We have Chevy to thank for the Thunderbird, for if it weren’t for their six-cylinder ‘53 and ‘54 Corvettes, Ford would have never felt the competitive impulse to field their own two-seater convertible.
The production T-bird arrived for the 1955 model year, the same during which the very first V8 ‘Vettes began trickling off the line. Though they shared a basic spec of eight cylinders and two seats, the two otherwise had little in common. Where the Corvette had been planned as a simple, lightweight sports car, the Thunderbird was a “personal car of distinction”, according to Ford, with equal attention paid to driver comfort and speed–today we’d call it a GT.
More than 16,000 Thunderbirds sold in 1955, compared with 700 Corvettes. We have Ford to thank for the Corvette, for if it weren’t for their smash hit T-bird, GM would have never felt the impulse to save face and continue with their own, uncompetitive two-seater…
This example is quite special and rare for its very early build date of December 2nd, 1954–only about 11 weeks into production. The car has been restored to an impressive and accurate looking standard, and as a ‘55 it sports several unique characteristics, including one of the most spectacular production car exhaust systems ever designed.
The subject of a full bare-metal, engine-out restoration, this car wears a correct shade of Ford factory Torch Red. Though distinctly American as a whole, the car shows clear European influence, especially its Pininfarina-like nose and grille treatment.
The crossed-flag badging motif was unique to first-year Thunderbirds, as are the amazing twin exhaust outlets exiting either side of the rear deck. Surrounded by massive, jet nozzle-like chrome accents jutting upward from the rear bumper, this setup was replaced in 1956 by an infinitely less cool (and less expensive) system with plain downturn pipes hidden below the bumper. The same year, Ford repositioned the spare tire to the rear bumper in a large, fussy looking configuration that added nearly a foot to the car’s overall length.
The car retains the standard fiberglass hardtop (a year before the famous “porthole” was offered as a no-cost option), though interestingly, it is not fitted with the popular-but-optional convertible soft top.
The car presents similarly well inside. Note the transparent speedometer housing that allows for ambient illumination, as well as the factory tachometer housed in a separate, circular housing to its left–the pod on the opposite side of the telescoping steering column is home to a clock.
The two-spoke steering wheel seen here was replaced with a prominently dished three-spoke wheel in 1956, though otherwise the cabin remained largely unaltered, including attractive engine turned metal trim on the dash and door cards. The steering wheel was upgraded with a smaller diameter to allow easier access for all types of drivers.
Like most, the car is fitted with the Ford-O-Matic 3-speed automatic transmission, though a 3-speed, 3-pedal arrangement was also available.
The car is equipped with a 198 hp, 285 lb-ft V8 displacing 292 ci, figures which would each rise insignificantly with 1956’s standard 312 ci engine. Both were members of the brand-new Y-block line of overhead-valve V8s, engines tasked with the heavy responsibility of supplanting Ford’s venerable and pioneering flathead V8.
The engine bay shows great attention to detail, retaining many rare original characteristics such as a FoMoCo generator charging a 6-volt electrical system, bag-style windshield washer fluid reservoir, distinct factory exhaust manifolds, and beautiful finned rocker covers with a turquoise Thunderbird logo. Even the coolant hoses appear to be period NOS items.
First-year Thunderbirds are the purest, as well as some of the best looking and most desirable made during the historic model’s nearly-uninterrupted 45-year run. This one is among the earliest built, and likely one of the best looking to survive.