Thursday, December 8, 2011

Car Of The Day: December 8, 2011

Today's car of the day is Johnny Lightning's 1958 Ford Thunderbird.

The Thunderbird ("T-Bird"), is an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company in the United States over eleven model generations from 1955 through 2005. When introduced, it created the market niche eventually known as the personal luxury car.

For more information and pictures of the real car please visit: Ford Thunderbird

The Squarebird seen here is my favorite generation Thunderbird.  And of the three model years, I have to give the nod specifically to the 1958 with its honeycomb grill.  I recently had an opportunity to see one of the stainless steel 1960s at the AACA museum in Hershey (and the stainless steel '67 Lincoln Continental also, which wasn't even on display- they were setting up for a birthday party so some of the cars had to be moved to the storage room, so we were allowed in there to see them).

Although the original Thunderbird was successful, the corporation's executives—particularly Robert McNamara -- felt its sales volume was small. Market research suggested sales were limited by its two-seat configuration, making it unsuitable as an only car for families. The second generation, introduced for the 1958 model year, was designed as a four-seater.

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 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).

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 proposed, styled primarily by Joe Oros, who later worked on the Ford Mustang; the losing proposal, by designer Elwood Engel, was reworked in size to become the 1961 Lincoln Continental.

The new Thunderbird was nine inches (230 mm) lower than the standard American car of the time, at 52.5 in (1.33 m), with only 5.8 in (147 mm) of ground clearance. The significant transmission tunnel intrusion required to fit the powertrain into such a low car was turned into a styling feature by covering it with a large, full-length center console dividing the front and rear seats and containing ashtrays, switches, and minor controls.

Beneath the monocoque construction, the remainder of the engineering was conventional. Ford's new 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, mostly because the convertible model did not become available until June 1958.

For the 1959 model year, Ford made changes to the front, rear, and side ornamentation, and made leather upholstery 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 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.

Although the Thunderbird had been considered a rousing success, Ford executives—particularly Robert McNamara – felt that the car's position as a two-seater restricted its sales potential. As a result, the car was redesigned as a four-seater for 1958. Though retaining a design as a two-door hardtop coupe/convertible, the new Thunderbird was considerably larger than the previous generation, with a longer 113.0 inches (2,870 mm) wheelbase to accommodate the new back seat. The increased size also increased the car's weight significantly by close to 1,000 pounds (454 kg). Along with a new, more rigid unibody construction was new styling, including dual headlights (for a total of four), more prominent tailfins, a bolder chrome grille, and a larger, though non-functional, 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.
With 37,892 sold in 1958—outselling the previous model year by well over 16,000 units—the new Thunderbird began a sales momentum previously unseen with the car. It was also history-making, becoming the first individual model line (as opposed to an entire company) to earn Motor Trend "Car of the Year" honors. With little more than a new grille and a newly optional, 350 horsepower (260 kW) 430 cu in (7.0 L) MEL V8 for 1959, sales climbed even higher to 67,456. For 1960, the Thunderbird was given another new grille and other minor stylistic changes along with a newly optional manually operated sunroof for hardtop models. Dual-unit round taillights from 1958 to 1959 were changed to triple-units after the fashion of the Chevrolet Impala. Customers continued to approve of the car as it broke sales records yet again with 92,843 sold for 1960. In spite of this success, Ford went ahead with a redesign for the Thunderbird to debut in 1961.

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.

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