Article by Igor Solarisov
“‘Dig that T-bird!’ I had cut it a bit fine round Queen Victoria’s skirts and my wing mirror had almost dashed the Leica from the GI’s hand. If the tourists don’t snap the Queen, at about 10 a.m. on most mornings they can at least get a picture of me and my Ford Thunderbird with Buckingham Palace in the background.”
So wrote Ian Fleming about his close encounter with an American soldier on leave who was admiring both Buckingham Palace and the black automotive missile streaking past. Of course, the whole incident could never have happened without the impact of American GIs ‘Over There’ upon the British car industry after World War II.
In the early 1950’s America was in the grip of sports car fever. GIs returning home from WWII Britain had brought back with them strange little cars called MG TCs. They weren’t any faster than a normal American sedan but they could sure out-handle everything else on the road.
Sports car racing (both legal and illegal) flourished in the United States and British car manufacturers working under the UK government’s admonition to ‘export or perish’ were happy to fill the Transatlantic need. Sports cars soon appeared from Jaguar, Triumph, MG, Austin-Healey (and even out-of-the-mainstream makers like Jowett), and were the bulk of all UK auto exports to America.
The enthusiasm even inspired Detroit itself, which in 1953 turned out a series of luxury, sporty convertibles based around regular production models. GM brought out the Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile Fiesta and Buick Skylark; Packard the Caribbean; and Nash-Kelvinator the Nash-Healey. Mostly modified by hand, they were necessarily expensive and weren’t really sports cars.
But one GM creation for 1953 arguably was—the Chevrolet Corvette. Based on a 1952 dream car, the Corvette was America’s second all-fibreglass production car (first was another sports car, the Woodill Wildfire). Tooling for this new wonder material was far less expensive than tooling for steel, which made such a niche market product possible.
Following good sports car economics, the Corvette was based on sedan mechanicals, which meant that it had to use Chevrolet’s venerable Blue Flame Six. This 235 cubic inch displacement (c.i.d.) overhead valve (O.H.V.) unit was hotted up with a high-lift camshaft and triple Carter side-draught carburettors to produce 150 bhp @ 4500 rpm.
Asking prices were high at $3,513 or more than the most expensive Chevrolet Bel Air wagon at $2,934. Unfortunately too, limitations in the chassis design meant that a conventional suspension of front coils/rear leaves had to be adopted. Worse, the only transmission that could be fitted behind the hot engine was Chevy’s automatic. Even though it had higher shift points and was controlled by a floor-mounted lever, the two-speed Powerglide reduced the Corvette’s sport appeal to being little more than a boulevard cruiser. Though the Corvette was panned by sports car fans, its true performance days were still ahead and it would go on to become America’s perennial sports car.
In the event, Ford Motor Company felt that it had to reply to GM’s forays into automotive extravagance. At the top end, the Continental Mark II of 1956 was an exclusive luxury coupe reprising Lincoln’s classical coupes of the 1940’s. With an asking price of $10,000—and worth every penny in quality—the Mark II was not for everyone.
At the other end, Ford planners determined that a more affordable luxury ‘personal car’ with sporty overtones rather than an out-and-out sports car would be the ideal niche product for a mass producer. Ford’s sports car would appeal to buyers who wanted a sporty personal car, with such luxury touches as wind-up windows, power steering / brakes and detachable steel roof. It would also be strictly a two-seater; small enough to appeal to sports car buyers but still have an All-American look.
Thus in late 1954 (after a quick design process), Ford announced the Thunderbird for 1955 to an enthusiastic reception. Like all sensible sports cars, the Thunderbird made extensive use of mass-produced sedan mechanicals and parts. Fortunately, a V8 was standard—by this time Ford had introduced a modern, OHV unit of 292 cid (4.78 Litre), with bore and stroke of 3.75” x 3.30” which could belt out 198 bhp with a four-barrel carburettor. Hooded headlamp buckets, tail-light clusters and other sundries were shared with regular Fords and Mercurys but the body was uniquely Thunderbird’s own.
The evocative name had been picked from an internal Ford contest, with the winner, stylist Alden R. ‘Gib’ Giberson, receiving a new suit as a prize! He had suggested the mythical bird spirit symbolising thunder, lightning, rain and prosperity, revered by the native Americans of the Southwest. He also contributed the chrome and turquoise bird motif that became the Thunderbird emblem for many years.
