The 1959 Ford Thunderbird — it was hip to be square!

By: Bruce Kunz

October 1st, 2017

St. Louis Post Dispatch: Old Car Column


NOTE to birders: It IS hip to be square … especially if you’re a 1958, ’59 or ’60 T-Bird owner, for that’s the nickname pinned on these three model year “birds’” due to their relatively square lines.

The iconic Thunderbird roof line, with its broad “sail panel,” soon became a styling cue used by many other brands over the next decade.

Despite a great deal of “squawking” from ’55, ’56 and ’57 two-seat T-Bird fans, Ford’s decision to add room for two in the back proved to be a smart move, as the 1958 Thunderbird outsold the 1957 2-seater “baby bird” by a margin of nearly 2-1. By model year 1959, the new, larger Thunderbird was really rolling, as sales again nearly doubled the figure of the 1958 models and the momentum didn’t stop there, as 1960 sales rose to just over 91,000 units, four times that of the ‘57 model and nearly double the total of ’55, ’56 and ’57 T-Birds combined. The Thunderbird purists may have been flapping their wings over the four-place bird, but the public, in general, loved it.

This car had it all … a new, more compact size (at 113 inches, a five-inch smaller wheelbase than the full size Fords), great style and performance to go along with the rest of the package. The base engine was the Thunderbird 352 Special V-8 which had, as the name implied, 352 cubic inches of displacement (there you go Rich), or 5.8 liters for all the Generation-Xers and newer in the audience. It was fed by a 4-barrel carburetor and pumped out an even 300 ponies at 4,600 rpm. My Aunt Dorothy wasn’t wild about that thirsty V-8 and probably would have opted for a six cylinder engine if one had been offered. If she thought that was bad, it was a good thing her boys Mark, Terry and Tommy didn’t find out about the “J” option … the Thunderbird 430 Special V-8. It was huffing, you guessed it, 430 cubic inches (a whopping 7 liters) and produced an extra 50 horsepower for the extra $177 that was added to the sticker. It also squeezed a compression ratio of 10:1, which meant it insisted on premium, leaded (Ethyl) fuel … but those who were willing to throw caution and economy to the wind, didn’t give a rat’s rear end because, after all, premium was going for about 50 cents a gallon then … a small price to pay for being able to peel the tread off the 6.00×14”, four-ply Firestones in front of the kids at the neighborhood Chuck-A-Burger.

Options were many for the luxurious Ford Thunderbird and included such popular items as Dual-Range Cruise-O-Matic transmission ($242); power brakes ($43); power steering ($75); four-way power driver’s seat ($86); front and rear power windows ($102); push-button AM-only radio ($105); heater/defroster (no they weren’t standard, but were an $83 option); and for those who really wanted to splurge, Select Air Conditioning was available for $446. Lesser trim options included an outside rear view mirror for just five bucks; whitewall tires ($36); and to finish out the wheel package, full wheel covers for another 17 bucks. A contrasting two-tone paint scheme with the roof painted a second color would have run you $26.

The Thunderbird palette for ’59 included 19 colors — five more than standard Ford models.

Upcoming events

Join The FIN MAN and Co. for the “Hwy. 55 Halloween Cruise-In: Trunk or Treat Style” from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 7. Features include “Trunk or Treat” from 1 to 4 p.m.; face painting; attendance prizes; manager’s choice for best decorated car; a 50/50 drawing; and live ’50s-60s music by Todd Henry & the Flashbacks from 12 to 3 p.m.

The event will be at Hwy. 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries, 1403 W. Ferdon St., in Litchfield, Ill. For more information, call 217-324-3455 or 217-556-2213. And please tell them The FIN MAN told you about it right here in the OCC.

Thanks for reading the Old Car Column and Keep on Cruisin’!

Bruce Kunz, a.k.a. “THE FIN MAN,” is a member of the Society of Automobile Historians. If you love old cars and care about kids, visit