By on December 1, 2009

once the high flyer, now grounded

NB: The car pictured here is a 1959 Thunderbird, but my article is about its near identical 1958 predecessor, because of its historical significance. I hope the dissonance won’t upset the purists here. I could never tell them apart as a kid anyway.

Behold the mythical winged dream machine. The 1958 Thunderbird was the embodiment of the dream where everyday folks would fly above the humdrum of dull workaday existence and dowdy sedans. Once the realm of the privileged few, luxury and exclusivity was now in the grasp of every hard working dreamer; after all, the T Bird was still a Ford. If Ol’ Henry could fulfill the once unthinkable dream of putting every American on wheels, then surely Hank II and his Whiz Kids could do the same with wings. And for a dozen years or so, the Thunderbird soared, and revolutionized the industry by creating the attainable personal luxury genre. Perhaps it tried to fly too high, or the dream changed, because it soon fell back to earth. And after it crashed, and had its wings tacked onto a blinged-out Torino, a piece of the American dream died with it.

the face of the 'birdIf this series of revolutionary vehicles had been of just two cars, the T-Bird and the VW would be it. They each carved out major new segments of the popular-priced market, on the opposite ends of the spectrum. And like their respective buyers, they are each other’s polar opposites; ying/yang, right brain/left brain, thrifty/exuberant, grounded/aspiring. They foreshadowed the complete fragmentation of the modern marketplace, which previously had been dominated by full-sized cars. The industry has never been the same since. Revolutionary enough?

The Thunderbird was born as a response to the ’53 Corvette and other sports cars. Its’55-‘57 incarnation as a two-seater may have had a sporty air but it was all pretense; it was the antecedent to the long line of Mercedes SL soft-roadsters. It handily outsold the ‘Vette, by a huge margin too. Lesson learned: Ford would forever leave Chevy to fight for a share of the marginal sports car market. Its first taste of the personal-luxury market was juicy, and Ford was hooked.

But if the Thunderbird was to really fly, to truly be the winged aspiration of late-fifties suburban optimism, it needed to be a four-seater: a social vehicle. The T Bird was there to take your impressed friends for steaks at the supper club after mai tais in the Polynesian-themed rec room of your new rancher. Or the kids to the game while Mommy was shopping in her Country Squire. Two seaters are intrinsically anti-social; the province of sports car fanatics, boors, or the snooty upper crust. Even if nobody ever sat in the back of the T-Bird, it spoke of the possibility of being invited in and sharing the dream.

tail feathersThe new ’58 “Squarebird” was revolutionary in its development and production too. Reflecting a new style over function paradigm, for the first time ever, the role of designers and engineers was reversed. The Thunderbird was fully styled before it was engineered; Detroit’s longstanding hierarchy was turned on its head.

It was also the first vehicle built at Ford’s new Wixom MI plant, designed specifically to assemble big unibodies, revolutionary in its own right. Unless I’ve committed a fatal error, that would make the T Bird the first unibody of the Big Three. The same plant also built the beautiful ’61 and up suicide-door Continental. The two of them shared more than meets the eye. The Continental was a direct descendant of the losing proposal by Elwood Engel for the design competition for the ’58 T Bird. A highly questionable decision too; the Vietnam War wasn’t the only guilt Robert McNamara took to his grave.

Speaking of styling, probably the less said from me the better, lest I offend the lovers of these beasts. I spoke my piece about Ford’s late-fifties styling themes in our ’59 Ford CC, and it set off the usual debates and catcalls. But all the same issues apply: the upper half lacks proper proportions and looks like it’s melting into the lower half. The front end looks like a cross between the Batmobile and a big-mouth bass. The rear end is an exuberant display of protrusions, curves and afterburners, and the best angle from which to view this rocket ship. ‘Nuff said.

at the consoleWhen I first arrived in the states in 1960, on my mile-long walk to second grade, there was one of these Squarebirds and a similar vintage Corvette along the way to distract me. The “Vette was easy for me to “get”; all buff, and with that sexy big ass. The T Bird was an enigma. Don’t get me wrong; I obsessed on it, especially that interior, which looks like a cross between a ski-boat’s cockpit and a late-forties Hollywood space-ship control console. Compared to all the dumpy Ramblers and Larks along the way, the T-Bird was the highlight of my day, every day. But I struggled to figure out what Joe Oros and his stylists were communicating. I learned English quick enough, but Squarebirdese was a bitch. Oh well; it sure kept my attention. I’m sure the owner wondered what all those smudges and drool were on his side window every morning.

