For the 1955 Thunderbird model, Ford used a Boeing turbine to power its engine.
For the 1955 model year, the Ford Thunderbird had a pretty normal selection of engine options, but the Blue Oval also experimented with something a little out of the ordinary. A gas turbine engine was once installed in a 1955 Thunderbird by the company’s engineers.
On Tuesday, Ford historian Ted Ryan shared a photo of the turbine-powered Thunderbird, as well as testing notes, on his Twitter page. Those engines are relics from a time when automakers viewed turbines as a viable alternative to traditional piston engines.
Construction on the automobile began in August 1955, and it was completed and ready for testing in March of 1956. According to the testing notes, the project’s purpose was to “get hands-on experience with gas turbine engine packing and functioning.” Ford was also interested in learning about “the particular advantages and difficulties involved with this sort of powertrain.”
In order to do this, Ford invested $188,000 (develop 1955 money) in the prototype Thunderbird driven by a turbine. The turbine, which was sourced from aviation manufacturer Boeing, was installed where a regular engine would typically go, but with a large exhaust outlet located immediately behind the front wheels.
The 1955 Ford Thunderbird gas turbine prototype was built by General Motors.
The results were inconclusive. There were a number of advantages, including outstanding medium-speed acceleration, an excellent power-to-weight ratio, low vibration, and little maintenance requirements. However, the notes also cited “severe acceleration lag at beginning,” as well as “many additional characteristics that constituted trouble areas,” as well as “problems with the front-mounted exhaust.”
To be sure, Ford never put a turbine-powered Thunderbird into production, but it was hardly the only carmaker in the Detroit area that dabbled in turbine technology. It was 1962 when the Chrysler Turbine Car first arrived, and Chrysler even handed 50 vehicles to customers for field testing.
Chrysler, on the other hand, didn’t get much further than Ford, and the majority of the Turbine Cars were demolished once their loan terms expired. Nine of them are still alive today, most of them in museums. Two are known to be in private collections, one of which is in the possession of Jay Leno.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbird continued to be produced for decades in a variety of configurations, but never with a turbine engine. Production of the final, retro-styled T-Bird stopped with the 2005 model year, while Ford has kept the trademark active to preserve control over the famous brand. Ford has kept the trademark active to maintain control over the iconic nameplate.