The early 1960s were perhaps the finest hour for the 1961-1963 Ford Thunderbird. There was nothing radical about the third generation design that began in 1961; the radical ideas had been developed with the previous 1958-1960 series. Rather, the 1961-1963 Thunderbirds were soundly designed, well engineered and beautifully styled.
Two designs were considered, one by Elwood Engel and another by Bill Boyer, heading two separate styling teams. Engel's chiseled, squared-off shape was ultimately chosen for the 1961 Lincoln Continental, while Boyer's aircraft-oriented body with its big round "flowerpot" taillights got the nod for the Thunderbird.
"We wanted to keep it very youthful, and that meant aircraft and missile-like shapes," Boyer recalled. But the new Thunderbird and Continental still had a lot in common.
Both featured highly integrated bumper/grille combinations; there was similarity in the windshield and side glass; both cars had unit bodies; and they were built side-by-side in the Wixom, Michigan, plant that had also built the 1958-1960 Thunderbirds.
Both had a new "dual-unitized" structure in which separate front and rear sections were welded together at the cowl. Because these structures were dimensionally similar on both cars, great cost savings were realized.
Coupled to the dual-unit body was a new chassis featuring what Ford called "controlled wheel recession" -- rubber bushings allowing fore/aft as well as up/down wheel movement. Suspensions were revised and the power steering ratio reduced, requiring only three and a half turns lock-to-lock. Brakes were power assisted with vastly increased lining area.
Standard engine was a 390, bored and stroked from the Ford 352, which provided a significant increase in torque: 427 pounds/feet at 2800 rpm, up from 381 in 1960. The typical 1961 Thunderbird would do 0-60 in about 10.5 seconds and 115 mph flat out.
Interior designer Art Querfeld probably spent more time on the 1961 Thunderbird than any single model in his nearly 40-year tenure with Ford. "I wanted to emphasize and delineate the positions of the driver and front seat passenger," Querfeld said, "and I conceived of two individual compartments separated by a prominent console."
The console swept forward, where it curved left and right, meeting the doors and continuing around the sides. Querfeld actually eliminated the traditional glove box door because it would have introduced seams in his gracefully curved paneling.
A small glove box was placed in the center console. Also notable was the Swing-Away steering wheel, an invention of Ford's Stuart Fry: the steering column swung along a curved track fitted behind the dash, with a flexible coupling connecting it to the steering linkage.
Continue reading to learn more about the 1961-1963 Ford Thunderbird models.