The last Thunderbird, Ford Motor Company’s iconic sports car, emerges from a Ford factory in Wixom, Michigan on this day in 2005.
Ford began its development of the Thunderbird in the years following World War II, during which American servicemen had the opportunity to observe sleek European sports cars. General Motors built the first American sports car: the Chevrolet Corvette, released in 1953. The undeniably sleek Corvette’s initial engine performance was relatively underwhelming, but it was gaining lots of attention from the press and public, and Ford was motivated to respond, rushing the Thunderbird to the market in 1955. The 1955 Thunderbird was an immediate hit, selling more than 14,000 that year (compared to just 700 Corvettes). The success of the Thunderbird led Chevrolet to continue production of (and improve upon) the Corvette, which soon became a tough competitor in the sports car market.
In addition to the powerful V-8 engine that Ford was known for, the Thunderbird boasted all the conveniences consumers had become accustomed to, including a removable hard convertible top, soundproofing and the accessories standard to most Ford cars. In 1958, to satisfy critics who thought the T-Bird was too small, Ford released a four-seater version with a roomier trunk and bucket seats. The Beach Boys elevated the Thunderbird to pop- culture-icon status in 1964 by including it in the lyrics of their hit single “Fun Fun Fun” (“she’ll have fun, fun, fun ’til her daddy takes the T-Bird away”). By that time, President John F. Kennedy had already included 50 Thunderbirds in his inaugural procession in 1961, and a T-Bird would also feature prominently in the 1973 film “American Graffiti.”
Thunderbird sales slowed during the 1990s, and Ford discontinued the Thunderbird in 1997. In 2002, however, in an attempt to capitalize on car buyers’ nostalgia, the company launched production of a retro T-Bird, a two-seater convertible that took some of its styling from the original classic. The luxury retailer Neiman Marcus offered an early special edition version in their 2000 Christmas catalog, priced at just under $42,000; their stock of 200 sold out in two hours and 15 minutes. Despite brisk early sales and good reviews, sales of the new Thunderbird couldn’t justify continued production, and Ford discontinued it again in mid-2005.