A visitor – a welcome visitor – to the 2018 Victorian Hot Rod Show was this imported 1955 Ford Thunderbird. It would have been equally at home inside the hall, but by being in the car park it meant we could get much closer to see the details. And all for free.
You can think what you will and say what you might about the way that the Thunderbird evolved over the years – how it got bigger, and lower, and heavier, and ultimately indistinguishable from the sedans that took over the personal car market. And how Ford tried to wind back the clock when they restarted production to match two-seater modern cars…But you cannot deny the impact and the style of the first models.
They were never sports cars…nor were Corvettes or Studebaker Hawks. They were personal luxury cars for a market where the average Joe or Jane might just be able to afford one – and to do so while they were young enough to appreciate it. They had a big enough engine and adequate suspension and reasonable brakes, and the rest was just style and salesmanship…and quite frankly that was a reasonable answer to what people wanted.
The Europeans who decried the style or the weight or the handling fell into two classes; those who had enough old-family money to buy faster, better handling cars with astronomic price tags, and those who had enough money to buy an Austin A40 but were jealous of the Yanks. Their children and grandchildren are still echoing their shrill sentiments now, but paying 10x the price tags for modern sedans tricked out with spoilers and LED lights to do the same thing that the Thunderbird drivers did; cruise the beach strips on warm nights. They might cruise more expensively but they don’t cruise in better style.
Note the wire wheels. They are real and simultaneously unnecessary and cool. Likewise the chrome bumpers…though I might say that the chrome and over-riders probably does a 200% better job of actually protecting the bodywork than the plastic parts of today. I note any number of dangling things on the freeway every time I drive into town – either the plastic pans are not attached very well or the people who snag and smash them cannot afford to have them ripped off and replaced. That’s not surprising considering the price of spare parts.
Note also the porthole. This is one of the last cars to have one and actually get away with the style. It is design folly, of course, but we wouldn’t be without it on a T Bird. The bird is also one of the few cars past the 1930’s that has made a wheel arch cover look good.
You might bemoan the standard look of the tail light assembly as well – it’s the style of the Fordsedan cars of their time – but remember that Ford was a reasonable-price manufacturer and any use of standard parts would have made good sense. You never had to complain about not seeing a Ford tail light when it lit up.
Is the interior luxurious enough for you…in a spartan sort of way? There is much less of the sculpturing of the dash area that you see on other North American maker’s cars, while still not retreating to the woodwork and flat panels of the European marques. It’s not padded – so you can expect to bounce your head off that dash if you stop quick.
The seat, however is pure romance, and I am willing to bet a number of them got started on those T Bird benches. Washable vinyl, too…I think the cup holder’s a later addition but the radio and the heater controls look pretty standard for the period. Is that a tape deck? Does it have Conelrad? Do you know what Conelrad was? And look at the wheel – ribbed for your pleasure.
Finally…consider the statement that the paint job makes in these days of grey and black. This is a car for people who want to have fun and colour. Truly Happy Days.