Why are so many motels named Thunderbird? Good question. I identified a dozen mid-century properties across the country- all called Thunderbird- that still operate today. But that doesn’t answer the question or get to the origins behind the name. So I dug a little deeper.
In 1955 the Ford motor company launched the Thunderbird, and it became commonly referred to as a T-Bird. They designed this car to compete with the Chevrolet Corvette. But instead of marketing it as a sports car, they created a new category called the personal luxury vehicle. The name and logo grew to become iconic. Even the Greaser gang in the 1978 hit movie Grease called themselves the T-Birds.
Meanwhile, in the 1950s and 1960s motor-travel was gaining in popularity. The result was a construction boom of motels. This now made sense. Looking at the three Thunderbird motels on my Sleeping Around in America Tour, The Thunderbird Inn in Savannah GA (c.1964), The Thunderbird Lodge in Redding CA (c.1959) and The Thunderbird Motel in Elko NV (c.1969), you can see how the original owners would have wanted to capitalize on the name and the lifestyle brand associated with the personal luxury car. The problem with this explanation is the first records I found of a lodging establishment using the Thunderbird name pre-date the introduction of the car model.
That hotel was in Las Vegas. The Thunderbird Hotel opened in 1948 and operated until 1976 when it changed names. At the time of opening, it was only the fourth casino on the strip. This is where Rosemary Clooney gave her first Las Vegas performance in 1951, and where Judy Garland’s final Vegas appearance occurred in 1965. The owners decorated the property in a Native American theme and even had a Navajo restaurant.
The Thunderbird itself is a mythical creature for some Native American cultures. They believe the bird brings thunder and shoots lightning. So for a Native American experience I would suggest checking into The Thunderbird Lodge in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona. It is the only lodging establishment on site and the Diné consider the Canyon de Chelly National Monument to be sacred. And while the lodge is newer, it sits at the same place as the original 1896 trading post.
So perhaps it was the popularity of the car that drove so many moteliers to name their property The Thunderbird. Or perhaps it was the symbolism of the iconography itself. Either way, it isn’t clear. But one thing I know is that in Grease 2, the T-Birds trade in their cars for motorcycles, so roadside Thunderbird motels bode well for motelorcyclists. Especially when thunder spells loom!