The Ford Thunderbird entered production in 1955 and was only sold in America. The car was intended as Ford answer to the Chevrolet Corvette, although the emphasis was slightly more toward luxury with Ford calling the car a 'personal luxury car' as opposed to a sports car. The Ford Thunderbird ran through several iations over its 50 years in production, with styling between each variant differing hugely.
The first incarnation of the ford Thunderbird is now known as the 'Classic Bird' or 'Little Bird'. Initially Ford only intended to build 10,000 T-Birds, however sales were so strong that Ford continued; the Blue Oval sold more than 16,000 in the first year alone. The car was a luxury two-seater, available in hard or soft top options and powered by the 292 Y-Block V8 engine. Toward the end of the Little/Classic Bird's run Ford introduced a new, larger engine, the 312 Y-Block V8, before commissioning a powerful overhaul of it, the McCulloch Supercharged V8 producing 340hp. The car was characterised by its eccentric styling, with distinctive rear port-hole windows and the spare wheel being mounted on the car's exterior. The cars influential styling lived on after production had ended, with the British Ford Anglia's design borrowing heavily from the original T-Bird.
The '58-released 'Square Bird' is most remembered for it's ride height, which was so low that the drivetrain intruded into the cabin of the car, with Ford forced to make a feature out of the huge transmission tunnel that divided the front and rear seats; putting ashtrays and such on it. New engines were added from Ford's FE series, with the option of a new 7.0L MEL-Series engine. There was also the option of a sunroof on the hardtop, in the German built Thunderbird 'Golde Edition'. The car earned Motor Trend's Car of the Year award which was in-turn rewarded with excellent sales. For the next incarnation, the Ford 'Bullet Bird' T-Bird, a new engine was again used, with only one engine on option on offer this time, a 6.4L FE-Series V8.
A new model was introduced; the Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster used a tonneau cover to effectively remove the back seats. The car was now also available with a 'Kelsey-Hayes' trim pack, in 'Landau' model format, and with the option of a vinyl roof. The car maintained its high profile, country club image and this was reflected with some significant celebrity owners, including Elvis, and by the car's inclusion in President Kennedy's inauguration entourage. Ford also released a limited edition, customised 'Principality of Monaco' Landau model. As was the case with the 'Classic Bird', the styling of the Bullet Bird lived on well after the car's demise in the form of a British Ford; in this case it was the Ford Corsair that was influenced by Thunderbird styling.
By the time the '64 'Flair Bird' as released, despite sporting additions such as disc brakes, the Thunderbird was starting to seem cumbersome compared to competition such as the Buick Riviera or the Pontiac Grand Prix. Despite this the T-Bird continued to out-sell both these cars. Again styling was vastly revised, with radical new rear indicators. The rear light cluster ran the entire width of the car and a turn was indicated by the signal starting in the centre of the car and lighting each bulb in-turn in the direction of the intended turn. This addition, although novel, delayed the car's release due to problems over car-lighting laws. Again another even larger engine was offered, a 7.0 V8, and a new model offered, the Ford Thunderbird Town Hardtop. The release of this model came at the cost of the Landau model, which was dropped (although was later to be replaced with the Town Landau). Again Ford built a limited edition model – the 427 T-Bird was a very limited high performance variant.
1967 saw the release of the 'Glamour Bird'. This particular variant was a change of direction with the emphasis on luxury rather than sporting capabilities. This change was down to Ford's own Mustang, which was essentially beating the T-Bird at its own game, and at a lower cost to boot. The Thunderbird was increased in size and styling was radically different to emphasise that this was a car traveling in a new direction. The Glamour Bird actually had two styling variants within its self. The first incarnation had a large open, fish-mouth style grill, inspired by the Dodge Charger. The second, built from 1970 onward, featured a standard front grille but wrapped around a beak-nose front end.
1973 then saw the release of the 'Big Bird' – the largest Ford Thunderbird ever built and powered by a 7.5L V8. Sales of the car were poor as its release coincided with the oil crisis and, as such, the market shifted toward smaller engines. Ford then followed the trend and began plans to downsize the Thunderbird, which leads some purists to now proclaim the Big Bird as the last 'real' T-Bird.
Ford's shift toward a smaller T-Bird led to the release of the 'Torino Bird'. The car was smaller, cheaper and used smaller V6 engines. This was then followed by the 1980 'Box Bird' which continued in the same vein as the Torino Bird. Downsizing continued with the base model now being 'just' 3.8L. This, coupled with the car's new affordability, tarnished the luxury image and the car was now seen as little more than a sedan with a few added extras.
The'Aero Bird' of the early 80s was somewhat better, earning Motor Trend's Car of the Year and spawning the much praised Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe; it received great reviews. Despite this sales fell still. Ford's last attempt was the 'Super Bird'. Despite the introduction of the range-topping Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe (SC) and again winning Motor Trend's Car of the Year accolade, sales fell further still and the car was dropped in 1997.
Ford did attempt a re-birth of the Thunderbird in 2002 with the release of the 'Retro Bird'. The car returned to the T-Birds roots as a two-seater and was again Motor Trend's Car of the Year (making this the Bird's 4th time). Yet the car was highly priced and poor in comparison to cars in the same price bracket. As such sales were slow and the car was dropped in 2005. Over the Ford Thunderbird's production run of 50 years, over 4.2 million cars were sold.