10 years ago, Ford made its final Thunderbird

Despite its fan base, Ford closed the door on its iconic car due to declining sales

Ford’s iconic Thunderbird hit the market in 1955. On July 1, 2005, the last T-Bird rolled off the company’s assembly line.
Ford’s iconic Thunderbird hit the market in 1955. On July 1, 2005, the last T-Bird rolled off the company’s assembly line. –Ford Motor Company

One decade ago, Ford Motor Company produced the last edition of one of its most iconic sports cars.

Excitement over the sports car picked up during World War II and the years after when the American servicemen had exposure to the European style of automobile, according to History.com.

The Thunderbird was the brainchild of Louis D. Crusoe and George Walker. In October 1951, the pair were inspired by a “sportier automobile’’ while exploring the Grand Palais in Paris. The exchange prompted the development of a “true Ford sports car.’’

Ford was in a rush to catch up with General Motors, which developed the first American sports car in 1953, the Chevrolet Corvette. While the ‘Vette received lots of attention from the press and the public, it’s engine performance was “relatively underwhelming.’’

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According to Ford’s website, the initial plans for a T-Bird featured: “A two-passenger, canvas-topped open car that ‘would make maximum use of standard production components.’’’

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The goal was to build a car that could travel at up to 100 miles per hour, weighed 2,525 pounds, had balanced weight distribution, and was powered by an interceptor V-8 engine.

More than 5,000 names for the new car were considered, including Hep Cat, Beaver, Runabout, and El Tigre. Frustrated with the suggestions, Crusoe offered $250 to anyone who could come up with an option he liked.

Alden “Gib’’ Giberson, a young stylist for Ford offered the winning name, Thunderbird. A southwest native, Giberson said he took the name from the Thunderbird of Native American mythology.

The car made its first public appearance on February 20, 1954 at Detroit’s first auto show following World War II. The first 1955 model Thunderbird rolled off the Ford Motor Company’s assembly line in Dearborn on September 9, 1954. It officially went on sale the following month.

It came with a base sticker price of $2,695 and included a removable hard convertible top and power-operated seats. According to Ford, very few models left dealership lots without either overdrive or automatic transmission, and most power options. Prices ranged from $3,000 to $4,000 on 1955 models.

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The car was a smashing success with over 14,000 vehicles sold in 1955, compared to only 700 Corvettes. Ford introduced a four-seat version with a larger trunk in 1958 to appease customers who thought the car was too small.

Over the years, the Thunderbird would make its mark on pop culture with the Beach Boys referencing the iconic car in their song, “Fun Fun Fun’’ (till her daddy takes T-Bird away). President John F. Kennedy would include 50 Thunderbirds in his 1961 inaugural procession, and the car had a starring role in a few classic films including “American Graffiti’’ from 1973 and “Thelma and Louise’’ from 1991.

Sales of the Thunderbird began to drop in the 1990s and Ford ultimately decided to discontinue the car in 1997. But the company launched a retro version of the T-Bird to capitalize on the nostalgia of auto buffs. The re-launched version was a two-seat convertible with some of the original Thunderbird’s styling elements.

In 2000, Nieman Marcus offered a special edition Thunderbird in the store’s Christmas catalog priced for less than $42,000. The store’s stock of 200 units sold out in two hours and fifteen minutes.

But the strong early sales and favorable reviews could not justify the ongoing production of the car. Ford ultimately decided to discontinue the vehicle again in mid-2005. According to History.com, the final Ford Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line of Ford’s Wixom, Michigan plant on July 1, 2005.

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