Somehow, the generations of Ford Thunderbird often manage to inspire nicknames. The original two-seat Thunderbirds of 1955-57 are called the Baby Birds. The second-generation four-seaters of 1958-60 won the name Square Birds. And the third-generation 1961-63 Thunderbirds, with their pure, projectile-like styling, will forever be known as the Bullet Birds.
Built on a unit-construction body/chassis with 113-inch wheelbase, the Bullet Bird was similar in size and layout to the ’58-’60 Thunderbird, maintaining a winning formula. And the exterior sheet metal was all new, but with some obvious roots in the 1953 Ford X-100 dream car (read about it here) and the 1961 Lincoln Continental—especially in the nose and grille, as shown above. And while the fact is well disguised, the Thunderbird and Continental shared some glass and interior structure, aka black metal. While the Bullet Bird’s styling is relatively simple and unadorned, there are clever details to catch the eye, including the door handles incorporated into the side trim.
Ford lead stylist Elwood Engel had a hand in all these vehicle designs, and when he was passed over for promotion to vice-president of Ford styling, succeeding George Walker (Eugene Bordinat got the job instead) Engel departed, taking the top design job across town at Chrysler Corporation. The Chrysler Turbine Ghia (check out this rare factory film here) that soon emerged there bears an uncanny resemblance to the Bullet Birds. The lineage seems unmistakable.
As the pioneer of the personal-luxury category, the Thunderbird promised car buyers a sporty yet sumptuous cockpit, with thickly padded bucket seats and a wide center console (above). Novel features included a swing-away steering column for graceful entry and exit and a fabric convertible top that stowed away in the trunk under a reverse-opening deck lid, leaving no visible boot. All Bullet Birds were powered by Ford’s trusty 300 hp, 390 CID V8 and Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission, though there was an M-code option in ’62-’63 that offered three two-barrel carbs and a slightly hotter cam, good for 340 hp according to the factory literature.
The ’61 and ’62 Bullet Birds are similar, differing mainly in trim details. Two additional models were rolled out for the ’62-’63 model years: a Landau Coupe (complete with vinyl top covering and enormous landau irons as desired) and the Sports Roadster, which featured a fiberglass tonneau cover to make the four-seat convertible resemble a two-seat roadster (above). Remarkably expensive at more than $5,400, well into Cadillac territory at the time, the Sports Roadsters had relatively few takers, and they are especially prized today.
For ’63, the Bullet Bird’s sheet metal got a minor massage, with a new grille and a hockey-stick character line added to the front fender and door (as seen below). While the Bullet Birds were not quite as successful as the ’58-’60 Square Birds, they sold well enough, and they provided a sound foundation for the revised fourth-generation Thunderbirds that arrived in 1964—the cars known as the Flair Birds.