Home » Why The Last-Generation Ford Thunderbird Is Deeply Underrated

Why The Last-Generation Ford Thunderbird Is Deeply Underrated

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There was a period in the 1990s through the 2000s when automakers and the buying public were obsessed with everything retro. The past was cool again, and car buyers had a buffet of vehicles to choose from the Plymouth Prowler to the S197 Ford Mustang. Many of these cars enjoyed strong sales, but one left out in the cold was the 2002 through 2005 Ford Thunderbird, the final Thunderbird. Comparatively few people bought the latest T-bird before Ford took it out back and shot it, never bringing the nameplate back again. It’s a shame, because not only did the last Thunderbird do retro right, but it would be a great design to have today when old is cool again.

Welcome to a new series we’re calling Car Redemption! We love cars here and we think some cars just aren’t getting their fair shake. So, each week, one Autopian writer will try to make the case to redeem a vehicle. You already saw Jason loving all over the Volkswagen New Beetle.

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The final Ford Thunderbird has a reputation among enthusiasts as a “Boomer” car and a machine that’s not sporty enough, too cheap feeling, and just a two-door rebody of the Lincoln LS that’s too big. It’s not hard to find someone complaining about the last T-birds and their interiors, price tag, and just two seats. The wild part is that a lot of this comes after the fact. When the 2002 Ford Thunderbird was new, the press showered it with praise. Motor Trend even crowned the Thunderbird as its 2002 Car of the Year.

While the 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird may not have been the hot rod some are expecting, I think it’s worth another look today.

Ford Thunderbird 2002 Images 2

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The final Ford Thunderbird was arguably one of the last of a dying class of vehicle. Decades ago, Americans used to be allured by the idea of a personal luxury coupe. These were vehicles that were small on seat count and huge on power and luxury. Forget the kids, this is a car for you and your spouse to hit the town in.

This story is important because the Ford Thunderbird was one of the vehicles to help popularize the segment in the first place. Even though Ford no longer sells the Thunderbird, it’s proud enough of the vehicle’s heritage to host a retrospective on its corporate site.

The Original Thunderbird Was Ford’s Rival For The Corvette

In Ford’s recounting of the tale, the company says it began a project to create what it called a “true Ford sports car” due to launch for the 1955 model year. This project launched in 1953 in response to the attention garnered by Chevrolet’s Corvette. America was falling in love with sports cars, and the Blue Oval wasn’t about to let General Motors have all of the fun.

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Henry Ford II pinched former General Motors executive Louis D. Crusoe for the new vehicle. Crusoe then joined forces with George Walker and Ford chief designer Frank Hershey to bring the vehicle into reality. As Ford writes, they had to follow strict demands:

The initial guidelines called for a two-passenger, canvas-topped open car that would make maximum use of standard production components. The design objectives included a weight of 2,525 pounds, an Interceptor V-8 engine, a balanced weight distribution, acceleration better than the competition, and a top speed of more than 100 miles per hour. The new Ford sports car also was to retain Ford product characteristics and identification to the extent necessary for a ready association with the standard production car.

While the production of the car was nearing completion, Ford had a problem—they lacked a name for their new sports car. 5,000 names for the vehicle were suggested including Beaver, Detroiter, Runabout, and Savile. These names were unimpressive to the team working on the sports car. Crusoe offered a $250 suit to anyone who could do better. Ford stylist Alden Giberson stepped up to the challenge and recommended the name that the team would go with—Thunderbird.

Even though the Thunderbird was developed in response to the Corvette, it would tack toward luxury rather than pure sports car thrill. This was made clear when the Thunderbird made its first public appearance on February 20, 1954 during Detroit’s first post-World War II auto show. Ford decided that instead of creating a direct competitor to the Corvette, its car would remain a powerful and sporty vehicle, but catering to the luxury buyer. It’s been debated about whether Ford invented the personal luxury car, but at any rate it was a niche back then.

