The Times Journal & Russell County News
Wednesday, Apr. 23, 2014 — RUSSELL SPRINGS & JAMESTOWN, KENTUCKY — russellcounty.net
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Cruisin': The early Thunderbirds
In Dec. 27 Issue
Russell County News
By Ron Cowell, Columnist

If Chevy had not introduced the first Corvette in 1953 chances are Ford would have never developed the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird was a two-seater sports car but it was completely different from the Corvette.

The Thunderbird's body was made of steel unlike the Corvette. A Corvette came standard with a six cylinder engine and the Thunderbird came with the V8. Ford was really trying to present the T Bird as a sports car.

The development of the Thunderbird was a fast one. It was launched in Feb. of 1953 just one month after the Corvette prototype made its first appearance at the General Motors Motorama.

The frame of the T-Bird was a cut down version of the standard Ford frame with a 102 inch wheel base the same as the Corvette. The 292 cubic inch OHV V8 came from Mercury. The styling also carried over then including the egg crate grill, single headlamps mounted into the front fenders and single taillights with stubby tail fins.

Most of the Fords at that time were big and awkward looking but the T-Bird was sleek and sophisticated. The half covered wheel openings and whitewall tires didn't say much about the performance back in 1955 but the simulated scoop on the hood, the speedometer that read 150 mph let everyone know that the T-Bird was more than just another normal Ford.

Back then Motor Trend Magazine call the car "a personal car". This was said because although the Thunderbird had the performance and attributes of most sports cars, the management wanted to make the T-Bird more appealing to a wider group of people other then just the sports car lover.

The original Thunderbirds were all convertibles but also could sport a standard fiberglass hardtop. The convertible top at that time was actually an option on the car. With a four barrel carburetor, the 292 V8 was rated at 193 horsepower when it was backed by the standard three speed manual transmission. If the car had a three speed "Ford-O-Matic" transmission in it, it boosted the power output of the car to 198 horsepower. The suspension was the same as most other Fords with the independent front suspension using coil springs and the solid rear axle rear springs. Braking was drum brakes with an oversize 15" wheel.

The Ford Thunderbird went on sale on October 22nd of 1954 and far surpassed sales of GM's Corvette. Ford figured that sales would reach about 10,000 the first year but that proved to be wrong. They found it hard to keep up with the demand and ended up knocking out 16,155 during the first year of sales. The production ran far into September of 1955 when the 56 T-Birds were already in the showrooms. That was more than five times the number of Corvettes built that year. Are you ready for this, the starting price tag of a T-bird that year was $2,695.00 but with options added it could run the price up to as high as $3,800.00.

With sales going through the roof the first year Ford didn't see much reason to change anything for the 1956 Bird. In 1956 the T-Bird did sport a "Continental Kit" that came standard. It mounted the spare tire on the rear of the car outside on the rear bumper. By doing this Ford cleared more room in the trunk for luggage but this also made the trunk harder to get into. Everything had to be lifted over or around the spare tire. Another thing that was added in "56" were the port holes in the back of the fiberglass roof. This eliminated a serious blind spot that was in the car in the "55" version. They also added vents on the front fenders to take care of some of the heat from the engine from cooking the driver and passengers feet which also was a problem in "55". Vent windows were added plus in 56 you could order the car with a two tone paint job.

The best news in "56" was a new optional 312 cubic inch version of Ford's OHV V8 that was rated at 215 HP when teamed up with the four barrel carb, and backed by an overdrive manual transmission.

In 1956 Ford didn't sell quite as many T-Birds as they did in "55" but ran close with a sales of 15,631.

That was the beginning for the Ford T-Bird that would later down the road be transformed into a full size car with a back seat. It's always a treat to see a "55' or a "56" Thunderbird at some of the car shows and for a lot of us there are many wonderful memories to go along with it.

If your Car Club is having an event and you would like us to tell everyone about or someone who you would like to see featured in this article send all information to, djron47@yahoo.com . All information on upcoming events needs to be in at least two weeks before the event.

If your Club or church or group is having an event and you would like to display some classic cars at that event let me know at least two weeks before the event. I will put you in contact with one of the clubs that will gladly bring their cars out for display.

Until next time… Keep Cruisin!

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The Times Journal is a weekly newspaper issued on Thursdays. It was first published on October 13, 1949, by Andrew J. and Terry Norfleet.
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Russell County News is a weekly newspaper issued on Saturdays, and is mailed free to every address in Russell County, Ky. It was first published on February 1, 1913.
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