1955 Ford Thunderbird vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird: 50 Years of T-Birds

The only Ford models more well known than the Thunderbird are the F-150 and the Model-T. And while the Model-T has been off the market for quite a while, the F-150 name treks on. However, there was one attempt made to bring the Ford Thunderbird back into production after a 5-year hiatus. The eleventh generation Ford Thunderbird, inspired by the very first T-Bird built-in 1955, was built to capitalize on nostalgia and celebrate 50 years of the infamous nameplate (with varying degrees of success)

1955 Ford Thunderbird
1955 Ford Thunderbird | Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The 1955 Ford Thunderbird was an instant sales hit

Marketed as a “personal vehicle” rather than a sports car like the Chevy Corvette, the 1955 Ford Thunderbird was an immediate success. But it wasn’t supposed to be. Ford only planned for a 10,000 unit production run of their car, which paid homage to pre-war roadsters. But people kept on buying them, with over 16,000 sales in 1955 alone.

This was in part due to the car’s comfort, rather than flat-out power. There were plenty of available vehicles sportier than the original Ford Thunderbird. At its best, the 1955 T-Bird made 198 horsepower with a 292 cubic inch V8 paired with a Ford-O-Matic three-speed auto. With a three-speed manual, the T-Bird only made 193 horsepower.

And while there was an extremely limited, 217 car production run of the 1957 model that could hit 300 horsepower, the Thunderbird wasn’t exactly a screamer. It was a two-seater cruiser, designed for briskly enjoying the open road. The modern adaptation of the Ford Thunderbird, however, was built to be a powerhouse

The 2005 Ford Thunderbird was powerful, but not popular

2005 Ford Thunderbird
2005 Ford Thunderbird | Ford via Getty Images

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The eleventh generation Ford Thunderbird was released in 2002, but went through a few minor changes up until the final 2005 model year. The one thing that remained the same, however, was the 3.9-liter V8 that churned out 280 horsepower. For any of you math nerds, the 3950 cc engine equates to 241 cubic inches, which is less displacement than the 1955 Ford Thunderbird while extracting way more power. Amazing how far engine technology has come, isn’t it?

But unlike its predecessor, the 2005 Ford Thunderbird was not a sales success. The 2002 to 2005 run of the new T-Bird saw 68,908 sales, with half of those occurring in the first year alone. And while the first generation Thunderbird saw only 53,148 sales from 1955 to 1957, selling over 50k cars was a big deal in 1955. That’s less of a big deal in 2005.

The style of the car may have been well-received back then, but today it looks remarkably dated. And what’s more ironic is that the 1955 version excelled in certain areas the modern Thunderbird should’ve.

1955 Ford Thunderbird vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird: comparing by the numbers

1955 Ford Thunderbird (top) and 2005 Ford Thunderbird (bottom)
1955 Ford Thunderbird (top) and 2005 Ford Thunderbird (bottom) | National Motor Museum via Getty Images
Vehicle Model1955 Ford Thunderbird2005 Ford Thunderbird
Base Price When New$2,944$37,320
Base Price (After Inflation)$30,133$52,418
Engine292 cubic-inch V8241 cubic-inch V8
Horsepower193 to 195 horsepower280 horsepower
Torque280 to 286 lb-ft286 lb-ft
Transmissionthree-speed manual, three-speed Ford-O-Maticfive-speed automatic
Fuel Economy18 mpg17 mpg

When looking at the table above, the first thing I realize is that inflation rates are ridiculous. Sure, the 2005 Ford Thunderbird had modern technology and more power, but at $52,418 by today’s standards for the base model, that’s a lot of money. On top of that, you get the same torque ratings from 1955 as you would in 2005. Though perhaps that was done on purpose.

But what I find the most ironic is that the 1955 T-Bird’s gas mileage is better than the 2005 model. In an era where virtually no cars worried about aerodynamics or fuel economy, it slightly outpaces its eventual successor.

But there are plenty of issues with both cars that we ought to take into account before figuring out if either of these cars would suit your lifestyle.

1955 Ford Thunderbird vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird: problems

Front ends of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird (Top) vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird (Bottom)
Front ends of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird (Top) vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird (Bottom) | Rick Diamond/Scott Olson via Getty Images

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While the largest, 300 horsepower engine in the 1957 Ford Thunderbird was known to spring oil leaks according to Hagerty, the first-generation Thunderbird wasn’t a terribly unreliable car. In fact, it was simple. Though, the gearboxes were sometimes known to spring leaks, an issue that needs to be addressed right away if you find a T-Bird with that problem.

The 2005 Ford Thunderbird, on the other hand, is a bit of a grab bag when it comes to reliability. For starters, it’s a known issue that the new Thunderbird leaks oil. But more pressingly, the ignition coils often go bad. So while the 2005 Ford Thunderbird isn’t a total lemon, it’s not flawless either.

The biggest complaint of the 2005 Ford Thunderbird, however, is the interior. While the 1955 model year was touted for being fairly luxurious and comfortable at its price point, the 2005 sequel is as cheap as they come. Plastic everything, analog radios, and buttons reused from other Fords, all at the modern equivalent of $52,000.

What Ford created in 1955 was simple elegancy, whereas in 2005, the T-Bird was egregiously simple. But let’s say you’re locked in a room and have to drive away in one of these two cars: which is right?

1955 Ford Thunderbird vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird: which is right for you?

1955 Ford Thunderbird (top) vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird (bottom)
1955 Ford Thunderbird (top) vs. 2005 Ford Thunderbird (bottom) | National Motor Museum/Ford via Getty Images

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For better or worse, the inflation values of the cars I mentioned above don’t line up with what they sell for today. A 2005 Ford Thunderbird may have sold for $52,000 in today’s money, the highest-priced models rarely sell for over $25,000. In fact, most of these cars sell for $10,000 to $15,000, making them excellent used cars in today’s crazy market.

On the other hand, 1955 Ford Thunderbirds on the lower end of the spectrum cost around $30,000, with prices hitting well over $50,000 depending on condition. So the way I see it, these cars cater to two totally different audiences.

If you’re going to invest in a 1955 Ford T-Bird, you’re going to need to take care of it. It’s a classic car, a piece of history, and a beautiful vehicle. And while it may cause you more problems due to old age, the upkeep will be worth it.

A 2005 Ford Thunderbird, meanwhile, would make a fine vehicle for anyone looking for a cheap car. Sure, it’s a bit on the ugly side. But in today’s used car market, where some vehicles cost more used than new, it’s not all bad.

Chances are, you’re not going to buy either of these cars anytime soon, either because you can’t afford the 1955 T-Bird, or don’t want to stoop to the level of the 2005 version. But the similarities do run strong in these two models, even if they’re totally different embodiments of the same idea.

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