The Ford Thunderbird launched for the 1955 model year with a fairly conventional lineup of engine options, but the Blue Oval also experimented with something quite unorthodox. The company once stuffed a gas turbine engine into a 1955 Thunderbird.
Ford archivist Ted Ryan posted a photo of the turbine-powered Thunderbird and testing notes on Twitter on Tuesday. They’re artifacts from a time when automakers considered turbines as a possible alternative to conventional piston engines.
The project began in August 1955 and the car was ready for testing in March 1956. The goal of the project was “to obtain experience with gas turbine engine packaging and operation,” according to the testing notes. Ford also sought to learn “the special advantages and problems associated with this type of powerplant.”
To that end, Ford invested $188,000 (in 1955 dollars) in the turbine-powered Thunderbird prototype. Sourced from aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the turbine was mounted where a conventional engine would normally go, but with a massive exhaust outlet just behind the front wheels.
1955 Ford Thunderbird gas turbine prototype
Results were mixed. Positives included good medium-speed acceleration, a good power-to-weight ratio, a lack of vibration, and low maintenance requirements. However, the notes also mentioned “serious acceleration lag in startup,” as well as problems with the front-mounted exhaust and “numerous other characteristics that represented problem areas.”
Needless to say, Ford never put a turbine-powered Thunderbird into production, but it wasn’t the only Detroit automaker experimenting with turbine power. The Chrysler Turbine Car appeared in 1962, and Chrysler even distributed 50 cars to customers for real-world evaluation.
Chrysler didn’t get much further than Ford, however, and most of the Turbine Cars were scrapped after their loans ended. Nine survive today, mostly in museums. Two are known to be in private hands, including one in Jay Leno’s collection.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbird continued on for decades in many different forms, but never a turbine engine. Production of the last, retro-styled T-Bird ended after the 2005 model year, though Ford has kept the trademark current to maintain control over the iconic nameplate.