Ford Thunderbird generations 1955 and 1956


The namesake of the Ford Thunderbird is a mythical creature known to many native North American tribes. First introduced to the public in 1955, this automobile was a a two-seat sports car, but unlike the Corvette. Ford marketed it as a personal luxury sports car, creating a new and different market segment for the discerning public. Over the years and for 11 generations, the Thunderbird got larger with rear seating added and then larger still before it returned to its roots as a two-seat luxury sports car. As of 2005, when the last unit rolled out, there were 4.4 million Thunderbirds with a multitude of variations.

Ford Thunderbird 1959 interior

© Peeler37 | 1955 Ford Thunderbird

Before the 1955 Thunderbird was finally a reality, Henry Ford II worked with designers on many variations with prototypes produced. The underpowered Vega was the last before they arrived at the T’bird prototype. The company wanted European looks, but the features and appointments had to be original American ones. The names considered were Apache, Falcon, Eagle, Tropicale, Hawaiian, Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang. The name “Thunderbird” wasn’t even on the list; the choice was a last minute one in 1953. It was given a go for production with 1955 set as the model year for it to be in showrooms. This was a knee-jerk response to Chevy Corvette landing on the market in 1953, and the plan had to be put into high gear. It took one year from idea until the final prototype, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in February ’54.

Ford Thunderbird 1956 rear

© Jiawangkun | 1956 Ford Thunderbird

Some of the body styling is similar to all mid-1950’s Ford products such as beauty rings on the round, single headlight configuration and the same small tail fins, but the T’bird is on 102-inch wheelbase; for a sleek look, a nonfunctional hood scoop, fender skirts, and exhaust pipes that exit through two guards bolted to the rear bumper are added features. The porthole windows were a no-cost option, if you liked them. The engine is a 292-cubic-inch (4.8L) V8 design borrowed from the Mercury division, and the speedometer shows 150 mph (240 km/h) insinuating it had more power but mechanically was no further advanced than any other vehicle Ford had on the market.

Ford Thunderbird 1956

© Steirus | 1956 Ford Thunderbird

The car was a big success, and Ford thumbed its nose at Chevrolet and the Corvette because the Thunderbird outsold it by 23 to 1 with 16,155 units sold in 1955. Not wanting to hurt a good thing, the ’56 version was very similar, but there was an added option of the Continental kit, the spare tire mounted in a flashy case sitting on the rear bumper giving a lot more storage area in the trunk. Another added optional choice was the removable porthole, hard-top roof. The roof was a popular choice, but the added weight created some steering problems with this version.

The convertible version looked great, very sleek and streamlined with the soft top folding down into the trunk without a trace, beautiful! The hinged trunk lid raised and lowered hydraulically, operating in conjunction with the roof, when activated from one switch on the dash; this is  an awesome feat of engineering. The system uses a maze of electrical solenoids and hydraulic cylinders that all had to work together for the top to raise and lower properly. The hydraulic system was trouble-free for the most part, but the electric wires and the solenoids in particular were subject to failure at any time without warning. Another problem with this system is the roof often had leaks so water rained into the luxury passenger compartment.

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Streamlined roof-mounted emergency lighting pods were beginning to appear by 1940 and Meteor showed a number of ambulances so-equipped in their mailings. Meteor's flower cars were topped by 5-window business coupe-style roofs and featured a fake folded convertible top made of aluminum mounted at the rear of the flower box. Meteor introduced a new driver's door first seen on 1939 S&S carved-panel coaches that featured an unusual A-shaped window frame. Meteor then mounted a miniature coach lamp within the triangular panel that was now part of the body. Although the new arched door looked great on their service cars, flower cars and carved Gothic hearses, it looked hideous when combined with the vertical B & C pillars found on their limousine-style coaches and ambulances. The rear door window frames as well as the B-pillars and C-pillars were still vertically oriented and clashed with the sharply sloping outline of the front door's arched window-frame.S&S did the right thing and used vertical B-pillar front door frames on their regular limousine-style and landau-style hearses and ambulances. Although they could have used a regular door on their limousine-style coaches and ambulances (as did S&S), for some unknown reason, Meteor didn't and continued producing ugly limousine style coaches until 1950, when regular door frames returned.Quite unfairly, LaSalle had acquired the reputation of being a "cheap" Cadillac and was eliminated by GM just as Cadillac released their new Bill Mitchell-designed models in 1941. The new Cadillac was decidedly forward-looking, side-mounted spares had been eliminated and the new Hydra-Matic automatic transmission was available for the first time having been pioneered by Oldsmobile in the previous year. The prow-nosed look seen in the Thirties was gone, replaced by massive front-end highlighted by the now-famous egg-crate grille. Headlamps were now mounted in, rather than on top of, the front fenders. Equipped with a Cord-like coffin-nose hood the new Cadillacs were noticeably different from their predecessors and set the standard for American luxury during the 1940s. A mid-sized 29-passenger transit bus prototype called the 101 was built during 1941, but never saw production. However their experience with the vehicle helped procure a large contract to produce bodies for a post-war Reo transit coach.The A-framed Meteor coaches continued little unchanged through 1942 although a less-expensive series of coaches appeared in 1941 mounted on Chevrolet chassis that featured normal-looking vertically-oriented B-pillars. When seen on a flower car body, Meteor's A-framed front doors looked good and their 1942 version featured a 5-window business coupe roof mounted on top of a standard Meteor coach body that had been built with no structure above the beltline. The coupe's blanked-in rear quarter-windows were covered by a landau bar and the base of the roof flowed straight back to the rear of the flower box which still had a makeshift faux folded-convertible roof. The rear doors were left intact and could be used to load chairs or other graveside necessities. Access to the casket compartment was through the tailgate which had built-in casket rollers that matched those on the compartment floor. The height of the exposed stainless steel flower deck was hydraulically adjustable so that different-sized floral tributes could be accommodated and a tonneau was included to cover the bed when not in use.After an illustrious career with Henney and a short stint at the Des Moines Casket Company, automotive designer Herman Earl (1878-1957) worked for Meteor up until his retirement during WWII. Another famous wartime Meteor employee was John B. Judkins who became a consultant for the firm, when his Merrimac, MA coachbuilding firm folded in 1942. During the War, Meteor manufactured aviation equipment for the US Navy and ramped up for civilian production in early 1945.Immediately after the war Meteor built 969 bus bodies for Reo's post-war 96-HT 'Victory' bus (1945-1947). These Reo-Meteor coaches included a Continental 427cu in 6­cylinder gasoline engine mounted under the floor and featured sectional bodies similar to those produced by Wayne Works.1946-1948 Meteor coaches remained unchanged from the pre-war 1942 models and still included weird A-framed front doors with integral miniature coach lamps. As with other makers, post-war prices increased by about 50% and new Meteor coaches started at $5,000. All Meteor coaches were now built on Cadillac chassis and included rear fender skirts plus optional automatic transmission and air-conditioning. Ambulances could be ordered with built-in roof-top warning lights, a choice of sirens plus a clever front fender-mounted fire extinguisher.Cadillac's new commercial chassis was available beginning 1949, one year after the introduction of their famous P-38 Lightning-influenced rear fenders.

Are the engine and drive train still there?

It's all there folks!

No engine

I like to see them when their done too.

Thing is really trashed


Greg Andry

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