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In the 1950s, nobody ever went broke overestimating the American public’s taste for excess.
Yet the original 1955 Ford Thunderbird, that great symbol of the optimism and innocence of the period, doesn’t entirely conform to our preconceptions of what a ’50s American car should be.
It is not, in other words, an obese, chrome-laden land yacht but a lean and tastefully proportioned two-seater that Ford called a ‘personal’ car.
A stylish, compact and fun means of whisking two people – perhaps an executive suffering their first mid-life crisis or a pampered Beverly Hills housewife – along in great luxury and with an abundance of those signature US traits: performance and reliability.
Ford had spotted a niche for a machine that could take its name upmarket, support a fairly premium price ticket and win the approval of wealthy buyers.
It was chasing those discriminating, country-club-frequenting individuals depicted in the advertising for the Thunderbird, who had probably not considered a Ford product since the demise of the original Lincoln Continental in the late 1940s.
Henry Ford II let it be known that the new car, bereft of blue-oval insignia, was to be known as ‘Thunderbird by Ford’ but it wasn’t long before the most hotly debated Detroit product of 1955 became known simply as the T-bird.
Based on standard Dearborn componentry, it bore a superficial resemblance to Ford’s more prosaic offerings and looked just as good wearing its optional glassfibre hardtop as it did fully open to the elements: the soft-top was, weirdly, a $75 extra.
Alongside the tastefully styled Continental MkII, the early Thunderbirds are emblematic of a period when Ford was trying to shed its image as a maker of cheap, dependable but unexciting cars for the masses.
It was also beginning to understand that a ‘dream car’ such as the T-bird was really a device to generate the showroom traffic that would put punters behind the wheels of Fairlanes or Country Squires.
The Thunderbird (so named at the 11th hour after a native American god who brought rain and prosperity) was certainly a response to the relative success of European sports cars.
But it was really a product of the envy and paranoia within Ford when it came to the activities of General Motors.
It spied on GM, plotted against its rival, countered every move.
So when word got out that Chevrolet was building a ‘sport car’ the race was on to create a response.
The Thunderbird was trailed as a 1955 model in early 1954 and launched, with predictable ballyhoo, in the autumn. It learned from the Chevy Corvette’s mistakes with a steel body and civilised wind-up windows.
Based on a cruciform box-section chassis adapted from the Mainline and Customline ranges, the Thunderbird sat a full 12in lower than those contemporary 1955 Ford sedans on the latest ball-jointed independent front suspension.
Best of all, it was powered by a 292cu in V8 – at 4785cc, some half a litre bigger than the engine in the prototypes – and running dual headers and exhausts whose tailpipes emerged from the rear overriders.
These would take the T-bird to an honest 115mph or more (higher in the automatic, for some reason) depending on compression ratio, gearbox and rear-axle ratio.
With floor-shift Ford-O-Matic auto or three speed manual transmissions, with or without overdrive, it had all the effortless punch that had been missing from the flaccid six-pot Corvette and, in a straight line, this 1500kg glamour puss was more than a match for most European open two-seaters.
Ford called it ‘Trigger-Torque Go’ in its colourfully worded advertising.
It was also keenly priced, at $2692, although if you went for the various power assists – such as ‘Swift-Sure’ brakes, ‘Master-Guide’ steering, and electric seats and windows – you got little change out of $4k.
Ford dealers took 3500 orders on the day it was launched and sold 16,155 cars in year one, a healthy figure but also low enough to convince Henry Ford II that the 1958 T-bird would need to have four seats, not two.
Even so, sales held up well for the three-year model cycle, with everyone from Juan Manuel Fangio to Marilyn Monroe falling victim to its charms.
And no surprise: this was not just a new type of Ford but a new type of car, created to accommodate the needs of a stronger, wealthier America of two-and even three-car families.
For 1956 came the famed optional portholes in the hardtop and the Continental-style outside-mounted spare wheel.
This not only liberated space in the not-very-spacious (by US standards) boot, but improved the front-to-rear balance of the Thunderbird, which was by then rated at 202bhp with the standard three-speed manual and 215-225bhp with the 312cu in V8 that came with the automatic or overdrive cars.
