Ford 100: No one's sure who created the T-Bird, but whoever did it, did it right
June 17, 2003
By MARK RECHTIN | Automotive News
Success has a hundred fathers. In the case of the Ford Thunderbird, plenty of folks claim parental guidance.
To have heard Frank Hershey tell it, he designed the original stubby two-seat hardtop that electrified the country club set. To read Bill Boyer's autobiographical account, he penned it. To chat with Joseph Oros, he was the man behind much of the car's appearance.
Since all three were in the Ford studio during the car's development, and only Oros is alive, it is hard to determine who is the car's true father. It is harder still to wade through all the folklore and legend from other parties. Even Ford Motor Co.'s official history of the car has inconsistencies.
Hershey said he heard about the Chevrolet Corvette's development from a designer friend at General Motors and ran to Ford management, saying Ford needed a sports car.
Oros contends that his boss, consulting designer George Walker, was strolling through the 1951 Paris auto show with Henry Ford II, and they decided that Ford should imitate the snazzy European roadsters. Oros adds that Hershey already had started work on such a car.
But while Boyer gave Hershey credit for the vision of a Ford sporty car, he called Hershey's involvement "more administrative than artistic," and he described Oros' and Walker's input as minimal.
Then there are the biographers. Soaring Spirit by John Katz takes Hershey's side, although he chronicles the Paris discussion as having been between Walker and Lewis Crusoe, then head of Ford Division. Supposedly, Crusoe called Dearborn and ordered work to start on a sports car, which was in the works by the time he got home. But Ford's official biographers say Walker made the call so that his consulting firm would look in-the-know when Crusoe got back to Dearborn and thus get the job.
The Thunderbird Story by Richard Langworth also follows the Walker-Crusoe story line but gives design credit to Hershey. Langworth quotes Hershey as saying, "Walker didn't know anything about (the sports car project) until it was almost done."
There are holes in every story. Ford's internal designers didn't begin sketching the Thunderbird until the fall of 1952, more than a year after the magical Paris show that supposedly inspired Crusoe and Walker. What's more, Crusoe was very conservative, according to accounts, and had to be convinced of the T-Bird's viability well into the design process. In either case, it's a stretch that Crusoe was so smitten by European sports cars that he ordered design work to begin from a phone booth in Paris.
Even Jack Telnack, who was Ford's design chief from 1987 to 1998, is not sure whom to believe. He recalls having breakfast with Hershey at the Pebble Beach Concours during Hershey's later years.
"Even at that age, Frank was still upset about Boyer taking credit for it," Telnack says. "But Boyer wrote the book. Everyone likes to take responsibility for that car."
Oros, now 87 and living in Santa Barbara, Calif., says he has heard all the versions of how the Thunderbird was born. His personal involvement with the car came later, when he was brought on board to help style the T-Bird from 1955 through 1961.
"Hershey came up with the (original) package, working with engineering," Oros recalls. "He was responsible for lowering the car and the beltline and the packaging. I contributed to the aesthetics of the body-side appearance. My suggestions were taken by Bill Boyer and Damon Woods, two young designers, for the direction of the car."
Got that straight? About the only undisputed detail is that Bill Burnett led the engineering team.
Even the naming of the car is legendary, but the devil is in the details. Most accounts say Henry Ford II offered a suit from Saks Fifth Avenue to the man who would come up with the name. But debate rages over whether the suit was worth $95 or $150. Meanwhile, Ford Motor's history of the car says Crusoe offered the suit and that it was worth $250.
Ford's team came up with names such as Beverly, Hep Cat, Debonnaire, Playboy, Savile and Tropicale, not to mention wilder names like Arcturus, Carioca, Dagmar, Esquiline, 999, Snipe and Wombat.
Instead, designer Alden "Gib" Giberson, inspired by his Southwestern upbringing, gave the car its immortal name. To the Indians of the American Southwest, the Thunderbird is a mystical creature and an omen of good luck. Crusoe gave the name his blessing. Giberson even created the graphics of the Thunderbird logo, complete with turquoise inlay.
A personal luxury car
There were still dozens of styling touches that could have maimed the car. Up until the last minutes of design development, Ford considered putting "Fairlane bars" - chrome strips from its mainstream car - down the body-side sheet metal. Crusoe voted to leave the sides bare, save for the minimalist chevrons over the front quarter panel.
Some prototype headlights had simple chrome surrounds from the sedan line, instead of the unique bezels that eventually were approved.
Others say crucial details, such as the car's egg-crate grille, were dictated on a whim from Henry Ford II, who wanted something to imitate the Ferraris of the era.