Surprisingly for the glitzy Fifties, brightwork on the Thunderbird was admirably restrained. A stainless steel bodyside moulding found on regular Fords was removed from production design at the last minute and the car looks better for it. Ford stylists let the body lines speak for themselves. A simple cross-hatch grille and chrome louvres on the front wings were about the only brightwork apart from emblems and badges. The line of the bonnet was too low for the air cleaner so a bulge was proposed, with a functional air scoop for enhanced engine breathing. Graced with a chrome grille, it proved a hit with buyers and was continued over the years, even though the scoop soon became strictly decorative. The same bumper was used at both ends of the car; the front bumper over-riders were hollowed out for the rear bumper so as to carry exhaust outlets.
A compact wheelbase of 102” (2.590m) copied that of the Jaguar XK120 and likewise, the Thunderbird sat low at 34.2” high at the top of the doors, and 52.2” to the fibreglass top, yet enjoyed practical 5.9” ground clearance, thanks to a low-slung X-type frame. Overrall length stood at 175.3” (4.453m).
Suspension was sedan conventional with front ball-joints, coil springs, upper and lower A-arms, and anti-roll bar; with a solid axle on leaf springs at the rear. Braking was by 11” drums all round, with 175 square inches of lining area.
Production economics being what they were, the Thunderbird was pricier than the next most expensive Ford, a Country Squire wagon at $2,392 versus $2,944 for the Thunderbird. This was definitely out of reach of teenage car nuts, who still had to build their own hot rods out of second-hand Fords.
Unlike GM’s Corvette, Ford had made the decision to tool up for proper steel body panels, wind-up windows and the expected luxuries, making the Thunderbird a sales hit at 16,155 units for 1955 whereas the Corvette lagged at a mere 700 units, despite the advent of Chevy’s new V8 as motive power.
In the manner of the times, the Thunderbird could be optioned up with many extras specified by the buyer. The 292 ‘Y-block’ engine (borrowed from Mercury) came in 193 bhp form when fitted to manual transmissions and 198 bhp when fitted to an automatic. Either version could be ordered with a chrome dress-up kit. Transmission choices included a standard 3-speed manual, optional 3-speed manual with overdrive and optional 2-speed Fordomatic, all controlled by a sporty floor shift. Brakes and steering could be power-assisted, with an adjustable telescoping steering column also available.
A full luxury cockpit could be had behind a fashionably wrapped windshield, which like the side windows, could be had in I-Rest tinted safety glass. Power windows were optional as was the Dial-O-Matic 4-way power bench seat (!). Gaily coloured, two-toned vinyl upholstery harmonized either black or white inserts with the bolsters matching the exterior colour. A detachable fibreglass roof made the Thunderbird into a snug coupe for the colder seasons. It came standard while a folding convertible top was an optional extra. A MagicAire heater/demister was a wise choice, and radios came in a choice of 6-Tube and 8-Tube valve models.
The 15” wheels could be decorated with optional full stainless steel covers or with simulated wire wheels, while 6.70” Goodyear tyres could be specified with whitewalls.
Thunderbird performance was generous, with the engines able to rev more freely due to short-stroke design and dual exhausts. Testers achieved an 0-60 mph sprint in 11.5 seconds (with Fordomatic), and a top speed of around 125 mph, not quite pegging the optimistic dial calibrated to 150 mph. A tachometer, clock, water temperature and fuel level gauges weren’t exactly full instrumentation either. As it happened, Thunderbirds were not seriously raced in SCCA events, as even a stripped-down ‘Bird was too heavy to be competitive, with factory weight at 2,980 lbs.
The Thunderbird was really a ‘halo’ car, meant to glamorise the rest of the range and lure buyers of hardtops, sedans and station wagons into Ford showrooms. Ford’s advertising men were quick to exploit the sportster, with various design touches on regular Fords being ‘Thunderbird-inspired’ and engines dubbed as ‘Thunderbird Special V8s.’
There were already celebrity owners of Thunderbirds lending their own particular glamour to the car. Frank Sinatra had a Raven Black ’55, as did Senator Barry Goldwater (of Arizona); while Torch Red was the preferred colour for Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) and for Jack Lemmon, whose Thunderbird was a gift from Ed Sullivan for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in lieu of a cash payment.
