How the Ford Thunderbird Works

Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster and Ford Thunderbird Landau

The 1964 Ford Thunderbird convertible set a production record with nearly 92,500 cars.

Two derivative Ford Thunderbird models were added for '62: the Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster and the Ford Thunderbird Landau. The former was the only production four-seat car to become a two-seater. (Of course, there are many examples of the opposite -- including the '58 T-Bird.)

The Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster was approved by new Ford Division chief Lee A. Iacocca largely because dealers had been besieged with requests for a car like the 1955-57 T-Bird. While Iacocca knew there was no significant market for anything like that, he felt a semisports model couldn't hurt.

The designer most responsible for the Sports Roadster was Bud Kaufman, who developed a fiberglass tonneau to cover the normal convertible's rear seat, thus creating a "two-seater." When installed, the cover formed twin headrests for the front seats and blended neatly with the rear deck.

Kaufman overcame fitting problems so that the soft top could be raised and lowered with the tonneau in place. Completing the package were Kelsey-Hayes chrome wire wheels with knock-off hubs that dictated omitting the stock rear fender skirts (due to inadequate clearance).

But stunning though it was, the Sports Roadster didn't sell. The problem was price: initially $5439, a hefty $650 above the standard convertible. Ford built only 1427 of the '62s and just 455 of the '63s before canceling the model. Ford dealers offered a similar tonneau and wire wheels as accessories for 1964 convertibles, but these are even scarcer today.

The Landau was far more popular. At $4398 it cost only $77 more than the standard hardtop, yet delivered a vinyl-covered roof with a fake landau or "S" bar on each rear pillar, plus a spiffier interior. Despite these minor touches, buyers flocked to the Landau.

By 1966, it was outselling the plain hardtop; three years after that it was generating the bulk of T-Bird sales. There were also 2000 examples of a Limited Edition 1963 Landau. Introduced in the spring of that year, it came with a special numbered plaque on the console, plus all-white interior, special paint, and spinner wheel covers.

Though Thunderbird production was down in these years, it remained far higher than it had been in the two-seater days. The respective totals for model years 1961-63 were 73,000, 78,000, and about 63,300.

Following the now customary three-year cycle, and with wheelbase again unchanged, the 1964 Thunderbird arrived with completely new sheetmetal marked by busy bodyside sculpturing. This fourth design generation would carry on without major change through 1966. Quiet, refined luxury was again increasingly emphasized as convertible sales declined markedly.

The open T-Bird, which accounted for only 7.5 percent of production in '66, didn't return for '67. The '64s set a T-Bird production record with close to 92,500 units. Volume eased to around 75,000 for '65, then to just over 69,000.

Among features introduced with this generation were a cockpit-style passenger compartment and "Silent-Flo" ventilation (1964); standard front-disc brakes (1965); full-width taillight housings, including backup lights and sequential turn signals, and a "Town" (formal) roofline for the Landau and hardtop (all for '66).

A popular accessory offered since 1961 was the "Swing-Away" steering wheel. With the transmission in Park, it could be shifted about 10 inches inboard to facilitate driver entry/exit. The 300-bhp 390 remained the only engine through 1965, after which it gained 15 horsepower, plus an alternative 428-cid big-block option rated at 345 bhp.

The pros and cons of offering a Thunderbird sedan were debated by Ford officials throughout the '60s. By middecade, Iacocca was satisfied that sporty-car buyers were being catered to by other Fords -- namely the new Mustang and an attractive array of Falcons and Fairlanes. Market studies indicated that the T-Bird, now firmly entrenched as a personal-luxury car, no longer needed even a semisporting image.

Reflecting this conclusion was a completely restyled group of 1967 Thunderbirds headlined by a new $4825 four-door Landau on a 117.2-inch wheelbase. The hardtop and two-door Landau continued on a 114.7-inch span, priced at $4600/$4700. Front ends featured a handsome recessed loop grille with honeycomb insert, plus headlamps covered by matching flip-up sections; a hefty bumper wrapped underneath. Rear-quarter windows on two-doors now retracted horizontally into the roof pillars. Engines were unchanged.

This fifth-generation series would continue through 1971 despite sales that trended mostly downward as prices went upward (reaching $5500 for the '71 four-door). The Landau sedan wasn't very practical -- especially its rear-hinged back doors, a throwback to the '30s -- and it declined from almost 25,000 sales for '67 to just over 8400 by 1970. Volume as a whole sank from 78,000 to just above 49,000 for '69, then recovered to just over 50,000.

Styling changes were minor through decade's end. The '68s bore narrowed rocker moldings and an eggcrate grille pattern. For '69, the grille was composed of horizontal louvers and three vertical dividers, the full-width taillamp ensemble gave way to divided units, and rear-quarter windows were eliminated on the Landau coupe. Returning for the first time since 1960 was a sliding sunroof, albeit electrically operated, as an option for any vinyl-top model.

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