’Bird is the word Martin Buckley admits a guilty secret: he loves the reborn Ford Thunderbird It pays homage to its ’50s predecessor, but the Ford Thunderbird for the new millennium has an appeal all of its own. Words Martin Buckley. Photography James Mann.
SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY? THUNDERBIRD: FORD’S RETRO MILLENNIAL
To admit to a liking for the 2002-’2005 Ford Thunderbird feels a bit like giving away a guilty secret. But here goes. Its appeal has grown on me by stealth; I didn’t take much notice of the 1999 show car by J Mays or even the late-2001 launch of the production version, where it garnered feverish interest and public approval, feeding an apparent appetite for a blue-collar glamour car that was going to come in at under $40k. There was later a flicker of recognition at a test day when Ford had one on hand to try. I can’t recall if I drove it, but it struck me as something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in.
I have only recently learned how short-lived these 11th-generation Thunderbirds were, and how the applause that greeted them 17 years ago has now turned, in some quarters, to sneers and derision. Car and Driver even voted it one of its most embarrassing ‘car of the year’ winners.
I don’t care about any of that. All I know is that they look great, my epiphany moment coming when I snatched a glimpse of an all-black example cruising through west London. With its wraparound ’screen and tapering rear wings it looked compact and elegant, clearly American yet somehow not out of place in a European environment. What had appeared feminine and sensual with its top down suddenly looked like a focused, masculine machine wearing a hardtop.
‘These cars suffer from being lumped in with all the other – mostly awful – “retro” designs, but I don’t think that’s justified’
Apart from the slightly undistinguished 17in wheels the shape is hard to fault, and it has aged well. With the black paint highlighting the chrome perfectly and the profile looking squat and slightly sinister among the Euroblobs, the vision caused me to remember the pictures I’d seen of Ian Fleming posing with his black 1956 Thunderbird. This was the car the Bond author treated himself to after selling the rights to Casino Royale, and which must have cut an amazing dash in post-war London.
I somehow feel that Fleming would have approved of the 2002 Thunderbird, too. It evokes the louche decadence of those earlier cars, without shoving it in your face with the knowing smirk that makes the likes of the BMW Mini and the retro VW Beetle so embarrassing. Wisely, its creators took the decision to make the 2002 Thunderbird only as a two seater, realising perhaps that the search for increased space inside was where the visual rot set in with the original cars: just compare the well-balanced look of the 1955, ’1956 and ’1957 cars with the guppy-mouthed obesity of the 1958-’1960 Thunderbirds.
Neither was there a real flaw in the plan to share the DEW98 platform with the Jaguar S-type and Lincoln LS when, historically, T-birds had always been a composite of various Ford parts anyway. Nearly two decades on, the legacy of that decision is a car that still drives impressively, if not absolutely outstandingly. Although 68,000 were built through to June 2005 at the Wixon plant in Michigan, this breed of Thunderbird is not easily found in Blighty; a black one we had our eye on was sold before we could drive it. So it was left to Dave Fox Cars in Staffordshire to send us off in this 2002 example.
Torch Red (one of the five somewhat lurid launch colours, echoing the 1955 car) with contrasting white porthole hardtop is not my preferred colour scheme, tending to make the car look like something Jonathan Ross would tool around in. But, as I say, these are rare things so we can’t be too choosy, and at £13,000 this one looks like decent value.
But surely being a left-hooker-only two-seater must limit the retro T-bird’s appeal? Fox, who bought this 75,000-mile Deluxe at an H&H sale and has now owned it twice, confirms that they are not easy cars to sell. The hardtop was a $2500 extra on the Deluxe (it is fitted to 88% of all 2002-’05 Thunderbirds) that weighs 89lb and needs two people to manhandle it off the car, plus a third helper to reattach it if you want to avoid scratching the paint. There are no Mercedes-style electronics to secure or unhook the roof: you unlatch it manually from the header rail with two long Allen keys. They are not particularly easy to use and slightly tarnish the smooth image of what is supposedly a sophisticated ‘personal luxury car’.
