Sunday, April 7, 2013




My very first impressions of the original two-seat Thunderbird were formed fifty-one years ago at the annual Chicago Auto Show It was during the 1954 extravaganza that my father, Ted, and I witnessed one of the earliest public exhibitions of a car that became an American icon.

This historic moment was held Saturday, March 13 on the first floor of the International Amphitheatre, which stood at Halsted and 42'"' Street. A total of 55,000 paid the forty-five cent child and ninety cent adult admission on that opening day, and I clearly remember the mobs of humanity happily jammed into the two story exhibit hall.

When we reached the Thunderbird display on the ground level people were pressing against each other straining to get a glimpse of Ford's elegant two-passenger concept. Since we were standing close to the front and my father was six feet tall I had an unobstructed view of the demonstration while sitting on his shoulders. I recall bright lights illuminating a turquoise car, with attractive female models wearing pastel evening gowns and men in business suits milling alongside the vehicle. As the Thunderbird slowly revolved on the turntable a lady dressed in yellow gracefully pointed out various design details, like the recessed door handles wraparound windshield and easily removable fiberglass hardtop roof. Suddenly she made a swooping motion to illustrate the T-Bird's low silhouette. While sitting inside the car on the one-piece, foam-contoured seat she operated the safety glass roll up windows and telescopically adjustable steering wheel. Later I learned her name was Miss Reggie Dombeck Chicago's "Miss Photo Flash Of 1954.

Next, a spokesman popped the hood and swung it up to expose Ford Motor Company's new high-compression, low-friction, short stroke Y-block V-8 with overhead valves. He announced that this dream machine's engine had a four-barrel carburetor and 160 horsepower all connected to Fordomatic drive with a floor-mounted range selector. Basically this was the same power plant found in the 1954 Mercury.

At the conclusion of the Thunderbird performance my dad took me into the little Ford theatre that was part of the mam floor exhibit. Showing on the hour from 11 AM to 11 PM through March 21 was a CinemaScope film of Fords newest cars and trucks, including behind the scenes planning of the 1954 models. The Technicolor movie was shot entirely at Ford's test track and plant in Dearborn Ml. Admission was free but tickets had to be obtained either from a Ford dealership or at the Ford passenger car exhibit located on the second floor of the Amphitheatre.

Included in that upper level space were cutaway models of the l-block 6 and Y-block V-8 engines which operated in slow motion to reveal the action of every piston and valve. Another interactive Ford display allowed visitors to compare power versus manual steering, brakes, window lifts and seat action.

Two fiberglass sports cars also vied for the publics attention at the 1954 show the limited production Chevrolet Corvette and the Kaiser Damn by Kaiser-Willys Motors. But as I recall the enthusiastic approvals from the auto show crowd back then was that Thunderbird was really something special. Here was an American designed steel bodied sporty car that had personal luxury comfort and safety combined with high performance. When the 2002 T-Bird went into production it was deemed a 21st Century interpretation of the 1955-1957 classic. Yet none will have quite the same impact for me as the turquoise two-seat Thunderbird that debuted in the spring of 1954.

(Mitchel J Frumkin is the author ot six books and writes auto related columns for web sites and publications including "You Auto Know" in the Northwest Herald newspaper. He served as Director of R & D for 14 years at Publications International Ltd and was responsible for the development and photographic acquisition of more than 300 Consumer Guide books and issues of Collectible Automobile magazine. Mitch's original paintings and computer-enhanced photographs have appeared in many books, newspapers and magazines. Prior to entering the publishing field Mitch designed toys for companies including Playskool and Kenner and he holds several design patents )

This page first appeared in the CTCC "B-4" Program Book (2005). The event commemorated the 50lh Anniversary of the Ford Thunderbird, featuring an aerial photo of 50 classic T-Birds - parked in a "50" formation.

The truly spectacular salute to the original Thunderbird also included a one-half scale
color photo of the "first production 'Bird," - S/N 100005. The T-Bird, owned by the late
George Watts, has since sold for $660,000 (at a Barrett-Jackson auction!).

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