What if the Ford Thunderbird had remained a Corvette competitor?
Ford’s first-generation Thunderbird was a, sporty, V-8-powered convertible that offered up all the style of Chevrolet’s Corvette roadster. The 1957 Thunderbird even offered a factory-supercharged 312 Y-block V-8 that was good for more than 300 horsepower, making it a threat on the dragstrip as well as any stoplight in America. Then, in 1958, the Thunderbird grew to a new, unibody midsize platform and added two rear seats, leaving the two-seat convertible market until the final four-year run of the marque, from 2002–05, and forever morphing into more of a personal luxury or grand touring coupe than a sports car.
That 1958–60 Thunderbird sold quite well, trouncing the Corvette in sales by nearly an 8-to-1 margin. Still, as enthusiasts, we can’t help but wonder how those early four-seat ’Birds would have looked if they’d kept to their original mission and maintained their sporty personalities as they evolved, spurring Corvette on and dueling for the title of “America’s sports car.”
We asked famed automotive designer and Art Center alum Thom Taylor to shrink the second- and third-generation Thunderbirds back into their original sporty roles and postulate what might have been. He delivered in spades.
Thom explained his thought process: “I tried to stay true to the design cues of the period and what I’ve seen of concepts that didn’t make it. Obviously the first thing is to keep the proportions more like ’55 T-bird/C1 Corvette. The ’Bird had a lot of overhang so these are a little more like Corvette in that regard. Don’t forget that the ’61–66 T-Bird was being developed along with the Mustang, so there was a lot of cross-generational stuff going on.”
Let’s walk through some of the changes that Taylor made, beginning with the two renderings of the ’58 models.
A shorter roof with a slimmed C-pillar and a rear window with a slight wrap-around replaces the factory top’s rear window that is just barely sunken into the pillars. So long to the quarter windows. Gone too are the production quad taillights and their oval housings, replaced with a single set of round lights connected by a finned trim panel.
Bullet styling accents on the sides remain on both versions presented here. The front view shows them extended to nearly the front wheel opening, and the rear view rendering has them moved up to match larger rear wheel openings. Sports cars don’t really need wheel spats. While aerodynamic, they’re more of a luxury touch and get in the way of those mid-race tire changes. This version also includes polished metal trim reminiscent of Buick Ventiports, but in this application perhaps they invoke machine gun ports on a fighter jet or cannon ports on a warship ready to take aim at a Corvette.
Two versions of the upper body line and fin are also explored, with the rear view staying more true to the production form. It uses a crease turning down and disappearing mid-door and a fin that gradually comes into existence beginning all the way at the leading edge of the fender, unlike the real ’58, in which the fins begin just forward of the door handles. Thom’s a customizer at heart, so all four versions depicted here lack door handles. The front view shows the line leading off the headlight eyebrow meeting the beginning of the fin as it kicks up with an arch that reminds us a bit of a ’58 Impala.
The rear of Taylor’s reimagined ’61 Thunderbird convertible also uses Ford’s trademark jet taillights, although these extend further rearward from the decklid than any real-life example, with the body still keeping less rear overhang than the factory T-Bird. A recess behind the decklid carries the license plate, rather than being tucked below the bumper. Following the production convertible’s tonneau, this one features a double-hump design behind the front passengers.
A fastback example shows how the ’61–63 Thunderbird could have beaten Corvette to the punch by offering some grand touring luggage space under that signature Sportsroof prior to the Sting Ray coupe’s 1963 debut. As Taylor noted, mixing Thunderbird and Mustang styling cues is perfectly appropriate, as the 1962 Mustang II concept had very clear Thunderbird influences.
This version has horizontal strakes behind the front wheel openings rather than chrome ornaments on the door, as Ford used in 1963. There’s also an extra flourish with afterburner taillight lenses that jet out of the lamps like longer versions of those that would come on the 1964 Fairlane. Again, the nose remains similar to the production version—Ford got it so right—Taylor’s sketch just slims it up a bit with a lighter bumper and perhaps just a bit less overhang.
These renderings definitely make us want to see a talented customizer churn out one of Taylor’s creations in actual sheetmetal, but what are your thoughts on these “what-if” renderings? Do you have any other suggestions for rewriting automotive history in the same vein? Let us know in the comment section below.