When Chevy came out with the Corvette in 1953 and upgraded the model in 1955, Ford responded with their own two seater in reply, and though the Thunderbird that was introduced was in response, Ford went for a different demographic than those who wanted an American version of European sports cars and roadsters.
The first generation T-Bird eschewed the European lines and stayed with the Detroit tailfinned styles of the 50's. It wasn't even marketed as a sports car, instead Ford called it "a personal luxury car". This was the car aimed not at the youth market, but the young lawyers and the young executives. With good but not fantastic power and upscale luxury options, this was the car that Ford made for Don Draper. It worked too, as the T-Bird outsold the Corvette by more than 20 to 1 in 1955 and outsold the Vette every year through the 50s and 60s
The 1955 T-Bird was powered by a 292 cubic inch (4.8L) V8 that produced a modest 155 hp with either a 3 speed manual or 2 speed automatic transmission. An optional 312 cubic inch (5.1L) engine added for the 1956 model making 215 hp. For 1957, options for the 312 included dual quad carburetors and even a supercharger which could boost the 312 up to 340 hp.
Although the muscular options were available, most of the Mad Men stayed with the sedate versions rather than challenge the young greasers at the stop lights. This was never the car of 50s youth, and even the Beach Boys reference to the T-Bird in "Fun Fun Fun" begins with "Well, she got her DADDY'S car and she cruised to the hamburger stand, now".
The two seater T-Bird lasted only three years, as Ford CEO Robert McNamara felt that the two seater limited the car's market and thought it would be a good idea to redesign it for 1958 as a larger four seater (as JFK & LBJ's Secretary of Defense he also thought getting involved in Vietnam was a good idea). Unlike his military ideas, the redesign of the T-Bird turned out very well as the Mad Men and Ford loved it and the Thunderbird's sales numbers rose 60 percent each year in the late 50s even in the teeth of the 58-60 recession.
The 3rd generation of the early sixties was redesigned with a bullet shape and a more powerful line of engines, but would follow the formula of the 2nd as would the 4th generation of the mid 60s most memorized as the 1966 convertible in Thelma & Louise .
The T-Bird would take a new direction in the late 60s as it became a mid sized luxury car, then fattened to the underpowered behemoth pimpmobiles of the 70s.
Like the rest of Detroit's models the early 80s T-Birds were downsized and squarish K-Car lookalikes, then redesigned in the mid 80s for with larger and sleaker lines, the smoothness that made it popular in NASCAR and made Bill Elliott one of the biggest winners of that era.
The 90s continued the sleek coupes and were equipped with a turbocharged 3.8 V6 or a 4.9 V8, then in 1994 it came with Ford's new modular 4.6L V8 still in production today. The 10th generation also came with independent rear suspension which for some reason Ford didn't see fit to put into the Mustang.
Ford finally dropped the Thunderbird line in 1997 but brought it back in 2002 with the "retro" look small two seater that attempted to lure the enthusiasts of the 1955 T-Bird. It never captured the enthusiasm of the 1st gen and Ford said "never mind" in 2005 and the T-Bird left the scene for good
T-Birds changed through the years, but to the gearheads and petrolheads of the world, the mind's eye will always picture Suzanne Somers cruising the boulevard and driving Richard Dreyfus to obsession in American Graffiti