Garage Bird: 1955 Ford Thunderbird

1955 Ford Thunderbird

The Big Three have never been known for building true sports cars. Don’t get me wrong, they have all built some great cars throughout their history, but they haven’t ever captured the pure essence of a sports car. Chevy was the first to take the bold step of attempting the task with their Corvette and it didn’t take Ford long to respond with their own interpretation. The Thunderbird was more refined and comfortable to drive everyday, but it lacked the handling and performance of a true sports car. Today, the Thunderbird isn’t as desirable as the Corvette or the European cars it competes with, but it still has a dedicated following. The 1955 Thunderbird you see above was discovered in this garage after being off the road for the past 44 years. It needs a motor and lots of work, but will be a sweet machine when it’s done! Check it out here on eBay or in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Dirty Ford Thunderbird

Some would claim the Corvette was far closer to being a true sports car and that current resale value would indicate that the Vette was the better car. While I concede that the Corvette was more sporty, I would argue that the Thunderbird was the more successful car. In its first year of production, Ford sold over 16k Thunderbirds compared to 700 Corvettes that Chevy sold in the same time period. It even outsold its nearest European competitor, the Jaguar XK140, by nearly 4 times. Sales aren’t everything, but they say a lot about what people wanted at the time. It just happens that in ’55, Americans wanted a sporty looking car that was also comfortable, refined, and practical.

Speaking of the XK140, it was the T-Birds fiercest competitor. Chuck Berry even wrote a song about a Jaguar racing a Thunderbird. Comparing the T-Bird to an XK is probably a more accurate comparison. Both cars were sporty, but had more of an emphasis on luxury than the Vette. Ford was careful to not call the Thunderbird a sports car, but a personal luxury car instead. It was a smart marketing decision, as it decreased expectations and made any performance an added bonus. In a straight line, the 292 V8 gave the T-Bird a slight advantage over the Jag, but the moment the road got twisty that advantage was lost.

Ford T-Bird Interior

The Thunderbird has always been fascinating to me. It was meant to be a Corvette competitor and while it looked the part, it offered little in the way of actual sports car performance. These two are frequently compared, but the more I learn about both cars the more I question this comparison. Sure they both entered the market at the same time and both were meant to capture buyers who might otherwise buy a European car, but they really had nothing in common. Simply look at the interiors and you know they targeted completely different markets…

Ford Thunderbird

Performance aside, the Thunderbird really was a nice car. It offered the comfort and luxury Americans had grown accustom to, while still being reminiscent of something built in Europe. Today, early T-Birds are in demand, but not the kind of demand that Corvettes or XKs are in and values prove it. This particular car is going to need a motor and a lot of work, but could end up being a good buy. It will all come down to the seller’s reserve though. So if you had your pick between a T-Bird, an XK140, or a Vette, which would you go with and why?

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Comments

  1. mike

    once again somebody explain how you simply park a car in a garage and just forget about it for 44yrs??? looks fixable but no mention of rust..and it was very close to the ocean on the east coast.

    Like 1
  2. JohnD

    I love early vettes and birds, and have a few of one and one of the other . . .BUT . . you look at what $25K can buy in an first gen bird these days and you will never look at a rough project again . . .. The middle of the road to nice cars seem to be great deals now . . . Which is why the 57 is in my garage . ..

    John

  3. Dolphin Member

    JohnD nailed it. Early ‘Birds in decent condition have been stuck around $25K for a long time while a lot of other collector’s choices have rocketed up. The upside is that someone can get a ‘Bird as a mid-’50s open sporty car without breaking the bank, or being one. A good friend is in the market for one right now, but I won’t be pointing him toward this particular car.

  4. Mark E

    So…if the Corvette was more of a ‘true’ sportscar, since it came out originally with the old ‘blue flame’ six I’m guessing GM’s target vehicle was what, an MG-TD?!??