The Thunderbird was also European-sized; a rarity for any Fifties American car. Its appeal on the Continent was undeniable and that is where Ian Fleming enters the picture. Entranced with sightings of the few Thunderbirds that came to Great Britain, he fell in love with the design and determined to have one.
So He Strikes Like Thunderbird
“It was then that a fairly handsome ship came home and I decided to buy myself a luxurious present.” Ian Fleming had just sold the film rights to his first novel, Casino Royale, for $6,000. It seems minimal now, but that’s with the benefit of hindsight.
“I first toyed with the idea of a Lancia Gran Turismo, a really beautiful piece of machinery…”
Ian was no doubt taken by the esteem earned by Lancia’s Aurelia B20 GT coupé in sophisticated motoring circles. First introduced in 1950 as the Aurelia B10 sedan, it was soon followed in 1951 by a fastback coupé styled by Ghia and built by Pininfarina. Both the Aurelia B10 sedan and B20 GT coupé shared a chassis which employed such brilliant firsts as an aluminium V6 engine; rear gearbox/differential transaxle; DeDion independent rear suspension designed to use radial tyres; and inboard rear brakes to save unsprung weight.
By the time Ian was considering the attractive GT fastback, the engine had been enlarged to 2451cc, giving 118 bhp and a genuine 100+ mph capability. The aluminium V6 had been inspired by engineer Vittorio Jano’s Grand Prix experience and predictably, the Aurelia GT coupé became popular as a personal car for racing drivers; finding favour with such legends as Jean Behra, Juan-Manuel Fangio and Mike Hawthorn.
But despite the Aurelia B20’s obvious good looks, satisfying performance and technical sophistication, it shared an unfortunate characteristic with other Italian cars: it sounded too busy (too buzzy?). The fuel-frugal needs of the Italian motorist demanded that the most power be wrung from the smallest of possible engines; ergo said engines had to work very hard to produce adequate levels of power and performance.
The Aurelia, Ian concluded, “…was small and rather too busy—like driving an angry washing machine—and it cost over £3,000, which seemed ridiculous.” Ian wanted a reliable car that would not demand the frequent attention of mechanical specialists and repeated tuning.
“I happened to see a Thunderbird in the street and fell head over heels in love. I rang up Lincoln’s. Apparently there was no difficulty in buying any make of American car out of the small import quota which we accept in part exchange for our big motor-car exports to the States. The salesman brought along a fire-engine-red model with white upholstery which I drove nervously round Battersea Park.
“I dickered and wavered. Why not a Mercedes?”
Why not indeed? James Bond himself would certainly have respected the capabilities of Mercedes-Benz 300SLs (even secretly envied them), while staying true to his Bentleys and supercharging them to keep a performance edge.
Something of a legend (virtually from the day it was introduced), Mercedes-Benz’s 300SL was born of the W-194, a sports racer of 1952. Godfathered by Mercedes-Benz’s US importer Max Hoffmann (who placed an initial order of 1,000 cars), the 300SL was introduced at New York’s 1954 International Motor Sports Show rather than at a European auto exhibition, in recognition of the car’s largest market. Employing a race-bred tubular space frame on a steel chassis (hence the ‘SL’ designation for ‘Super Light’), the resulting high sills called for a different method of entry—the famous ‘gull-wing’ doors.
The 300SL was a detuned racing car for the road with advanced specifications: a 3-litre straight-6 with overhead cam and fuel-injection; and all-independent springing by wishbones front and swing-axle rear. The engine was good for 240 bhp @ 6100 rpm and was tilted over by 50° to allow for a low bonnet line. Performance was stellar: with the usual differential ratio, a 300SL could achieve 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in 9.3 seconds and a top speed of 146 mph (235 km/h).
“But they are still more expensive and selfish and the highly desirable SL has only room beside the driver for a diminutive blonde with a sponge bag. Moreover, when you open those bat-like doors in the rain, the rain pours straight into the car.”
Ian Fleming’s dismay at the prices is understandable. Even the lesser Mercedes-Benz 300S Coupé/Cabriolet/Roadster cars cost £5,528 in 1954. Unusually, the Roadster version of the 300SL (introduced in 1957) enjoyed more luggage space than the Coupé. Mercedes-Benz offered fitted luggage cases for the SL but this did not solve the problem of insufficient space.
