The original Thunderbird was the result of a crash development program to give Ford something to challenge the new Corvette, but when it debuted in 1955, it was sold as a “personal luxury” car. By joining high-end features with sports car performance, it sold far better than the Chevy. Combined with a ban on factory racing, Ford redesigned the Thunderbird for 1958 to fit the cruiser role it became known for, but not before unleashing a world-renowned high performance car.
A Clean Design
The ’57 Thunderbird saw greater sales than previous years thanks mostly to a cleaner, lower look. A longer trunk removed the need for a bumper-mounted spare tire, a simplified front bumper and bigger grill cleaned up the front end, and extended rear fins gave the impression of width. Inside, the massive speedometer was replaced by a series of round gauges, mimicking the look of foreign sports cars. Performance improved as well, courtesy of a new column-shifted 3 speed manual and a shift to the 312 c.i. (5.1 liter) Y-block motor as the sole powerplant.
To avoid “officially” sponsoring race development, Ford hired race car driver Peter DePaolo to run a legally separate company to work on NASCAR efforts. Starting with the stock Thunderbird, they developed a version of the V8 with a high lift cam and a supercharger, intending the parts to be put into limited production to meet homologation requirements.
They took this a step further with two “Battlebird” prototypes. Fitted with aerodynamic modifications, an aluminum body and a fuel-injected, supercharged V8 making over 350 hp, the cars clocked a 138.755 mph top speed for the two-way flying mile, 89.708 mph in the standing mile and reached a top speed of 160 mph. Those numbers put it well ahead of the Corvette, but the victory was short-lived. In June of 1957, the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association suspended factory racing since they feared it encouraged street racing. Ford knew the facade wouldn’t last and shut down DePaolo Engineering.
Stellar Factory Performance
Despite the ban, DePaolo’s work made it to the Thunderbird as the supercharged “F-Code” engine, with or without the high lift NASCAR cam. The engine produced 300-340 bhp, well ahead of the 283 hp fuel injected Corvette. Although sales were low and reliability reportedly poor, it gave America a factory car that could go toe-to-toe with anything in the world.
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