The cars we loved.
Sometimes the last of anything can be a sad affair. For the Thunderbird, the occasion was a bittersweet bookend to a long run of cars that changed with the times, sometimes for the worse. Bitter, because Ford never gave it a chance and sweet, because the last T-Bird was closer in spirit to the original than any recent generation after the William Burnet “Early Birds” of 1955,’56 and ‘57. The eleventh and final generation of the Thunderbird had great looks thanks to J Mays neo-retro-futuristic design, but suffered from poor product placement and bad timing. The final Thunderbird was perhaps the most accomplished mechanically of all. It benefited greatly from the infusion of Ford’s Jaguar ownership, to the point that it could not be associated with Jaguar’s poor reliability circa pre-Ford ownership.
Although the Thunderbird was never a sports car (some years it almost was), it had been the top car in Ford’s line up for many years, almost like the Corvette is for Chevrolet. While the Corvette was of course a real sports car, the Thunderbird was just a sporty looking personal car. The first Thunderbirds were probably the purest examples of the formula that worked best for Ford. As times changes, seats were added and the dimensions grew, but the T-Bird was never anything more than comfortable, stylish personal car. Ford’s own term to sum up the Thunderbird was “relaxed sportiness”.
The Thunderbird had been on hiatus since the last one in 1997. That model’s big and unwieldy dimensions were popular at first, then went out with a whimper. The new car would go full circle and return to the Thunderbird’s two door convertible roots. After creating a stir on the auto show circuit in 2001, the first cars were sold in Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog in 2000. At $34,000 each, the 200 special edition cars sold out in a record time of two days. Eager Ford dealerships would get them soon after September 2001. Little had changed from the original concept, prompting pint up demand and anticipation. Motor Trend named it the Car of the Year in 2002. Other media outlets were equally impressed, giving it cautious praise.
Based on the DEW98 platform shared by the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type, the Thunderbird was in good company. A single engine was offered, a Jaguar built 3.9L DOHC V8 with 252 hp. mated to a 5 speed automatic transmission. Inside, the interior borrowed much from the Lincoln LS. That was not all bad, but the button down nature of the dash was more appropriate in Lincoln’s Euro leaning sports sedan than in a more sporty themed luxury car. The restraint was tasteful if not a bit bland.
Sales were good the first year the Thunderbird was offered. Some dealers, not used to selling $40,000 cars got used to the concept and even learned to rip off early adopters by jacking up prices as availability was limited at first. Fortunately for the dealers, the car sold itself, for a while at least. Improvements were made to the 2003 models that should have made them more popular. Horsepower was now up to 280 thanks the variable valve timing and those who wanted to pretend to shift on their own could opt for the SelectShift manual option. A new concept was introduced in 2003 using a 3.9-liter 390 hp supercharged engine. The concept stirred up a lot of excitement, but once again it did not translate to changes in the production car in the years that followed. Sales continued to dive.
The power increase addressed some of the few initial criticisms from the media, but the Thunderbird was good at what it did. Complaints about wind noise were unaddressed, but improvements to legibility of dash gauges were a welcomed change. At 3,800 lb, the Thunderbird with its fully independent suspension was a great highway cruiser. Despite the heft, it could still manage a low 6 second run to 60. Nevertheless sales took a steady dive going from 19,000 units sold in 2002 to a few thousand less each year afterward. Ford had intended to sell around 25,000 units a year at around $40k each of what it called a collector’s item. Ford’s other convertible; the Mustang continued to outsell the Thunderbird handily.
The hemorrhaging of sales continued unabated, mostly due to the high price and the lack of substantial changes beyond the 7 or so colors and wheel designs. Had Ford reduced the volume and upgraded the interior, the Thunderbird might have succeeded as a low volume specialty car. Market forces may have forced Ford’s hand, but had the company announced that the Thunderbird would be sold for a limited time, it might have boosted sales. The unfortunate marketplace placed value in big trucks more than cars. Typical Ford and GM buyers of the era who could afford it wanted big trucks and SUV’s and were willing to fork over $40 to 60k to get them. Realizing this trend Ford decided to hold out until 2005 when the Thunderbird would reach its 50th anniversary before cutting the cord.
A special edition to commemorate the anniversary was produced. The special cashmere metallic paint with matching removable hard top was distinctive as was the 16 spoke 17 inch wheels. Only 1500 of the $44k cars were built at the Wixom, Michigan Assembly plant. It’s unknown if the Thunderbird will ever come back. Now that Ford has renewed its investment in cars once again, there is a chance that the market could demand something more refined than a Mustang, yet smaller than a Taurus in a sporting two door format. Ford could use a new halo product besides yet another tarted up ponycar or elusive Ford GT.