Sometimes the best ideas don't come from inside a company but rather spring forth as a reaction to external forces. When Chevrolet brought its two-seat Corvette to the New York Auto Show in 1953, it couldn't have known that it was about to inspire Ford to punch back with one of the most storied nameplates in the Blue Oval’s history: the Thunderbird.
Although developed in response to the ‘Vette, the T-Bird would travel down a winding path, as the vehicle would over the course of its lifetime be made available as a coupe, a roadster, and a sedan. The Thunderbird would also avoid the Corvette's sports car image in favor of “personal luxury,” a term that would hold meaning in the industry until the segment was unceremoniously eviscerated by SUVs in the mid-’90s.
The first decade of Thunderbird production would see dramatic shifts in styling, power, and market position. The very first generation of Ford Thunderbird was built exclusively as a two-seat convertible, and only offered between for a short spell from 1955 to 1957. As with many ‘50s domestics, future valuation prospects for the first-gen Thunderbird don’t look exceptional at the moment, and certain variants remain very approachable for collectors.
Wondering what to look for when purchasing the debut model of one of Ford's most enduring icons? We spoke with Thunderbird experts to help you decide which version of this American classic is the best fit for your garage.
Stout and strong
Mechanically, the 1955–57 Thunderbirds are simple and have a reputation for being relatively trouble-free. As noted above while decoding the VIN and data plate, all T-Birds of this vintage are motivated by a V-8 and could be found with either a manual or an automatic transmission.
Power output, however, varies quite a bit depending on which particular V-8 engine is under the hood. Standard for the first year of production was a 292-cubic-inch unit fitted with a four-barrel carburetor and good for 193 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque (manual gearbox), or 198 hp and 286 lb-ft (two-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic), with the latter featuring a slightly higher compression ratio.
For the next year, the T-Bird would keep a 202-horsepower version of the 292-cid motor in base models (with 289 lb-ft of twist on tap), but also add Ford's 312-cid engine to the option sheet, which pushed output to 215 horses and 317 lb-ft of torque (manual) or 225 hp and 324 lb-ft (Ford-O-Matic).
In 1957, the 292 stuck around yet again to be joined by a 245-horsepower 312, a dual-quad version of the same motor that produced between 270 and 285 horsepower (depending on whether one selected the 10:1 compression engine or not), and finally a supercharged 312 that made use of a McCullough-Paxton blower to churn out 300 horses and 345 lb-ft of twist. Only 212 examples of the latter ever left the factory, which is less than one percent of the '57 production run.
"The F-code supercharged cars are a huge value booster," says Dave Adams of Concord, California's Thunderbird Headquarters, which supplies numerous restoration parts for the roadster. "It's quite rare."
There are few downsides to Ford V8 or transmission reliability from this era, save one issue that is common to the 312 regardless of which vehicle it is found in.
"The rear main seal on the 312 is prone to leaking. In fact, even if you replace it, which is roughly a $1000 job, within six months to a year it's virtually guaranteed to start leaking again," explains Adams. "No one's been able to put a finger on a fail-safe repair for this problem yet."
Marvin Hill of Hill's Classic Car Restorations in Racine, Ohio, which has been rebuilding T-Birds for more than a quarter century, agrees. Hill adds that you have to expect at least a little oil leak from the rear main seal on any 312-equipped car you look at. He cautions, however, not to tolerate the same from the transmission.
"If the gearbox is leaking, keep in mind that in order to repair it both the transmission and the engine have to be pulled from the car, which is a labor-intensive process," he says. "It can be between $800 and $1500 in labor alone just to pop the drivetrain in and out of the vehicle – it's a big job."
Hill also mentions that power steering leaks are normal, but repairable.
Crunching the number plates
In total, 53,166 Thunderbirds were built during its initial three-year run: 16,155 for '55, 15,631 for '56, and 21,380 for '57. Considering the Blue Oval felt that there was only a 10,000-example-per-year market for a car that was intended as a call back to the pre-war roadster days, this was an unmitigated success. Each and every model year followed the same two-seat/ragtop/available hardtop formula, although as we'll see later on, there were tweaks and changes made on a running basis throughout the first generation.
Figuring out what, exactly, you're looking at when inspecting a potential T-Bird for your garage is relatively easy because there were no trim levels offered with the early cars, only options (drivetrain, color, equipment). Decoding the car's VIN and data plate will provide you with a snapshot of what was originally outfitted to the vehicle, as well as details about where and when it was built.
The VIN itself is 10 characters and can be found in three locations on the frame: the rear crossmember close to the passenger door, on top of the crossmember to the rear of the gas tank, and on the passenger side in the engine bay near the heater fan. The first two locations can't be verified without removing the body from the vehicle, but the engine bay spot is easy enough to see. The VIN should match the data plate found on the firewall, which also contains additional information about the vehicle. Most early T-Bird plates feature the VIN on top (dubbed Serial Number) and Body / Color / Trim (referring to interior) / Production code just below. A short run of end-of-production '57 models starting in April of that year feature a different plate design that splits Serial / Number in half at the top and then lists Body / Color / Trim / Date / Trans / Axle underneath.
The first character in the VIN will be a letter denoting which engine the Thunderbird left the factory with. For 1955, P was the only option (292-cubic-inch V-8), but 1956 swapped in an M for the 292 and P was assigned to the 312-cid V-8. For 1957, everything was thrown out the window in favor of C (292), D (312), E (312 with dual four-barrels) and F (312 with supercharging). The next character indicated the model year (5,6,7), followed by the assembly plant (F for Dearborn), the body style (H for Thunderbird), and then a unique five-digit serial number.