    • Dolphin Member

      Yes, the TD, and the XK Jags, and similar small open cars. The story is that some US servicemen stationed in England and Europe brought these cars back with them when they returned. I think GM saw this and responded in the way they could, with a small open car with a quick-to-production ‘glas body and a slightly hot-rodded version of the the only Chevy engine they had available, since the Chevy V8 didn’t come along until ’55. There were the earlier V8s of some other GM divisions, but for various reasons those weren’t used. You can see equipment for putting dual carbs on the Chevy six in early-’50s hot rod equipment catalogs, so that was an easy and cheap no-brainer that allowed the first Vettes to get out the factory door and into dealers’ showrooms.

      Then when the V8 came along the ‘Vette became more of the car I think GM had in mind, then more, and more, and the rest is history. And the current street Vette can do a real fast lap around the Nurburgring with the best of the best at a fraction of the price. Pretty successful from a modest start, I’d say.

  5. Andy

    The Big 3 have never captured the essence of a sports car? Maybe not in the era of the first generation Corvette or T-Bird, but the Ford GT kicked the ass of the Ferrari 430 and the Lamborghini Gallardo, its two major contemporary competitors.

  6. Vince Habel

    These look a lot nicer than they drive. A taller person has to bend over to see out the windshield. The seats are too low to the floor. I passed on one when I had the chance to buy one. I don’t regret it.

    • dj

      My buddy had several of these and Corvettes at the same time. He let me drive one of them. Compared to a Corvette, it’s hard to drive and very uncomfortable. He just collected them and said he’d take a Corvette over one any day. That was just his opinion. What is strange was that he was a design engineer for Ford cars. LOL

  7. Clay Bryant

    If you ever listen to a 6 cylinder Corvette or drove one with that sound in your ear,you’ll understand.If you want to see the nicest of the nice go to the Smith Museum of Speed(all 140,000 jam packed sq. feet of it )in Lincoln Nebraska and you’ll see my ol’ 53(#160) there resting.One of the finest 53s in the world.The Lincoln Corvette Club put on a great show there this last weekend and did this crippled up old body a great afternoon.It was great to see my really all time favorite there,my 54 Pennant Blue just as fresh as it was when I sold it 25 years ago.300 Pennant Blues in 54,so lucky to have owned one.Sorry but T-birds don’t excite me that much and have had a couple jags.I think the price that Corvettes have right now tells you how much people love them and respect their value.

  8. geomechs geomechs Member

    I agree with a lot of the comments here. If you can get one in decent condition for $25K, why bother to try to do anything with this one? No engine or transmission, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the hardware is missing as well. And finding a Bird 292 engine isn’t going to be easy. I have to say that the vendor should be happy with (maybe) $4K because whoever pays that is going to have at least 6 times that much invested by the time he’s driving it.

    • Brian

      Finding a none T-bird 272, 292 or 312 and a three speed trans shouldn’t be much of a challenge. I’m not sure if the base T-bird engine was really all that much different than the standard line ’55 – ’60ish Ford engine, even if it was H.O., the machine shop could recreate it for you, slap on some chrome valve covers and call it a day! Of course the numbers wouldn’t match, but even if you found an engine from another bird, it still wouldn’t. This might hurt the valve or it might not, but if the bidding top out at the $7,500 its at now, it wouldn’t be the worst buy ever made – but surely there are at least two people out there in ebay land willing to massively over pay for this car, so it’s a given that it will go for obscene money!

      • geomechs geomechs Member

        You have a good point, Brian. There are likely a fair amount of Y-blocks out there that will offer a decent performance package. I’m still not sure about the transmission but that could also be worked out. I guess the biggest obstacle is finding all the mounting hardware and associated accessories. I remember a friend getting a ’61 Mercury. The engine was out and had been like that for a long time. My friend overhauled the engine then attempted to install it. A mount was missing. Found one at the wreckers. Then the brackets for the generator were gone. Two wreckers were able to find enough parts. Went to install the rad–no support. Found one at a wrecker over 100 miles away. Got it running and tuned up. Went to install the hood–a hinge was missing. And the car had allegedly never been moved from the place that the engine had been pulled. That’s what you encounter when you get a car like this. If you’ve got the time and a whole lot of determination then I guess it’s OK. Otherwise, go back and follow Plan A.

