Headlining the Ford lineup for 1961 was the all new third-generation Thunderbird. The new 390 V-8 was essentially an enlarged version of the 352, created by stretching bore 0.05 inch to 4.05 and lengthening stroke 0.28 inch to 3.78. Dubbed the Thunderbird Special 390 V-8, it produced the same 300 bhp as the previous top-tune 352, but packed more torque (427 lbs/ft versus 381 lbs/ft, both developed at a lazy 2,800 rpms. In this form, the 390 was the new standard and only powerplant for the new Thunderbird.
None of this mattered much to Thunderbird fanciers, who this year had an all new version of their car to drool over. What they got was a larger, sleeker interpretation of the personal luxury theme, so successfully established by the 1958-60 design. Ford coined a new slogan for the ’61 that perfectly described it: “Unique in All the World.”
The 1958-1960 “Squarebird” roofline was retained, but in a more rounded rendition. The original 1961 front end was a bit on the chromey side, and remained so through grille insert revisions for 1962 and 1963. Careful attention was paid to the interior design; the emphasis was to delineate the positions of the driver and front seat passenger. Two individual compartments separated by a prominent console, which swept forward to the dash, curved left and right meeting the doors and continuing around on the door panels. The unique “swing away” steering wheel of the ’61 Bird moved 10 inches laterally to the right (with transmission in park) to assist in entering and exiting.
The third generation Bird was not greatly changed in dimensions from the 1958-60 series. It retained a 113-inch wheelbase and 52.5 inch height., but was half an inch shorter and about an inch narrower overall. Body construction now followed the “dual unitized” principle, with separate front and rear sections welded together at the cowl.
The engineering work for the 1961 went into its completely redesigned chassis. The front suspension employed coil springs located above the upper wishbones. Stability was improved by increasing track width one inch at the front and three inches at the rear; it had 14 percent more lining area than the 1960. The thoroughly overhauled chassis made the 1961 Thunderbird a much better handler. The quicker steering was more responsive, the enlarged brakes had better stopping power, and the “controlled wheel recession” made the ’61 the smoothest riding Thunderbird yet. Certainly it was the most comfortable. In 1961 Ford sold 73,051 units, of which 10,516 were convertibles.
Thunderbird remained much the same for 1962 but there were several interesting developments, one of which was the optional version of the 390 V-8, the M-series engine, with triple two-barrel carbs and 10.5:1 compression.
The two-seater Thunderbird returned this year – in spirit if not in fact – in the unusual Sports Roadster. Since the ’55-57 models, Ford has received many customer requests for a “little” bird or two-seater; unwilling to spend the money reviving the two-seater as a separate model, the solution came in the roadster. It had a fiberglass tonneau cover, with a pair of faired in headrests for the front seats, designed to cover the rear seat area of the standard T-Bird convertible. Through careful detail engineering, the tonneau did not interfere with raising or lowering the top, and the front seats were still free to hinge forward so luggage could be stuffed in underneath it in back. But the tonneau was too big to carry in the trunk, so you had to leave it at home if you wanted to travel four-up. This, plus the price of about $5,500.00, limited its appeal and only 1,427 ’62 Sports Roadsters came out of production.
The Roadster was a dramatic package. It was set off by standard Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels and skirtless rear-wheel openings. The spinner hubs made the wire wheels too bulky to fit under the normal T-Bird skirts, and they were too pretty to hide. Because of its rarity, the Sports Roadster has become the most desirable Thunderbird of the 1960s. The most exotic versions were equipped with the M-series engine, which was installed in only 120 of the ’62s.
This year’s Thunderbird was identified by square-top wheel openings and modest horizontal crease lines in doors and front fenders, plus new wheel covers and the usual nameplate shuffling.
Interestingly, the Thunderbird Sports Roadster, now in its second and final year (only 455 built), found the personal luxury car buyer clearly moving away from open cars. Consider that Ford built 10,516 of the 1961 T-Bird ragtops, 7,030 of the conventional 1962 convertibles, and just 5,913 of the 1963s. Thunderbird convertible sales would rise again with the advent of the fourth generation of 1964, then declined for the next two years. When the fifth generation design appeared for 1967, the convertible would be gone.
Nowadays, of course, ragtops are making a comeback; and there must be many Bird lovers hoping Ford will revive one.