First generation (1955–1957)
Second generation (1958–1960)
Third generation (1961–1963)
Fourth generation (1964–1966)
Fifth generation (1967–1971)
Sixth generation (1972–1976)
Seventh generation (1977–1979)
Eighth generation (1980–1982)
Ninth generation (1983–1988)
Tenth generation (1989–1997)
Eleventh generation (2002–2005)
The Ford Thunderbird, as a response to the Chevy Corvette, began life in February 1953, racing from concept to prototype in just one year. The original T-Bird was unveiled to the public at the Detroit Auto Show on February 20, 1954, as a two-seat design, with a detachable glass-fibre hard top and a folding fabric top.
It had some design characteristics similar with other Fords of the time: single, circular headlamps and tail lamps and stubby tail fins, but also had a an egg crate grille, hood scoop and a 150 mph (240 km/h) speedometer. It also had a 102.0 inches (2,591 mm) wheelbase frame and was available solely with a V8 engine.
The T-Bird was sleek, and the half-covered rear wheel openings and whitewall tires didn’t say much about performance, opting for the three-speed “Ford-O-Matic” three-speed automatic transmission that brought with it a jump in engine output to 198 hp.
Ford executives were concerned that being a two-seater limited its sales potential. So with that, a redesigned four-seater model was launched in 1958, and dubbed the “Square Birds.” This model sold four times what the original did, and this success spawned a new market segment, the personal luxury car, a first in terms of an individual model line. It was offered in both hardtop and convertible body styles.
The new T-Bird had a longer 113.0 inches (2,870 mm) wheelbase to accommodate the new back seat, which also increased the car’s weight to 1,000 pounds (454 kg). New styling was added, including dual headlights (for a total of four), more prominent tailfins, a bolder chrome grille, and a larger hood scoop. Powering the Thunderbird was a new, 300 horsepower (220 kW) 352 cu in (5.8 L) FE V8, available with a 3-speed manual or automatic transmissions.
The third generation of Thunderbird was bigger, longer, wider, lower, and was redesigned in a way that gave the car a distinctively bullet-like appearance. Hence the “Bullet Bird.” This T-Bird was available as both a hardtop coupe and convertible, and was powered by a 300-hp version of Ford’s new 390-cubic-inch V8 backed by a three-speed automatic transmission.
The 113.2-inch wheelbase was relatively modest, but the car’s overall length was hardly small (the rear overhang was huge). And at nearly 2 tons, that 300-hp engine could only manage to push the car to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds.
The car was 1961’s Indianapolis 500 pace car and was featured prominently in US President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade.
For 1964 the Thunderbird was restyled with a more squared-off appearance, evident when viewing the car from the side or rear. And the new model retained a similar grille design with dual headlights and a 113.2 inches (2,875 mm) wheelbase. As before, the new Thunderbird continued to be offered in hardtop, convertible, and Landau versions.
The 300 horsepower (220 kW) 390 cu in (6.4 L) FE V8 was standard,and was paired with a 3-speed automatic transmission. For 1965, sequential turn signals were added, flashing the individual segments of the broad, horizontal tail lights in sequences from inside to outside to indicate a turn. Also new for 1965 were standard front disc brakes, and doubled sided keys.
These Jet Birds were squared off and sharp, but the deeply sculptured sides were new as were the large rear taillights.
In 1967, the T-Bird heralded in the second major change in the car’s design direction since its debut in 1955. From 1958 to 1966, the Thunderbird was a sporty two-door coupe/convertible with two rows of seating.
But during this time, Ford’s Mustang had entered the marketplace and was substantially cheaper. To prevent overlap between the two cars, Ford looked to change the Thunderbird upmarket. What came about was a larger Thunderbird with luxury add-on that was more like the Lincoln. However, styling carried forward from ’66, including the large rear taillights, but many traditional Thunderbird elements like the phony hood scoop were gone. And, for the first time, no convertible was offered.
What was a new, distinguishable design component was the massive blunt and oblong front grille with hidden headlights and a giant Thunderbird spreading its wings from side to side. And the new T-Bird was getting “Big,” weighing in at 4,200 pounds or more!
In the fall of 1971, the sixth generation of the Ford Thunderbird was debuted, and this would be the largest Thunderbird ever produced by Ford. This “Bigger Bird” would share the body and frame of the Lincoln Mark IV. For all intents and purposes the 1972 Thunderbird and Lincoln’s Mark IV were the same car with a scant few superficial differences.
This vehicle had a 120.4-inch (3,058 mm) wheelbase, and an overall length of 214 inches (5,436 mm). It also had a curb weight of 4,420 pounds (2,005 kg). And this T-Bird was riding on a 120.4-inch wheelbase and stretching out a monstrous 214 inches overall.
