Even though the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird weren't really the same sort of vehicle (or going after the same customers), in the late '50s the American public was delighted that they had two high-performance, two-seat sports cars to choose from.
From the start, however, the Corvette had the upper hand in performance. With a dedicated operation at General Motors and some of the brightest minds in racing, Chevrolet had quickly and successfully lured privateer racers across North America to their sports car. The Ford Thunderbird did not attract the same customers.
Praised more for its long-distance comfort and continental styling, the Thunderbird has always been more of a personal luxury conveyance than all-out sports car.
But what if, for a moment, Ford had entertained going head-to-head with its more nimble Bowtie-wearing competition? What if it specially prepared two machines for both extreme power and extreme weight reduction, in order to take the fight to Chevrolet?
In 1957, Ford did just that with a pair of Thunderbirds affectionately called 'Battlebirds'. For the eighth annual Daytona Speed Week, Ford decided to build on its Thunderbird stock car racers with machines that would be capable of the immense speed needed to put Chevrolet and its Corvette down the results listing.
The two cars were identical in every way…except for engine specification. The first car had a 6-litre Lincoln V8 engine that enjoyed every race preparation service known to Ford, giving enough punch for a 257 km/h (160 mph) in the flying mile…48 km/h (30 mph) faster than the second-in-its-class Corvette. Sadly, this car is believed to have been destroyed.
The second 'Battlebird' employed a stroked 312 Y-block V8 engine, for a total of 5.7-litres (348 cu. in.). Ford then added Hilborn fuel injectors and a McCullough Phase 1 supercharger, giving one run that, according to folklore, topped 320 km/h (200 mph). After the first pass (one in each direction was needed to secure a record), the car was retired with mechanical issues. It ran again without a supercharger, but was obviously not as quick.
Not only did the 'Battlebird' twins enjoy massive horsepower, but their bodies were lightened in most places (doors, hood, trunk, headlight rums, etc.) by aluminum and the top—save for a piece of Plexiglass for a windshield—was nowhere to be found. Ford opted to fit two items of inspiration from Jaguar: a finned rear wing and a Jaguar four-speed transmission…because no suitable unit could be found in the Ford parts bin.
The chassis was stiffened as well, and when the engine was being put into the car, Ford engineers had the ability to mount the motors 101 mm (4 in.) to the rear. Other period racing touches are evident, like the hand-drilled inner body panels to save weight and Halibrand magnesium alloy wheels—15-inch in the rear and 16-inch up front. The final novel touch were rear brakes that had their own electric cooling fans!
By the end of the 1957 racing season, Ford had withdrawn most support for factory racing programs due to pressure from the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association—before the two cars had a chance to compete at the 12 Hours of Sebring, as intended.
One 'Battlebird' still exists, and it's a priceless relic that proves Ford once gave its T-Birds enough thunder to leave even the Corvette in the dust.