-speed automatic transmission unit.
This powertrain delivered 252 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque.
The AJ-30 engine was replaced with a much-upgraded AJ-35 unit in 2003. An optional five-speed transmission unit with SelectShift was available for the 2003 model year.
2004 and 2005 model year Thunderbirds came with variable valve timing and electronic throttle control, improving performance up to 280 horsepower and 286 lb-ft of torque. The Ford 5R55n transmission unit was replaced with a five-speed automatic with SelectShift feature as standard for all 2004 and 2005 model year Thunderbirds to accommodate the increased power and torque levels.
Ford discontinued Thunderbird with the 2005 model year due to low demand and high research and development costs.
The last Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line on July 1, 2005.