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      Car History: Car History Year 1956
    Posted on Monday, September 27 @ 00:16:11 UTC by Cars
      Cars We like Ike. That was the message resounding through the nation as Dwight Eisenhower was returned for a second term as President in a landslide victory over Adiai Stevenson. Yet to be crowned "The King," Elvis Presley was hitting the charts and grabbing headlines thanks to songs like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Blue Suede Shoes." Another title holder, world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano, announced his retirement from the ring.

    The phrase "cause and effect" is something that comes to mind when looking at Ford's Thunderbird. That it was made in response to arch rival Chevrolet bringing out the Corvette isn't in doubt, but that it would also have the consequence of ensuring the survival of the GM model was certainly something that was far from Ford's intention. It is also ironic that, having rescued the Corvette from oblivion and provided evidence of a viable market for a US-built sports car, the Thunderbird would quickly be taken out of that sector and turned into a luxury four-seater. The reason for the decision was numbers, and it proved to be correct direction for the second generation Thunderbird to take in 1958, but that's taking us away from the original concept. There is a story that the idea for the T-Bird first came about following the visit by Ford general manager Lewis D. Crusoe and styling consultant George Walker to the 1951 Paris Auto Show in France. Seeing all the European sports cars on display, Crusoe is supposed to have asked Walker why Ford didn't have anything similar, and the consultant (probably to keep his paymaster happy) replied that they were already working on just such a design. Immediately following this conversation, Walker was then said to have phoned his office back in the USA and told them to get something put together in time for his return. It seems unlikely that these events ever actually happened. George Walker was a deft manipulator of the facts and often claimed credit for car design work that he personally was only involved with on an administration level. It has also to be remembered that there were an awful lot of young designers in the industry and their enthusiasm for the sports car would have generated many illustrations and drawings on the "what if we built one of those?" basis. Therefore, it can be assumed that Ford (in common with most other manufacturers) had, over the years, been carrying out various design studies on sports cars but not progressed them any further because of the perceived limited sales potential. When Chevrolet brought out the Corvette in 1953, Ford had to respond quickly, and unveiled a full-size wood and clay mock-up of the Thunderbird at the Detroit Auto Show in February 1954. At a press conference held in the Ford Styling Rotunda at Dearborn, Ford's sales manager L. W. Smead announced: "The Thunderbird is a new kind of sports car. We are convinced it will set a new trend in the automobile industry. It provides all of the comforts, conveniences and all-weather protection available in any of today's modern automobiles. It represents a successful combination of graceful, low-silhouette styling, spirited performance and outstanding readability with dependable all-steel body construction." The references to the Corvette's features are obvious enough. In addition, the T-Bird came with a V8 engine and the choice of manual or automatic transmission, an attractive glass fiber removable hardtop, wind-up windows (power optional) and, using standard Ford components, it could be serviced at a regular dealership. Production of the Thunderbird wasn't due to begin until September 1954, by which time Ford was placing much more emphasis on the level of driver and passenger comfort than speed or handling when discussing the model, possibly giving a slight hint of where the company thought its future might lay. W. R. Burnett, chief of passenger car engineering said: "Although the Thunderbird has the performance and attributes of most sports cars, management also felt that it should have a few more comforts to make it more appealing to a wider segment of the public." Burnett also used the term "personal car" to describe the T-Bird, this being the Ford's way of elevating it above the other run-of-the-mill sports cars. Compared to the Corvette, Thunderbird sales were incredible - almost 16,000 a year in 1955 and '56, compared to a paltry 700 1955 Corvettes and only 3,400 of the revamped '56. It was clear that Ford had a better grasp of what the American buyer of the Fifties wanted from a sports car. In this respect, a great deal of credit for the Thunderbird's acceptance must go to Ford's chief of styling Frank Q. Hershey and his design studio team, headed by Rhys Miller. Also involved in the creation of T-Bird were Damon Woods, David Ash and Bill Boyer, Between them, they produced a car that echoed the best features of European sports car design yet could be easily identified as American in origin with immediate connection to the rest of the Ford model line-up. Key elements were the proportions of a long hood and short rear deck, combined with the low profile found in all classic Fifties front-engined sports cars, plus embellishments that could only have come from Detroit. But Hershey and his designers weren't infallible and for the '56 Thunderbird, there were a few minor alterations that had to be carried out for purely practical reasons. The most easily-spotted of the changes was the Continental Kit mounting on the spare wheel to make more trunk space available for luggage, but this wasn't universally approved of - some critics said it detracted from the car's appearance and added wind resistance. On the other hand, this set-up was also said to help give a better balanced weight distribution. Small vent door flaps were introduced behind the front wheel arches to feed the interior with coo! air after complaints from over-heating drivers and passengers! In a similar vein, "wind wings" were added to the sides of the windshield to help reduce buffeting when the top was down. If you chose to drive with the hardtop in position, in '56 this would more than likely come with the famous portholes on either side. These little round windows were apparently copied from car designs of 1930s, and some writers have said that Bill Boyer was the man behind this idea. Non-porthole hardtops were still available but the porthole version offered as a no cost option proved to be far more popular and has become indelibly associated with the '56 T-Bird. Long forgotten is the fact that Ford were also using safety as a selling point in those days. Okay, maybe a Life Guard package consisting of collapsible steering column and anti-burst door locks isn't in the same league as dual air bags, but we are talking 1956 here! The offer of seat belts was another item that didn't prove too enticing to potential buyers, who were more likely to ask, "Why are you fitting seat belts - isn't the car safe?" How times have changed! American Indian folklore was said to describe the Thunderbird as a good luck omen, being a mythical bird supposed to cause thunder, lightning and rain. A 1954 Ford press release went on to state that, among many things, the Thunderbird symbolized "power, swiftness and prosperity." If that is true, then Ford could hardly have picked a more appropriate name. Specification FORD THUNDERBIRD Engine V8 - cast iron block Displacement 292-312cu. ins Bore and stroke 3.80x3.44 ins. Horsepower 202 - 225 Body styles Convertible roadster No. of seats 2 Weight (lbs) 3,038 Ibs Price $3,151 Produced 15,631     Specification CADILLAC ELDORADO BIARRITZ/SEVILLE Engine V8 - cast iron block Displacement 365 cu. ins Bore and stroke 4.0 x 3.63 ins. Horsepower 305 Body styles Hardtop coupe; Convertible coupe No. of seats 6 Weight (lbs) 4,550 Ibs Price $4,753 Produced 41,732     Specification CADILLAC SEDAN DE VILLE Engine V8 - cast iron block Displacement 365 cu. ins Bore and stroke 4.0x3.63 ins. Horsepower 285 Body styles Hardtop sedan No. of seats 6 Weight (lbs) 4,550 Ibs Price $4,753 Produced $4,753     Specification PLYMOUTH SUBURBAN WAGON Engine Cast iron - 6 cylinders in line Displacement 230.2 cu. ins Bore and stroke 3.25x4.38 ins. Horsepower 125 Body styles Station wagon No. of seats 6 Weight (lbs) 3,513 Ibs Price $2,484 Produced 15,104  
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