by James Kraus
The 1964-1966 Thunderbird has the rare (though not unique) distinction of appearing in not one, but two James Bond films. Its first appearance was in Goldfinger, the Bond film more remembered among automotive aficionados for the debut of 007’s Aston Martin DB5. Goldfinger marked another milestone as well; it was the first of the series to feature automobiles officially provided for promotional consideration.
Ford provided most of the major vehicles in the film, including the all-new 1964 Thunderbird, the first of a generation known to Ford cognoscenti as Jet Birds or Flair Birds.
The Goldfinger Thunderbird is driven by CIA operative Felix Leiter, and was equipped with a tracking system similar to the one fitted in Bond’s Aston Martin. Felix and his partner Johnny use the device to track Bond’s movements in the vicinity of Auric Goldfinger’s Kentucky stud farm.
The new-for-1964 Thunderbird was still based on the monocoque unit-body structure of the original four-seat Thunderbird of 1958. The platform was previously re-skinned for 1961; the new redesign would be its final bow. The new Jet Bird featured a similar frontal aspect to the previous model, but the sides were now deeply sculpted and the aft section featured a rear deck with a dropped centre section recalling the ’58-’60 models. At the rear, a new bumper incorporated large rectangular taillamp assemblies in lieu of the round lamps used on all previous Thunderbirds.
Like it’s predecessor, the new Bird’s powertrain consisted of Ford’s 390 cubic inch 6.4-litre FE V8 engine and 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic gearbox. The cockpit was a Jet Age fantasy environment with its Flight-Deck instrument panel incorporating floating-sphere instruments and aircraft thrust-control style levers to control minor functions.
The first-class section was furnished with thin-shell bucket seats while passengers in the rear cabin were treated to unique wrap-around curved banquettes evoking a cocktail lounge. The hardtop coupé version of the new Jet Bird was the first U.S. car to feature windows-up flow-through ventilation; the air extractors were located in a full-width grille beneath the rear window.
The Thunderbird Convertible used in the film was finished in Wimbledon White with Black interior and Black top and was equipped with optional bodyside pinstripes and white sidewall tyres.
The lack of a few popular options made the Thunderbird driven by CIA agent Leiter the sportiest looking of the new ‘Birds. Many a Thunderbird was saddled with superfluous Sports Side Trim and Rear Fender Shields, and even more were aesthetically challenged by an addition just beginning to afflict American cars and which would continue to do so for over a decade; the bright-metal door-edge guard.
Lacking the rear fender skirts, Felix’s Thunderbird enjoyed a more lithe, athletic look. It’s convertible top also lent a more sporting aura, as it dispensed with the more formal and rather momentous slab-sided C-pillars of the hardtop versions.
The public embraced the new Thunderbird and it set a sales record for 1964, a record that would stand for the remainder of the decade.
In 1965, the Jet Bird reprised its Bond role in Thunderball. This time it changes sides, providing personal transport for criminal mastermind Emilio Largo, SPECTRE Number Two. The Thunderbird was a new 1965 model, but was once again a convertible finished in Wimbledon White with Black interior and Black top. The new version featured front disc brakes, Ford’s new double-sided reversible keys and the incorporation at the rear of sequential three-segment turn indicators.
Due to the identical colouration and brief on-screen time, the car appeared to many theatregoers to be old Felix Leiter vehicle. An easy tipoff that it is indeed the new 1965 Bird is the Thunderbird logo visible over the front grille in lieu of the 1964 version’s block-letter Thunderbird script.
Aesthetically the 1965 refreshing was not a particularly good one, the grille and taillights both divided vertically into multiple segments resulting in a visual narrowing of the car, and the sculpted flanks were despoiled by a pair of chrome carbuncles added behind the front wheels in the form of stylized faux air vents. Luckily, these unfortunate breaches were all done away with on the 1966 model, the third and final iteration of the series.
The 1964-1966 Jet Bird was the last classic Jet Age Thunderbird. For 1967, the convertible was discontinued, the space-age interior accouterments were largely jettisoned, and the classic T-Bird low-grille frontal design was replaced by a large gaping opening more reminiscent of an bottom-dwelling aquatic creature than a traditional Thunderbird.