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Ford understates just how popular the Thunderbird was. The company received 3,500 orders within the first ten days and the vehicle beat sales expectations in its first year by moving 16,155 units. Right out of the gate, the Thunderbird destroyed the Chevy Corvette on the sales floor four to one despite its more luxurious configuration and between $2,695 and $4,000 price.

The Thunderbird would meander through various configurations over the next 42 years. The second-generation Thunderbird got rear seats while the third-generation model looked like a bullet piercing through the air. In the late 1960s, the Thunderbird even became less personal and larger and more luxurious. Later generations of the Thunderbird would see the car’s size decrease, the design square up, and the technology get better.

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The original end of the road for the Thunderbird was the vehicle’s tenth generation, which launched in 1988 for the 1989 model year. The new Thunderbird, which departed from the Fox platform to the MN12 platform, was a technological tour de force. Vehicles riding on this platform, including the Thunderbird, Lincoln Mark VIII, and the Mercury Cougar all benefited from four-wheel independent suspension. If you wanted a rear-wheel-drive American car with an independent suspension, your choice was a Corvette or a Ford product. Thunderbirds were available with four wheel disc brakes, an anti-lock braking system, a limited-slip differential, and more.

Unfortunately, the tenth-generation car came in hundreds of pounds overweight and $900 per car more than desired. Even worse was the fact that the new car didn’t deliver the expected power, either. Sales weren’t that bad, with Ford moving 960,624 units between 1989 and 1997. However, Ford considered the Thunderbird a failure. The personal luxury car bowed out briefly while Ford worked on a new version.

Ford Goes Retro

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According to Automotive News, development on the 11th generation Thunderbird began before its predecessor even ended production.

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The new Thunderbird was created under the leadership of automotive legend Jack Telnack. His Ford portfolio, which spanned 39 years, is a stunning one and includes working on the designs for the Fiesta, the 1979 Mustang, the 1983 Thunderbird, the 1986 Taurus, the 1996 Ka, and the 1997 F-150. The 2002 Thunderbird would be one of the last projects he worked on and according to Automotive News, developing the Thunderbird took so long that it was his longest project. Telnack retired in 1997, years before the Thunderbird would even enter production.

According to Automotive News, Ford wanted the new Thunderbird to go back to its two-seat roots. Thus, the very first Thunderbirds became the clear inspiration for the design team. Automotive News described how the neo-Thunderbird came to be:

Telnack set up a competition among studios in Italy, England, Germany, California and Dearborn. He brought a 1955 and a 1957 Thunderbird to Dearborn, but before sketching began, he told each designer to wash the cars.

“I told them, I want you to rub your hands over the surfaces, understand the shapes, the forms that build the character lines, really get into it,” he said. “You learn more by washing a car than standing there and looking at it. It gets in your blood after a while.”

In the end, the Dearborn studio won, and the 1955 Thunderbird became the inspiration for the 2002 car. “If you look at the ’55 in side elevations, you will notice that the car starts high in the front, reaching the high point over the front wheel and then tapers to the rear. Guess what? So does the new one.”

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Telnack passed the torch to J Mays before leaving, and his team spent more time carving out the fine details. Mays’ team honed in on smaller parts such as interior fabrics, trim pieces, scoops, wheel openings, and the taillights. While the 1955 Thunderbird was the vehicle’s overall inspiration, the taillights are supposed to be a nod to the 1961 model.

Underneath the metal was the Ford DEW98 platform, which meant its siblings were the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-type. MotorWeek notes that while the Thunderbird looked fresh, it robbed the corporate parts bin for two-thirds of its parts. Still, that platform gave the T-bird a promising start:

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Ford Thunderbird 2002 Photos 5

The structural rigidity lost to its topless nostalgia, is somewhat compensated for by the addition of three sturdy X-braces mounted to the underside of the car. And, for the most part, they work well. Cowl shake is barely perceptible, and it’s not until you encounter really rough going that the T-Bird begins to feel a little squishy. Contributing to this T-Bird’s smooth and quiet ride is the generous 107.2 inch wheelbase, and a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution front to back.