A year later the T-bird grew 5½in longer with pointier fins, chunkier bumpers and circular dials.
The spare went back into the (larger) boot and, along with the usual transmissions, you could have a 292cu in, 212bhp V8 ora312cu in unit with 245-270bhp, depending on camshaft profile.
With dual four-barrel carbs, 285bhp – or 300bhp with the rarely specified Paxton supercharger – was claimed, yet Ford remained emphatic that this increasingly feisty ’Bird was not a sports car, and certainly not something to be raced or rallied.
A few did, with mixed results.
The Jaguar XK140 was never confused about its orientation.
This second generation of XK was emphatically all sports car, but developed specifically with the needs of the North American market in mind, where it now had the Thunderbird to contend with.
There were no automatic or power-steering options yet, but with its engine moved forward to gain cockpit space for longer-legged drivers, this more practical and comfortable 1954 successor to the XK120 was still one of the leading protagonists in the British sports car invasion.
It was quicker and handled better than its forebear, thanks to rack-and-pinion steering and telescopic dampers.
With Armco style bumpers – to fend off giant American sedans in shopping-mall parking lots – and a cast rather than individually slatted grille, the XK140 came in three flavours: fixed-head coupé, drophead coupé or open two-seater.
It was in its latter, starkest form that the US market preferred its XKs, which is why only 73 ‘OTS’ XK140s were built as right-hookers, compared to 3281 left-handed examples.
With 190bhp in standard form (with the 3/8in-lift cams) the XK140 would top 120mph, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect something close to 130mph from a Special Equipment example such as this one, first sold through US West Coast distributor Charles Hornburg in 1956.
As well as the C-type cylinder head, chrome wire wheels and the rarely found Laycock overdrive (fitted to less than 10% of XK140s), this car has been sensibly uprated to disc brakes since its repatriation to the UK.
Finished in turquoise and sporting fake wires, ‘our’ 1955 Thunderbird couldn’t appear anything other than louche, but they do look good in black, such as the car Bond author Ian Fleming owned.
It remains an essentially well proportioned shape with a wraparound ’screen like a fighter-jet canopy (watch your knees on its dogleg frame when getting in), a good stance on its short wheelbase and a restrained level of unnecessary frills other than the fake vents on the wings: the bonnet scoop is functional.
In contrast, there is hardly a straight line anywhere on the Jaguar, whose swooping profile flows into abbreviated cutaway doors and a sensual rear end.
A foot shorter and 6in narrower than the Ford, the British car sits you lower in rudimentary, semi-bucket seats behind that familiar 17in four-spoke wheel, looking at a no-nonsense selection of six centrally displayed white-on-black instruments.
These could not be more of a contrast to the highly styled ‘Astrodial’ T-bird instrument pod, flanked by a rev counter and a clock on a deep, safety-padded dashboard that sweeps into matching door panels.
There is lots of legroom in the American car but your limbs feel splayed and trapped under its big steering wheel.
It is a cheerful but entirely synthetic environment that, to the very few in the UK who bought a new Thunderbird, spoke of a completely different way of living.
This one doesn’t have electric windows but it does have a four-way powered bench, an unthinkable luxury in ’50s Britain when most cars didn’t even have reclining seats.
You could perch three skinny people abreast on this power-operated, vinyl-covered sofa, but in a manual such as this the driver does need to be on intimate terms with their middle passenger.
Under the bonnet the Thunderbird’s ‘Y-block’ overhead-valve V8, as fitted to Mercury and police-specification Ford sedans, looks like an industrial installation compared to the classic symmetry of the XK straight-six with its polished cam boxes.
Both start readily and have civilised tickovers, but very different theme tunes and incidental music as you would expect from such radically divergent timing, firing orders and caburetion.
The smooth growl of the Jaguar is discreet but unmistakeable, whereas the Thunderbird has the lusty alternating burble of a motor launch that rocks the car gently on its soft springs when you blip the throttle.
Revving its V8 beyond 4000rpm is fruitless, whereas the XK ‘six’ winds out quite happily to 5000rpm with solid pull in every gear and torque to burn.
In first, the cranked lever of its Moss gearbox almost lies horizontally against the carpet.
It won’t be rushed and howls evocatively in its straight-cut lowest ratio as you pull away.
