In Native American mythology, the immortal Thunderbird was a depiction of immense strength and power and this pretty well summed up the Ford Thunderbird perfectly. It was big, powerful, and prestigious. Celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Munro, Bing Crosby, John Travolta, Elvis Presley and Opera Winfrey all drove Thunderbirds at one time or another.
It came on sale for the first time in 1954 at the January Detroit Motor Show. Right until the last minute it didn't have a name; suggestions included Thunderbolt, Eagle, and Apache; some dithering went on at first but it was necessary to get the car launched quickly to compete with Chevrolet's Corvette, which had been released the year before, and Thunderbird was a relatively last-minute decision. It proved to be a good one.
When it was first launched it wasn't described as a sports car at all, but as a personal luxury vehicle with more of an emphasis on comfort than speed. Nevertheless it was no slouch. With a 5114 cc V-8 engine generating 225 brake horsepower it was capable of 160 mph which for such a large car was very fast indeed at the time.
In the first three years Ford sold more than 53,000 units; and executives there felt that the next model should be more family friendly, and so a four seater was brought out in 1958. Sales doubled. They then realised that the car was selling mainly to males, so they advertised it as a female friendly vehicle and sales doubled again. After that new models were introduced every three years.
Some useful free publicity came along via the popular classic road film 'Thelma and Louise', in which the central characters, who were fugitives, launched theirs off a cliff with themselves in it, a sad waste of a good car; and a later model was driven by Bond girl Jinx Johnson in the James Bond film Die Another Day.
It took a long time for the Thunderbird to die however. Apart from a gap between 1997 and 2001 Thunderbird models stayed on sale for 50 years through eleven generations and more than 4.4 million of them were sold. However sales began to dip after the turn of the 21st Century and by 2005 the end was nigh. After 50 long years the Thunderbird, no longer immortal, was laid to rest.