The data plate starts by repeating the body type (40 for Thunderbird), followed by the color: A (Raven Black), R (Torch Red) T (Thunderbird Blue), E (Snowshoe White), V (Goldenrod Yellow), P (Primer), S (Special Color) for 1955. In 1956, the color codes were A (Raven Black), E (Colonial White), J (Buckskin Tan), K, (Fiesta Red), L (Peacock Blue), P (Thunderbird Grey), Z (Thunderbird Green), M (Goldenglow Yellow) and Y (Sunset Coral). For 1957, A (Raven Black), C (Dresden Blue), E (Colonial White), F(Starmist Blue), G (Cumberland Green), J (Willow Green), V (Flame Red), N (Gunmetal Gray), Y (Inca Gold), Z (Coral Sand), Q (Thunderbird Bronze), X (Dusk Rose), G (Sun Gold), R (Torch Red), L (Azure Blue), H (Gunmetal Gray), and N (Seaspray Green). G through N were only available on cars built from September 1957 onwards.
Things get a little simpler when decoding trim, as XA (sometimes just A on '55 models) denotes black / white, and XB (again, B on some '55s) specifies red / white for all first-gens. For 1955, you'll also see XC (or C) for turquoise / yellow and XC (or D) for black / yellow, while '56 adds XC (peacock blue / white), XD (tan / white), XF (green / white), and XG (brown / white). For 1957, single-color interiors became available, including XH (red), XJ (Thunderbird bronze), and XK (white), joining combos like XL (medium blue / light blue) and XM (medium green / light green).
"For 1955, Thunderbird Blue, and for '56, Peacock Blue, are the two classic colors that I see a lot of people asking for," says Hill. "For 1957, everyone has their own opinions, of course, but grey with a red or black interior seem to be the hottest combinations right now."
The next characters represent the day of the month the vehicle was built, followed by the month (A through M for January to December for 1955–56, N through Z for the 1957 data plate). For 55–56, dealer code is next (38 possible sales areas, represented by two letters or two numbers together), followed by the “scheduled item number,” which represents the position of that particular T-Bird on the assembly line that day, mixed in with other Ford products. For 1957 Thunderbirds, date information is followed by a number indicating the transmission type (1 = three-speed manual, 2 = overdrive, 3 = Ford-O-Matic), and axle type (1 = 3.10, 2 = 3.56, 3 = 3.70).
Shared parts, watch for rust
Ford decided to keep costs low when testing the waters with the initial Thunderbird, which means that the car shares many parts with other vehicles in the company's contemporary lineup. From a restoration and maintenance perspective, this translates into a surprisingly high level of aftermarket support and component availability, especially given that the car was built in relatively small numbers.
"There are not a lot of reproduction parts available for the car, but there are many used parts out there," says Hill. "All of the interior is available, stuff like the seat foam, carpet, same with garnish rails and chrome trim. You can find things like used window stainless surround and chrome and get it refurbished fairly easily. It's like a Mustang—as long as it's not fenders or bumpers, you can find it."
Adams adds that one of the most common pieces he sells is a full weatherstripping kit for the car, which is often worn out over time.
Rust, of course, remains the major enemy of any vehicle as old as the first-gen Thunderbird is now. Dave tells us that the hot spots for rust are around the wheels, especially the outer quarter panels where the wheel opening is, as well as behind the front wheel opening—all places where water and salt would blow up inside and sit against the metal.
"The front inner fenders where the air ducts come through are another good place to start looking for corrosion," says Hill. "Also check the rocker panels and floor braces. You're not just looking for existing rust, but also evidence of past repair, because a lot of these cars disintegrated badly and were covered up. You need to do your homework."
There are no new panels being reproduced for the T-Bird, which means you are limited to new old stock (NOS) or patch panels. The latter are readily available for areas like the floorboards and rockers.
Also keep in mind that the Thunderbird was offered with either a cloth top, a fiberglass top (that weighed a whopping 85 pounds), or both. Cars that feature the latter typically command a higher premium, says Adams, although there's no way to tell whether the top included with a specific vehicle is the one it left the factory with.
If you're looking to spot a '56 over a '55, you'll note details such as added cowl vents (meant to combat engine heat under-hood), an external spare mounted “Continental”-style on the trunk (because of complaints about low cargo space from the in-trunk spare of '55), and exhaust tips that poked through the bumper. For 1957, the grille was puffed up, fins were grafted to the rear fenders, the spare was stuffed back into the trunk (which had been somewhat stretched to accommodate it), and the dashboard was upgraded to match other Ford offerings for the year.
It's also worth noting that 1956 marked the move from a 6-volt electrical system to a 12-volt for the T-Bird (with conversion kits now available for the early cars), and that this was the year that the optional hardtop added porthole windows on the side (although some '55s had them added at the dealership).
An easy classic to own
Thunderbirds drive well despite their age, making them enjoy to live with today.
"The Ford-O-Matic is quite decent—just make sure you buy one with the optional power steering and power brakes, something you need to consider in modern traffic," says Adams. "If you want air conditioning, you can buy a kit for the cars, even though it was never offered when new."
"These cars became collector's items almost immediately," explains Hill. "The first T-Bird club started in 1962, when the roadsters weren't even a decade old yet. Back then, most cars just went to the wrecking yard after they'd been used up, but these were kept back. I'm still buying cars that haven't been on the road in almost 50 years from people who held onto them all that time—and I've got a dozen or so on the go being restored at any given moment."
With strong parts support, relatively affordable pricing on entry-level models, and unmistakable late-’50s styling, the first-generation Ford Thunderbird is appealing as both a starting point for collectors as well as a valuable addition to a classic car fan's existing garage.