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Two American icons duke it out to be the king of 1950s cool

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Driving’s resident old dude Brian Harper and classic car fiend Clayton Seams took a road trip to Michigan and found themselves behind the wheels of a handful of gorgeous, near-perfect classic cars. Here’s what they have to say about two 1950s icons – a 1956 Ford Thunderbird and a 1959 Chevrolet Corvette.

Brian Harper: Hey, Clayton, where were you in 1962? Well, I was in the first grade and you were about 30 years away from being born! But that was the tagline for the 1973 movie American Graffiti, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age flick by a young George Lucas. Set in Modesto, California in late summer 1962, it centred around the themes of rock n’ roll and — more germane to this fabulous comparison of two Detroit icons of the era — cruising.

Can you think of any car that better defines the 1950s than Ford’s sleek and sexy first-generation Thunderbird? Not really a sports car — it was termed by FoMoCo to be more of a “personal” car — it was nonetheless a direct response to the Chevrolet Corvette, which first debuted in 1953. And though, as the story goes, the 1952 Ferrari 212 Barchetta was the inspiration — Henry Ford II had received one as a gift from Enzo Ferrari — the end result was something distinctly American, more luxurious and less sporty. A perfect cruiser.

Which brings me to the black beauty at hand, from the Hagerty Collection. It’s a rare stripper model with the 202-horsepower, 292-cubic-inch V8 engine, a three-speed manual transmission and soft-top delete – as well as radio, heater and air conditioning deletes. If it’s a matter of what looks better rolling down Main Street, there’s no contest. But if we’re talking stoplight bragging rights, the Corvette is looking pretty good, isn’t it?

Clayton Seams: And look good it does! By 1959, the original 1953 Motorama dream car had sprouted quad headlights, contrasting side coves and a wheelbarrow full of chrome that was seemingly slathered on with a garden trowel. Nonetheless, the Harley Earl lines are unspoiled and the result is surprisingly classy. This Corvette is an elegant car and the glamour doesn’t stop under the surface, either. Though its chassis is an old-as-Moses ladder-frame design with a leaf sprung live rear axle, the motor up front was as modern as they came in 1959. Though a fuel-injected 283 cubic-inch V8 with 290 horsepower was available, the thumping motor in our car is a 270-horsepower version fed by dual four-barrel carbs. It sounds like American Graffiti turned up to 11.

By contrast, our tuxedo black Thunderbird makes just 202 horsepower, it’s worth noting that a hopped-up, 260-horsepower version was also available that year. Neither of these cars feel sluggish when you slam your foot down and both have that fantastic V8 soundtrack. And as you said earlier, the Thunderbird takes many styling cues from the contemporary Ferrari sports car. But lets consider twisting roads and see which one of these handles more like a 1950s Ferrari.

BH: Oh, it’s no comparison. I knew the T-Bird was a cruiser. But I was blown away by the Vette’s hustle. I couldn’t get the grin off my face as I ran through the four-speed’s gears. That was tempered by the realization how prehistoric both cars’ drum brakes felt. It’s one thing to crank up the speed and hear the roar, but getting stopping power took a big, long push on the brake pedal. My own first few cars were similarly fettled, but I had long since gotten used to ABS-aided disc brakes.

The bigger issue for me was comfort. Neither cars’ cabin is overly friendly to taller drivers, and it was a particular chore squeezing behind the oversized steering wheel of the Thunderbird. My splayed-leg posture would become painful if I had to spend more than an hour driving it at any one time. It was still tight in the Corvette, but not nearly as awkward.

CS: Ergonomics were a bit less scientific in the 1950s, I think. Both cars have comically large steering wheels, which give me the impression of holding a pizza pan around corners. That said, the Thunderbird is easily the more comfortable car to drive. While the Corvette has two bucket seats separated by a console, the Thunderbird has one spacious bench – with no seatbelts. I especially like the “engine turned” metal trim on the Thunderbird’s dashboard, along with the little V8 badge on the glove box. I find the Corvette interior a little too Buck Rogers.

The ride on both cars wasn’t nearly as soft and pillowy as I was expecting. In fact, they felt quite trim going around corners. But I have to concur with you, Brian – the Corvette is more satisfying to row through the gears. That’s because the Ford uses an antiquated three-speed manual with a non-synchronized first gear. Engaging first requires coming to a complete stop unless the operator wants to hear a nasty crunch. Once moving, however, the gear lever just slots happily into place and the gears are easy to find.

BH: Yeah, the Corvette’s interior designers must have apprenticed at Wurlitzer, though the red cabin brought back memories of the similar shade that graced my 1964 Chevy Biscayne. By comparison, the Thunderbird had a far classier setup. It’s funny; several older friends of mine warned me about how truck-like these cars would feel to drive. Plus, how crunchy the Vette’s four-speed would be. True, they are a product of their time and would clearly feel prehistoric to a great many. But I adapted very quickly to both and, once figuring out their peculiarities, found their rides and overall demeanor to be more than acceptable.

CS: Each car is well suited to the task it was designed to do. The Thunderbird is a moderately comfy sporty two-seat car built for cruising and looking good, while the Corvette is a rough-and-tumble sports car made to go fast and sound faster.

Despite the fact that these cars were produced concurrently for decades, they only directly competed for three short model years between 1955 and 1957. And the cars we’re driving today show that even then, their intentions differed. The Thunderbird would end up aging like Elvis – growing larger every year and eventually dying in obscurity. The Corvette, alternatively, stuck with the sports car formula for nearly 65 years and became an American icon.

In the end, if I had to choose one to drive from Michigan all the way back to Toronto, I’d take the Ford. But to throw around these lake side roads? Corvette all the way.

BH: Though T-Bird sales vastly out-numbered those of the Corvette, Ford came to the conclusion that the two-seat convertible formula was not sustainable. For the 1958 model year, the Bird became a rather unattractive — though ultimately more successful — four-seater. But, were it not for the Thunderbird, it’s doubtful GM would have continued with the Corvette – sales of the 1954 model were rather dismal. Having crosstown competition for 1955, plus GM finally dropping in the small-block V8, gave the roadster a new lease on life.

As for me, though I admire the Thunderbird’s looks more than the Vette’s overdone styling cues, but the Vette’s drivability and its superior powertrain impress me more. I love the car’s sound and fury. It was — and still is — America’s sports car.

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