What is it?

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Last week's What Is It? photo of a front fender fooled no one, but it did dredge up a page full of memories. Everyone knew it was the first generation of the Ford Thunderbird, the two-seater produced in 1955-57. But which year?

The lack of a fender vent should have been one giveaway that this was the 1955; the vent was added the next year and was kept for 1957. For other styling differences, see what our readers had to say in their responses.

Chosen randomly from the correct entries was the name of Mattie Woods, of Martinez, who said: "I didn't own one, but when I was a 22-year-old, a couple of the fellows owned them."

Ms. Woods wins a gift from the Marketing Department of The Augusta Chronicle. Other readers identifying the vehicle included:

AIKEN: Jim Cushman; Raymond Richards, who called it "the first of three 'real' Thunderbirds"; and Bob Hardt, who wrote: "The '55 thru '57 T-Birds are very similar, but a big difference in the photo you are showing: There is not a vent in the side of the '55 like the '56 and '57 have. The '55-'57 Thunderbirds were competing against the Corvette, and back in their day were outselling the Corvette. After the '57, they turned into a 4-seater and the battle to be America's sports car was won by the Corvette!"

AUGUSTA: Grady Boltin, who said he can recognize the older models from working in the auto parts business; Charles Durand, who has several vintage cars, including "a knockout '57 T-Bird." Carolyn Ogles, who wrote: "I was a senior in high school when this was introduced. ... (Recently) my husband, George, and I went to the Peach Festival in Trenton, S.C. In the parade there were classic cars. As the Thunderbird went by, I asked 'What year is that?' The woman replied that it was a 1956 and that she and her husband, who was driving, were the original owners! It was a cream-colored beauty, and they were a very handsome couple! I knew that in 1957 (for 1958) a back seat was added."

BLYTHE: Michael Wynne

CLARKS HILL, S.C.: Jerry Pittman

CUMMING, GA.: Chris Rhodes, who wrote: "The '55 was the inaugural year of the T-Bird. The '56 had a few exterior changes, but was the same basic (and beautiful) design. The biggest exterior change was the movement of the spare tire from inside the trunk in 1955 to an external vertical position behind the trunk in 1956. The change that would have been visible in this cropped photo is the cabin air intake which, on the '55, is on the cowl panel near the base of the windshield. For the '56 year model, Ford moved the intake to the fender, just behind the wheel opening, to get a larger volume of air into the cabin. So, with the absence of the side-mounted air intake in the photo, this model is a '55. Some responders may say this is a '57, but the lack of a chrome, script 'Thunderbird' nameplate above the wheel opening on the fender, coupled with the lack of the afore-mentioned air intake, would make that an incorrect guess."

EVANS: Jerry Paul; P.J. Rodgers, who wrote: "It's a 1955 Ford Thunderbird, one of my favorites"; Larry Heath, who wrote: "This was brought to market as a response to the Corvette and was a two-seater vehicle from 1955 to 1957. In 1958 it was enlarged and given a back seat. As such, it became more of a sport/luxury vehicle. The introduction in 2002 of a modern version of the 1955 model was not particularly successful and only lasted a short time"; and Wayne Wilke, who wrote: "In the photo, the '55 is distinguishable from the '56 and '57 in that it has no cowl air intake flap under the chrome 'hashmarks' on the front fender. On the '55, the cowl air intake was on the ledge below the windshield. Cowl air intakes disappeared from cars as air conditioning become commonplace. The '55 T-Bird was the most beautiful car that Ford ever made, and aqua was the color of choice. Many recall the brief but memorable role of that car (in white) in the film American Graffiti as Suzanne Sommers drove it on the boulevard past the guys who were in the Class of '62. She and her car were obviously way out of their league and unattainable but that did not stop them from chasing after her. She and her '55 T-Bird remained unattainable, kind of, as a lesson of life."

GROVETOWN: Gerald Wren and Sandra Sheppard

HEPHZIBAH: Billy McGrady ; and Jason Wright, who wrote: "You can tell it is a '55 Bird it has no fender vent, no wind wings and no sun visors. That pastel blue color was called Thunderbird Blue and was also available on the re-released 2002 version of the Thunderbird."

KEYSVILLE, GA.: Glenn Widner, who wrote: " '56 and '57 were first generations Thunderbirds also, but they had vents on the front fenders, the '55 did not. A 292-cubic-inch 'Y' block was the standard engine, and 12-volt wiring would not be in Fords till 1956. ... The 1955 Thunderbird actually outsold Corvette 23 to 1."

