Ford Thunderbird (second generation)
|Second generation Ford Thunderbird|
1959 Ford Thunderbird convertible
Pico Rivera, California
Mahwah, New Jersey
|Body and chassis|
|Body style||2-door hardtop coupe
|Engine||352 cu in (5.8 L) FE V8
430 cu in (7.0 L) MEL V8
|Wheelbase||112 in (2,845 mm)|
|Length||205.4 in (5,217 mm) |
|Width||77 in (1,956 mm)|
|Predecessor||Ford Thunderbird (first generation)|
|Successor||Ford Thunderbird (third generation)|
The second generation of the Ford Thunderbird is a large personal luxury car that was produced by Ford for the 1958 to 1960 model years. While intended as the successor for the 1955-1957 two-seater, two major changes were made to attract potential buyers. Convertible and fixed-roof pillarless hardtop bodystyles were offered, whereas the first generation models had been available with a detachable glass-fibre hard top and a folding fabric top. Most visibly, the 1958 Thunderbird was nearly two feet longer as Ford had added two rear seats to the vehicle.
Along with the 1958 Lincolns, the 1958 Thunderbird was the first Ford Motor Company vehicle designed with unibody construction. The new Thunderbirds were produced at a new assembly plant at Wixom, Michigan, built as part of a corporate expansion plan to increase the sales of up-market cars (Mercurys, Lincolns, and Thunderbirds). A second location was opened in Pico Rivera, California at another new location called Los Angeles Assembly.
Although the 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird had proved successful (in comparison to the Chevrolet Corvette), Ford executives—particularly Robert McNamara—still felt its overall sales volume had room to improve. Market research suggested sales of the Thunderbird were limited by its two-seat configuration, making it unsuitable as an only car for families. As a response, Ford executives decided to add a rear seat onto the Thunderbird.
The new Thunderbird had a distinct new styling theme. The design was driven entirely by the styling department and approved before the engineering was considered. The design was one of two proposals, styled primarily by Joe Oros, who later worked on the 1964 Ford Mustang. However, the losing proposal, styled by Elwood Engel, would gain its own place in Ford Motor Company history: after minor revisions, it would become the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
The four-seat Thunderbird was designed with unibody construction, eschewing a separate chassis. The intent was to allow the maximum interior space in a relatively small exterior package. The 1958 Thunderbird was only 52.5 inches tall, nearly 9 inches shorter than an average American sedan; the Thunderbird had only 5.8 inches of ground clearance. To accommodate the higher drivetrain tunnel that was required in a lower car, Ford used it as a styling feature, building in a full-length center console featuring ashtrays, switches, and minor controls; as the console divided both seats, the Thunderbird was a true four-passenger vehicle.
Beneath the monocoque construction, the remainder of the engineering was conventional. Ford's new 300-hp FE-series engine was used, with 352 cu in (5.8 L) displacement. Standard transmission remained a three-speed manual transmission, with optional overdrive or Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission. Front suspension was independent, with coil springs and unequal-length A-arms. The rear was initially a live axle suspended by coil springs, which were intended to be interchangeable with optional air springs that were canceled before production. Drum brakes were used at all four wheels.
Various delays conspired to have production start only on December 20, 1957, much later than the normal September start; the 1957 Thunderbird was thus built for three extra months.
The new Thunderbird captured Motor Trend's Car of the Year award in its debut season, making history as the first individual model line (as opposed to an entire company) to do so. While many fans of the earlier, two-seat Thunderbirds were not happy with the new direction, Ford was vindicated with sales figures of 37,892, more than double the previous year despite losing three months of production and 1958 being a very poor year for car sales—the Thunderbird was one of only two cars to show a sales increase that year (the other being the Rambler). Only 2,134 convertibles were built; the convertible did not go on sale until June 1958.
For the 1959 model year, Ford made changes to the front, rear, and side ornamentation; leather upholstery was available for the first time. The rear suspension was revised, discarding coil springs for Hotchkiss drive with parallel leaf springs. A new V8 engine, the 345-hp 430 cu in (7.0 L) MEL-series, was available in small numbers. Sales almost doubled again, to 67,456 units, including 10,261 convertibles. Thunderbird advertising in 1959 targeted women in particular, showing glamorous models in country club and other exclusive settings, and the sales figures bore out Ford's marketing plans.
With more trim changes, 1960's sales figures hit another record: 92,843 units sold, including 11,860 convertibles. A rare option in this year was a sunroof; this "Golde Edition" (Golde was a German company whose sunroof patent Ford licensed) sold 2,530 examples.
At the end of 1960 production two Thunderbirds were constructed of stainless steel for the Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corporation, at a price of $35,000 each. Because of the properties of stainless steel, the production dies would be destroyed as a result of the stamping of the parts. This was not a problem for Ford, as the next generation of T-Bird used a new body style. To duplicate the T-Birds 3,957 lb (1,795 kg). normal production weight, body panels were made of Type 302 stainless steel, and trim pieces out of Type 430 stainless steel. At the time of their production, because of the maximum rolling mill for stainless steel only produced stock that was 72 inches (1,800 mm) in width, both cars' roofs were constructed from two 42-inch-wide sections which were welded together in the middle (the roof would have required an 84-inch-wide sheet of stainless steel, which apparently could not be obtained). Both T-Birds received mechanical and interior restorations in the 1980s and survive to this day, with one on permanent display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- Flory, Jr., J. "Kelly" (2008). American Cars, 1946-1959 Every Model Every Year. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7864-3229-5.
- Flory, J. "Kelly", Jr. American Cars 1946-1959 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Coy, 2008), p.856.
- Tast, Alan H. and David Newhardt. THUNDERBIRD FIFTY YEARS. Motorbooks. October 15, 2004.
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