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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The 1957 Ford Thunderbird Almost Killed the Corvette




Ford Thunderbird

In 1957, things were looking up for the Ford Motor Company. Its cars were outselling those of arch-rival GM for the first time in a long while. One of its most popular models was the two-seater Thunderbird the guys from Dearborn introduced in 1955.

 It was built to go head-to-head with the Corvette, which was first unveiled in 1953. By 1957, it had sold more than 20,000 units, compared to the Chevy roadster’s 700 or so.

 For industry observers, it seemed the handwriting was on the wall, though, of course, what those at the time thought to be T-Bird dominance would not outlast the Corvette. But for the moment, things were looking good.

The ’57 T-Bird saw many changes from the ’56 model. These included larger tail fins and the absence of an external spare tire. A new instrument panel graced the interior, along with a padded dash and a safety-minded “dished” steering wheel.

 Its overall wheelbase was 181.4 inches long. The ’57 retained the handy removable top that had proven popular with buyers since the model’s unveiling two years before.

Ford Thunderbird 2

The standard engine for the year was a 292 cubic inch V8 powerplant, mated to a three-speed transmission that turned out 212 horsepower. Four other powertrain options were available as well.

These topped out with a 312 cu. in. brute capable of 340 hp at 5300 rpm. A handful of T-Birds with this engine were also equipped with a McCulloch Variable Ratio Supercharger. The unit fit directly over a specially designed four-barrel Holley carburetor. This was a direct answer to Chevy’s Ramjet fuel injector.

In building the T-Bird, Ford took a different approach than GM did with the Corvette. While the Chevy vehicle emphasized speed, the Ford team considered performance part of an overall approach that included upscale touches.

 This approach sometimes causes lively debate over whether the Thunderbird was a true muscle car. For my money it fits the bill, but you’re free to disagree.

Ford Thunderbird 3

Both vehicles were meant to satisfy the public’s demand for distinctive automobiles. But after 1957, the two-seater Ford found its place in the annals of history. The T-Bird would hang around, but it was the Corvette that would emerge as the premiere American sports car, a status it holds to this day.

Photo Credit: Darin Schnabel, RM Auctions