Pioneering a New Concept

In 1958, the new four-seat Thunderbird, introduced this year, pioneered a totally new concept – the personal luxury car. Although it would take a few years, it would be widely imitated. Seen in this light and in view of its remarkable success in an otherwise bad sales year, the Thunderbird’s transformation from two-seater to four-seater seems perfectly logical. Of course, at the time, nobody was certain that the four-seat concept would “play in Peoria.”

The most innovative aspect of the 1958 Thunderbird was its unit body – a fresh idea for Ford. Inspired by aircraft design practice, unit construction does away with a separate steel body attached to a frame with flexible mounts. Instead, it is a combined structure designed to be strong yet light, and able to absorb stresses evenly. Also known as the monocoque principle, it tends to result in a tight, rattle-free automobile that weighs less. Styling work actually began during 1955. A “formal” roofline with wide rear-quarter pillars was adopted for its distinctive appearance and to keep decklid height down for the ultra-low stance the sales department was demanding, a convertible body type in question until very late in the game. It wasn’t actually approved until May 1957, and didn’t appear in dealer showrooms until June 1958. As a result, only 2,134 convertibles were built for the 1958 model year. Once production hit its stride, however, softtops were turned out in decent numbers: 10,261 for 1959 and 11,860 for 1960. But this was only a small fraction of hardtop volume, which reached 57,195 units for 1959 and 76,447 for 1960. Also for 1960, a third model with a gold-colored padded vinyl top and special trim was offered at about $4,000 base, and scored another 2,536 in sales.

The convertible’s top mechanism was a complicated affair. The driver first unlocked the rear-hinged decklid by means of a remote control button, then unhooked two windshield header clamps, manually raised the decklid and, lastly, pushed another button to activate the folding mechanism. Late in the ’59 model run the device became fully automatic via a single dashboard pushbutton. The 1958 Thunderbird was such a success that Ford had to go into heavy overtime to keep up with the demand.

The 1959 Thunderbird was refined, with minor trim changes, a new engine option, and a redesigned rear suspension. The new engine was the big-block 430cid Lincoln V-8, rated at 350bhp. However, the T-Bird’s standard engine continued to be the 300-bhp 652.

Some minor mechanical modifications were a new auxiliary coolant tank and radiator fan, and a relocated windshield washer system. Externally, the 1959 Thunderbird could be distinguished by its thin horizontal bar theme on grille and taillight appliques (the ’58 model had a honeycomb pattern), plus front fender ornaments, pointed chrome moldings on the door bullets instead of the previous hash marks, relocated name script, and revised wheel covers. As for the interior, white replaced black on the instrument dials and interior; and on the exterior, colors and combinations were shifted. Prices were up about $50 for both the hardtop and convertible models, and production moved up as well with a total model year output of close to 67,500, almost double that of 1958.

1960 The four-seat Thunderbird was regarded as more of a luxury car than a performance car, but don’t think that it wasn’t quick. There were probably many other cars that would outperform the four-seater, but somehow the T-Bird has never been measured by these standards. It is a car apart and, like royalty, the Thunderbird is different and that is all it has ever had to be.

The popularity of the Thunderbird reached a new high, nearly 91,000 of the 1960 models finding homes. It was a record that would not be broken until 1964. A unique variation this year was a special high-trim model with a gold-colored vinyl top, of which about 2,500 were produced. Most T-Birds this year carried the standard 352-cid Ford V-8, with only about 3,900 equipped with the big block Lincoln mill.