Then again, at $38,000 for the basic Deluxe version (less the chromed alloy wheels of the $40k Premium) this was a much cheaper ride than the Mercedes-Benz SL. For that you got a 250bhp, 3.9-litre quad-cam V8 (an America-only derivative of the AJ8, built in Ohio) matched to an overdriven five-speed automatic with, in the best T-bird tradition, no manual option. Post-’03 versions had 280bhp, thanks to variable valve timing, plus traction control and an improved ’box with manual override.
There were minor tweaks to trim, seats and instrumentation and some new road-wheel options for 2004, but the car remained mostly unchanged throughout production. The well sorted and widely used underpinnings served the model well, and they seem to suffer only from fairly minor electrical problems in middle age. This one has the perfectly acceptable early five-speed auto, which is generally well matched to the Thunderbird’s relaxed feel. It’s not slow, mind, or anything close to it: if anything, pulling away can be a little too crisp and it’s easy to chirp the tyres or lurch when you wanted to waft.
Generally, though, the Thunderbird launches itself with the effortless urge you expect from a modern 4-litre V8 and has all the performance you could seriously want from a car such as this; anybody who criticises the ’Bird on that basis is looking for a different sort of car altogether. With its slightly soft and floaty ride on all-round short-arm/long-arm double-wishbone suspension, it would be easy to dismiss this late Thunderbird as a flabby ‘cruiser’. The hacks did in period, for sure: it was perhaps unfortunate for the 2002 Thunderbird that it was born into the beginning of an era when European-style cornering poise was becoming the expected norm. Owning up in print that you liked ‘ride comfort’ was like admitting that you spent your weekends wearing loud plaid trousers on a golf course, trying to stop your combover from hinging in the breeze. Now, with the combover well under way, maybe I should invest in those loud slacks because I quite enjoyed the softness, a nod to the silky ride the Detroit heavyweights of 50 or 60 years ago prioritised over handling.
And this is not at the expense of body roll or wallowy, lurchy behaviour; the T-bird goes about its business tidily, has direct and linear steering and, best of all, a really good, liberally braced shell that rarely betrays the inherent structural compromises of an open-topped body.
Making it drive well seems to have been a fairly straightforward task for Ford; it was in the marketing and detail presentation of the Thunderbird where it seemed to lose its way. Ford dealers, mostly in the business of selling pick-ups and SUVs by the 2000s, were not in the habit of having to retail such an expensive car. Then, once inside the flagship Ford, you can’t help wondering how many potential Jaguar and Mercedes conquest sales were lost when the customers saw the Thunderbird’s bland, penny-pinching interior in the plastic.
Presumably it wasn’t quite so disappointing to behold in 2001. Today, surrounded by creaky, brittle materials, cheap switchgear and the ugly steering wheel, the Thunderbird’s tenuous spell is broken, the appeal of the car, for me, almost lost. Rather than cutting costs to make it more accessible, you can’t help thinking Ford would have been better off giving it a more special, bespoke interior and charging more for it.
Someone was working along the right lines with that stainless trim slashing across the fascia into the doors, but the dash itself could be out of any Hertz rental. The white-faced instruments look cheap, the two-tone seats are on the garish side and it lacks that hewn-from-solid feel that buyers of German cabriolets expect.
On the other hand everything works perfectly, including the powered soft-top with its glass rear window. And it is such pretty car, such a pleasing and friendly one to drive, that you start to think of more neutral colour schemes that could work.
Ford itself got the message and ditched the bright and breezy ’50s-style yellows, blues and reds for more grown-up and sober shades in 2003, with quieter, single-colour interiors. Here, possibly, lies the answer to the interior ‘problem’. Find a black one with a black cabin and you’d have a beautiful dual-purpose grand touring convertible that makes a rare and interesting alternative to those ubiquitous SLs.