      • Brian

        @ geo – Your right, there is a PITA factor to a car with missing parts and I do respect that factor alot more at age 42 than I did at age 22, when there was more time for and fun in the hunt and, frankly, things were cheaper! I’m alot more ‘out of touch‘ with two seater bird values than I was 20 years ago. I know they aren’t as popular now as they were then, but they are still iconic! Personally, at the end of the day, my $7500 would go further, and my smile wider, on a nicer ‘60 bird – especially with the rare sliding sun roof!

  9. jim s

    i do like these a lot, but as stated above you can buy a nice one for less then the cost of fixing this one. it is at $7400 with 19 bids on it already so is someone going to restore or hotrod since the motor/trans is missing. nice find

  10. Bruno

    This car is in the Norfolk, VA craigslist site listed for $8000

  11. Brian

    If the bottom photo represents how the car looks “cleaned up” accurately, I think I’d throw an engine/trans at it, get it running and driving nicely, get the interior into a condition that didn’t require taking a shower after sitting inside it, and drive it as-is!

    No one will ever accuse me of being a rat rod fan, but I have glaring memories of these two-seat ‘birds back in the 80’s when the seemed to be at the height of popularity and I never remember seeing one then that wasn’t in stunning restored condition! It seems like it’s only been in the last 5 years or so that I’ve seen them around in less than perfect shape. I guess those 80s restorations finally wore out! So, to me, there is just something exciting about the notion of having one thats in grubby condition that could be driven and enjoyed without the fear of a scratch or a dent! After all, if you change your mind, you could restore it, to some level, later. It may never have the following of a numbers matching car, but it’s got history and a story, and a lot of fun could be had driving it. To me, the PITA factor of gathering missing parts would pull the value down to about $5,000. If someone pays over twelve, I’m thinking there is a better buy out there on an old 80s resto that needs help. Last time I looked, it was at $7,500 – which leaves me on the fence, but about to fall in favor of keep looking for a better buy for the money!

  12. Clay bryant

    Check out this Sept-October issue of American Car Collector.Jay says it well and I have agreed with him over my lifetime on matching number engines,etc.People would ask me”Matching numbers?” and I’d tell them “Ya,they match some car somewhere”.Of course most of my cars were from years ago and more times then not,my numbers did match and if they didn’t,I still slept like a log every night.

    • Brian

      I agree! At the end of the day, it’s a car and matching numbers don’t get you down the road – as a matter of fact – sometimes a non matching engine can get you down the road alot faster! Generally speaking, I prefer that the replacement engine be of the same make as the car and fit in without hacking up the car so it could be returned to original if so desired, otherwise it’s not a problem for me. I’d take a solid and straight body and sound upholstery over matching numbers all day long! Of course, I buy because I want, not as investment. Some will disagree with me but I have a broker for investments – cars are for driving and enjoying. If money is made when it’s time to say goodbye, then it’s just gravy! Life is short, drive and enjoy!

  13. Charlie Member

    I had a ’54 Vette, went well in a straight line,Powerglide 2 speed automatic behind stovebolt 6, fiberglass cracked and checked, 3 Carter sidedraft carbs leaked gas (a wonder it never caught fire), exhaust came up over the back deck into the passenger compartment (a wonder I never died of monoxide poisoning), being 6′ 1″ long torso had to bend to see through windshield with top up, neighbor complained about exhaust noise when started in the morning – I went to work at 7, he was retired -Plexiglas side curtains were translucent at best, a museum is the best place for these things, not on the road. A ’62 on the other hand was a dream machine – drifted flat around expressway off ramps – guts galore – fast and comfortable enough.

  14. rancho bella

    Just within one mile of me are four of these, different owners. They rarely drive them and I am so used to seeing them over the years in SoCal they aren’t that uncommon.
    I’ve passed on two within the last two years and the prices were cheap but I just can’t bring myself to want one. Recently I saw a rodded ’57 and tastefully done, to the nines………still couldn’t get the juices flowing. So this one should have a fork stuck in it……..it’s done.
    Keep in mind, people have taken care of many of these and there is no shortage of 55-57 Birds.
    What is short?……..the lifespans of most of the people that have an interest in them. As they check out, the yout’ couldn’t care less about Birds.

  15. grant

    appreciate the history of t birds, but id really like to hear more about THIS one….

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