The Last Thunderbird

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

All of us know — or have heard about — the apparently healthy, successful person who one day just drops dead unexpectedly.

In a way, this is the story of the Thunderbird. For decades, it was one of Ford’s most successful models and the name remains an automotive icon.

But the car’s as dead as Rudolph Valentino.

The last one rolled off the line a decade ago (2005) after a brief, not-quite-three-year resurrection following a prior ten-year absence from Ford’s model lineup.

Unlike most four-wheeled flops, however, the last T-Bird was neither ugly nor horribly built. Most people who saw it liked it. At the 2001 New York Auto Show, the assembled automotive press — not an easy bunch — clapped for it. Motor Trend magazine named it “car of the year.” It was a very close contender for North American Car of the Year, a major accolade.

The problem — for Ford — was that not many people bought it.

This happens occasionally.

But, why?

Well, for openers, the last T-Bird was probably too pricey. Because despite its glamor, it was still a Ford.

A very expensive Ford.

The first year for this abbreviated final generation (the eleventh, if you’re counting) carried a base price of $34,695. That was in 2001. How much is that in 2015 money? Just under $46,000 according to the fed’s CPI inflation calculator. Not many Fords cost close to $50k — to start — back in 2001. You could buy a new Mustang GT that year for just under $25k or about $33,000 in today’s federal funny money.

Ford management probably gave some thought to selling the T-Bird through Lincoln dealerships (as had been done in the past with some success; see, for instance, the de Tomaso Pantera). This might have given the Thunderbird the luxury car patina it so badly needed.

But then, it had always been the Ford Thunderbird.

And after all, GM had no problem selling the Corvette — an exotic (and exotically priced) high-performance sports car through its Chevy stores, the fiberglass-bodied 180-MPH supercar sharing floor space with proletarian Malibus and Cavaliers.

Besides which, Lincoln Thunderbird just sounded awkward.

Of course, they could have just called it Thunderbird, left it at that — and sold it through Lincoln stores.

But they chose instead to sell this not-established car — which had been absent from the marketplace for more than a decade and which had no existing buyer base at all (unlike Corvette) — as a Ford with a Lincoln-esque MSRP.

Meanwhile, you could buy a new Lincoln — or even a Jaguar — for about the same money.

Iceberg ahead. Better do something now.

Ford did nothing.

The (briefly) resurrected T-Bird might have shared a platform with Lincolns (LS) and mechanical components (its engine) with Jaguar (S-Type) but increasingly status-minded buyers of the early 21st century wanted — demanded — the premium car badge, the cachet and the dealer experience to go with the premium car MSRP.

While people back in the ’60s and ’70s would pay big bucks for a T-Bird — even if was a Ford — by ’01 that willingness had mostly evaporated. The car’s high price and low status proved to be its Achilles Heel.

Well, one of them.

It didn’t help that the T-Bird, despite its nicely executed “retro-futuristic” bodywork, very obviously shared its interior with the same-year Lincoln LS. The dashboard/gauge package was virtually identical. The steering wheel looked like it could be interchanged from car to car — and probably could have been.

To be fair to Ford, this was (and still is) a common stylistic weakness affecting all modern cars. Or rather, cars built in the Air Bag Era. There is only so much designers can do when they’re required to plant a big plastic blob — the air bag — in the middle of the steering wheel. The freedom to create new/unique horn buttons and trim rims and spokes that once upon a time allowed designers to highly individualize the appearance of a car’s cockpit via the steering wheel has been a dead letter since the federal government decided to force-feed air bags to the public via mandate beginning in the mid-’90s.

Also problematic was the two-seater layout, which greatly reduced the car’s everyday viability. High-performance two-seat roadsters like Corvette (and the Mazda Miata, BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster and so on) can get away with being impractical because they’re high-performance roadsters… or at least, plausible as sports cars.

The last T-bird was neither.

It was heavy, only moderately quick — and absolutely not made to corner. Which was actually in keeping with the Thunderbird’s roots.

Problem was, those roots were graying.

T-Birds, historically, were large personal luxury coupes — with a second row of seats. That’s what was hot in the ’60s and ’70s.

Not so much since then.

Though the very first Thunderbird (1955) only had two seats, it was not marketed as a Ford alternative to the Chevy Corvette. Subsequent T-Birds (1958-up) had four seats — and were designed to be large, comfortable, luxurious, posh-riding cars. The Last T-bird was a small car — relative to prior T-Birds and generally.

It was only 186.3 inches long overall and rode on a 107.2 inch wheelbase. About the same size/wheelbase as a new (2015) Mustang (107.1 inch wheelbase; 188.3 inches long overall). But unlike a Mustang, the ’02 T-Bird wasn’t especially sporty — a major mismatch.

The ’58 Thunderbird, in contrast, stretched regally 205.4 inches from bumper to bumper and rode on a 112-inch wheelbase. With each successive — and successful — generation, the car got bigger and plusher. Overall length peaked at 225 inches in 1972, with the wheelbase elongating to 120.4 inches.

But it was more than that, of course.

Timing was arguably the fatal problem for the short-lived final-generation T-Bird.