Ian finally stopped ‘dickering.’ “I paid £3,000 for a Thunderbird. Black, with conventional gear change plus overdrive, and as few power assists as possible.”
The creator of Bond wanted a combination of rakish style with sober demeanour. Fortunately, his years of grey-coloured cars were behind him and Fleming chose Raven Black for his sports car. By the time Fleming placed his order, Ford was building the 1956 version, with revisions we will discuss shortly.
(In an aside about intelligence agents and black cars, this author recalls a story of a man working for ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence service, who took delivery of a new Daimler SP250 sports car in 1959. Living and working in Canberra, the Federal capital, with all its embassies and foreign intrigue, he was very James Bond-ish, tooling around in a bold, red sports car. Until that is, his superiors made it plain to him that a high profile was not conducive to him doing any surveillance work. He then had it sprayed black.)
1956 Thunderbird Revisions
For 1956, Ford Motor Company ramped up its safety design programme, wherein several advances were incorporated into all vehicles as standard or as options. These ‘LifeGuard Design’ features were intended to lessen injuries from occupants striking a panel or steering boss in the event of a collision. They included a deep-dished steering wheel; padded dashboard edges; padded sun visors; burst-proof door locks; breakaway rear-view mirror and recessed control panel switches. Seat belts became options, and proved so popular that Ford suppliers were unable to keep up with demand. In line with the industry, the former 6-volt electricals were upgraded to 12-volt; and tyres became tubeless.
While Thunderbirds benefited from this corporate effort, Ford engineers and stylists had already been working on improvements from shortly after the sports car’s introduction. Ventilator doors were added to the front wings of ‘56s after customer complaints of heat build-up in the footwells, and the fibreglass hardtop gained a porthole on each side to improve over-the-shoulder vision. Though not very effective, the round porthole became a design icon forever associated with the original Thunderbird. Hedging its bets, Ford still kept the original roof as an option.
Finally, luggage space in the trunk had never been very generous and was further hampered by the spare wheel placement. To solve this problem, Ford specified a Continental wheel kit as standard on the ‘56s. So-named after the 1940s Lincoln mentioned earlier, the spare wheel was enclosed in steel housings and mounted above the rear bumper. A heavy centre bumper plinth, stainless steel wheel rim and central Ford medallion embellished the kit. This and a stiffened chassis frame added an extra 350 pounds to the overall weight of the car, and ten inches to the length, but at least boot space crept up, enabling something more than just the essentials for a dirty weekend. In the 1950s, Continental kits were a popular extra with car customisers (both personal and corporate) and even came as a standard fitting on some Packard, Nash and Rambler models.
Another example of Ford attention to detail was the change in the rear bumper, which now accommodated exhaust outlets in the outer corners. This directed exhaust into the slipstream, preventing the problem of exhaust fumes dirtying the rear of the Thunderbird over time.
British dealers Lincoln’s delivered Ian’s fully imported Thunderbird in left hand drive, but still registerable in the United Kingdom.
“In due course it appeared. My wife was indignant. The car was hideous. There was no room for taking people to the station (a point I found greatly in its favour) and, anyway, why hadn’t I bought her a mink coat? To this day she hasn’t relented. She has invented a new disease called ‘Thunderbird neck’ which she complains she gets in the passenger seat. The truth is that she has a prejudice against all American artefacts and, indeed, against artefacts of any kind.”
Anne Fleming also poked fun at her husband by calling him ‘Commander Thunderbird.’ She must have believed the old adage that a really wealthy woman should have two identical mink coats: one to cherish and wear as normal and the other to casually drag along the ground… Anne was even said to have deliberately backed her own car into the rear fender of the Thunderbird out of spite. Thankfully, black is an easy colour-match for spray painting!
As Ian proudly drove the sports car, he began to familiarise himself with his new mount. The interior was pleated vinyl in two colours: black and white. His car was Raven Black as mentioned before, with hardtop in Colonial White. Stowed behind the seat and beneath the deck was the convertible roof, in White Cotan Vinyl. A tall man need have no fear of cramping; there was still 45.4” legroom, and 33.2” headroom (with the fibreglass top).
