Rarity, popularity, and perception: 1956-57 Continental vs. 1955-57 Thunderbird values

The rarer the object, the more it’s worth. Right? It makes sense in a world where we value exclusivity so highly. And rarity rules in the collector car arena, otherwise the popular Volkswagen Beetles and Model T Fords would be valued similarly to Duesenbergs or Ferraris.

Sure, there are other criteria that factor into collector car values and desirability—like provenance or racing history—but rarity is right up there. So why the plight of one of the rarest and most expensive American cars of the 1950s; the 1956–57 Continental?

A total of 3000 were made—or should we say handmade—by Ford’s Continental Division. These were not lowly Mercurys or even Lincolns. No, these were in their own league, manufactured by their own separate company under the Ford umbrella. Selling for between $10,000 and $13,000 depending on options, it was the priciest American automobile made… until rival Cadillac introduced the Brougham in 1957, specifically to retrieve the mantle of “most expensive/most exclusive” American car away from Continental.

1956 Continental Mark II rear 3/4
Karissa Hosek Courtesy of RM Auctions
1956 Continental Mark II front
Karissa Hosek Courtesy of RM Auctions

Adjusted for inflation, that $13,000 would be nearly $120,000 today—except there was nothing even close to that price for an American car in 1956. Across town, Cadillac sold more than 25,000 Coupe DeVilles in 1956 for a bit north of $4500 apiece ($41,400 today). At the extreme high end, a 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud Sport Saloon sold for $19,000 ($175,000), with around 2000 built over an eight-year period.

It was rumored Ford lost more than $1000 on every Continental sold, but having the most luxurious, most exclusive, and most expensive car made in America was almost more about marketing than product. With the hand-rubbed lacquer finishes and Bridge of Weir matching leather hides for upholstery, not to mention hubcaps with 40 individually attached vanes, this was a smart, elegantly designed car built for kings, movie stars, and status seekers. So when it comes to purchasing a nicely restored example, why have they sold for prices in the range of 1955–57 Thunderbirds?

Both are considered personal luxury cars, and more than 50,000 two-seater T-Birds were produced. Prized by restorers and collectors, and with so many produced to spread the love, they’ve garnered a strong following. So too have Continentals, but being less likely to appear at a Concours or show because of rarity, they elicit less attention. An object is only as desirable as there are people desiring it.

1957 Ford Thunderbird 'F-Code'
1957 Ford Thunderbird 'F-Code' RM Auctions

With the T-Bird capturing so much attention when new, with its sporty “personal luxury,” sexy top-down looks, and almost universal appeal, the car’s intrinsic value has overshadowed the much rarer and expensive Continental. As rare and fascinating as they are, Continentals are but a footnote in the annals of automobile history, whereas the two-seat T-Bird was one of the first mass-produced cars with a heavy collector following and the production to satisfy both demand and maintain value. It’s part of the culture of the 1950s—even a subplot to the movie American Graffiti with the elusive girl (Suzanne Somers) in the white T-Bird.

There are downsides to the Continental that might possibly lower its value relative to a two-seat ’Bird. It’s not a convertible, and is a heavy, ponderous automobile, coming in at 5000 pounds. With a top speed of 120 mph, propelled by a 368-cubic-inch V-8 rated at 285 horsepower, the Continental glides along the highway with a certain pep, but this was no performance car. And to be fair, though perceived as being a light, fast, sporty automobile, the T-bird was soon overshadowed by high-performance Corvettes.

Restoration-wise, a 1956 T-Bird and Continental in the same condition will cost roughly the same in materials and labor. Sure, there’s more reproduction components and a bit less interior to upholster in a T-Bird; but the rule of restoration is that given similar conditions the cost for restoration will be relatively equal, whether it’s an Edsel sedan or 1958 Chrysler 300-D.

Intrinsic value is as much about intangible value as anything else, and so the Continental’s intrinsic value has not kept pace with all that defines rational car collecting, nor have those qualities which made it so spectacular when it was introduced in 1955 endured even 10 years later. It’s an interesting phenomenon that defies one of the tenets of collecting.

1955 Ford Thunderbird
1955 Ford Thunderbird Ford
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