Speaking of consoles, the ‘Bird’s was the mother of them all; and for a good reason. The Thunderbird may have flown metaphorically, spiritually and mythically, but in reality, it was highly earthbound: barely five inches of ground clearance on this low-flyer, when new. After a few years of spring sag; well, this one here looks an empty creeper would barely fit under there. Anyway, the console covered a drive shaft that was practically at elbow level.

CC 42 052 800The engine compartment was a snug affair too. It was a bit of a shock the first time I looked in one; I was so used to the typical barn-sized engine rooms of tall fifties sedans. The T-Bird was truly futuristic in this regard: portending the nightmare engine compartments of the seventies. Under that big flat air cleaner sat Ford’s brand-new 352 cubic inch (5.8 liter) FE engine. Fed by a big Holley four barrel carb, it was rated at a then impressive 300 horsepower. About the same as a new Caddy, but the T-Bird was closer in price to a Fairlane than a Coupe DeVille.

The 352 not enough? Order up the MEL 430 cubic inch (7 liter) monster borrowed from the Lincoln, the biggest engine available in the land, if not the world. The extra fifty horsepower and truckloads of torque probably made it one of the fastest sleds in its day.  Handling, such as it was to start with, undoubtedly didn’t benefit from all that extra iron over the front wheels. It’s all Thunderbird mythology anyway, because mighty few MELs were ever actually shoehorned into that cozy engine compartment.

The ’58 model was a bang up success, despite a short production year and the lack of a rag top until almost the end. But that was only the beginning: 1959 saw 67k sold, and in 1960, some 93k. That was almost five times the best year of the two-seat T-Bird, and ten times of the Corvette. 1960 marked the apex of the T-Birds flight trajectory – except for a blip in 1964 – and a long glide into the depths of the seventies ensued. We’ll hold our noses and talk about the T-Bird’s demise and resurrection as a zombie another time.

the details

Amazingly, or not, it took GM five years to take the Thunderbird seriously and launch some real competition. The ’63 Riviera was a gem, but sold at half the T-Bird’s rate. Ford established a pretty solid beachhead in the luxo-coupe wars, at least for a while. And it taught Ford a hell of a lesson: attack GM from the sides, not head on. A lesson that Ford repeated more than once again.

The T-Bird’s luxo-coupe market dwindled away, as dreams and fads inevitably do. New dreams were invented by the Mad Men to take its place, and as long as there are buyers willing to fall for their seductive inventions, the mythical Thunderbird clapping its wings can be heard.

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36 Comments on “Curbside Classic: Five Revolutionary Cars – No. 3 – 1958 Ford Thunderbird...”

  • avatar

    Well maybe this car was a little over the top in its design.
    But WOW!
    That 1964 Bird was awesome!
    I would still be proud to be seen driving it today.
    That dash.
    That rear curved seat and those awesome buckets!

  • avatar

    At Ate up with motor, they have an excellent article on the four seater Thunderbirds:

    The author Aaron Severson have pointed out how influental the design of the squarebird actually was, with its angular roof and thick C-pillars. Mid 60’s, it was all over the place, like the ’63 Buick Riviera.

  • avatar

    My favorite generation of Thunderbird is the 1961-63 Bulletbirds.
    I currently own a 1967 Thunderbird sedan.[email protected]/sets/72157600263091374/

    The Thunderbirds of the 1950’s and 1960’s were dream cars that middle class families could buy and drive on a daily basis. They were not always the most practical cars with their low seating and rather cramped (for their size) interiors. Still, they offered loads of style and fun for the price.

  • avatar

    “my mile-long walk to second grade”
    Through the snow, and uphill both ways, right?
    Oh, wait. That’s what Europeans do, isn’t it?

  • avatar

    Mustang has to be revolutionary car #4 or 5.  Chrysler’s minivan should be included in this list along the XJ Cherokee.
    I didn’t agree much with the Civic.

