Courtesy of Barrett-Jackson

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1955 Ford Thunderbird Convertible
Years Produced:1955
Number Produced:16,155
Original List Price:$2,695
SCM Valuation:$31,000
Tune Up Cost:$250
Chassis Number Location:Data plate riveted to firewall
Alternatives:1959–60 Ford Thunderbird convertible, 1965–66 Ford Mustang convertible, 1967 Ford Fairlane GT
Investment Grade:C

This car, Lot 126, sold for $44,000, including buyer’s premium, at the Barrett-Jackson Online Only auction on May 8, 2020.

In one of the great ironies in American automotive history, upon its 1955 model debut, the V8-powered Thunderbird nearly sunk the fledgling Corvette for good. But now, 65 years later, the Thunderbird is long gone instead, while the Corvette carries on following its historic transformation to mid-engine supercar.

Here’s how it all happened. Seeking an exciting car to claim a share of the emerging new “personal car” (Ford’s gentrified term for “sports car” at the time) market, Ford saw weakness in Chevrolet’s early lackluster Corvette offering. After all, the Blue Flame inline-6 engine, 2-speed automatic transmission and fiberglass construction of the Corvette — hurriedly produced following its GM Motorama debut in January 1953 — were not exactly a world-beating proposition.

Enter the T-bird

When the Thunderbird arrived in late 1954, it was equipped with a V8 engine, a choice of manual or automatic transmission — and luxury touches including a folding convertible top.

The T-bird also had the largest engine in Ford’s lineup, a 292-cid upgrade from 1954’s 239-ci Y-Block — and an excellent, Lincoln-based suspension.

Where the Corvette had a fancifully designed (albeit somewhat wavy) fiberglass body glued together from pieces, the Thunderbird had an all-steel, welded-together body with recognizable Ford design cues, such as peaked headlights, crisp tailfins and taillights adopted from the Fairlane.

Yes, the Thunderbird was in part, a parts-bin engineering vehicle. But so was Corvette, and the early buyers chose Thunderbird by a landslide — nearly finishing the Corvette before it got started.

People preferred ’Birds

For the first three model years (1955–57) representing the Thunderbird’s first generation, the T-bird outsold the Corvette by 23:1 in 1955, by 4.5:1 in 1956, and by 3.4:1 in 1957.

But Ford wasn’t done yet. As popular as the car proved to be, executives were convinced that the means to further growth was redesigning the Thunderbird to carry four passengers, a path that GM refused to take with the Corvette.

And thus, starting in 1958, the two nameplates forever separated in their missions, and the market response handed the victory to Ford. During the “Squarebird” years of 1958–60, some 198,191 T-birds were produced, compared with 29,099 Corvettes — a 6.8:1 sales rout over the ’Vette.

Dearborn execs must have been ecstatic, while GM brass surely bristled at the T-bird’s success — and then committed to push ahead with Corvette.

Right car, righteous price

Let’s look at our subject ’55 Thunderbird — with special consideration of its $44k sale price.

Prior to COVID-19, the 2020 SCM Pocket Price Guide assigned the 1955 model a median value of $31,000 (with only a “C” investment grade).

No distinction is made in the guide for cars with automatic or manual transmissions, but historically, manual-shift “sporty” cars are perceived as more performance-oriented.

As a manual transmission is quite rare in a T-bird, that third pedal builds value. That this car has a manual (albeit lacking overdrive) gearbox helps, but nonetheless, the high price is a bit startling. (Data-geek note: 3-speed manual transmission ’55 ’Birds were rated at 193 hp, while the Ford-O-Matic automatic versions were credited with 198 hp.)

Since Corvettes have always been part of the competitive landscape for early T-birds, it’s fair to note that in the same Pocket Price Guide, a 1955 Corvette V8 (most were produced with V8s in this evolutionary year) enjoys a $99,000 median value (with an “A” investment grade) — well over double even this high-overperforming Thunderbird.

Popular then, pauper now

What does all this tell us? Time is like a glass prism that bends light, turning history into clearly defined color-bands on the wall.

And here, the color bands say that although Thunderbird outsold Corvette by 23:1 in 1955, today a ’55 Corvette outprices a ’55 Thunderbird by over 2:1.

Why the drastic flip?

Early Corvettes were the genesis of a heroic American story, whereas early Thunderbirds were cool, but are now more like pretty keepsakes of a bygone era — and an animal now extinct.

If you want to blame anyone for this, blame Ford’s directors, who heard and obeyed the siren call of sales success while abandoning any pretense of the Thunderbird becoming a real sports car.

Thus, while the Thunderbird hatched as a unique, stylish, strong-performing personal car, it soon morphed into an entirely different critter — a larger 4-passenger car, and later a 4-door barge that lost most semblances of high performance, other than adopting ever-larger V8 engines.

Aging Botox ’Bird

What makes the sale price of this cheery-looking Goldenrod Yellow ’Bird even more impressive is evidence of trouble under that glossy paint. In numerous places are found sizable paint cracks. But why is this — filler or paint shrinkage?

No paint-depth gauge readings were provided. And then, rust pushes through the right-side wheel skirt, and also through the fender hem. Unfortunately, this suggests the car received a Band-Aid bodywork and repaint — rather than fastidious repairs, followed by effective rust-proofing and a respray. Various paint chips, flaws and other nascent small rust-through sites also appear.

Further errors include:

Weathered wide whitewall Firestones on accessory wire wheels, which were not available from Ford in ’55.

A mismatched bias-ply spare tire on a steel wheel in the dirty trunk.

Delaminating windshield glass.

Tailpipes mounted askew inside their chromed exhaust surrounds.

Since the auction lacked under-car photography, a savvy online buyer might predict issues here too.

A nod to usability

Things improve under the hood, despite the presence of a dreaded Pep Boys-style crimped blue wire connector and a modern vintage-look battery.

These are offset by the thoughtful installation of a high-capacity radiator, 12-volt electrics, electric motor-driven (instead of vacuum-operated) windshield wipers, and an overdrive water pump. Call it a pretty authentic, sensibly upgraded, driver-quality engine bay.

Inside the T-bird, the pleated seats and door panels appear average — a bit lumpy in places, but featuring a vivacious yellow, black and machine-finished metal color combination that practically screams “Let’s drive!”

Also inside are convenient roll-up windows, the fun manual transmission and the original soft top neatly stowed away. Best of all, the aftermarket air conditioning take this from being an “American Graffiti” cruiser to a potential cross-country tourer.

The buyer paid a premium here, but if the car works perfectly, doesn’t further decay, and can fly from Anchorage to Key West — or from the Bay of Fundy to Mission Bay — trouble-free, the new owner should hardly care. When it comes to this yellow ’Bird, we say, “Drive it, don’t hide it!” ♦

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