Writing the Riviera Project has emphasized to me how much of the Riviera’s story is also that of other cars. Of course, the first car to discuss is the 1958 Ford Thunderbird, whose release and success surprised General Motors and directly prompted the Buick Riviera.
Ford began a feasibility study for a four-seat Thunderbird in October 1954. Designated as 195H, the new direction was approved on March 9, 1955. Aside from essentially creating a new market segment, the second-generation Thunderbird was also the first Ford Motor Company vehicle to use unibody construction. This technical innovation allowed it to be astoundingly low for a mass-market late 1950s four-seat coupe—at 52.5 inches, more than half a foot shorter than Ford’s Fairlane 500 Victoria coupe and only one and a half inches taller than Chevrolet’s Corvette sports car.
Rumors of a four-seat Thunderbird started showing up in the press in early June 1957. On Wednesday, October 16, 1957, Ford formally disclosed that the glamorous and acclaimed two-seat Thunderbird would be replaced by a four-seat version for the 1958 model year. The new Thunderbird was unveiled to a select group on New Year’s Eve 1958 at the prestigious Thunderbird Golf Club in Palm Springs, CA. The 1958 didn’t show up at dealers until late in January 1958, with an official introduction on February 13, 1958.
The first of the four-seat Thunderbirds sold very well, despite a down year for the industry overall and only nine months of production. Ford moved 35,762 hardtop coupes at a base price of $3,631, proving that there was considerable demand for a brand extension well above the previous four-seat top-of-the-line—the $2,435 Victoria hardtop coupe. Indeed, the Thunderbird cost more than many Mercurys in an era when there was usually strong price separation between brands—only the Park Lane models and the Montclair Voyager four-door station wagon were pricier.
At the time, the 1958 was lamented by automotive enthusiasts as a horrible corporate change from the lovely 1955-1957 two-seat convertible, but Ford’s management knew they had made the right decision—sales of the two-seater had peaked at 21,380. General Motors marketers and product planners must have noticed what was going on—and been aware that they had no competitive vehicle. The new Thunderbird was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1958, and it continued to sell well over the next few model years: 57,195 hardtop coupes in 1959 and 80,983 hardtop coupes in 1960.