  • avatar

    The Thunderbird may be #3 on this list, but it’s #1 on “Five Nameplates Completely Fucked Up By Their Respective Owners”.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know…the Grande puts the Mustang pretty high on the list.

  • avatar

    @psarhjinian, lol, but don’t forget Monte Carlo on that list of F*&^ed Nameplates.

    I like the rocketship styling of Fords of this era, but yes this car is a SCREAMING example of style over substinance.  It is also a car where Lee Iacocca proved to the bean counters at Ford that his salesmen could sell blinged out Fords.  This car might as well have signed Mercury’s death warrant.

  • avatar

    You’re still not getting the front (although now that you mention it, I can see the big mouth bass). It’s a raptor . As is the ’63, the ’64 (more so) and the ’64 Mercury. If you look at the front end at a 75 degree angle, or so, it should become obvious.
    While it’s no Peugeot 404 (but what is?), no 1960 Valiant, and no ’61 and up Lincoln, I think it’s a pretty nice piece of styling (although I vastly prefer the raptor look of the later birds and (best of all) the Mercury).
    If you’re right about the unibodies, that’s very interesting. I’ve always had the understanding that Xler corp was the first.
    My second grade best friend, Ralphie’s mother, interior decorator to such Seattle luminaries as John Ehrlichman, who later became special assistant to Nixon for domestic affairs, had one.

    • 0 avatar

      Chrysler was definitely not first; I wouldn’t call the bridge-and-truss Airflows true unibodies. (Also, the U.S. market notwithstanding, Vittorio Lancia patented unibody construction in 1919, and Lancia offered the first unibody cars in the early twenties!)
      Interestingly, Chrysler, Ford, and Nash’s efforts in this area all owed a lot to the Budd Co. Budd, which built bodies for many automakers, was very big on unit construction, and when the automakers started to get into it, they poached a lot of Budd engineers.

  • avatar

    A great article on a revolutionary car. For me, the styling works, although I realize that it really isn’t “good” design, in that it isn’t especially clean or graceful.  The stiff, formal roofline and the assorted fins and spears on the side, along with the gaping grille, create a lot of drama and interest.  But then, I like the 1959 Ford, too.

    In 1958, people buying this car wanted drama and interest, not necessarily pure design (Ford would cover that one with the matchless 1961 Lincoln Continental – any of those parked on the street for a future article?). Of course, buyers at that time would have compared the Thunderbird to its contemporaries, and it looks clean and tasteful next to a 1958 Buick or Oldsmobile (or even a 1958 Mercury).

    Interesting note about how Ford succeeded best by attacking GM from the side. In 1958, it attempted to directly attack GM’s supremacy in the medium-price market with the Edsel and failed miserably. It also attempted to hit Cadillac head-on with a massive, brand-new unit-body Lincoln (which was also built at the Wixom plant). That effort crashed and burned, too.

    The Thunderbird, however, was a huge success. It helped Ford undermine GM’s stairstep divisional structure. When GM came up with a competitor, it was given to the Buick division. The Riviera was a great car, but suddenly Buick was competing directly with Ford.

    Ford continued this effort in the 1960s, when it brought out the intermediate Fairlane in 1962, the Mustang in April 1964 and the LTD in 1965. GM had to match these cars, but its divisions (except for Cadillac) wanted as many of the new models as possible. It was not possible for there to be a great deal of price differentiation between, say, a Chevelle and a Special. Meanwhile, Chevrolet rolled out the Caprice to compete with the LTD, but it also moved Chevrolet upmarket into territory that had been the province of its sister divisions.

    The end result was that the various GM divisions (again, except for Cadillac) were competing as much with each other as with Ford and Chrysler. The divisions also sought to be “full line” divisions, which meant that the images of Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick as being more upscale and exclusive than Chevrolet began to erode over time.

    • 0 avatar

      Except for the pratfall of the Edsel, Ford really hammered GM (and particularly Chevy) on product development from the late fifties well into the seventies. Chevy dealers screamed bloody murder, but until 1969, the sales organization largely ignored them.
      Of course, there were two problems:

      Ford undermined its own divisional structure, as well. The LTD, in particular, was a direct invasion of Mercury territory.
      Despite Ford’s product leadership, its market share stayed remarkably flat throughout the sixties and seventies. With a few exceptions, a lot of its new models simply cannibalized existing sales.

