How the Ford Thunderbird Works

1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 Ford Thunderbirds

The 1959 Ford Thunderbird convertible was part of the "squarebird" styling cycle.

As expected, the all-new Ford Thunderbird four-seater arrived for 1958 (though Ford briefly considered retaining a two-seater with updated styling). A dramatic design with unibody construction; all-coil suspension; and a low, rakish stance, the second-generation Thunderbird rode a compact 113-inch wheelbase, yet had ample interior room. Only one engine was available, a new 300-bhp, 352-cid big-block V-8, linked to Ford Division's three-speed Cruise-O-Matic self-shift transmission, also new that year.

Joining the familiar convertible was a fixed-roof hardtop that popularized the square "formal-look" wide-quarter roofline that would soon spread throughout the Ford line -- and to other automakers. (A rumored retractable hardtop like the 1957-59 Ford Skyliner was canceled in the design stage. The '59 convertible used a similar top-stowing arrangement in that the power top folded beneath a rear-hinged decklid.) A new inter­ior feature -- a central control console atop the transmission tunnel -- would also be widely imitated.

With all this, the 1958 Thunderbird was a solid hit despite higher base prices of $3600-$3900. Nearly 38,000 were built for the model year, about twice as many as any of the previous two-seaters.

The '59s changed only in detail: a honeycomb, instead of horizontal-bar, motif for grille; nonfunctional hood air-scoop and taillight appliqué; "bullet" moldings on the sculptured lower-body "bombs"; reworked Thunderbird script; a bird emblem instead of a round emblem on hardtop C-pillars.

Lincoln's huge 350-bhp, 430-cid V-8, listed the previous year but likely never installed, became a full-fledged Thunderbird option. Owing to production over a full model year, the '59 bested the '58 at some 67,500 units.

The 1960 edition marked the end of the planned three-year "squarebird" styling cycle. Though substantially the same as its predecessor, it wore a new grille with a main horizontal bar bisecting three vertical bars ahead of a fine grid, plus triple taillights (replacing dual-lamp clusters), and detail-trim changes. Engines were untouched.

Returning to U.S. production for the first time before World War II was a slide-back metal sunroof as a new hardtop option. Volume continued climbing, reaching nearly 91,000 units. Included were 2536 limited-edition hardtops with gold-color roofs and other special touches. Hardtops as a whole, outsold convertibles nearly 8-to-1, suggesting that T-Bird buyers wanted luxury first and sportiness second.

A new third-generation Thunderbird bowed for 1961 on an unchanged wheelbase and would see mostly minor alterations through 1963. Distinctive styling was highlighted by severely pointed front profiles, modest "blade" tailfins, big circular taillamps (a sometimes Ford hallmark), and outward-curving bodysides bereft of sheetmetal sculpturing.

There was again just one engine: Ford Division's new 390 V-8, a stroked 352 but delivering the same 300 horsepower. An optional power package offered 40 more bhp for 1962-63. With minor alterations, the 390 would be the basic Thunderbird powerplant through 1968, joined by big-block options beginning with '66. Base prices for '61 stood at $4172 for the hardtop and $4639 for the ragtop.

Third-generation engineering was conservative but sound. Ford had contemplated front-wheel drive, but felt it too unorthodox for this market. Instead, engineers stressed quality control, solid construction, ride comfort, and minimum noise at speed. Extensive use of rubber bushings for the coil-spring independent front and leaf-spring rear suspensions made the 1961-63 Thunderbirds among the best-riding cars of the day.

For more on the amazing Ford Thunderbird, old and new, see:

  • Ford Thunderbird Prices and Reviews
  • Ford Thunderbird New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Ford Thunderbird Used Car Reviews and Prices