Autocar gets its hands on a Ford Thunderbird for a full road test. Its conclusions might surprise you.
While the original 1955 Ford Thunderbird had proven a critical success, its sales were hampered by its two-seat layout and high price; a matter which was remedied in 1958 by the second-generation ‘Square Bird’, a bigger, more ornate looking four-seater personal luxury car.
With sales in the region of 200,000 over its three-year run, the ‘Square ‘Bird’ not only codified the T-Bird template, but became a sizeable profit earner. The third generation, dubbed ‘Bullet Bird’ was introduced in 1961. Its styling, said to have been the work of Alex Tremulis and based on jet fighter iconography and was chosen in favour of a rival design by Elwood Engel, which would itself go on to form the basis of the Lincoln Continental of the same year.
In January 1961, Autocar carried out a full road test on a Thunderbird Hardtop, newly introduced to the UK market that year, although one would have assumed the importer’s sales ambitions amidst the tumbling shires of old Albion could only have been modest – especially at £3,797, 13s, 7d.
The UK weekly highlighted the Thunderbird’s “completely new design”, saying that with its “new simplified styling, considerable elegance has been achieved.” The unitary construction design was all new for 1961, (and believed to have shared some structural elements with the Lincoln Continental) but retained a resolutely conventional chassis design.
Front suspension was by wishbones (A-arms to our US cousins), coil springs, with telescopic dampers acting on the upper arms. At the rear, a live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs was employed. Power assisted steering (offering 85% assistance) was fitted as standard.
Autocar couldn’t fail to notice the car’s generous size, pointing out that “a driver accustomed to cars of European proportions may feel a little intimidated by the width of this one and might be justified in imagining that it would be clumsy and difficult to control. That impression is very soon dispelled, as no car could be more simple to drive.”
They praised the T-Bird’s “first-class” forward and rearward visibility, highlighting the car’s low nose, which afforded a good view of the road. They also noted the interior mirror’s “nite” (sic) setting, a novelty in 1961. However the rear three quarter pillars were found to create a large and “particularly noticeable” blind spot.
The test car was fitted with the optional power-operated seats, which offered fore-and-aft as well as vertical adjustments; the seat squab angle could be manually adjusted with a spanner. Testers observed that “drivers of varying stature can assume a comfortable position easily.” They did note however that less dishing of the steering wheel would be desirable, which they suggested would afford a more forward position of the wheel. Nevertheless, they pronounced themselves satisfied with the wheel’s “very comfortable angle” and “moderate size” (16 inches in diameter).
Driving the big Ford,’s testers observed that the steering was “positive, precise and instantly responsive”, finding “it was possible to turn the wheels from lock to lock with the car stationary by holding the wheel rim between finger and thumb. This gives the Thunderbird manoeuvrability when parking which can only described as uncanny for a car of its size and weight.”
While most contemporary US cars laboured with low-geared steering set-ups, the more driver-focused T-Bird’s system luxuriated with a mere three turns between locks, which may have taken Autocar’s roadtest team a little by surprise, as they found “a tendency to steer a little too much when taking a corner, but after a mile or two one becomes accustomed to it.”
As they explored the further reaches of the car’s capabilities, the test team were even more effusive, noting, “steering such as this gives this large car extraordinary agility, and its roadholding qualities were found to be of the same high standard. In spite of its considerable weight, the driver need have no hesitation in taking the car really fast through corners, as under these conditions it is most stable and the desired line can be held with certainty.”
Displaying neither understeer nor oversteer characteristics, the Thunderbird was described as “nearly neutral as is possible”. During hard cornering, some body roll was encountered “although this is well controlled and tyre squeal only occurs under these conditions.” However, tyre adhesion under wet conditions was criticised.
In spite of the soft springing familiar with US car designs, Autocar found only an occasional occurrence of low frequency ‘float’, the damping being well controlled. They went on to praise its “very level ride, with no pitching and very little nose dip when braking hard.”
This was due to Ford’s anti-dive geometry where the upper wishbone pivots were angled to counteract a tendency to pitch under sharp braking. Overall, while testers found the suspension’s ability to filter out road excited rugrations to be of a high order, on very rough surfaces high frequency vibrations and rattles made their presence felt in the area around the scuttle and steering column.
Autocar was highly impressed by the T-Bird’s power unit, telling readers, “it is true to say that at no point in the entire engine speed range could any vibration be noticed, even when idling.” Testers also found it to be “extremely quiet, with a well-silenced air intake and discreet exhaust.”
The pushrod-operated V8 engine had been upgraded to a capacity of 6392 cc, developing 300 bhp (gross) at 4,600 rpm. Maximum torque was a claimed 427 lb ft at 2,800 rpm. This, Autocar stated, provided “quite exceptional acceleration, the standing quarter mile being covered in 16.8 sec.” With a slightly favourable wind, (the weather for the test being dry and overcast), a maximum speed of 120 mph was recorded.
Drive was through a three-speed epicyclic ‘Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission, described as having a water cooled torque converter, with vacuum control to aid smoothness, which testers confirmed, informing readers, “upward changes take place so smoothly during normal driving that it is sometimes impossible to detect them.” However, some harshness could be detected when engaging either drive or reverse with a fast idle speed and a cold engine, when the transmission would engage with a jolt.
A powerful and heavy car such as this could not be expected to return parsimonious fuel consumption figures, so an overall figure of 13.7 mpg over the 1,087 miles of the test period elicited little unfavourable comment. More gentle driving saw this improve to 15 mpg, but in heavy traffic, this could slump to 12 mpg.
The Thunderbird’s prime weakness appears to have lain in its braking capabilities. Fitted with 11 inch diameter drums all round with vacuum servo assistance, they were found to be “fierce, particularly when cold, and require a very light touch under these conditions.” Worse was the fact that “in the wet, it is possible to lock all four wheels easily,” coupled to their tendency to fade with repeated use from high speeds. Testers noted some brake squeal and the fact that the car slewed to one side under hard braking. The parking brake was also found to be “of little value.”
The two-speed wipers “cleared heavy rain effectively” but were found to leave a large uncleared ‘vee’ in the centre of the windscreen, Autocar suggesting that “one solution would appear to be a third wiper blade.” The Thunderbird’s four headlamps were found to be “just adequate for the car’s performance.” The standard-fit radio was commended for its reproduction quality, its easy to reach controls and the lack of a warm-up delay.
Storage space inside the car however was deemed to be minimal, with only a shallow, lockable container between the front seats. Autocar observed that any objects left on the rear parcel shelf slid onto the rears seats under braking.
While we have become habituated to the received wisdom that all American cars of this period were ‘land yachts’ of dubious provenance and treacherous road behaviour, what is striking is just how impressed Autocar’s road test team were by the Jet-Bird. “More important than the high performance of the Thunderbird is the completely effortless manner in which it is achieved. Mechanical refinement of engine, transmission and steering would be very hard to improve upon, the power-assisted steering setting an example to other manufacturers,” was how they concluded the test report.
Apart from the braking performance, which was a known and rather inexcusable béte noir of all American cars of this era, what we are presented with is a car that was noticeably superior to virtually all contemporary British offerings and to most of their continental rivals. It’s easy to envisage how cars like this, the above mentioned Continental and Buick’s Riviera led many to believe the US carmakers would maintain a stranglehold on the global luxury car market.
How they ultimately lost their lead is neither a matter of debate, nor a matter for this article. But what the Autocar test serves to illustrate is that (a) the notion of these cars being dynamically inept is untrue and (b) that the UK press did not entirely further that notion.