The Beach Boys’ classic song lyrics “And she’ll have fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes the T-bird away” reflected to a “T” the essence of the first generation Thunderbird. A young blond, cruising main street America with her hair blowing in the wind, was a sight embedded in every guy’s brain during the ’50s and ’60s. Today, while the 1955 to 1957 Thunderbird still draws many of those same memories, current owners are older and perhaps reliving the time when they saw their first T-bird or perhaps were lucky enough to have owned one.
Ford decided to get into the sports car arena two years after Chevrolet launched the Corvette. While the T-bird didn’t show up until 1955, it was by far a much more refined sports car than the Corvette. Over the next three years, Ford continued to improve on the stylish two seater by offering luxury items not available on its competitor. Power windows, power steering, power brakes, and power seats were available on the T-bird but were not on the option chart for the Corvette. When comparing the Corvette and Thunderbird in performance, it was clear that the Corvette was superior, but the T-bird won hands down in personal luxury.
The T-bird’s styling mirrored the Ford brand in many ways with quarter panels and front fenders that looked much like larger Ford counterparts. The horizontal feature line along the side of the car gave it a long silhouette look. Slanted tail fins on the quarter panels were added for 1957 and the dual exhausts exited through the massive rear bumper. Up front, the T-bird featured an egg crate grille, browed headlamps, and a hood scoop that was tastefully designed but unfortunately not functional. Thunderbird’s parking lamps were moved from the front fender to the front bumper. From the side of the car, the front fenders showcased simulated louvers, Thunderbird script, and functional air vents to keep the interior cool. Surprisingly the hardtop with portholes was standard equipment and a soft top was an option.
The interior of the Thunderbird was quite comfortable. A vinyl bench seat was standard. Unlike the Corvette, bucket seats were not available. The transmission shifter was placed on the floor on both the standard and automatic shift cars. Electric seats could be ordered with a “Dial-O-Matic” seat control on the dash that allowed a selection of 35 different positions. The padded dash featured a five-pod gauge package that gave the driver all of the necessary vehicle information. The adjustable steering column allowed for a two-inch, in-out adjustment. Another unique feature was Ford’s Volumatic radio that automatically increased its volume as the car’s speed increased. The interior was upscale for a car in its price range.
Powertrains ranged from a 198-horsepower, 292 cubic-inch Y-block V-8 to a 300 horsepower, 312 cubic-inch Y-block V-8 known as the “F” Bird. The large horsepower increase of the “F” Bird came primarily from its McCulloch supercharger. Only about 210 “F” Birds were produced in 1957. The base transmission was a three speed manual, with overdrive as an available option. Ford’s three speed automatic transmission called Ford-O-Matic made its way into about 90 percent of all Thunderbirds.
While the Thunderbird was often compared to Chevrolet’s Corvette, the Thunderbird was more of a personal sports car. It could not compete with the Corvette on the dragstrip or road racing circuit, but the driving experience was that of a more comfortable, smooth-riding vehicle. Performance was more than adequate and owners enjoyed the comfort of a smooth ride and top down fun in a very unique car. Sales for 1957 were the best of the three-year run, delivering 21,380 units to customers. Today, the two-seat Thunderbird is a highly sought after classic.
Fuel For Thought
Last year for the two-seat Thunderbird until 2002
Outsold Corvette by more than three to one
Twelve rare supercharged “D” code Thunderbirds were produced
First year for 14-inch tires
53,160 two-seat Thunderbirds sold during the three-year run
Number built – 21,380
Construction – Body-on-frame
Engine – 292 cubic-inch V-8, 312 cubic-inch V-8
Power/Torque – 292 cubic-inch V-8 2bbl., 212 horsepower, 297 lb-ft torque, 312 cubic-inch V-8 4bbl., 245 horsepower, 332 lb-ft torque, 312 cubic-inch V-8 dual 4bbl., 270 horsepower, 336 lb-ft torque, 312 cubic-inch V-8 dual 4bbl. w/racing cam, 285 horsepower, N/A torque, 312 cubic-inch supercharged V-8, 300 horsepower, N/A torque
Transmissions – Three-speed manual, three-speed manual with overdrive, three-speed automatic
Suspension front – Unequal length upper and lower control arms with coil springs
Suspension rear – Leaf springs
Steering – Worm and roller
Brakes – 11-inch drums front and rear
Length/width/height – 181.4/72.8/51.6 inches
Wheelbase – 102 inches
Weight – 3,288 lbs.
