After World War II, Americans increasingly imported foreign sports cars, like the MG, that they saw during deployment in Europe. By the 1950s, they had extra money and time for all kinds of entertainment, and these small cars with powerful engines and nimble steering were fun to drive. American auto manufacturers debated if they wanted to produce their own versions as competition. These exotic sports cars were not a threat to their sales: in 1952-1953, only 12,000 sports cars were imported to the United States while Ford’s lowest volume car sold 128,000 units. But entering the sports car market could be another opportunity to keep customers within the Ford family of cars.
When Chevrolet introduced the Corvette in January 1953, Ford decided to accelerate their own entrance into the market. Henry Ford II gave designers three months to create a two-seat car able to reach 100 mph, and the company held a contest to find a name for the new model. Thunderbird came out on top.
Ironically, when Ford announced the Thunderbird in 1955, sales of the Corvette were so low that Chevrolet executives were considering ending production of the car. The Thunderbird turned out to be a lifeline to the Corvette. Not only did GM decide to keep the Corvette, but they upgraded the car from a V-6 to a V-8 to match the Thunderbird.
Although considered to be competitors, the similarly priced Corvette and Thunderbird were dramatically different cars. The Corvette was a weekend race car, even when drivers never took to the track. It was focused on speed and prowess. The Thunderbird was a pleasure car for the post-World War II driver who wanted to use their expendable income on a sporty car filled with creature comforts and safety features. Car buyer preferences are clear in the sales figures for 1955. Only 700 Corvettes were sold, compared to 14,190 Thunderbirds. More important than sales figures, the Thunderbird helped transform Ford’s image as the maker of working class cars into a pop culture icon that attracted American youths and young executives.
Over time, the Thunderbird grew larger and more popular. In 1958, the Thunderbird was expanded to seat four, and sales increased to almost 50,000. By 1968, it was 35 inches longer and 1,100 pounds heavier than the original, and production approached 65,000. When customers noticed this increase and complained, Ford responded that while many people like the idea of small sports cars, they mostly buy big, comfortable cars. It illustrated how much Americans want their cars to look good, and how much they wanted to bring more people along for the ride.