June 22, 2017
Introduction of the 1955 Thunderbird was a 'game changer' for Ford Motor Co.
By Wayne Ferens
The new 1955 Ford Thunderbird was definitely a product for the times.
It officially went on sale Oct. 22, 1954, just one year after the first Corvette. It was faster, more powerful and far more sporty - despite the fact that Ford didn't market it as a pure sports car. The company created a new brand calling it a "personal luxury car."
So, how did this sporty car phenomenon take hold, and why did Ford and other manufacturers get into the game?
Many American GI's stationed in Europe during and after WWII were impressed with the smaller, lighter sporty products being sold by the likes of MG, BMW, Jaguar, Triumph and Alfa Romeo. It was just a matter of time before many of our U.S. service men started shipping these stylish, well handling roadsters and coupes back to the states.
Once the Euro-manufacturers were up and running again after the war, they began exporting their products to America when the distributors were established primarily on the east and west coasts. The American consumer in the 1950s had their sights set on the future and wanted products that were new and exciting. The car industry was tapping into the post-war vernacular with American families ready to move on from the 1940s, and put the war and the sacrifices behind. Optimism, hope and change became the new doctrine.
Henry Ford II, the recently minted 35-year-old president of the company, was no stranger to Europe having spent several summers traveling the continent in his younger days. While attending the 1952 Paris Motor Show with his recently hired industrial and automotive designer, George W. Walker, the idea of developing a new sporty, Euro-style car was seriously discussed. Henry left Paris strongly considering adding such a vehicle to the company's product line.
That same year, Ford hired Franklin Q. Hershey, a former GM designer and student of the great Harley Earl, who just happened to love sports-type cars. Over the next several years, Hershey would design the 1953-1957 full-sized Fords.
When Henry and Walker returned to the states, rumors were flying around the industry that GM was working on a similar idea of a sports car for production, and if there is anything that lights a fire under the auto industry, it's a trend and a serious rumor. That rumor became reality when GM introduced the hand-built, pre-production fiberglass Chevrolet Corvette prototype on Jan. 17, 1953, at the GM Motorama in New York City. The first production Corvette was manufactured on June 30 that year in Flint, Michigan, around the same time Henry II was putting pressure on his design team of Walker, Hershey, Lewis D. Crusoe, William P. Boyer, and lead stylist and chief engineer Bill Burnette - to come up with some viable designs.
By the spring, Walker, Crusoe and Hershey at the Design Center in Dearborn got the green light for what would become the Thunderbird to be produced following strict company directives. First the design would be a stylish two-passenger model and mandated off-the-shelf mechanical components. Secondly, the car would not be marketed strictly as a "sports car," but as an upscale model that in time would be credited in developing a new market segment - the personal luxury car. Third was the name: The design team needed something exciting, spirited, classy. A name that would define style, performance and luxury. In a word - Thunderbird. A legendary creature considered a supernatural bird of power and strength.
To Ford, the product planners, the design and marketing departments - the name of this new product was critical. So much so that Ford offered a $250 cash prize to anyone who could come up with a name. Over 5,000 entries were entertained and the winner was Alden Biberson, a Ford employee and stylist who submitted the name "Thunderbird," but in lieu of the cash prize, Biberson asked for a new suit of clothes and an extra pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue.
By the summer of 1953, Ford styling had completed a painted clay model, but the finishing touches on the metal concept, which was scheduled to make its first public appearance at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show, would happen later. The first production Thunderbird rolled off the line at the Ford Dearborn Assembly Plant in September of 1954.
Henry Ford II et al. had high hopes for the Thunderbird. This was the car that would compete with the Corvette, while at the same time carving out a new marketing niche in the automotive world.
The Thunderbird sold exceptionally well during its first year delivering on 16,155 units against Corvette's 700. The Thunderbird was considered a success for Ford Motor Company, a model that changed its design and market focus many times over the 11 generations of models that were produced.
In 2005, Ford ended production of the Thunderbird with no scheduled successor, coming full circle with a two-seat V8 powered coupe/convertible layout like the first generation. A car when introduced in 1955 truly was a "game changer."
Wayne Ferens is retired after a 45 year career in the automobile business that included General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Honda Motor Co. and new car dealer. Auto history is one of his passions and has written much about the industry. He is presently a SAE Board Member.