As the final iteration of the Thunderbird line (at least up to now), the 11th-generation cars probably suffer from being lumped in with all those other – mostly awful – ‘retro’ designs that appeared around the same time. But I don’t think that criticism is justified; for me, this is a car that evokes the best elements of its predecessors but still has a fresh, clean feel of its own.
Where even the likes of BMW have struggled (I never thought the BMW Z8 E52 was a pretty sight), Ford has successfully repeated this difficult visual manoeuvre with the latest Mustangs. It’s easily the best-looking Thunderbird since the mid-’50s original (that wouldn’t be difficult) – and maybe even the best-looking of all.
Thanks to Dave Fox Cars (davefoxcars.co.uk)
Clockwise from main: the rather sudden two-tone leather and a flash of metallic trim struggle to lift the bland cabin; wing vent is a nod to the 1955 original; shape is unashamedly retro, but it has real personality.
Clockwise from main: shape is enhanced with classic-style porthole hardtop fitted; AJ8 eagerly delivers its 250bhp; soft ride is matched to tidy handling and decent body control; is this the final time we’ll see this badge?
EVOLUTION OF AMERICA’S BEST-LOVED ’BIRD
1955-’1957 Ford’s answer to the Corvette was a two-seat ‘personal luxury car’ powered by a 4.8-litre V8 with three-speed manual or Ford-O-Matic auto. For ’1956 came a porthole hardtop and Continental spare, plus a 5.1-litre V8 option, standard for ’1957 with a new grille.
1958-’1960 The decision to build a bigger, four-seat T-bird was spot-on commercially because sales rocketed. The unibody ‘Square Bird’ weighed 1000Ib more and came as a coupe or a power-top convertible, with 5.8 litres or a 7-litre option for ’1959. Yearly grille and trim tweaks; six tail-lights for ’1960.
1961-’1963 A leaner-looking car with a 6.4-litre V8 as standard or M-code with triple Holleys and 340bhp. Auto only; optional swing-away wheel and Sports Roadster pack with tonneau over rear seats and Kelsey-Hayes wires. Coupe, convertible or Landau top, plus wood-grain interior for ’1963.
1964-’1966 Same proportions as before, but new squarer styling plus sequential tail-lights. Front discs standard for ’1965, while ’1966 is the first year of the 428cu in option but the last for the drop-top – until 2002. Optional Town Landau roof and Highway Pilot cruise control.
1967-’1971 New body-on-frame Thunderbird more aligned with Lincoln customers; two- or four-door styles – ‘suicide’ to rear – with hidden headlights, Landau bars. New front end for ’70 with protruding grille treatment. Fastback or pillarless Landau roof styles for 1970-’1971.
1972-’1976 Two-door only and one body style for the biggest-ever T-birds, with emissions-strangled 7- or 7.5-litre engines (212bhp) and general architecture shared with the MkIV Lincoln Continental. Opera windows and a new hood ornament arrived from 1973.
1977-’1979 These ‘slimmed-down’ (8in shorter, 900Ib lighter) Torino-based cars had 302 and 351 small-block V8s (134-144bhp) and a 6.6-litre option, in a centre-pillared body with hidden headlights, a formal grille and massive bumpers. New grille for 1979, plus optional Heritage pack and T-Top roof.
1980-’1982 Sharing the Fox platform with the Fairmont, this yet more square Thunderbird was almost 6in shorter and even in optional 5.1-litre V8 form only had 131bhp. These were the first of the breed to be offered with six-cylinder engines: a 3.8-litre V6 was standard for 1982.
1983-’1988 Still on the Fox platform, but more aerodynamic with similar proportions to the Mustang. Better fuel-injected engines helped revive its commercial fortunes, plus a turbo ‘four’ and five-speed manual enhanced driver appeal.
1989-’1997 A sober and slippery-looking coupe with all independent suspension for the first time on a T-bird, but no V8 option at first: just a choice of 210bhp supercharged or normally aspirated V6s. The 5-litre Windsor V8 was an option for ’1991, then modular 4.6 V8s through to ’1997.