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four-seat version for the 1958 model year, but due to assembly problems on the new T-bird, it was decided to keep the 1957 model in production for as long as possible. While the 1958 Fords went on sale in late October 1957, the two-seat Thunderbird stayed in production until December 13, 1957. AN INSTANT CLASSIC Almost from the day it went on sale, the two-seat Thunderbird was hailed as a classic. By the mid-1960s, they were becoming a treasured vehicle when other models of the same time period were nothing but old used cars.
By the early 1970s, several clubs had been established to recognize these little Ford jewels and through their efforts, a lot of these cars destined for the scrap yard were kept, saved and preserved. Working with Ford, as well as a number of parts suppliers, nearly every body and trim item produced for the 1955 to 1957 Thunderbird has been available to restorers and owners for many years. Intensive research and historical documentation of these cars has also helped owners and collectors. In the mid-1970s, Lois Eminger, an employee of Ford Motor Company, discovered that Ford was disposing of all the original orders and invoices for the cars produced at the Dearborn assembly plant, where all of the 1955 to 1957 T-birds were produced. She asked if she could have just the T-Bird orders so they could be made available to the Classic Thunderbird Club International members. Ford was more than glad to help her, but said she had to take all of the invoices for each year and weed through them for the T-birds herself. At first this might have seemed like a simple task, but it soon became a monumental chore. In addition to the 53,166 Thunderbirds built during that time frame, nearly 400,000 other Ford products also came off those lines. Unfortunately, 1955 production up to July 1, 1955, had already been disposed of. However, through Lois Eminger's foresight of historical preservation many production questions such as the number of cars with F-code V8s for 1957, or the most popular versus least popular paint colors could be researched. As a service to members of the CTCI, their original invoices are available from Eminger for a nominal fee.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR When looking to buy a 1955, 1956, or 1957 Thunderbird, there are a number of areas of concern. If you are looking for an authentic example, the type of car that groups like CTCI or the Antique Automobile Club of America award judging honors for, then take time to learn what is proper for the particular model you want. Common areas where changes occur include: 12-volt conversions for 1955 models, addition of after-market chrome wire wheels (an accessory that was not offered, and not to be confused with wire-wheelcovers used in conjunction with the base hubcaps, addition of air conditioning (something not offered at all for these models), and non-authentic colors and soft trim. Body condition is always important and rust is the biggest determent to these little sports cars. Using a unified body with no fender or quarter-panel seams, repairs are not a simple matter of panel replacement. As a result, a number of restored examples exhibit less-than-perfect body work with rocker panels being one of the biggest culprits. Mechanically, the Y-block V8 is a good design when properly maintained. For those looking for authenticity, check the engine code on the data plate with the engine on the car. A number of 1957 models have had the dual four-barrel or superchargers added.
Be sure that the engine code corresponds to the engine. If the car has a replica data plate, check out the frame numbers located on the top face of the right frame rail just in front of the body mount. For the purist, knowing the proper color and interior trim codes that apply to these early Thunderbirds can be a major asset. There are several publications and websites that can assist you. THE MARKET TODAY Since the early 1970s, Thunderbirds from 1955 to 1957 have been at the top of collectors' lists. Prices have always been strong, with some of the more desirable versions bringing exceptional money. Considered a bonus by many T-bird owners and buyers are those models equipped with what is commonly known as "two-tops", those having both the folding soft top and removable hardtop. For 1957, a third option was also offered with a snap-in tonneau cover and there were a few models that came with all three varieties. Other popular items that were actually accessories included radio, heater and fender skirts. While the exterior spare tire carrier was standard with the 1956 models, 1957 did offer a factory unit. Most popular by far are the 1957 models, with their stylish fins, wide selection of colors and options, and the uprated E- and F-code engines. Even though the '57s are the most common by production, this is one more example where "rare" and "valuable" are not synonymous. Prices for the three models have fluctuated over the past decade and are currently running at their highest points. Prices for outstanding examples of 1955 models have been approaching the high $40,000 range, while 1956 and 1957 models with a straight four-barrel V8 engines, have been moving in on the $50,000 range. For 1957 Thunderbirds with the "E-code" dual four-barrel set-up, prices can jump 25% or more, while those with the "F-code" can add double the value of the basic models.
A premium for having both the soft top and the hard top can range from $1,500 for decent drivers up to $3,000 for fully restored editions. (Current values: 1955 1956 1957 or Main Ford Menu) When new, a number of
Thunderbirds were purchased by major celebrities. When these cars can be documented, prices can escalate. To date the highest price paid for a celebrity owned Thunderbird occurred on the Barrett-Jackson auction block a couple of years back when a fully restored Gunmetal Gray metallic 1956 model purchased new by Frank Sinatra was hammered sold for $164,000! A sale like that, however, really has no bearing on the T-Bird market in general. While this was very strong money, we have a report of an F-series 1957 model trading hands in a private sale for nearly $200,000. THE FUTURE In 1997, Ford discontinued the Thunderbird line, but left the door open for a successor. In 2000, the Thunderbird prototype was unveiled and everyone could immediately tie its design to the famous two-seaters from 1955 to 1957. Almost immediately, a renewed interest in the early examples seemed to reverberate throughout the hobby. Many people who had never considered owning one of these original classics took a new look at an old friend. With the new 2002 T-birds unveiling at $34,000, it made the price for originals look pretty good. Prices should remain strong for all three model years of these cars. With continued interest in American cars from the 1950s, plus the recent announcement from Ford that the new Thunderbird will be discontinued during the 2004 model year, a wider audience has been introduced to the original models. P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review