The dashboard featured the Astra-Dial Control Panel, being a ‘daylight illumination’ speedometer above a row of small gauges and warning lights, and flanked by circular tachometer and clock dials. An engine-turned, bright metal appliqué ran across the dashboard and flowed—and flared—into the door trims. Beneath it, a cushioned roll at the base of the dashboard extended into the doors, where it became the armrests. This dash extension into the doors became a Thunderbird theme over the next 20 years. Control knobs for cigarette lighter, ashtray, radio and heater were found along the bright metal strip but dominating the driver’s side was the 17” wide, deep-dished, steering wheel; a three-spoke affair also in black, with a chrome horn ring.
A firm believer in rowing his own, Fleming had ignored the Fordomatic in favour of a 3-speed manual with overdrive. Ready to hand was a chromed, floor-mounted, gearstick and under his feet nested pendant-type pedals, highlighted with bright metal accents. The overdrive ratio of 0.70:1 was matched to a 3.92:1 differential.
Manual steering gave 3.5 turns lock-to-lock—quite fast for the times. As the power option did not change the ratio, there was no incentive to spend the money on what was after all, to be a masculine car. Similarly, the Thunderbird’s drum brakes could be optioned with a vacuum booster, though were self-energising in manual form.
Fleming chose to stick with the bare essentials: a tachometer, MagicAire heater-demister, and presumably a radio (6-Tube or 8-Tube). A detachable hardtop and folding roof allowed a flexible response to Britain’s alternately warm and sunny or cold, wet climate. Both roofs were Colonial White. Curiously, the removable hardtop came standard, while the folding roof cost $75 extra in the States. Another sports car feature Ian might have favoured was an optional tonneau cover in colour-matching vinyl, with a zipper down the middle for monoposto driving.
Thunderbirds came standard with ‘dog dish’ type Ford hub caps, but could dress up with full wheel covers or faux wire wheel covers. Ian would have passed on the fake wires, but might have been tempted by the full size, stainless-steel wheel covers. In any case, sensible blackwall tyres were mounted on the 15” wheels—no whitewalls, please, we’re British!
Ian Fleming loved his black ‘Bird. He had a sleek, stand-out car with the basics for sports-car performance and perhaps just a little luxury.
“I suspect that all motorists are vain about their cars. I certainly am, and have been ever since the khaki Standard with the enamelled Union Jack on its nose which founded my écurie in the Twenties. Today the chorus of `Smashing!’ ‘Cor!’ and ‘Rraauu!’ which greets my passage is the perfume of Araby.”
“I am not only vain about my Thunderbird, but proud of it. It is by far the best car I have ever possessed, although, on looking back through my motley stud book, I admit that there is no string of Bentleys and Jaguars and Aston Martins with which to compare it.”
Ian Fleming shared his appreciation of the delights of owning a ’56 Thunderbird with notables such as Bing Crosby, Vic Damone and Doris Day. Marilyn Monroe had a Sunset Coral ’56 that she used in California while her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller, had a Raven Black ’56 in New York.
“I have now had my Thunderbird for over two years. It has done 27,000 miles without a single mechanical failure, without developing a squeak or a rattle. Its paintwork is immaculate and there is not a spot of discoloration anywhere on its rather over-lavish chrome, despite the fact that it is never garaged at night and gets a wash only twice a week. I have it serviced every quarter, but this is only a matter of the usual oil-changing, etc. The only time it ever stopped in traffic was carefully planned to give me a short, sharp reminder that, like other fine pieces of machinery, it has a temperament.
“The occasion was, for the car’s purposes, well chosen—exactly half-way under the Thames in the Blackwall Tunnel, with lorries howling by nose to tail a few inches away in the ill-lit gloom, and with a giant petrol tanker snoring impatiently down my neck. The din was so terrific that I hadn’t even noticed that the engine had stopped when the traffic in front moved on after a halt. It was only then that I noticed the rev. counter at zero. I ground feverishly at the starter without result. The perspiration poured down my face at the thought of the ghastly walk I would have to take through the tunnel to get the breakdown van and pay the £5 fine. Then, having reminded me never again to take its services for granted, the engine stuttered and fired and we got going.”
The horsepower race was hotting up in the US industry and Ford led the way with revamped V8 engines. The 292 cid returned for 1956 as the standard engine, but 9 out of 10 ‘Bird buyers paid a little extra to gain the new 312 cid (5.1 Litre) Thunderbird Special V8. With a larger bore and stroke of 3.80” x 3.44”, and fed by a Holley 4-barrel carburettor, the Special V8 was good for 215 bhp @ 4600 rpm when fitted to the manual / overdrive transmission and 225 bhp with the automatic. Torque on Ian’s overdrive-equipped car was 317 lbs.-ft. @ 2600 rpm and his compression ratio was a practical 8.4:1. The hairiest engine was a dealer-installed new Special V8 with a 9.5:1 squeeze and two Holley 4-barrels, for 260 haughty horses.
“The reason why I particularly like the Thunderbird, apart from the beauty of its line and the drama of its snarling mouth and the giant, flaring nostril of its air-intake, is that everything works. Absolutely nothing goes wrong. True, it isn’t a precision instrument like English sports cars, but that I count a virtue. The mechanical margin of error in its construction is wider. Everything has a solid feel. The engine—a huge adapted low-revving Mercury V-8 of 5-litre capacity—never gives the impression of stress or strain. When, on occasion, you can do a hundred without danger of going over the edge of this small island, you have not only the knowledge that you have an extra twenty m.p.h. in reserve, but the feel of it. As for acceleration, when the two extra barrels of the four-barrel carburettor come in, at around 3,000 revs., it is a real thump in the back. The brakes are good enough for fast driving, but would have to be better if you wanted to drive dangerously. The same applies to the suspension, where rigidity has been sacrificed slightly to give a comfortable ride. Petrol consumption, using overdrive for long runs, averages 17 m.p.g. Water and oil, practically nil.”
Though still a ‘Ford’ V8 when in a Ford car, the 312-incher came standard in the more upmarket Mercury, therefore could be characterised that way. Overdrive gear automatically cut in at 27 mph and cut out at 21. The 0.70 overdrive gear worked through a 3.92:1 ratio differential.
Thunderbird performance was typically 0-60 mph in 10 seconds with top speeds of over 115 mph (185 km/h).
Though weight distribution was near perfect at 49.4% front / 50.6% rear, the external spare wheel could cause some handling issues, being a heavy, rear-mounted weight. It was, after all, in the days of narrow cross-ply tyres. With a nod to the true intent of the car, Ford had slightly softened the springs for 1956 to give a smoother ride.
“There is a hard top for the winter which you take off and store during the summer when the soft top is resurrected from its completely disappeared position behind the seat. The soft top can be put up or down without effort and both tops have remained absolutely weatherproof, which, after two years, is miraculous.”
Though American purists disdained the luxuries of the Thunderbird, it was a true American sports car. The bench seat could not accommodate a third person as the centre transmission tunnel allowed for no leg room—it was strictly for two. With modern styling, V8 engine, steel body and frame, and wind-up windows, it was unlike the shaky, draughty, underpowered, obsolete-looking MG, which also wasn’t very fast. Buyers approved and bought 15,631 of the ‘56s, whose base price rose modestly to $3,151.
“One outstanding virtue is that all accessories seem to be infallible, though the speedometer, as with most American cars, is a maddening 10 per cent. optimistic. The heater really heats; the wipers, though unfortunately suction-operated, really wipe; and not a fuse has blown nor a lamp bulb died. The engine never overheats and has never failed to start immediately from cold, even after all night outside in a frost. The solidity of the manufacture is, of course, the result of designing cars for a seller’s market and for a country with great extremes of heat and cold.”
Ford still adhered to vacuum wipers in some of its models, as a sop to production costs. The problem to overcome was that a vacuum servo relied upon intake manifold vacuum, which varied: it could be high and plentiful when coasting but low when accelerating or driving at high speed. The problem of gunning the engine to overtake a slower vehicle in the rain provides less wiper action just when it’s needed most. Though Ford offered an optional fuel and vacuum pump unit with reservoir to store and boost vacuum assistance, the problem was never totally overcome.
Ian’s latter comments imply a more captured domestic auto market in Great Britain at the time, than was the case in the United States. This led to British auto-makers becoming complacent. US manufacturers employed testing in desert heat to prepare their cars for adequate motoring in the Deep South and western desert states, as well as the snows of the Mid-West. Apparently not all UK carmakers did so.
