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FROM A SALES point of view, Ford nailed it with the first-generation Thunderbird. Introduced as a “personal luxury” two-seater in late 1954, the T-Bird outsold Chevrolet’s Corvette sports car at a 23:1 clip in 1955: 16,155 versus 700.
The year 1956 brought few changes to the T-Bird, a displacement jump for its V-8 to 312 cu. in. (5115 cc) from the original 292 cu. in. (4786 cc), an upgrade from 6- to 12-volt electrics, and a rear-mounted “continental” spare tire.
Overall, R&T expressed mixed feeling in its road test of the 1956 T-Bird: “Evaluating this car in its proper perspective, as a truly luxurious 2-seater convertible, the only conclusion that can be reached is that it succeeds admirably. At the same time, our sports car outlook forces us to complain bitterly. It is so similar to a sports car that it seems a shame that it could not at least have been endowed with better steering and handling qualities, both of which are fair to good in comparison to domestic sedans, but abominable for a 2-seater machine.”
R&T continued, “The twisting road characteristics of the Thunderbird might be described as Allard- or Dellow-like, but with a difference.”
Ouch. In “Allard Tales,” I quoted fellow journalist Don Vorderman saying, “… surely one of the best possible ways to compensate for a poor suspension design is to keep the car at least several inches above the road.”
And in “The Dellow Sports Car, I professed a distinct fondness for the marque, saying, “it is so English, it makes one’s teeth ache…. The Dellow featured everything needed for trials [a peculiarly British sport of storming up muddy hill paths], and nothing more.”
Back to the T-Bird: “At the curb with a full tank there is 60 lbs more weight on the rear wheels than on the front. Two adults put the rear weight up to 52.5 percent of the total. Accordingly, the tail tends to swing out on corners and the combination of very slow (4.3 turns) steering with power booster and much too soft rear springs makes safe control questionable.”
R&T admired the Ford V-8, termed a Y-8 in Fordspeak. It produced an impressive (albeit 1956-exaggerated) 225 hp at 4600 rpm and 324 ft-lbs of torque at 2600. Working through the optional $215 Ford-O-Matic, the T-Bird reached 60 mph from a standstill in 9.3 seconds.
R&T would have preferred the standard-equipment three-speed manual. However, “Despite our efforts we were unable to find a stick-shift Thunderbird within a 500-mile radius of our test strip.”
The two-speed Ford-O-Matic could be finessed into forced shifts, saving perhaps 0.5 seconds in the 0-60 time: “This was accomplished by starting in ‘LO’ range, shifting to ‘DRIVE’ at an indicated 43 mph, back to LO to 50 mph, and finally to DRIVE again at 80 mph.”
R&T achieved a best run of 113.9 mph with their T-Bird. “The tachometer read 4600 prm at the time and would go no highter. Obviously this car was well tuned (by Bill Stroppe, well known Ford specialist) and the odometer showed 2300 miles at the time of the test. At this speed, the car was easy to control and high speed stability is excellent.”
In those predominately pre-disc-brake days, though, the T-Bird’s 11-in. drums were only adequate, “enough for any car driven in average fashion and weighing under 4000 lbs. [The T-Bird weighted 3850 lbs.] However, the combination of a vacuum booster, which makes for deceptively light pedal pressure, and an over-100-mph performance is not too fortunate. One moderate stop from over 100 mph produced signs of fade and two such stops within three minute gave genuine fade and pungent odors….”
R&T observed, “… we feel that no one would be foolish enough to drive this car for long at 100 mph, if only because of its original equipment tires.”
The 1956 T-Bird listed for $3163, with R&T test car options bringing it to $3987.50. Figure $36,872 in 2018 dollars.
Also, to put the T-Bird in perspective, a Jaguar 2.4 sedan tested in the same issue had a list price of $3795.
Me? I would have opted for the Jag. Or a Dellow. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018