Another is the careful tuning of the independent short-long arm suspension found at each corners. Ford engineers targeted what they call a “relaxed ride” by using coil springs with fairly low spring rates. But don’t confuse relaxed with sloppy.

Indeed, our drivers were pleasantly surprised when maneuvering the T-Bird through our low speed slalom course. Body roll for this softly sprung ride was minimal, and the side to side transitions were very controlled, giving the T-Bird a secure and stable feeling. The variable-assist, vehicle speed sensitive rack and pinion steering unit is precise and offers plenty of useful feedback. And the grippy and quiet 17-inch Michelin tires seem a perfect match. Still, in keeping with the original 55- Bird, this head-turning new roadster is more Sunset strip cruiser, rather than road course bruiser.

As Car and Driver notes, the Thunderbird was supposed to have a high-tech interior, but designers felt it didn’t mix. Instead, they went for a design with two-tone and real metal. And as a final nod to the original Thunderbirds, the new one would have a similarly bright color palette.

Ford Thunderbird 2002 Pictures 1

Power would come from a familiar source, a 3.9-liter Jaguar AJ35 V8, in this case tuned to 252 HP. Sadly, the only transmission option would be a five-speed auto.

Wide Acclaim, Few Sales

The Thunderbird was previewed by a concept (below) in 1999 before going on sale in 2001 for the 2002 model year. The vehicle launched to critical acclaim from journalists. Motor Trend went as far as to nominate the vehicle as its Car of the Year for 2002.

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Ford Thunderbird 2000 Wallpapers

Motor Trend noted that the car was practically a rockstar, getting compliments and looks wherever it went. This was enough to convince the publication that the Thunderbird was destined for fame:

We first got an inkling that Ford might be on to something big with this car six months before Car of the Year testing. We were driving and photographing a new ‘Bird for the road test that would be our July cover story and noted a remarkable phenomenon: The car had public appeal that obliterated all demographic distinctions. Silver-haired gents and their wives came up to us wherever we parked and raved about the car. “Ah, that’s the new Thunderbird. We heard Ford was gonna do that. We had a ’56. Great car. How’s this one drive? Will it really sell for under $40 grand?” And on and on. Clearly, Ford had a design that could tug at mature heartstrings.

But what surprised us was the kids. Tattooed, droopy-drawered teens would kick out of their skateboards to stop and rave. “Wow! Cool car. What is it?” With absolutely no historical context or nostalgic connection, these guys knew in their gut this was something special.

An automobile that gets a rise out of settled grandparents and rebellious grandkids must be on its way to stardom.

2002 Ford Thunderbird 2002 Ford
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Motor Trend continued its nomination by talking up how much it liked the Thunderbird’s excellent exterior and interior design. The publication practically gushed about the brushed aluminum interior trim and the exterior’s neo-retro shape. Motor Trend seemingly forced itself to complain about the Thunderbird’s wheels, which do seem a bit boring compared to the rest of the design. The publication also complained about the seats lacking support.

Multiple reviews noted that the Thunderbird wasn’t a hot rod, but reviewers still enjoyed it. Here’s Motor Trend again:

Stunning performance is not the Thunderbird’s main thing, though seven seconds flat 0-60 requires no apologies. The car stops and turns and sticks with a kind of mature, polished ease that we appreciated. We might prefer a little firmer damping and stiffer spring rates or some adjustability in the suspension, but we wouldn’t want to sacrifice much refinement to sharper handling. We would, however, be happy to see a more sporting bias in the transmission. “Any aggressive driving makes the transmission confused and slow to react,” said Chris Walton. While the ratios in the five-speed automatic accommodate the engine’s torque delivery just fine, the shift quality left us cool. Upshifts were often too syrupy, downshifts could be late and then abrupt, and the detents in the selector were too vague to invite much manual operation. The SelectShift manumatic used in the Lincoln would be a huge improvement.

