The ultimate American personal luxury car of the heyday of the Big Three had to be the Cadillac Eldorado, but the very first of the breed was the Ford Thunderbird. The car went into development in 1953 as competition for the new Chevy Corvette as a sporty two-seat convertible, and by 1954 the first prototype was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in February; by September of ’54 the T-Bird went into production. The first 1955 Ford Thunderbird models were offered to the public by the end of October that same year, 1954.
The Thunderbird was an instant success from a sales perspective, and the goal of matching the Corvette was accomplished in spades when you look at the number of cars that were driven out of the showrooms. A total of 16,155 1955 Thunderbirds were sold as compared to just 700 Corvettes. The first generation of the car lasted through the 1957 model year, and by that time the standard engine in the T-Bird was a 312 cubic inch V8 that was capable of 245 horsepower, but there were performance upgrades available, including one with the dual Holley four-barrels.
The Thunderbird went on to become one of the most successful models ever produced by Ford. In all, there were eleven different distinct generations of the car, and it holds the distinction of being the first model to win the Motor Trend Car of the Year award, which it captured in 1958. (Previous to this, brands were given the award rather than model lines.) The original Thunderbird was in production from 1955 through 1997, and it was then revived in 2002 and was manufactured through the 2005 model year. In all, more than 4.4 specimens of the Thunderbird have been produced over the years, and it is truly an American classic of legendary status.