The last of Ford Motor Co.'s two-seat Thunderbirds is built Dec. 13, 1957, as production shifts to the larger, second-generation, four-seat "Square Bird."
While there are various tales about the Thunderbird's origins, it was largely created to compete with Chevrolet's Corvette. Ford designers began sketching the car in the fall of 1952. That was more than a year after consulting designer George Walker and Henry Ford II strolled through the 1951 Paris auto show and decided that Ford should imitate the snazzy European roadsters on display.
The first Thunderbird prototype was completed Feb. 19, 1954, and it was introduced the next day at the Detroit auto show. Ford began building the Thunderbird the following fall, and it officially went on sale as a 1955 model on Oct. 22, 1954.
For the 1956 model year, the car received a 12-volt electrical system, the famous porthole hardtop and a "continental kit" — a covered spare tire perched on the rear bumper. Larger but graceful tail fins arrived for 1957. The 1957 Thunderbird was the last two-seater Ford sold until the 1982 Ford EXP sport compact car.
The second-generation four-seat Thunderbird was produced for the 1958 to 1960 model years as a successor to the popular 1955-57 two-seater. Responding to company surveys, Ford made two major changes to the Thunderbird to attract more buyers: two rear seats were added, and the amount of luxury and features of a full-size car were incorporated into a midsize platform. Because it weighed more than a big Ford sedan, it also lost some of its sports car zeal.
But sales soared, and the new model dramatically expanded the personal luxury car market. Over 200,000 Thunderbirds were produced during the three-year model run, quadruple that of the two-seater over a three-year span.
Along with the 1958 Lincolns, the '58 Thunderbird was the first Ford Motor vehicle designed with unibody construction.
Over time, Ford designed and engineered 11 generations of the Thunderbird. The final Thunderbird, produced from 2001 to 2005, paid homage to the original cars of the mid-1950s.