Thunderbirds are go!

Muscle car guru Tony Oksien salutes one of Ford’s most successful models, the Thunderbird, with a special look at the second generation square birds…

It’s normally around this time of year, as we head into the better weather of spring and summer, that most American classic convertibles are released from their winter hibernation and head out for the events, cruises and gatherings that enable us to connect with fellow enthusiasts, as we drop the top and enjoy fresh air driving. Sadly, that may not be the case for many of us this year, but nevertheless, I have chosen to focus on an icon of the classic American car hobby: the 1959 Ford Thunderbird convertible.

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Turning the clock back to 1973, I, like many thousands, flocked to the cinema to experience the feature film American Graffiti, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by the legendary George Lucas. The film dealt with the last day of summer vacation before a group of teenage friends matured into adult life and went their separate ways. Filmed mostly in Petaluma, north of San Francisco in California, it was set in 1962 and documented early Sixties small-town teen life. It featured a host of up-and-coming young actors, many of whom would go on to have successful careers.

I too in 1973 was a teenager and this movie opened up my world to American cars, lifestyle, rock ’n’ roll and good times. Some say the cars were the real stars of the movie, yet it is also the music that evokes that early Sixties era, combined with a great screenplay. The first time I ever saw a 1956 Thunderbird was in that film; a white car driven by the ‘mystery girl’ Suzanne Summers. The ’55 -’57 T- Birds were known as ‘little birds’ being two-seater models only, and as such they were also labelled as ‘personal luxury cars’. By 1958 the second-generation T-bird was totally redesigned and grew bigger all round, by adding an extra row of seats so it could accommodate four people. This version became known as the ‘square bird’ owing to its boxy styling.

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The car boasted an industry first with bucket seats and a full-length console as standard. The dashboard, driver’s gauges, steering wheel and shifter along with the console are a work of art evoking a real luxury feel. Furthermore, the carpet kick plates are inscribed with the Thunderbird logo and the chunky decorative glove box contributes further to the car’s plush interior. The 1958 Thunderbird used rear coil springs which created wheel hop, for ’59 and ’60 the system was re-engineered with parallel leaf springs.

The car was a huge hit with American buyers with 37,892 sold and 1959 saw production leap to 67,456. 1960 achieved a whopping sales increase to 92,843.

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The ’59 Thunderbird you see here is an unmolested convertible, painted Raven Black with a tan and white interior. For a 61-year-old survivor the car is in remarkable condition, very stock appearing apart from a set of chrome five-spoke wheels. The standard engine in these was a 352cu in V8 and four-barrel carburettor which is rated at 300bhp and was hooked up to Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission. 1959 saw the availability of a bigger, more powerful optional engine, the 430cu in (7.0-litre) V8, which cranked out 350bhp. Dual exhausts were standard on all models, although the way to determine the different engines is straightforward: the 352 has the Ford script on the valve covers, while the 430 is plain, as this was a Lincoln motor.

This particular car seems to have spent many years in California as it still retains a period Squarebird Society sticker and proudly displays membership of the San Diego Chapter of the Vintage Thunderbird Club. The ’58-’60 Thunderbirds were built at the Wixom Assembly Plant in Wixom, Michigan. For 1959 the factory produced 9,093 convertibles with 352 motors and 1,168 convertible Thunderbirds with the larger 430cu in engine.

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Over the years Ford has built more than four million T-birds – I guess you could say the Thunderbird really did take off!

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