A Look at the Early Generations of the Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbirds… for 50 years the bodies may have changed, but the idea and the name has remained faithful to the original. One of the pioneers of the “personal luxury car,” the T-Bird, as it is commonly called, still sets standards for others to follow.
To those in the know and especially the legions of fans and owners of the different years there are nicknames to differentiate different body styles. The first generation began in 1955 and ran up until and including the 1957. These were known as the “Littlebird”. The second generation spanned 1958 to 1960 and were dubbed the “Squarebird”. The “Bigbird” flew from 1961-1963. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on if you cringed at the aforementioned nicknames) subsequent generations have not spawned universally accepted nicknames. We will focus our attention on the four early generations in this article as they are of the most interest to collectors.
The T-Bird was Ford’s answer to arch-rival Chevrolet’s debut of the Corvette in late 1952. As Ford was not in favor of a “sports car”, the new car was designed as a “personal” car with all the luxury and convenience features that existed in Ford’s existing parts bin. Thankfully the names initially considered such as Beaver, Hep Cat and Wheelaway were all rejected in favor of the Thunderbird, a revered symbol of the Pacific Northwest native culture and one always seen at the top of the totem pole – a fitting image for Ford.
First Generation: 1955 to 1957 the “Littlebird”
The Littlebird was the first model off the line 20 months after getting the green light to build it by Ford. It was a two-seater with a choice of convertible or hardtop powered by a 292 cid V8 (the Corvette at this time only had a 6 cylinder). In its first year Ford managed to deliver 16,000 units to eager owners, easily outstripping its rival. External differences that make it easy to tell the model years such as a ‘porthole’ on the optional hardtop of ’56 cars to address a blind spot in the initial model. An external spare for improved luggage capacity was also introduced in ’56 to address customer complaints about room for golf clubs. You can tell a 1957 by the more elaborate front bumper and an elongated trunk with more pronounced fins (the spare went back inside too).
1955 Ford Thunderbird
1956 Ford Thunderbird
1957 Ford Thunderbird
Second Generation: 1958 to 1960 the “Squarebird”
The Squarebird was a radical change for the T-Bird with almost two feet added to the length and a foot to the wheelbase. This allowed the T-Bird to carry four, appealing to the family man and thus greater sales volume. In some ways the design team went to great lengths to make entry and egress to the rear easy. The doors were now over four feet long and extended way past the front seats. The front passengers had a harder time because they had to maneuver around a dog leg on the immense wrap around windshield. Under the skin the 55-57 car employed a rigid unitized body, replacing the X frame chassis of the earlier car. Although curb weight climbed by 429 pounds, power output was similarly corresponding with output at exactly 300 horses and a 20% increase in torque.
1958 Ford Thunderbird
1959 Ford Thunderbird
1960 Ford Thunderbird
Third Generation: 1961 to 1963 the “Bigbird”
The next generation saw more evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes with external dimensions virtually identical to the previous. The Bigbird’s lines however were more smoother with an absence of fussy design add-ons that seemed to clutter the former model. The interior gained by ten inches without any change to the wheelbase of the car. The doors grew again but the dogleg was thankfully gone. Also introduced was a swing away steering wheel (10 inches to the right) that was a great comfort for longer legged drivers. The engine size now was 390 cid with horsepower the same as the previous engine but torque went up ten percent. Power steering and brakes are now standard and the manual transmission is no longer offered.
1961 Ford Thunderbird
1962 Ford Thunderbird
1963 Ford Thunderbird
Fourth Generation: 1964 to 1966
The ’64-’66’s actually look like a cross between the Squarebird and the Bigbird, especially around the front. Mechanical innovations were few except for the 1965 model year. It was then that the T-Bird became the first production Ford car to feature disc brakes as standard. Less earth shattering was the sequential turn signals (later adopted by the Mercury Cougar). Also different was the Sports Roadster option that placed a cover behind the rear seats giving the illusion of a two-seater.
1964 Ford Thunderbird
1965 Ford Thunderbird
1966 Ford Thunderbird
Prospective purchasers should have no problem finding a car of the year of their choosing. Experts in the field warn that the ’58’s were not properly rust proofed as the later models and one should be aware of this shortcoming. The 1958-66 cars were built in Lincoln plants and the quality control seems better than previous years. Most people do not realize that many parts are fabricated with stainless steel rather than chrome and thus incredibly durable. Parts are no problem with just about anything on earlier cars being available and reasonably priced. As with most classics buy the best car you can afford as a junker is apt to cost you more in the long run if you do the restoration yourself. Early cars will run you $20,000-$150,000 (Frank Sinatra’s 1956 Thunderbird went for $164,160) with ’56 and ’57’s with a porthole hardtop the most desirable models. Later models with the 64-66 convertibles run in the $20,000-$40,000 range with hardtops to be had from $9,000-$20,000. There are T-Bird clubs in most cities with members who can steer you to a suitable car. If you are restoring your classic T-Bird and need vintage hubcaps, be sure to call Blackburn’s. Have fun!!
How to tell the different early T-Birds over the years:
|Year||Front View||Side View||Rear View|
1955 – 1957 “Littlebird”
|1955||Turn signals in fender under headlight.||‘Thunderbird’ logo on rear fender. Fifteen inch wheels.||Rear bumper resembles front.|
|1956||Unchanged.||Side air vent added in front of door. Portal in hard-top.||Spare on rear bumper.|
|1957||Larger front bumper.||Logo on front fender. 14″ wheels. Fuel filler right rear fender.||Spare back inside. Redesigned rear bumper.|
1958 – 1960 “Squarebird”
|1958||Honeycomb grill.||Vertical ‘hash’ marks on door.||Twin tail lights each side. Honeycomb bezel.|
|1959||Horizontal ribbed grill.||‘Arrowhead’ on door.||Bezel horizontally ribbed.|
|1960||Egg crate with grill guards.||Logo on door. Hash marks on rear fender.||Triple tail lights each side. Egg crate bezel.|
1961 – 1963 “Bigbird”
|1961||Rectangular grill. Hood support beads.||Four horizontal arrows on rear and logo on front.||Small round tail-lights with small center trim on lens.|
|1962||Flat hood & rectangular grill.||Three horizontal hash marks on rear fender.||Larger round tail lights with larger trim ring.|
|1963||Flat hood with vertically ribbed grill.||Three horizontal hash marks on door.||Large round ‘sunburst’ light bezel.|
1964 – 1966
|1964||THUNDERBIRD letters on hood.||Thunderbird script on front fender.||Thunderbird insignia on solid tail lens. THUNDERBIRD in center.|
|1965||Thunderbird insignia on hood.||Scoop on front fender.||Divided tail lenses. Insignia in center.|
|1966||Low-profile hood scoop.||Logo on rear fender.||Full-width lens with integrated back-up light.|