"Here is the newest version of an automotive classic. You'll recognize it in the beauty of line . . . in the many new things in the Thunderbird for '56. The spare is mounted outside for a smarter silhouette . . . there's more space for your luggage . . . and you'll enjoy new cowl and window ventilation. You who have special appreciation for advanced design and custom craftsmanship, you who get keen enjoyment from a car that responds to your touch with the sureness of a thoroughbred, should really be driving a Thunderbird. It is for people such as you that this distinguished personal car was designed."
It was one of our "holy grails". And just as we abandoned hope to ever see one in person, a first generation Thunderbird crossed our way. The Cuban automotive landscape never ceases to hold a pleasant surprise.
The Thunderbird, introduced in 1955, was Ford's answer to the Corvette, which you could buy already since 1953. It's difficult to talk about one car without mentioning the other, as the Thunderbird only exists because of the Corvette — and vice versa. Only because of the Thunderbird's success, Chevrolet saw a market for the Corvette and continued building what back then was a disappointment, but today has become an American icon.
Ford Chief Stylist Frank Hershey got aware of the Corvette from an old buddy over at GM in 1952. The notice that Chevrolet readied the sports car for production got things rolling, and designers of Hershey's studio promptly began sketching for a Corvette competitor. To lay out the primary package of the future Thunderbird, the designers literally took measure from one of the most famous sports cars of that time by acquiring a new Jaguar XK120. Details like seat position, steering wheel angle and wheelbase became identical to the English sports car because the designers considered its package to be perfect.
A lucky coincidence for the project's progress, Henry Ford II got interested in European sports cars when visiting the Paris Motor Show. According to George Walker's account in Time Magazine in 1957, Henry Ford II asked Walker, who advised at that time Ford Design as an external consultant, why the company wouldn't have something like that. Gambling high, Walker responded: "But we do. We are already working on it". After the conversation, Walker immediately wired Dearborn to prepare a model, and upon their return from Europe, Hershey's studio had a clay model ready for presentation, and the Thunderbird became an official project.
While the Corvette had a head-start, the Thunderbird more than made up for it on the long run. Incidentally, both companies had planned for an output of 10,000 cars in 1955. Yet the Corvette, despite looking so sporty, was a lame duck at the dealer's: in its third year Chevrolet produced only 700 cars, due to a large inventory of unsold 1954 Corvettes (3,640 had been built in that year). The Thunderbird, however, took flight already in its first year, when 16,155 Thunderbirds found new homes. Although that number went slightly down to 15,631 Thunderbirds next year, it was still considerably more than the 3,467 Corvettes produced in 1956.
This success was due to the decision of Ford's designers and product planners to go a little more fancy and less austere than the Corvette. The result became what Ford would call the "Personal Car": a performant automobile that blurred the line between sporty appearance and luxurious comfort. Even more so with the second generation that offered seating for four. What made sports car purists cry certainly put a smile on the faces of Ford's accountants as the new Thunderbird outsold its predecessor by a big margin.
Fender skirts and the Continental Kit that came standard with the 1956 models make our pictured Thunderbird a nice looking example of Fords first foray into sports cars. Its engine, however, is not the original "Thunderbird V-8" 292 cubic inch (4.8 L) powerplant. Implanted instead is a smaller 256 cu in (4.2 L) V-8 engine which powered Mercurys since 1954. Coupled with a smooth-shifting automatic transmission it is a comfortable ride, and the car still nicely growls through its four exhaust pipes whenever its chofer presses the pedal a notch too much.