What isn't disputed is that the original 1955 T-Bird is a timeless classic.
Oros says the Ford team wasn't disturbed when Chevrolet beat them to market with the Corvette. Although the Thunderbird initially was classified as a sports car, once the Corvette came out, the Ford marketers changed their minds. The Thunderbird became a personal luxury car aimed at the Walter Mitty crowd.
The T-Bird debuted in October 1954, and the country clubbers loved it, especially the women. Ford lore has it that customers ordered more than 4,000 the first day.
The 292-cubic-inch V-8 could propel the boulevard car to 60 mph in about 11 seconds, no big achievement compared with today's cars but a rocket for that era.
But the Thunderbird wasn't a true sports car because of its sloppy handling and mushy power brakes. So the car made up for its performance shortcomings with luxury touches such as a hardtop, roll-up windows and power steering and brakes.
And Ford undercut the Corvette's price. The T-Bird started at $2,944 and capped at about $3,500. The Corvette began at $3,498.
Keith Martin, publisher of Sports Car Market magazine, recalls: "The Thunderbird was much better executed than the contemporary Corvette. It had an automatic transmission, it was comfortable, it had a real top, and it was a cruiser. It was a fantasy fulfillment car that was painless to use. The Corvettes were underpowered, with horrible suspensions, leaky roofs and controversial styling."
Not that everything was golden with the T-Bird. An owner anecdote from the late 1950s called the convertible top "the damnedest thing I have ever encountered. ... It's worse than an old touring car of 25 years ago."
The car was a stone-thrower, and paint chipping was common on the rear quarter panel. The power seat liked to run past the end of the rail travel. The stylish push buttons on the door handles were subject to freezing. And the feel of the power brake boosting was poor.
The iconic two-door lasted only three model years.
In early 1955, when the T-Bird was just a few months old, there was a change of power atop Ford. Crusoe became executive vice president of Ford's car and truck group, and Robert S. McNamara replaced him as Ford Division general manager. McNamara, one of the Whiz Kids, was a bean counter at heart.
While Crusoe loved the original T-Bird, McNamara hated it. He disliked the idea of having an image car as a loss leader. A car should be able to stand on its own and be profitable, McNamara reasoned. It didn't matter that the Thunderbird was being produced at double the initial forecasts; it still wasn't making money.
By March 1955, McNamara was facing the advent of the Edsel (another car he disliked) and the need to fill the capacity of the new unibody plant in Wixom, Mich., notes Alan Tast, author of Thunderbird 55-66. By turning the T-Bird into a unibody four-seater, McNamara could put sales pressure on the Edsel and fill Wixom. He even thought there could be a Thunderbird station wagon. The designers and product planners were horrified.
There was an epic struggle over which version would make it.
Both a two-passenger and a four-passenger Thunderbird were ready for the 1958 model year. But since McNamara was the boss, the bean counters won, and the four-passenger was a go for 1958. As it turned out, McNamara's hated decision turned the Thunderbird into a cash machine.
"Marketing felt they could increase volume by making it a two-plus-two, but no question, they took something away," former Ford design chief Telnack says.
In the 1955 model year, Thunderbird sales totaled a modest 37,893, but that dropped to 21,000 by the 1957 two-seater. Then the car grew from its 102-inch wheelbase to 113 inches to become a four-seater.
In its first year as a four-seater, sales exceeded all its years as a two-seater. By 1960, Ford was nearing 100,000 four-passenger Thunderbird sales a year. During the next three decades, the car became more of a two-door sedan.
"As a stockholder, you applauded when it went four-seat because sales were so much higher," says Martin of Sports Car Market. "But once you have more seats than doors, you're in trouble. It was the beginning of the end of the T-Bird, even though it took 30 more years to die."
That came in 1997, when slipping sales put the car in the grave. But President Jacques Nasser proclaimed that the car would return in a more familiar form. Then, for the 2001 model year, a retro-minded Ford brought back the two-seat Thunderbird, sharing a platform with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type.
That vehicle fell well short of its sales target and will be retired at the end of the 2005 or 2006 model year. So far in its lifetime, 4.2 million Thunderbirds have been built.
Ford's current design director, J Mays, has been quick to take credit for the look of the retro Thunderbird. But once again, the Thunderbird's genealogy is in dispute.
Snorts Telnack: "That car was done by the time he got here."
(Photo)The Thunderbird debuted in October 1954 and was an immediate hit. Ford says customers ordered more than 4,000 T-Birds on the day it went on sale.
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My next Ford.....