But those reservations don’t appreciably detract from the Thunderbird’s Fun Factor. “A way-cool cruiser,” enthused Scott Mead. As a transportation device, any two-seat convertible has a natural air of goofing off about it, even when the rest of the car is this sophisticated. So don’t think the smooth ride and draft-free cockpit are cheating somehow. This thing is a kick to run around in.

2002 Ford Thunderbird 2002 Ford (1)
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A number of reviews ended on high marks. Motor Trend called the Thunderbird “the most significant new car for 2002” while Car and Driver said it was “the first Thunderbird in a while to deserve its name.” MotorWeek fell in love, saying “we think this T-Bird is the only way to fly.” Meanwhile, up north, Autos.ca said the Thunderbird “will add a considerable amount of prestige to the driveways of those lucky Canadian buyers.”

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I think you get my point. Journalists were in love with the Thunderbird. Yet, sales didn’t seem to reflect the praise. Ford sold a grand total of 68,098 Thunderbirds between 2002 and 2005 when it cut the cord. The best sales year was 2002 when 31,368 units went to new homes. Sales halved the next year and continued to fall until Ford had to stop the bleeding.

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Maybe it was the price. This luxury Ford stickered at $35,495 before options. That would be like selling a $62,946 coupe today. Ford set its competition with the Audi TT Quattro, the BMW Z3, the Porsche Boxster, and the Mercedes-Benz SLK.

In a retrospective, Doug DeMuro blamed the Thunderbird’s massive size, two seats, relatively tame power, high price, and plastic interior. To be fair to the Thunderbird, plastic was all over the auto industry in the early 2000s, even at the German brands.

Perhaps a better explanation comes from Jerry Flint of Forbes, who believed Ford didn’t try hard enough to sell it:

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Selling a $40,000 car through the Ford channel may have also hurt the Thunderbird, which was far more expensive than its high-volume predecessor. Ford dealers have been successful selling $35,000 to $45,000 trucks but have little experience selling automobiles in the near-luxury price range. If there was a marketing effort by Ford Motor, I wasn’t aware of it. Naturally, sales didn’t meet expectations.

Worth Another Look Today

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Whatever the reason, the public didn’t respond to the Thunderbird like it did with the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Volkswagen New Beetle. Still, time heals a lot of wounds and I think the final Thunderbird is worth a look today.

You don’t have to go too far to find an enthusiast who is upset that today’s cars look similar. You also don’t have to go too far to find someone who doesn’t like today’s design trend of giving cars pissed-off faces. I feel like the Thunderbird is nearly the perfect car for today’s jaded enthusiasts.

Here is a V8-powered convertible with a stunning design and rear-wheel-drive. It’s almost the anti-crossover. Sadly, you can’t get a manual transmission, but this is a vehicle I’d be willing to push that aside for. The Thunderbird is the kind of ride you hop into with your love before hitting up the Pacific Coast Highway. And who cares how much it cost new when today, you can get one with well under 100,000 miles for a bit above $10,000 and ones that have seen a lot more of America for under $10,000.

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I’ll go as far as to say that we should forget about all of these sharp creases and angry faces and go back to designs like the Thunderbird. Let’s get back to extravagant car design. I’m not saying that Ford should reintroduce the Thunderbird because there’s almost no way a personal luxury coupe would sell in today’s market. But, maybe it’s time to reel things back a little bit.

Either way, it’s a shame that the Thunderbird is seen as such a terrible car. Maybe it’s not the hottest thing from Germany, but the Thunderbird has its place. I think it’s time we gave it another chance, albeit way too many years too late.

(Images: Ford, unless otherwise noted.)

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Myk El
Myk El
16 days ago

One of my big automotive “what if” games is if Ford decided rather than to turn the T-Bird into a bigger lux coupe, it decided to focus on it being a sports car competitor to the Corvette (and the imports).

Cheery Swede
Cheery Swede
17 days ago

My grandmother traded in her Cadillac for this. She ordered a ’03 Thunderbird Premium trim in Desert Sky Blue, with White interior and White hard top. I never had the opportunity to drive it, but my brother did and he says it made him very popular when driving in town. Our aunt inherited it. Never saw it again.

