Curbside Classic: 1980 Ford Thunderbird – The Fabulous FUBAR Edition

(first posted 10/03/2012)    Once, while working on my ’63 Galaxie, I used a cheater bar to remove a bolt.  It slipped, causing me to hit my forearm on the bumper and necessitating a late-night trip to the emergency room.  Using a cheater bar seemed like a good idea at the time.

Another time, when I desired a root beer float but had no vanilla ice cream, I substituted chocolate.  It tasted wretched, although it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The old adage of “it seemed like a good idea at the time” just seems to reek of an unfortunate outcome.  In this case, it might also help explain the 1980 Ford Thunderbird.

For its Eighth Generation, Ford dipped and marinated the Thunderbird in a barrel of Slim-Fast. As a result, it shed nearly 700 pounds of road-hugging weight, lost 16″ in overall length and shrank 5.5″ in wheelbase.  Maybe it was a good idea at the time, what with the recent fuel crisis, current recession and stricter CAFE standards looming on the horizon.  The Thunderbird was the last full-figured holdout in the Ford fleet, the rest of which had been been downsized a year or two earlier.

If you’ve ever lost a lot of weight, or know someone who has, you know there’s more to successful weight loss than what the scale reads.  Thirty-two years after its introduction, this generation Thunderbird still looks a lot like this poor soul.

The Seventh Generation 1977-79 Thunderbird had been a monumental success for Ford, selling 284,141 units even in worst-selling 1979. In 1978, the best-selling year for that generation, sales of the Torino-based ‘Bird totaled 352,751.

There will always be those who speak the contrary but sometimes, big-boned girls can look pretty darn fine.

On the other hand, certain thin girls don’t look so good, in an emaciated, anemic sort of way.  Being nothing but a sack of skin and bones can both be less than aesthetically pleasing and reinforce the perception of emaciation and anemia.

For 1980, anemia was definitely the buzzword around Ford’s engine department.  There were still two V8 engines available, the 255 cu in (4.2-liter) and time-honored 302 cu in (5.0-liter).  Their horsepower ratings were truly distinctive, and for the wrong reasons, at 115 and 131, respectively.

If that wasn’t frightful enough, Ford would rub salt in that CAFE-inflicted wound midway though the 1980 model year with an 88-hp, 200 cu in (3.3-liter) straight-six as standard equipment.  It gave the ’80 Thunderbird the dubious distinction of being the first ‘Bird powered by six cylinders.

Like any Rhode Island Red chicken, the ‘Bird could definitely walk and expertly spread it wings.  It simply was ill-equipped to fly.

For those who prized leisurely cruising and comfort over raw acceleration, the Thunderbird was still a fine chariot to own.  Granted, it was smaller in every dimension and now advertised as a four-passenger vehicle, unlike its five (or more)- passenger predecessors.  Then again, how often did a Thunderbird actually carry more than two passengers?

That aside, there was one distinct positive for all 1980 Ford models, including the Thunderbird: The venerable AOD (automatic overdrive) transmission.  It would go on to lead a very long and successful life, hanging out beneath countless Ford-produced cars and pickups.

During the three model years of this generation, from 1980 to 1982, Ford sold 288,638 of these new Thunderbirds.  In 1980, the most successful year, 156,803 units were sold. With sales dropping by almost half in 1981, and again in 1982, they weren’t exactly flying out of the dealerships anymore.

The parents of a high-school friend of mine owned a solid-white ’80 Thunderbird.  At the time, I thought this generation of Thunderbird was just about the ultimate: Their design was at once so much more contemporary than the ’77 to ’79 models, yet more traditional than the ’83 to ’86s. At least it certainly seemed so at the time.


Their snow-white Thunderbird demonstrated the sheer durability of this Fox platform-based generation. It was powered by the mighty 3.3-liter straight six engine.  I rode in that car many times, and found its red, split-bench seat interior highly comfortable.  My friend’s father was a rural letter carrier with a daily route of slightly over 120 miles. Roughly 70 miles of it comprised the kind of gravel roads that tortured suspensions and butchered tires. He drove the route for several years, always in his Thunderbird. Suffering at least one flat tire per day, the nearly 10-year-old Thunderbird ran the mail route six days a week, and served as the family car when off-duty.

This Thunderbird generation has some obvious and distinct shortcomings, but mechanical and structural integrity are not among them. So why didn’t these Thunderbirds begin to approach the success of the previous generation?  One factor was the sales-stifling economy of the early 80’s, which hurt the entire auto industry.  But was that all?

Most likely not.  Certainly, size was a consideration; contrast the ’80 Thunderbird with the ’76 model. At a time when people were accustomed to truly full-sized cars, the ’80 Thunderbird was considered a compact.  Change doesn’t come easily for some.

Styling is another possible reason. Try as they did, these look of cars did not effectively evoke or evolve the previous generation.  Ford might have thought it a good idea at the time, but shifting so many 1977 design cues onto the ’80 models simply didn’t work.  Perhaps they should have followed their own example and created something distinct: How much similarity do you see between this ’76 and the ’79 near the top of the page?

All in all, was it a good idea at the time?  Maybe, and maybe not.  The car wasn’t horrible in its own right, and  certainly more attractive than a contemporary Monte Carlo.  In the context of its Thunderbird lineage, though, it was a big miss.  This Fairmont-based chariot seriously eroded the cachet of the Thunderbird name.

As regular Curbside Classic readers know, certain General Motors products have rightfully earned recognition as Deadly Sins. Might I suggest an “F” for Ford’s mistakes?  How about a Ford FUBAR?