1957 would be the last year for the 2-seat Thunderbird, when it returned with a lengthened tail for extra luggage space and—in line with other Fords—sprouted modest but sharp tail fins. Approved features returned, like the porthole-window hardtops, and the twin exhausts still exited through outlets in the rear bumper. In competition with Chevrolet and Plymouth’s muscular new V8’s, engine power options were increased again, with the 292 engine now with 212 bhp and the 312 cid with 245 bhp, both with a single 4-barrel carburettor. Next up, 285 horses could be had with two 4-barrel carbs cramming the fuel/air mixture into the 312. Ford even upped the ante with an optional Paxton-McCullough supercharger for the same engine. The blown 312 put out 300 bhp and apart from the Studebaker Golden Hawk, was the only factory supercharged American car of the latter 1950’s.
Had Ian waited another year, his new car might have been supercharged again (after the Graham he had in the 1930s) and faster than any Bentley could have been. It also would have been $500 more expensive, and that was just in the USA, before any British import taxes.
An extra-long production run saw 21,380 units built but despite this and the ‘57’s patronage by high-profile people like Clark Gable, the trim ‘Bird’s days were numbered. Ford Motor Company was in the business of selling cars, and as many of them as it could make. A specialty 2-seater would never reach the sort of production targets that Ford favoured, so instead a brand new Thunderbird was in the works: a larger, luxury / sporty 4-seater in fixed roof coupé and convertible versions.
The Thunderbird Grows Larger
The 1958 Thunderbird did introduce innovations: it shared the new, combined chassis and body structure (‘Unibody’) method of assembly with the new Lincolns and Continentals, all being built in the same specially-configured factory in Wixom, Michigan. The 1958 Thunderbird also pioneered the bucket-seats-and-console craze in the USA, as a combination of a low profile and Unibody arrangement demanded it.
Though with the same low sleekness at 52.5” high, the new ‘Squarebird’ was softer and even more luxurious than the 2-seaters. With 3,708 pounds of heft; a longer 113” wheelbase; and overall length of 205.4”; it was clearly a different car. Nor was it well served with all-coil springs, as much larger cars from Chrysler Corporation handled far better with their torsion-bar front suspensions.
Thunderbird customers didn’t seem to mind, snapping up 37,892 cars for 1958. The 1958-60 Thunderbird generation became the quintessential personal luxury car, opening up a lucrative new market segment that would soon be pursued by other US automakers.
But the first generation 2-seaters were not forgotten. In fact, they became the most sought-after used car in America. The ’57 Thunderbird, in particular, was an instant classic, becoming the highest-priced postwar collector car by the 1970s.
“Cyril Connolly once said to me that, if men were honest, they would admit that their motor-cars came next after their women and children in their list of loves. I won’t go all the way with him on that, but I do enjoy well-designed and attractively wrapped bits of machinery that really work—and that’s what the Thunderbird is, a first-class express carriage.”
Ian Fleming kept his much-loved black ‘Bird and bought another—a 1960 4-seater coupé—as his ‘family’ car. Later, he replaced the latter with another iconic American of European verve—the Studebaker Avanti. It would be his last car. But that’s another story.
My grateful thanks to Chris Jeffs of the Thunderbird Club of NSW for insights into Ian Fleming’s cars and to Sharon Bosley of the Classic Thunderbird Club Int’l – https://www.ctci.org/ – for steering me in the right direction.
Automotive Mileposts – http://automotivemileposts.com/
Automobilia by Ian Fleming, The Spectator, 4 April 1958
When Ian Fleming Went Car Shopping, – https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/when-ian-fleming-went-car-shopping/
The Playboy Interview: Ian Fleming, Playboy, Dec. 1964
Under various aliases, Igor Solarisov has contributed feature articles to Restored Cars, the Australian classic car magazine, for about 25 years.
His article exploring the electric car experiments of Nikola Tesla in Nexus magazine (the real ‘Tesla’) has been translated into several languages. Igor has also published books on Amazon’s Kindle platform on vintage car maintenance and science fiction history.
A sometimes amateur astronomer, he once saw Goldfinger on TV, before turning to the telescope to observe a lunar eclipse later that night.