(first published 4/16/2013) The Thunderbird: So irrational, so illogical, so often successful. Out of all the cars that make no sense–at least on paper– I’m willing to give the beguiling bird a pass. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my favorite is the first version to really jump the shark: Landau bars and eight-tracks, anyone?
It started out this way–kind of. The Thunderbird’s ridiculous factor started pretty early, from where I stand. Nothing says sporty like a Continental kit and opera window, right? Not enough trunk space for a set of golf clubs? Then damn the already-middling handling–throw in at least a hundred pounds more behind the rear axle!
Next came the genre-defining personal coupe. While not the first of the breed (at least in my view; I bestow that honor on the ill-fated Studebaker “Loewy Coupes”), it was one of Ford’s two biggest wins of the late ’50s. Say what you will about the heavy-handed George Barris styling, but that blind C-pillar defined hardtop elegance for the better part of a decade. The Squarebird proved that you didn’t need a premium brand to sell a premium product to the (relative) masses. Plenty of its 93,000 sales in 1960 came at the expense of the Olds Ninety Eight, Buick Invicta and, tellingly, Mercury Park Lane as it burst open the upper echelons of the medium-price market.
Not only was the “Bullet Bird” closely related to the definitive car of the 1960s, it came equipped almost as fully as a Continental itself. At the time, its standard power steering and power brakes were luxuries normally reserved for top-rung models, and other innovative “luxury” highlights swiftly became the wind beneath the ‘Bird’s wings. While early-’60s General Motors products tended to throw in a lot of wizardry, it wasn’t limited to one model. There were no turbocharged Cadillacs, nor were Impalas fitted with ComfortTemp Climate Control. The combining of such fantasy with sheet metal as bold as the dream of a moon landing by decade’s end created a heady mix.
Then came the Landau, sporting a textured-vinyl top and a piece of chrome trim, commonly associated with hearses, that was every bit as ridiculous as that 1956 Continental kit. What’s so absurd is that at some kind of pretentious level, it all works. “I can make death cool! I’m the mystical bird they call Thunderbird! I upset everything! You love me for it!”
Suburbia has always embraced all the little, pretentious ways of making things in your house or driveway appear a little bit better than the neighbors’: In this case, some ridiculous chrome trim gave buyers just enough incentive to splurge, as over 12,000 1963 Landaus were sold. In its next incarnation (the oh-so-James Bond-themed Flair Bird), the Thunderbird finally faced some actual competition from the formidable Buick Riviera and Studebaker’s last-ditch Avanti and Gran Turismo Hawk–never mind the bucket-seat bombs offered in the forms of loaded Impala SS’s, Grand Prixes and Starfires. Still, the Thunderbird’s special brand of zany overwrought luxury kept it ahead of the pack in sales.
Ten years after the Thunderbird’s birth came the 1965 model: ridiculous, porcine–but utterly commanding of attention. Taken element by element, it isn’t necessarily beautiful, or even cleanly styled. Neither definitively feminine nor masculine when done up in the Landau package, it has the visual impact of Dennis Rodman wearing a wedding dress and marrying himself.
The advertising backed up the egotism. “The Private World of Thunderbird” barely calls this car a Ford, or even a Ford product. Instead, it’s all about an “experience”, one not too far removed from the vaunted “Cadillac experience”. In any case, you experienced things in a well-trimmed place featuring luxury-level fittings and equipment and the most modern of mobile attributes, including an eight-tack tape player, disc brakes and toggle switches that made you feel like you were, well, piloting a plane instead of a mere car–and especially not a mere Ford.
We can forgive this swinging mansion-on-wheels for having the driving dynamics of a 40-foot motor home. I exaggerate, of course, but not by much. In truth, all of those modern, luxurious Thunderbird features rode on late-Fifties underpinnings. In the pre-computer, unit-body age, achieving the isolated splendor expected of American luxury cars required using much more metal than was necessary. As a result, the Thunderbird–although not much bigger than a Cutlass or Skylark–tipped the scales at 4,500 lbs. It was overbuilt to a fault, which left a lot to be desired when you had to (or wanted to) do anything beyond serene driving.
It’s well established that the comparable (in price and prestige) first-generation Riviera could run circles around the Thunderbird even before one started clicking off performance-option boxes. What’s more, any Grand Prix or Starfire could dust it in a straight line. Even a mid-trim Granny-Good-Looks Grand Turismo Hawk was within striking distance–and in supercharged guise, surpassed it.
By 1965 the Hawk was extinct. The Starfire was a Supernova before its implosion and subsequent 1975 return as a dwarf star. Pigging out on fender skirts and vinyl tops, the Grand Prix was going through its own identity crisis, which would ultimately take four years of therapy and a serious diet to resolve. And it wouldn’t be long before even the star-athlete Riviera had to contend with E-body sibling rivalry as well as an identity crisis from which it would never recover.
None of which mattered to Thunderbird: For better or worse, it still knew exactly what it was. Sure, it handled like a Jello mold and got 12 mpg (but only on a good day while cruising the Interstate at only 65 mph). Sure, it took around 11 seconds to reach 60 mph (with 300 horsepower!) and might well leave you eating a Corvair Corsa’s 140-hp dust when the light turned green. But really, who cared? It had sequential turn signals!
The “Flair Bird” frankly didn’t give a damn. It is possibly the most quintessentially American car–ever. It’s my favorite Thunderbird because it couldn’t care less about any of your requirements or specifications or ideas of what defined a great car. About the only thing it’ll concede is that disc brakes became standard in 1965. After all, why should it ruin its face for the sake of your foolish and overambitious motoring shenanigans?
Today’s world has become too impossibly cynical to embrace a car like the 1965 Ford Thunderbird Special Landau, which so blatantly mocks its cynicism and superficiality in such an honest way. I quite often mourn the loss of such an automobile–and the funeral at which I cried the most was for the beautiful train wreck that was the Flair Bird.