Most of the traditional Thunderbird styling components were eliminated from this generation. The centered and formal grille was framed by dual headlights on either side and virtually all T-Birds now had a vinyl top over a thick C-pillar that produced massive blind spots to either side. The full-width rear taillight was about the only element that tied this ‘Bird to previous editions. And virtually all the luxury equipment that came on the Mark IV was aboard the T-Bird as well.
But in the early to mid ’70s, this was the car America wanted and Ford sold.
For the next generation of T-Birds, the move was to a smaller 114 inches (2,896 mm) wheelbase chassis that underpinned the 1972-76 Ford Torino and its replacement, the LTD II, which also debuted for 1977. It was Ford’s first effort at downsizing the Thunderbird, reflecting rising demand for more fuel efficient cars.
This generation of Thunderbird outsold the Oldsmobile Cutlass to become America’s top selling personal luxury sedan.
Under the hood, the standard engine was the 302 cu in (4.9 L) Windsor V8, and for the first time a wide fixed “B” pillar was used, reflecting Detroit’s abandonment of pillarless hardtops. However, the door window glass remained frameless.
The industry-wide adoption of smaller vehicle designs in the interest of improved fuel efficiency and emissions compliance had the Thunderbird on full redesigned for 1980. Ford’s Fox platform was introduced, but the first application of this new structure to the T-Bird was considered a disappointment overall by the car industry.
Compared to the previous Torino-based Thunderbird and its large 114 inches (2,896 mm) wheelbase and 217.7 inches (5,530 mm) overall length, the new Thunderbird lost 5.6 inches (142 mm) of wheelbase and 17.3 inches (439 mm) in overall length.
The new Thunderbird was also about 900 pounds lighter and rated to carry only four people instead of the previous six.Unfortunately Ford retained most of the big-car styling elements for the new T-Bird and the formal upright grille, massive taillights and thick roof all looked awkward on the smaller car. And the 255-cubic-inch version of the Ford small-block V8 that made a pokey 115 hp.
This T-Bird did not sell well.
Responding to the lackluster response of the Eighth Generation, Ford made a significant redesign for 1983 and the “Aero Bird.”
Knowing it had to do something big to save the Thunderbird, Ford made a much more obviously aerodynamic 1983 model. Styled with aerodynamic efficiency in mind, the new T-Bird was slick and sleek that in no way resembled any previous Thunderbird. Further, it set the style for Ford products throughout the ’80s.
The wheelbase was cut to 104 inches, with an overall length of 197.6 inches. The standard power plant was now the 3.8-liter V6 making 110 hp and optional was the 302 V8 (now expressed as a 5.0-liter even though its displacement was closer to 4.9 liters) making 130 hp and fitted with electronic fuel injection.
And there was a third Thunderbird power plant available in the new “Turbo Coupe.” This was a turbocharged and electronically fuel-injected version of Ford’s 2.3-liter. And it quickly developed a cult following that continues today.
At a time when most other cars were shrinking in size, the 1989 Thunderbird appeared significantly larger than its predecessor. The new Thunderbird was developed on Ford’s MN12 platform, in development since 1986.
This “High Tech Bird” featured a nine-inch (229 mm) longer wheelbase than the previous generation Thunderbird and a short-long arm (SLA) four-wheel independent suspension, the car offered excellent handling and ride quality. But what set this generation aside from all its predecessors was that the 1989 Thunderbird was the first in the car’s history not to offer a V8 engine, instead offering two different versions of Ford’s 3.8 L Essex OHV V6, producing 140 horsepower (100 kW) while the high performance Super Coupe (SC) model received a supercharged and intercooled version of the engine producing 210 horsepower (160 kW).
This large car used a 113-inch wheelbase and was 1.6 inches wider than before. While overall length was actually down by 3.4 inches, the overall impression was of a much larger car.
After taking a few years of production off, Ford went back to its roots when it brought back the Thunderbird for 2002, going full “Retro.” Returning to the original formula for the Thunderbird, the latest version had a two-seat coupe/convertible layout. It also had a retro-futuristic styling to match.
The new ‘Bird’s 186.3-inch overall length was 11 inches longer than the original 1955 model. It also featured a short front overhang, reverse wedge shape, and the egg-crate grille. The “Retro Bird” also had a decorative hood scoop, round head and tail lights, as well as chrome chevrons. It had a motor that was a 3.9-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8, making a modest 252 hp. It had a five-speed automatic transmission.
The last one rolled off the assembly line on July 1, 2005.