Ford Thunderbird priced at $2,944
The Thunderbird, which is Ford's answer to the Chevrolet Corvette, 'will begin a new era in the automotive field,' said L.D. Crusoe, Ford Division general manager.
'While it resembles a sports car, it is a full-sized vehicle, and most of the parts are interchangeable with our regular line of cars,' Crusoe said.
The two cars had a strange interdependence. Had there been no Corvette, there would never have been a Thunderbird. And if there had been no Thunderbird, the Corvette would have died in infancy.
The original Corvette was not a crowd pleaser. It was a sports car, but its performance was too stodgy for sports-car devotees. Conversely, its fiberglass body was too avant-garde for the plain-brown two-door set.
Chevy was on the verge of dumping it in late 1954, but engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov made it a fire-breathing performance car, and the Vette found the niche it still occupies.
The two-seat Thunderbird was a 'personal luxury' car (the term was new in 1954), not a sports car. But early in 1955 Crusoe was promoted, and Whiz Kid McNamara replaced him at Ford Division. Sales were great, but the T-bird was losing money - and bean counter McNamara didn't like the idea of a money-losing image car.
The Thunderbird survived, but as a four-passenger car. In 1957, Ford sold 21,000 two-seaters. In 1960, Ford sold 92,000 four-passenger models.
Corvette sales lumbered along at a few thousand a year. The car didn't make a profit until 1962, when 10,000 were sold. But Chevy executives loved their image car. They still do.
The Thunderbird hasn't been an image car since 1958, but it sold well enough to remain in the Ford lineup until the 1997 model year. It will return as a 2002 model.