1958 Ford Thunderbird
The first-generation Thunderbird was a hit for Ford and a style icon still prized by collectors. But adding a backseat and a few hundred pounds made it sell better back in 1958.
The original Thunderbird made its debut in 1955 as a two-seater that learned from Chevrolet's mistakes with the 1953 Corvette. The Thunderbird leaned more towards the luxury side of the equation, with niceties such as roll-up windows and outside door handles that the '55 Corvette lacked, which may be why the T-Bird outsold the Corvette handily. While the Chevrolet advertising was heavily skewed to speed and power, the Ford ads were more likely to feature a doorman tipping his cap to the Arrow-collared captain of Industry as he was ready to alight in his "Personal Car of Distinction."
While it was a sales success, Ford management thought it could be more of one. Market research told them that more room would equal more sales. Thus in 1958 came a new Thunderbird: one that could seat a foursome "in lap-of-luxury comfort!"
For the first time a fixed-hardtop model was available, with a formal roofline. George Walker's styling seemed to mirror the doubled seating. Up front, new and newly-legal quad headlights were stylishly eyebrowed over a large chromed combination bumper/grill. In the rear, the last years single tail-lights were twinned and fitted into pods on either side of the chromed and inset license plate frame. A chrome bumper with bullets and tasteful fins completed the space-age look. It was a broader, more muscular-looking car that merited the sobriquet "Squarebird."
On convertibles, a completely new power top was offered on the convertible that was fully automatic, folding into the trunk like the hardtop convertible Skyliner. While this made for a modern, clean look, it ate up trunk space; there was a small well in the trunk where one was supposed to put luggage but the top had to be erected to access it.
I had the chance to drive one of these cars. A great friend of mine was going to pick up the 1960 Coupe she had inherited from her Grandfather in Claremont, California, where it was stored on a hellish-hot Labor Day weekend. She was going to have her husband drive it back to her house in Los Angeles. The plan was that I was along for the ride; we would sip icy caffeinated beverages in the well air-conditioned Camry and chat while hubby sweated it out in the T-Bird.
When we arrived and I saw the sparkling-white car, I knew that I had to be the one to drive it back to town. Driving a car older than I am on a California Freeway was an experience, one that reminded me how we take for granted how well modern cars work. We're used to safety in our modern cars with our airbags and crumple-zones. This car didn't even have seat belts, and the dash was festooned with chromed knobs and thingies pointed at me that might have well been Ginsu knives.
Most of all, we are used to cars that handle well. You really only have to be an attentive driver these days; electronic nannies like ABS and precise handling allow us to enjoy some of the features in modern cars. I gave up trying to open the vent window since a second of lack of focus could get me drifting across three lanes. Changing the radio station could end me up in another state. The brakes were, I believe, prayer-based.
Still, by the time I got to Highland Park, I'd been hooked. If I had the money, I would be driving it today.