This is another case like Tesla where a band with a car name wasn’t actually named after the car. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were inspired by a mythical bird in Native American culture that gets its name from the belief that the beating of its wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. Thunder was a sign the spirits were at war in the skies and an omen for victory for tribal wars. But we’re not ones to let truth get in the way of a good story, so here we go.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds began life as blues quartet in 1974 and kicked around the Austin, Texas music scene before being signed by Chrysalis Records in 1979. The original lineup included their frontman, singer and harpist Kim Wilson, guitar player, Jimmie Vaughan, Keith Ferguson on bass, and Mike Buck banging the drums. Their first albums, Girls Go Wild and What’s the Word, sold well enough to keep the label interested and were critically well received. They expanded their sound adding horns and keys to the lineup in the mid-’80s where they started to pick up steam.
Songs like their only Top 40 hit “Tuff Enuff” and “Powerful Stuff” got the band more airplay and notoriety and into rotation on MTV. Though never arena headliners themselves, they opened for some of the biggest acts of the era including the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The band has gone through a number of personnel changes over the years with Jimmie Vaughan leaving the band in 1990 to join his brother Stevie Ray before his tragic untimely death. Wilson still fronts the band and they are recording and touring, playing blues festivals in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands.
This probably won’t be the last time we write about the Ford Thunderbird as it’s been the subject of numerous songs by a wide variety of artists, most famously of course the Beach Boys in “Fun, Fun, Fun.” So we’ll focus this post on the first generation Thunderbird which Ford quickly put together in response the Chevrolet’s Corvette.
The 1955 Thunderbird hit showrooms in October of 1954 and quickly became a huge success. Not a sports car, per se, it was positioned as a personal luxury coupe capturing the zeitgeist of the mid-fifties perfectly. Selling more than 16,000 units in its first year, the T-bird crushed its nominal competitor the Corvette which sold only 700 cars that year. A sporty looking package with either a cloth convertible top or removable fiberglass top with a distinctive circular side window, the 1955 Thunderbird was everything other Fords weren’t, sleek, sophisticated, and sexy. That may be why George Lucas chose it as the vehicle in which Suzanne Somers made her first credited screen performance in American Graffiti. Underneath that beautiful exterior, however, the Thunderbird was a little more mundane.
Originally powered by Mercury’s 292 cubic inch Y-block V8 that made just 200 horsepower, the Thunderbird rode on a shortened Ford Fairlane chassis. The first generation T-bird had a long rear overhang which caused some handling issues that were exacerbated in 1956 when Ford moved the spare tire to the rear bumper, Continental style, to create more space in the trunk. The tinkering continued in 1957 with a new front end design and upgrading the power to a bigger 312 cubic inch 245 horsepower V8. Drivers seeking even more oomph could opt for a supercharged version that upped the output to 300 horsepower. 1957 marked the end of the first generation for the Thunderbird and big changes were planned for 1958 in hopes of making the car even more popular. But that’s, as they say, another story.