Lally Singh
Lally Singh
17 days ago

Looks great except for the center dash. Peak Ford plastic jellybeans. Ewww…

EvilFacelessTurtle
EvilFacelessTurtle
17 days ago

Whatever the reason, the public didn’t respond to the Thunderbird like it did with the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Volkswagen New Beetle.

The reason is obvious; practicality. Not only were the PT and Beetle affordable, they could be daily drivers. The T-Bird was a 2nd car for the wealthy.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
17 days ago

I prefer the look of the 10th gen, TBH. If I wanted an early noughties retro V8 cruiser, I’d just get a Jag S type.

James Colangelo
James Colangelo
17 days ago

Has anyone ever done a manual swap on one of these?

Rippstik
Rippstik
18 days ago

My friends roast me for this, but I’ve always dreamed of making a racecar out of one of these. heck, it even has fog lights that could be taken out and replaced with intakes a la Thunderbolt. The front strut towers look a hair narrow for a Coyote engine, but maybe a supercharged modular V8, LS, or even the Supercharged Jag engine of the era would squeeze in there. Manual transmission, of course. Windshield and hoop removed and replaced with a tiny windshield. Cobra-style roll bar. Painted white inside and out.

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
18 days ago

I guess the target market was nostalgic Boomers? Otherwise I can’t imagine who was supposed to buy this car.
Plus that interior looks like every other cheap Ford of that era.

Cheery Swede
Cheery Swede
17 days ago
Reply to  Shinynugget

Nah, it was for their parents. My boomer parents were SAAB and Audi folk – T-birds were for the war generation.

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
16 days ago
Reply to  Cheery Swede

My dad was a dedicated Volvo guy for years.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
18 days ago

The big problem with this gen of T-bird was that for the money, it wasn’t special enough compared to the Mustang… and the Mustang convertible.

Why pay 33% more for a Thunderbird (compared to a Mustang GT convertible) when it has LESS power (252hp vs 260 in the Mustang, a smaller engine (3.9L vs 4.6L in the Mustang) two fewer seats, didn’t have a Ford-designed engine, didn’t have a better interior, couldn’t be had with a manual AND had a 0-60 time about a second slower when compared to the Mustang GT automatic.

And that’s assuming you could get both at MSRP. But in reality, I suspect dealers were slapping on excessive markups on them… making them look like an even worse proposition compared to a Mustang convertible.

For what they were charging, it should have had something better than the weaksauce 3.9L V8 making just 252hp… like a supercharged version of that engine as standard equipment.

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange
18 days ago

I’ve always wondered how hard it would be to swap the Jag S Type R engine and running gear into one of these. I know the Thunderbird engine is not exactly the same as the Jag unit but they must be similar enough, although not sure of the ZF6 transmission in the S Type will fit.

I’m sure these days a Coyote swap would make more sense when looking for a bit more power but a Jag swap is an intriguing thought.

Craig
Craig
18 days ago

This T-Bird struck me as a delightful balance between modern and retro upon release, and still does, to this day. There’s enough to identify it as a ’57 or a successor, while it has enough of the modernity they were reaching for at the time.

ProfPlum
ProfPlum
18 days ago

My wife has a relative who has owned one from new, in yellow. I drove it once and found it a bit “boaty,” but it’s fine if you’re not doing more than 7/10ths of driving. I do dislike the proportions of the rear deck, it just seems too long.

Rick Garcia
Rick Garcia
18 days ago

I saw one on the road 2 days ago and it really looked good. I think the design has aged really well. I was surprised how much I liked it.

Turtle Racer
Turtle Racer
18 days ago

Loved the design when these came out. The turn off was the engine. Felt like a car this size needed something akin to Ford’s Ecoboost 6, not a Jaguar lump V8. I realize the Ecoboost 6 wasn’t around during the 11th gen T-bird production, but maybe the SHO V6 would have worked, IMHO.

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