September 7, 1954 – Ford Thunderbird production begins

Ford’s answer to the Corvette, the Thunderbird, began rolling down the assembly line on this day in 1954 for the 1955 model year. The first complete car would leave the factory two days later. While designed to compete with Chevrolet’s sports car, Ford marketed the Thunderbird as a personal luxury vehicle. The Blue Oval emphasized its new car’s comfort and convenience, letting shoppers discover its sportiness during the test drive. The plan worked. T-Bird sales rose above Corvette some 17 to 1 in 1955. Though successful, executives believed expanding the two-seat T-Bird would also expand sales. They weren’t wrong.

1965 ford thunderbird
Above: 1965 Ford Thunderbird By F.G.Bendiks. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Top: First generation Ford Thunderbird by nakhon100 CC BY 2.0

Though the two-seater found continued success through 1957, engineers and designers at Ford aimed sell far more than 23,000 of the cars in a year. Executive Robert McNamara called for a four-seater version, thinking the two seats limited the car’s salability. Again, Ford hit it out of the park. While the first generation Thunderbird sold about 60,000 units between 1955 and 1957, approximately 200,000 four-seaters sold in the three years that followed. To accommodate the rear seat, the T-Bird grew from 175 inches to 205 inches between 1957 and 1958.

Chevrolet, on the other hand, stuck to their guns. In response to the initial success of Ford’s flyer, a V8 option for the Corvette finally hit the market in 1955. The new engine, along with Ford’s change of heart, would help cement Corvette as “America’s Sports Car.

retro ford thunderbird
The final generation of the Thunderbird was produced from 2002-2005.

The Thunderbird became a versatile vehicle for Ford, selling in a number of body styles between 1955 and 2005. At one point or another it could be had as a four door post car, a five passenger convertible, and again as a two seat, retro convertible from 2002 to 2005. Through all its iterations, about 4.4 million Ford Thunderbirds rolled off of the assembly line.

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