      The GM divisions competed aggressively with each other well before the sixties, though. Pontiac tried to go upscale to cut into Oldsmobile territory, Oldsmobile went after Buick, and Buick went after both Olds and Pontiac with the downmarket Buick Special. By the late fifties, Chevy was in it, too — it’s hard to see the original Impala as anything other than a Pontiac competitor. That had nothing to do with Ford. It came down to a very simple point: each division manager’s bonus was based on how much he could improve his division’s numbers. If that came at the expense of another GM division, rather than Ford or Chrysler, well, c’est la guerre.

    • 0 avatar

      ateupwiththemotor:  Ford undermined its own divisional structure

      The thing is that Ford HAD no significant divisional structure.  Never did.  Ford Motor Company always rose and fell with Ford.  Mercury was always a non-factor.  Do not forget that until Chrysler lost the beat under K T Keller in the early 50s, Ford was the perennial number 3 among the big 3 precisely because it had no credible middle priced competitor.

      By the 60s, Ford played its own game plan by expanding the Ford brand, and GM reacted by expanding Chevrolet.  Problem was that Mercury had no significant sales to poach, while Pontiac, Olds and Buick were the powerhouses that set GM apart from everyone else.   While Ford’s plan did not bear fruit in the 60s and 70s sales figures, look at what has happened since.  GM began centralizing itself in the early 70s (a la Ford and Chrysler) and the results have been a disaster for GM, which has been in a consistent slide since 1982.

    • 0 avatar

      Mercury was pretty much an also-ran even in the 1950s, so Ford had a lot less to lose than GM if the “low priced” division began poaching on the territory of the upmarket divisions. Mercury was never as important to Ford as Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick were to GM. If making Ford stronger kept Mercury as an also-ran, then Ford could live with that outcome.

      Ironically, the lack of multiple divisions and the continued emphasis on the Ford Division helped Ford greatly by the mid-1980s, when GM found it hard to differentiate among all of its divisions.

      And while Ford’s market share was stagnant, if I recall correctly, GM’s market share peaked in 1962, and went downhill slowly after that high point. (Chrysler came back strongly after the 1962 fiasco, doubling its market share by 1968, while the imports grew steadily each year after about 1964 or so.)

      Ford and GM were, to some extent, caught between a rock and hard place. The market was demanding more choices and more types of vehicles, but the company that was first to introduce them wasn’t necessarily rewarded with an upsurge in market share. But NOT introducing the new models opened the risk of losing sales to a competitor.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford and Chrysler both tried very hard to develop GM-style brand hierarchies. Edsel Ford recognized back in the thirties that the price gap between Ford and Lincoln was a gaping hole into which Ford was losing a lot of buyers, but even Edsel didn’t seem to grasp the need to clearly differentiate Mercury from Ford. (Bob Gregorie said it was a delicate issue for Edsel.) Walter Chrysler established De Soto to bridge the mid-price gap, and tried to place Dodge in the same way. In the fifties, Ford sank a bundle of money into setting up Continental and Edsel as separate divisions, while Chrysler established Imperial as a separate marque.
      The fact that it never worked is another matter. Edsel and Continental, of course, were notorious flops, Mercury oscillated between fancy Ford and junior Lincoln, and Chrysler had so much overlap of the Dodge, De Soto, and Chrysler lines that they nearly strangled themselves, while Imperial never really established a clear identity, separate marque or no. It’s not like blurry divisional lines was a marketing strategy.
      GM’s divisions had clearer identities in part because they were originally separate companies. (Well, Pontiac was the companion make of Oakland, but Oakland had been a separate company originally, as well.) Of the Ford and Chrysler divisions, only Lincoln and Dodge had been preexisting companies, and the others were exercises in brand-building that never quite gelled.
      My point remains — each division, whether it was successful or not, was primarily looking to feather its own nest. I don’t think Ford Division cared if it made life that much harder for Mercury, any more than Pontiac worried that stealing Olds and Buick buyers would blur GM’s corporate boundaries. In fact, their managers were regularly rewarded for doing so.

  • avatar

    Paul, I really liked the 1958 Thunderbird styling. I was 11 when we emigrated to Canada in 1959. First two cars I remember seeing after getting off the ship in Halifax were a ’59 Chev and a ’59 Cadillac. I thought I was in a nightmare.

    But the T-Bird looked great to me, and I never had any time for the earlier two door ones – they never looked special to me. But this 4 passenger one, wow! Four separate seats, the safety wheel deep dish, and the full foam dash. Modern. At the time. To a kid.

    Your example is in need of help, and has that most amazing fifties green color, which I hate. They looked best in
    cream, like this one, IMO. That’s what they used to look like. Damned good in the rocket age.

  • avatar

    Edit function, please! The’58 T-Bird.

  • avatar

    Deciding what was the first U.S. unibody is tricky, because it gets into how you define unitary construction. Back in the thirties, the Chrysler Airflows and Lincoln Zephyr used bridge-and-truss construction, which you could call semi-unitized. The Nash 600, “Stepdown” Hudsons, the Rambler, and the Nash Metropolitan were all unitized, well before the Thunderbird and 1958 Lincoln.  The T-Bird and big Lincolns didn’t exactly advance the state of the art. Weld effectiveness was low, so they just kept adding more metal, until they ended up massively overweight.
    A very important point: the style-leading-engineering comment is only accurate if you’re talking about Ford Motor Company. At GM, styling had far more power; Harley Earl was not subordinate to engineering except at the very beginning.
    One major difference between the ’58 and ’59 Thunderbirds is the rear suspension. The ’58 T-Bird was Ford’s first production car with rear coil springs, rather than leaf springs, with trailing arms to locate the rear axle. The geometry was a complete mess, and on rough roads, the axle could bounce around like mad. In ’59, they reverted to Hotchkiss drive, with rear leaf springs (Lincoln did the same in 1960).

  • avatar

    Yes, where has that very useful Edit Function gone?
    My neck hurts just looking at those front seats, by the way. One good smack…

  • avatar

    Great Article.  I like the style of these a lot.  But, like Geeber, I liked the 59 Galaxie.  The large blind C-pillar was revolutionary in 1958, and was hugely influential.  Everybody mimicked this roofline into the 70s.  Your pictured example is even Turquoise!  I love it!  I could be a nitpicker and say that the 1955 Studebaker President Speedster may have beat the Bird to the personal luxury sport coupe market, but it did not sell in any significant numbers, so I will concede the point.

    The Wixom plant opened to build the 58 T bird and the 58 Lincoln, which was also a unibody.  IIRC, it was the largest unibody ever made, on a 131 inch wheelbase.  The 58 Lincoln with the 430 was a hot rod, so I can only imagine how fast one of the Birds would be.

    A point not made this far is that the Squarebird’s success has to be nothing short of amazing given the state of the economy in 1958-60 and the implosion of sales of medium priced cars during these years.  While Buick had been the number 3 seller in 1955 (one of the facts driving Ford to drive Mercury upmarket and plug the hole with Edsel), Rambler became the number 3 seller in 1958.   While the rest of the medium priced market didn’t recover until 1964 or 1965, these Birds were the exception.

    I owned a 61 cigarbird some years ago, and you are right:  These cars were LOW.  And they were also very heavy, weighing about 4500 pounds, which is a lot for a car on a 113 inch wheelbase.   So much for the weight savings of unit construction. 

    Also, I would argue that 1958 marks the beginning of the end for GM.  The squarebird is the first in a long line of new markets identified and exploited by Ford or Chrysler but ignored by GM.  Even Studebaker tried with the Hawks and Avanti.  The list continued with Mustang, the minivan and the Cherokee/Explorer.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d say the niche definitely started with Studebaker’s Hawks even more so than the President Speedster. Stude’s 56 sedan and wagon line looked like dumpy versions of older Fords, but the Hawk was timeless and no question a “personal luxury” type of offering.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr Lemming

      I wouldn’t hang it on the 1955 Speedster — the Starliner coupe was introduced in 1953, and this was its best year sales-wise.  The top-end Commanders weren’t as loaded down with glitz as the 1955 Speedster, but they were gorgeous cars.

  • avatar

    Very nice writing here. Kudos.

  • avatar

    Off topic, but I can’t help pointing out the gen1 Toyota 4Runner lurking in the background of the second picture.  Same color as my ’89, too.
    Don’t suppose we’ll ever see a CC on one of these?
    On topic, enjoyed this article, as I usually do.  Keep it up, whether or not the 4Runner gets an entry.

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked the styling of the 1958-1960 T-birds even though I only have ridden in one a couple of times and never owned one. I did own a 1960 Lincoln sedan, which is similar in some ways.
    I was intrigued by an ad on ebay, a dealer in California has an all-black 1960 with the big engine, standard transmission, no radio, blackwalls and little hubcaps. Nice looking car but as far from the typical squarebird as you can get.

  • avatar

    Late as usual. We had a 59 and a 65. They were both very good cars for the day; much better drivers than our 1960 Sunliner. Both did suffer from heavy rust.

  • avatar

    My God this car is ugly.  This was style over function??

  • avatar

    I understand the significance of this model, but my preference skews heavily towards the ’57 F-code with the supercharged 312.

  • avatar
    Nels Nelson

    As a result of the AMA ban on racing in 1957, Ford and other manufacturers withdrew factory support of racing. All racing parts were sold to Holman-Moody and they became a racing car factory. In 1958 they prepared ten ’59 T-Birds for sale to teams and drivers. The T-Birds were equipped with Ford’s 430 CID MEL V-8.
    One of these T-Birds, driven by Johnny Beauchamp, won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 in a photo finish against Lee Petty in an Oldsmobile. After three days NASCAR officials decided Petty was the winner by inches. The two cars averaged over 135 mph, which made it the fastest stock car race up until then.

  • avatar

    About the Squarebird and Ford’s divisional structure:  Wixom was built for the express purpose of creating a dedicated production AND design/engineering facility for Lincoln (actually, briefly the “Lincoln/Continental Division” in 1958, after the 1956-57 fling with a separate Continental Division failed and before Edsel and Mercury were folded in).  The T-Bird was a Lincoln derivative in one way or another from 1958 all the way through 1976 — including of course the 1967-71 suicide door T-Bird sedans.  After spending the 1977-82 years as a gussied up midsized Ford (two different platforms), T-Bird went back to its Lincoln roots in 1983 as a sister car to the Mark VII and then VIII.  When the nameplate was briefly revived as a two seater earlier this decade, it was based on the Lincoln LS.

    I know, you can argue it the other way, that the Mark VII/VIII and LS were disguised Fords.  Somewehere along the way, we lost the Lincoln-exclusive focus that gave us the milestone 1961-69 cars.  Just like at GM.  But Wixom remained the home of Lincoln to the end in 2007 — 20 years after Cadillac closed Clark Avenue.  There is a definite difference between Wixom Town Cars and the things they are halfheartedly building in Canada now.

  • avatar

    butbutbut…(and speaking from similar kid memory, not a heavy duty encyclopedic knowledge that some here have) what about the *first* Thunderbird, back when both it and the Corvette were light(er) sports cars, before the Corvette became a muscle car and the Tbird a luxo-sled.  The *little* Tbird was a gorgeous thing, something James Dean would drive…….

  • avatar

    my dad was a pilot, lt. col. in the reserves, an engineer at olin mathisen owner of winchester firearms
    he had the pipe, the bug eye sunglasses
    drove a 60 bird light blue with red interior

    coolest car in the hood at the time
    awesome interior and dash

  • avatar


    This ’58 T-Bird pictured has to be the ugliest one I have ever seen.
    My Dad had a ’58 T-Bird graphite gray body with white top.
    It was a high curb appeal vehicle everywhere we went. Low to the ground.
    Great road car on 500m trips to Lake Michigan. The AC could freeze
    meat if you left on max cold. Powerful for its day. It weighed
    4200 pounds and was built like a Lincoln. Very quiet for it’s day. I always thought the interior was a treat to ride in.
    The ’59 added the chrome arrow head on the doors.
    The ’60 had three tail lights each side vice two, no chrome on doors.

    It is possible to critique anything. I rode in some late sixties BMW and Porsche rides that made me US car buyer for life. The old tech was truly ugly, but at the time we did not know the future and had no other choices. Your bashing of the old is with today’s frame of reference. However, I am very entertained by your writings, don’t stop!


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