Or rather, the car was out of time with the times.

Imagine Don Draper from Mad Men — cigarette, Vitalis hair gel, Sinatra hat — teleported into a modern metrosexual corporate boardroom. He’s still as cool as a Christmas cucumber, but also as out of place — as out of time — as the T-bird was in 2001.

Historically, the Thunderbird was a cruiser built for a slower-paced world, long since vanished.

It’s one thing to take your restored ’62 convertible to the Veteran’s Day parade. Everyone will smile; you’ll have a great time.

Fast forward 50 years. Most new car buyers are not interested in cruisers. By the time of the eleventh generationT-Bird’s introduction in 2001, big two seater cruisers were extinct as a class. There were retro-themed modern muscle cars, sports cars and sport sedans.

But cruisers had become synonymous with oldsters; the marketing people had seen to that. Everyone wanted to be the next BMW — or at least, competitive with what BMW was offering. By the early 2000s, GM’s Cadillac division was trying to reinvent itself — to shed the Old Man Stink it had acquired oh-so-gradually in the post Mad Men era of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. Buick was on death’s door — seemingly destined to follow Pontiac (RIP) to the glue factory.

Ford’s Lincoln division was in trouble, too — and has yet to recover.

It was at this perfectly not-propitious moment that Ford decided to bring back a traditionally themed Thunderbird. One that looked — and drove — a lot like the classic T-Birds of the early-mid 1960s.

The Jaguar-sourced DOHC V8 (downsized slightly to 3.9 liters for the T-Bird) sounded great and whisked the car along gracefully — just not forcefully. The last T-bird did not have bucket seats — and the suspension (like the engine) was set up for graceful just moseying along, enjoying the scenery — with the top down, your left elbow propped on top of the door and your right hand steering the course, ideally with a Benson & Hedges cigarette in your mouth and Sinatra on the stereo.

But by 2001, most people drove with the windows up, the AC cranked — and rap on the radio. Sinatra was history. And so was most people’s interest in graceful moseying along.

Ford should have known better.

The last successful Thunderbird was the ’83-’88 ninth generation, which (along with the same era Mustang GT and 5.0 LX) almost singlehandedly revived Ford from the coma of the late 1970s. It was a sleek, graceful — and modern — car. A luxury-performance car. The wheelbase had been trimmed back to 104.2 inches and you could order (beginning in 1983) a turbocharged four-cylinder engine (a first-ever for Thunderbird) paired with a five-speed manual transmission and sport-tuned chassis. The market loved this car — and (unlike the last T-Bird) bought this car.

Rather than try to revivify the ’55 Thunderbird — two seats, Mad Men vibe — a Thunderbird more like the ’83 Turbo Coupe was what the times called for. On the order of 122,999 1983 Thunderbirds were sold — more than twice in one year the total number of eleventh-generation T-Birds sold during the entire three-year production run.

Ford did try — sort of — to make up for its marketing/positioning mistake by muscling up the T-Bird in 2003 with a 280 hp version of the Jaguar-sourced V8, and by adding “SelectShift” driver-controlled gear changes to the standard five-speed automatic transmission. An SVT (Special Vehicles Team, Ford’s in-house high-performance/tuner car department, which put together the SVT Cobra Mustang and SVT Lightning pick-up) high-performance version of the Thunderbird was reportedly seriously considered, too. It might have featured a supercharged engine (like the Cobra Mustang and Lightning F-150) and other enhancements.

But it would have been like putting a trailer hitch on a Porsche 911.

The fact was that not much could be done to make the car a better fit for the times without completely re-doing the car.

To its credit, Ford did not let the T-Bird languish. Once it was clear (after the very first year) that sales were never going to pick up, the decision was announced that production at the Wixom assembly line would cease after the end of the ’05 model year.

The last one saw daylight on July 1, 2005 — only halfway through the model year.

Unlike the Edsel, the Pacer, the Aztek and others automotive atrocities that deserved their fate, the Last Thunderbird is a car that just got dealt a bad hand. Had it been introduced in 1968, it almost certainly would have been a winner — and considered a classic today.

T-Bird Trivia:

* A very limited run of just 200 Neiman Marcus Edition Thunderbirds was offered during the inaugural (2002) model year. These all stickered for just over $40,000 in ’01 dollars (about $53k in 2015 dollars) and harkened back to the His and Hers matched pair Thunderbirds offered by Ford and Neiman Marcus back in 1971.

* Ford projected annual sales of 25,000 Thunderbirds — and this goal was actually exceeded during the car’s first year (2002) with approximately 31,368 cars sold. However, the 25,000 per year target was never met after the ’02 model year and by the ’04 model year, had plummeted to 11,998. The final — abbreviated — model year (2005) petered out quietly with just under 10,000 cars delivered.

* Total production of the eleventh generation Thunderbird was 68,098 units.

* In 2003, Ford secured a place for the Thunderbird as co-star to Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Die Another Day. The movie car was painted teal (“Coral”) blue and a production version featuring the same palette was also available that year.

* In a 2009 retrospective piece, Road & Track magazine included the Last Thunderbird among its “10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History” roster.


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