With an eye on the developing sports car market, in 1953 Chevrolet introduced the two-seat Corvette. That first Corvette took the European approach with a six-cylinder engine, roadster-style side curtains and a minimalist top. Ford’s Thunderbird followed two years later and offered a V-8, roll-up windows, a weatherproof soft top and an optional hard top. Sales proved that Ford planners had correctly read the tea leaves as the heavier, less agile Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by almost five to one, even as Zora Arkus-Duntov succeeded in getting Chevy’s new lightweight V-8 dropped into the ’55 Corvette.
Despite agonized screams of two-seat T-bird aficionados, Ford radically redesigned the car for 1958, dropping all “sports car” pretenses to become a “personal luxury” car with four seats. Once again, Ford’s planners were shown to be correct: 1958 sales almost doubled those of the ’57 ’Bird and 1960 sales alone were almost double that of all the two-seat T-birds combined. When the Mustang became Ford’s “sporty car,” the T-bird was upsized and given Lincoln-like appointments. Sedan-styled 1967 (and later) Thunderbirds were still a separate line, but only true T-bird enthusiasts could distinguish them from other FoMoCo sedans at a glance. The T-bird was downsized to the Torino platform in 1977, and buyers responded with an all-time high of 352,751 ’Birds in 1978. It was downsized again to the Fox platform in 1980, the low point in the long history of the T-bird; the 1980 ’Bird was the first to offer a six-cylinder engine.
In 1983, the ’Bird, still based on a 104.8-inch wheelbase Fox platform, got a sleeker body and a new lease on life when NASCAR allowed Ford to stretch the wheelbase to the NASCAR minimum 110 inches. Why not as Chevy to run the FWD Lumina body on the RWD NASCAR chassis? For the next five years, “Million Dollar Bill” Elliot, Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki and others made Thunderbird a household name as NASCAR mania swept the country.
Ford introduced an all-new Thunderbird in 1989, the first T-bird in the long history not to have a V-8 engine option and Ford switched to Taurus as the NASCAR platform. By all appearances, the Thunderbird line died at the end of 1997, but really it just went dormant. Ford displayed the “Thunderbird Concept Car” at the 2000 Chicago Motor Show, and it went into production pretty much unchanged as the 2002 Thunderbird. A two-seater like the original T-bird, its retro-styled body lacked the crisp distinctive lines of the original, and production ended after the 2005 model year. The story still isn’t over; Ford said the ’02 ’Bird was always intended to be a limited-production vehicle, and they were “putting the name back in the future production vault.”
Thunderbirds appeared on Highway 143 almost as soon as the full-size cars hit American highways. Not surprisingly, the two-seaters have been most popular in model form: Rettigg’s American Wheels lists 20 hand-built and 36 diecast first-generation Thunderbirds. There are at least 24 handcrafted and 19 diecast models of the next three generations of ’Birds, the distinctively styled 1958-1966 four-seaters. Production of 1:43-scale models of the 1967-1997 sedan-style Thunderbirds (not counting NASCAR models) reflected the lack of European interest in these cars as only four handmade and seven diecast models from these years can be found on Highway 143. The last (to date) Thunderbird didn’t fare much better with only two hand-built and five diecast models made, counting the Concept Car versions. There are literally too many NASCAR Thunderbirds to keep track of; Starter made resin kits of almost every 1983-1988 NASCAR T-Bird, and racing Champions, Revell, Hasbro, Quartzo and Universal Hobbies contributed many more diecast models including a number of 1989 and later T-birds. If we stick with Thunderbirds, you’ll encounter on Highway 143, Brooklin is the most prolific manufacturer, with nine models spanning the years from 1955 through 1967.
Solido’s diecast 1955 T-bird started to cruise Highway 143 in 1956 as Tekno’s 1956 model appeared soon thereafter. Brooklin’s 1956 hardtop was one of the first hand-built models and was later converted to a convertible with more detail, but bare metal pewter models by Collector Case and Hamilton preceded it. The Conquest white-metal 1957 model is one of the best two-seat T-birds, with the Minichamps Ford’s 100th Anniversary Collection (later under their own name) rates a close second and costs far less. Rio, Matchbox and Franklin Mint are also well done. The most unusual (and attractive) two-seater is Brooklin’s record-setting “Battlebird,” part of their first “Factory Special,” the “1957 Speed Weeks” set, which included a trailer and 1952 Ford Ranger tow truck.
Second (“Square Bird”) and third generation Thunderbirds were seen on Highway 143 as early as 1962 with Corgi’s undersized 1959 convertible, followed by Solido’s somewhat better ’61 Hardtop in 1963 and Dinky’s 1965 a few years later. It was early ’90s when Solido’s released a much better 1961 convertible. The $10 price earned it high marks at the time. Those were quickly followed by a Sports Roadster version with the tonneau/headrest rear seat cover, but Solido missed the fact that Ford didn’t offer the Sports Roadster until 1962; its model still had the ’61 trim. Dinky’s ’65 ’Bird isn’t bad and K-line made a better ’66 as part of an O-gauge flatcar load. Perhaps the collector’s favorite from this period is Franklin’s good-looking (and accurate) ’62 Sports Roadster.
Hand-built white-metal models of four-seat ’Birds didn’t appear until the ’80s. Ashton’s ’61 was the first and was very nice for the time. A&S Modelmaker’s ’58 “Square Bird” Coupe and Convertible upped the bar. MiniMarque 43 bought the masters and made each even better with separate chromed parts and photo-etched trim. Brooklin’s ’65 Convertible is less expensive and should be easier to find.
Without the NASCAR ’Birds, there’s not a lot to choose from until the 2000 Concept Car. Dinky’s very hard-to-find ’69 was made in a lime metallic finish, visible mold lines and painted trim, and operational taillights put it into that category, too.
There are even fewer hand-built models; Brooklin’s ’67 four-door ’Bird is it. The French company, Starter, made a resin street kit version of their ’85 NASCAR Thunderbird that was offered as a hand-built model by Provence Miniatures, but Starter didn’t realize that NASCAR had allowed Ford to stretch the wheelbase from the stock 104 to 110 inches, so while this model’s outline is correct, the location of the rear axle is not.
Speaking of NASCAR models, Starter’s kits are still relatively easy to find and inexpensive. The rare racing ’Bird is Bill Elliot’s ’88 championship car. NASCAR licensing had become prohibitive for small manufacturers. Starter made three separate decal sheets with parts of the graphics on each. You had to buy a 1987-1988 kit and all three sets of decals to build one. Revell’s T-birds are by far the best NASCAR models with very good interior and engine detail and excellent graphics.
Although the 2000 Concept Car and its follow-on 2002-2005 production version created a lot of interest, only two hand-built and five diecast models ever appeared on Highway 143. USA’s white-metal 2000 and Minichamps’ diecast ’03 are good picks for the last Thunderbirds.
The 115 handmade and diecast Thunderbirds covers the full spectrum of Thunderbird production, though models of the 1980-1997 ’Birds are few and far between. There is hope the new series of resin-cast models by American Excellence will put some of T-birds back on Highway 143. n
T-bird evolution. Brooklin modified the original 1956 Thunderbird with a hardtop (left) to make a top-down 1957 and then modified that to make the record-setting 1957 “Battlebird.”