The other gears are synchronised but still require careful timing for smooth shifts.
This Thunderbird is a rare and desirable manual, yet you can’t help feeling that it would be a much nicer car as an automatic.
Its clutch is light and forgiving, but while the short lever promises nifty changes there is something ponderous and agricultural about its movements.
Not that you need to use it very much, such is the V8’s torque: the owner of this car has snapped a halfshaft or two by letting rip from a standstill in bottom gear.
The Borg-Warner overdrive takes 30% off the engine speed in second and top, and engages automatically at 27mph in direct top.
To disengage, you simply kick down on the throttle or push forward the lever marked ‘Overdrive’ under the dashboard.
In a straight-line burn-up the two cars feel quite evenly matched: a glance at contemporary figures seems to bear out this impression.
But what those numbers don’t tell you is just how stable and secure the XK140 feels when extended, rewarding the hefty inputs required by its steering and brakes.
Not so the Thunderbird.
You steer this pastel shaded showboat more by eye than feel, feeding lock in and out against almost no resistance because this is full power takeover – rather than assistance – that commits the additional sin of being low-geared.
You are kept busy holding the car pointing straight ahead and are likely to scare yourself should you jab the brake pedal too aggressively: the grabby, over-boosted drums hardly ever pull up the car in a straight line.
It holds a steady enough line through country lane curves, with roll that looks more dramatic from without than it feels from within.
But to push the Thunderbird towards its modest limits is to misunderstand the gentle nature of a car that wants to canter rather than sprint.
To enjoy the Ford, you accept its invitation to come along for the ride without being party to the finer detail of the driving experience, a passenger aboard a piece of softly sprung road theatre that only really looks at ease wafting along the wide, palm-lined boulevards of California.
In many ways the Jaguar is an even more ‘personal’ experience.
Set up to understeer, it can be placed to the inch on the road, as you measure steering lock against your choice of gear and throttle position so that making meaningful progress in this near-70-year-old two-seater is as instinctive as breathing to anyone even half sympathetic to its lusty, semi-vintage character.
There is nothing vintage about the Ford.
In 1955 it epitomised the power-assisted, laboursaving aspirations of the modern world, yet it was also the sportiest thing to emerge from North America since the Stutz Bearcat.
It proved the soundness of its creators’ judgement by outselling the Corvette handsomely.
As successive models grew in size and ostentation in the ’60s, the 1955-’57 T-birds became more coveted and were among the first post-war American cars to be considered ‘collectible’.
Today prices of early ’Birds look quite soft, not only compared to Corvettes, XKs and muscle cars but even later examples of the same species – an indication of shifting demographics.
The dream car of its era, fetishised in popular music and film, it emphasised US styling, comfort and luxury over the dubious hardships endured by buyers of traditional sports cars from the old world.
It is hard not to like the Thunderbird.
In a time that’s short on laughs it makes you smile, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Images: John Bradshaw
- Sold/number built 1955/16,155
- Construction steel chassis, steel body
- Engine all-iron, ohv 4785cc V8, Holley four-barrel carburettor
- Max power 193bhp @ 4400rpm
- Max torque 280Ib ft @ 2600rpm
- Transmission three-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
- Suspension at front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted worm and roller
- Brakes drums, optional servo
- Length 14ft 7in (4445mm)
- Width 5ft 10¼in (1784mm)
- Height 4ft 3½in (1308mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
- Weight 3472Ib (1575kg)
- Mpg 18
- 0-60mph 8.8 secs
- Top speed 115mph
- Price new $2692
- Now £15-70,000*
Jaguar XK140 SE OTS
- Sold/number built 1954-’57/3354
- Construction steel box-section chassis, steel body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3442cc straight-six, twin 1½in SU carburettors
- Max power 210bhp @ 5750rpm
- Max torque 213Ib ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, RWD
- Suspension at front independent, by double wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums
- Length 14ft 8in (4470mm)
- Width 5ft 4½in (1640mm)
- Height 4ft 7in (1395mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2590mm)
- Weight 3130Ib (1420kg)
- Mpg 18
- 0-60mph 8.5 secs
- Top speed 121mph
- Price new £1127
- Now £100-130,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication