Almost as much as nature abhors a vacuum, the men who build America's cars deplore the idea of an unchallenged competitor. For five years Detroit has watched with mingled admiration and avarice the Ford Thunderbird's solo flight to a high plateau of profits and prestige. Now for the first time the 'Bird has hostile company. Two rivals have been launched to scrape beak and claw with the Thunderbird for the growing market in what Detroit likes to refer to as "personal" cars—cars that bespeak sport and luxury. The newest intruder is Buick's widemouthed, elegant Riviera (left), introduced just this week. Already in production but still novel to most potential buyers is Studebaker's Avanti (below), a wedgelike, Italianate auto mobile, the most powerful version of which is the world's fastest stock car.
Ford's cool response to these challengers, which it knew perfectly well were coming, is the 1963 Thunderbird (illustrated below), also introduced this week. Except for minor styling changes, the new Thunderbird looks exactly like the present model. Funds that might have been spent on drastic resculpturing have been invested instead in improvements invisible to the eye—e.g., noise deadeners, more powerful brakes, superior hydraulically operated windshield wipers.
The three cars differ from one another in more than looks alone, but they all have in common the "personal" qualities. They include a two-door hardtop body sharply different in appearance from each company's standard cars, four individual "bucket" seats, a "console" instrument area between the front seats and a maximum speed potential of more than 100 mph. Price tags are in the $4,500-to-$5,000 range.
When Ford invented the personal car in 1954—first year of the old two-seat Thunderbird—sports-car purists were pained. The four-seat 'Bird, introduced in 1958, scarcely mollified them. (Chevy's Corvette has remained a two-seater and is, of course, acknowledged to be Detroit's only real sports car.) The purists' supercilious attitude toward the Thunderbird has worried Ford all the way to the bank, as they say. It is precisely because Ford chose not to build a small, stiffly sprung sports car with hair-trigger steering for the buffs, but sought a wider appeal, that Thunderbird sales have reached a lucrative 80,000-a-year level and that the Riviera and Avanti now want in.
"We went pretty low on volume guesses for the first four-seater," said one of Ford's executives the other day, "and then found we had a ten-strike. Many buyers had to wait three to four months for their Thunderbirds in 1958."
"It is," wrote the contented owner of a more recent 'Bird, "the most waved-at car on the road today."
Besides the basic hardtop model, this year as in the past there is also a convertible 'Bird to be waved at, with a top that stows itself beneath the rear-deck lid (thus making the trunk useless for luggage, which somehow doesn't seem to bother the owners), and a curious roadster version in which a removable cowl covers the convertible's rear seats. Although five inches shorter than the standard Ford Galaxie, the 1963 'Bird is some 500 pounds heavier. Ford believes its customers want the feel of a heavy car and gives it to them. A 390-cubic-inch, 300-hp engine provides reasonably brisk acceleration and passing power; a hotter 340-hp engine is also available. The car is, of course, essentially a boulevard and turnpike machine; its sporting aspect lies mostly in the bucket seats and jaunty styling.
Identical to the Thunderbird in concept is the Riviera, which the Buick wordsmiths term a "personalized sports coupe." The decision to build it was made at General Motors' corporate summit. Bids were made on high not only by Buick but also by Pontiac and Oldsmobile. Volatile Buick, which had vaulted to third place in the industry with 1955 sales of 737,000 but had slumped to 245,000 in 1959, was the logical choice because of its now embarrassingly roomy plant capacity. A super pitch by super-spieler Roland Withers, sales manager, is said to have clinched the Riviera deal for Buick in the spring of 1961.
Of the three cars treated here the Riviera is the most conservative in appearance, which was to be expected of prudent, prosperous GM. It is also the longest—three inches longer than the Thunderbird. However, the car weighs substantially less—even less than standard Buicks—and its 401-cubic-inch engine has a higher-rated horsepower, 325. This combination results in a top speed reportedly between 115 and 125. The Riviera accelerates from 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds—very spirited traveling indeed.
The Avanti is something else again. It is a conspicuously daring gamble by President Sherwood Egbert to restore luster to Studebaker's faded name. As such, the Avanti is important not only for the profits it will make but also as an "emotion-mover" (in industry jargon) to attract customers into Studebaker showrooms.