0-60mph/quarter mile – 9.9 seconds, 17.9 seconds at 80.1 mph (Motor Trend, August 1957 when testing a 245-horsepower Thunderbird)
Top Speed – 115 mph est.
MPG – 12-18 mpg est.
Price – MSRP $3,408; Today – $25,100 - $62,900
Engine – The new-for-’53 overhead valve Ford “Y” block V-8 was the replacement for the aging flathead engine. While it produced additional power over the flathead, the “Y” block was not really suited for high performance output. It didn’t spin like Chevrolet’s small block V-8 and breathing was not nearly as good. While the larger 312 cubic-inch V-8 provided added performance, the engine was prone to cracked blocks. Compared to the small-block Chevy, getting performance out of a “Y” block was expensive. Today there are several aftermarket companies providing racing components for the “Y” block and there is a tight knit group of enthusiasts who love this powertrain.
Handling – The Thunderbird handled well because of its short wheelbase and soft but decent suspension tuning. While not as tight as the Corvette, the T-bird’s good front to rear weight ratio gave the owner a nice road handling experience. The T-bird would not win most stop light drag races but was a much better cruiser than other sports cars.
1957 Corvette convertible
Number built – 6,339
0-60/quarter mile – 5.7 seconds, 14.3 seconds at 94 mph (Road and Track, August 1957)
Top speed – 132 mph (Road and Track, August 1957)
Price – MSRP – $3,465; Today – $40,600 - $95,800
1956-57 Austin Healey 100 roadster
Number built – 7,382 (’57)
0-60/quarter mile – 12.2 seconds, 18.2 seconds at 74 mph (Road and Track, January 1957)
Top speed – 110 mph est.
Price – MSRP – $2,965; Today – $21,750 - $62,800
More upscale than the Corvette with many comfort features
Good performance for its timeframe
Wide range of engines to satisfy customers’ needs
Most original cars have major rust problems
Many restored cars have had major body work (check for quality when purchasing)
Replacement parts are somewhat expensive
Most 1957 Thunderbirds are weekend drivers; however with its escalating price more cars will begin to stay in garages than cruise the boulevards.
What to pay
1957 Ford Thunderbird
MSRP – $3,408
Low – $25,100
Average – $33,700
High – $62,900
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Classic Cars and Parts magazines are sold.
Insurance cost is $275/year for a $33,700 1957 Ford Thunderbird. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance,
Seat cover kit $239.95
Interior carpet $80.95
Authentic roadster wire wheels (set) $1849.95
Reproduction aluminum valve covers $359.95
Padded dash $411.95
Master cylinder $62.95
Based on information from National Parts Depot,
The Book of the Ford Thunderbird from 1954 by Brian Long
Thunderbird Fifty Years by Alan Tast
Thunderbird Milestones (Enthusiast Color) by Mike Mueller
Ford Thunderbird (Full Throttle) by Tracy Nelson Maurer
Thunderbird 1955-66 (American Classics) by Alan Tast
Overall – The 1957 Thunderbird has become an icon in the personal sports car field. It’s styling is smooth and elegant from any angle. The base horsepower “Y” block V-8 provides adequate power and those who purchased the dual-quad or supercharged engine enjoy enough power for light-to-light excitement. Handling is firm yet soft enough for long drives. Today the first-generation Thunderbird is much sought after in the collector car world.