MCCORMICK, S.C.: Mary Lou Hoyt, who said a childhood friend's father used to buy one every year they came out.

MARTINEZ: Sheila Barfield, who said the 1955 was her brother's dream but he had to settle for the model-car kit version.; and Cheryl Cook, who said she loves seeing the old cars.

NORTH AUGUSTA: Tim Davis, who said that "a neighbor in Chicago had them when I was a kid"; Jack Stombeck, who wrote: "You can tell that is a 1955 because there are no 'fender ventilator doors' in the fender. The fender ventilator doors were on both the 1956 and 1957 Thunderbirds. I really enjoy seeing the classics featured in 'What Is It?' I hope that you will continue to feature some of these older cars in your future columns."

WATKINSVILLE, GA.: Joe Arp

WAYNESBORO, GA.: Terry McClennon, who said, "My brother had black '55 back in the day."

NO CITY LISTED: Danny Fulmer ; and Walker Mobley Jr., who wrote: "The light-green color of that year seemed to be a favorite. I remember these cars well, as I was 14 years old at the time and would have died to own one. Here I am at 69 years old and still can't afford one! Thanks for the memories."

The following readers knew the Thunderbird two-seater but missed the year only slightly:

1956 THUNDERBIRD: Don Glymph, of Appling; Woody Shuler, of North Augusta; Charles Lankster, of Augusta; and Pete Schiffbauer, of Evans.

1957 THUNDERBIRD: Ruth Husfelt, who said: "My husband believes this was his dream car but couldn't afford it."; Joe Bert, who called it an "ultra classic"; Tom Harton, of Washington, Ga.; Toby MacKendree, of Martinez; and Jack Williams, no city listed, who said he always wanted the T-Bird as a child.

NOW, LOOK AT THE 2009 vehicle shown. If you know the make and model call (706) 823-3419 or e-mail glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.

Tell us your name, telephone number and city. Please spell your name for us so we can include your response along with everybody else's. Feel free to tell us about your experiences with the car.

The deadline is noon Wednesday. A winner will be chosen randomly. Thank you.

A T-BIRD TALE OF WOE

"My first automobile was a 1955 Ford Thunderbird, black and white, with a white, rolled-and-pleated Naugahyde interior. The convertible had both a soft top and a removable fiberglass hardtop, which I used most of the time.

"The car was a graduation gift from my grandmother in 1958. ... I was the first person in generations of my family to complete high school. She wanted to show me that she was proud of my accomplishment.

"I first saw my Thunderbird in the school parking lot immediately after the graduation ceremony. It was a beautiful sight in the twilight, with the gleaming black paint reflecting the many colors of the evening sun. The car's sleek design and 212-horsepower, 292-cubic-inch V-8 engine made it the hit of the evening! Shortly after my grandmother handed me the keys, I learned just how much of a girl magnet an automobile can be -- especially if it is a Thunderbird.

"For two golden years after high school, I enjoyed the carefree life of a single guy with a hot car. Then the threat of the Vietnam War draft drove me into the U.S. Coast Guard. After boot camp, I was assigned to a Coast Guard cutter in Mobile, Ala. Meanwhile, I had married and had a child.

"One August weekend, I got a three-day pass to visit my wife and newborn daughter in Florida. I couldn't take the Thunderbird because it had developed a heavy oil leak and I didn't have the money to repair it. I left it parked at the Alabama State Docks.

"The problem with that was off-loading ships often required us to move our cars to make room for the cargo. I left the keys with a shipmate who promised to be responsible and to move the Thunderbird if necessary. I told the executive officer about the arrangement and left for the Greyhound station.

"My shipmate took the car on a joyride down U.S. Highway 90 toward New Orleans, driving at speeds of more than 100 mph. While fleeing the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the Thunderbird apparently lost its oil pressure, overheated and locked up. It rolled over into a drainage ditch, where cold water cracked the block. My shipmate was unharmed except for bruises and scratches, but my car was totaled.

"After I returned to the ship, a monthly payment was deducted from my shipmate's pay until I was paid in full (two years later).

"A half a century has passed since I drove that Thunderbird convertible along Chesapeake Bay beaches or through the Virginia mountains, but I still miss having that mechanical masterpiece in my driveway, beckoning me to the open road."

-- Jim Whitaker, Martinez

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