P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review
By the early 1950s, the American car market was being treated to new innovations and radical styling changes at every turn. Bigger, more powerful V8 engines, "jet-age" styling, and futuristic accessories were constantly being introduced. Clearly, the trend was to bigger, more comfortable and faster, and not to more nimble. That void was filled by an increasing number of imported vehicles. A wonderful selection of European sports cars provided a sporty alternative to the bigger American offerings.
Several American companies made half-hearted attempts to enter this growing segment of the market, such as the Nash-Healey, the Crosley Super Sport and even the little independent from Willow Run, Kaiser, got into the act with the handsome Darrin. Of course, the most successful (eventually) of this breed was the Corvette from Chevrolet. However, Corvettes had two problems. One, they were produced in very small numbers, and two, the old "stove-bolt six" really didn't do the car justice.
Not to be left behind, Ford entered this personal sports car market in the fall of 1954 with its own version of a two-passenger roadster, the Thunderbird. With sleek styling and good looks that were shared with full-size cars, this entry had something no one else did, a V8 engine under the hood. But only briefly as the Corvette countered with its own V8 later in 1955.
The Thunderbird's body was constructed of stamped sheet metal, just like the regular passenger cars in the line. Also unlike the Corvette, its production numbers would not be limited to a few hundred cars, but to thousands--as many as their dealers could sell. Hailed by the press upon it release, the Ford Thunderbird was an instant success. While in comparison to other Ford models it wasn't a volume automobile, it did build showroom traffic and its shared styling helped to sell thousands of Fairlane and Customline family sedans. Round one clearly went to Ford.
The first Thunderbirds featured body on frame construction with a 102" wheelbase and an overall length of 175.3" from bumper-to-bumper. Weighing in just under 2,850 lbs, they were also the most expensive model starting at $2,944. Under the hood was a V8 engine of the "Y-block" family, sporting 292 cubic inches and rated at 193 horsepower @4,400 rpm. While this was not the most powerful V8 on the market, the car sported one of the best hp-to-weight ratios around and performance was peppy enough for most buyers. Not wanting to get trapped by journalists and owners who would complain about the car's less than stellar handling and speed, Ford choose to promote the car as a "sporty personal car". Defining it this way, the press continued to laud the vehicle and millions of customers came to the showroom to see this exciting new vehicle from Ford.
Released in October 1954 as a 1955 model, it was initially offered in just three colors, Raven Black, Torch Red or Thunderbird Blue. The sales of these cars met and exceeded all projections, so in the early Spring of 1955 Snowshoe White and Goldenrod Yellow were added to the selections. As with any motorcar of the day, the base price got you a pretty stripped down vehicle. Options included radio, Magic-Aire heater-defroster, and power equipment such as windows, steering and brakes. Like the full-size Fords, these first year T-birds were equipped with a six-volt positive ground system, and general mechanics were shared between the two vehicle lines. While the base price included a standard three-speed manual transmission, floor mounted shifter of course, for a few dollars more one could opt for the Borg-Warner supplied three-speed with overdrive or the three-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic.