Q: What was the biggest Ford engine ever put into a Ford Thunderbird? Also, what was your favorite Thunderbird? I saw your article on the 1958 Lincoln in the Gridley Herald here in California. Harold S., Gridley, Ca.
A: The first “big” engine to appear in the Thunderbird came in 1958 thanks to Ford’s involvement in NASCAR racing. Ford teamed up with Holman-Moody of NASCAR fame to produce a 430-inch racing V8 that was guaranteed to put out over 400 horsepower although it was rated at 350. The showroom floor Thunderbirds put out 350 horses in a “de-tuned” form, and this engine lasted as the biggest ever until 1972, when Ford put the 460-inch V8 in its now ‘luxury car” more so than “thunder” Thunderbird. Close to the 430 were the 428 and 429-inch engines, utilized in 1966 through 1971.
Following the gas embargo of the early 1970s and the following rationing and long gas lines, Thunderbirds went to somewhat smaller V8s and even 6-cylinder engines beginning in 1981. Then in 1983, a Turbo 4-cylinder joined the group as a new design hit the streets with much popularity.
Overall, Thunderbird went through a total of 11 model generations. Starting in 1955 as a two-seater and then growing into a four-seater with 1958’s second generation. A major style change occurred in its fifth generation, when the 1967 Ford T-Bird grew into a Lincoln-based luxury vehicle. This occurred mainly because the Mustang, introduced in 1964, took over as the “thunder” from Ford Motor Company thanks to cars like the Boss 302, and soon to come Cobra Jet 428s and Boss Hemi 429s.
The eighth (1980 to 1982) and ninth (1983 to 1988) generations found Thunderbird downsizing again, but in no way taking the place of the Mustang. The 1983 model was popular on the NASCAR tracks, and won numerous races thanks to Bill Elliott and the boys from Dawsonville, Georgia.
Following the 10th generation, (1989 to 1997) Ford took some time off and then re-introduced a new two-seater “real” Thunderbird in (2002 to 2005). These were the last Thunderbirds to this point, but I wouldn’t count out Ford coming back with another Thunderbird in the future.
If you would like some great information on the Holman-Moody race team and how everything happened with Ford’s involvement in big-time auto racing, check out the newly released second edition book “Holman-Moody, The Legendary Race Team” by Tom Cotter and Bill Pearce. This 256-page hardcover book is highly recommended and details a colorful story of two hard-working car guys (John Holman and Ralph Moody) who built one of the largest race teams in history.
My favorite Thunderbird is the 1962 Sports Roadster in red, please. Thanks for your letter.