The Ford Thunderbird was a hastily conceived and designed offering going from bright idea to prototype in around a year. That was absolute lightspeed in car development cycles, even in the early 1950’s. Ford were reluctant, of course, to confess that the imminent arrival of the Chevrolet Corvette had anything at all to do with it.
To aid the speedy progress, Ford were very clear about what was required, and a tight and surprisingly defined brief was delivered to project owners George Walker and Louis D. Crusoe. It was deemed that the new car should be a two passenger, canvas topped car capable of in excess of 100mph and with acceleration “better than the competition.” With one eye always on the bottom line, the board also decreed that it should make maximum use of standard production components from across the Ford empire.
Whilst everyone was clear what was expected, they were initially somewhat clueless about what to call the newcomer. Over 5,000 names were reportedly considered and if it wasn’t for the promise of an expensive suit and a Ford Stylist called Albern Giberson, automotive history could have been quite different. The offer of swanky suit for the person coming up with the chosen name was motivation enough for Albern to come up with “Thunderbird.” If it wasn’t for Albern we might today be offering you a “Detroiter” or a “Runabout.” Apparently “Beaver” and “Savile” were also under consideration.
The Thunderbird was launched at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show and had clearly ticked all the key boxes on the brief. The show car was a two-seater with a removable fibreglass hardtop and sleek, long-bonneted looks to die for. The Thunderbird was an immediate hit with a contemporary review stating that the car was a “morale builder that is real fun and sport to drive.” Perhaps more importantly for Ford, however, the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by a staggering 23 to 1 in 1955. Despite that, the Ford suits thought it could do better still and a substantially different, four-seater Second Generation car appeared in 1958.