Curbside Classic: 1968 Thunderbird – Who Am I? Why Am I Here?

(originally posted 6/11/2011)     In 1992, Ross Perot mounted a 3rd party run for president.  He chose as his running mate Admiral James Stockdale.  The Admiral had a distinguished record, but chose to introduce himself to the American public in a debate by asking: “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  The Admiral got through the debate and the campaign without really answering those questions.  What has Admiral Stockdale got to do with the 67-68 Thunderbird?  Like the Admiral, the Ford Thunderbird came to us with a very impressive history.  And the 67 model asked the very same questions.  And, like the Admiral, the 67 T-Bird never really came up with the answers.

I never understood this car.  I mean, just what was it, exactly?  Even though I was 8 years old when the 67 Bird came out, I knew what the car was NOT.  Sure, it had that wrap-around back seat and sequential turn signals, but the car was NOT a Thunderbird.  A Thunderbird, you see, had a certain flair, dash, savoir faire.   Even though this car made the cut for the original lineup of Hot Wheels cars in 1967, I was not fooled.  This car just lacked that certain something that made a Thunderbird.

If you had told someone in 1950 that someday it would be socially acceptable to be driving a Ford to the country club or in the more exclusive suburbs, you would have been laughed at.  The Thunderbird was the car that began Ford’s move up the social ladder.   After the initial 2 seaters, the Thunderbird really hit its stride with the first 4 seater in 1958.  This car and all that came after it for most of the next decade made it perfectly natural for high-income buyers to park a Ford in the garage.

This Thunderbird, however, was something different.  Maybe it was just 1967.  1967 wasn’t so much a year, as a transition between other years, other eras even.  It wasn’t Rat Pack yet it wasn’t Woodstock.  It wasn’t Bryll Cream, but it wasn’t a blow-dry either.  Neither Jack Kennedy nor Richard Nixon.  Not bucket seats and floor shifts nor fat side moldings and opera windows.   Well, you get the idea.   So, in a way, this Thunderbird and 1967 were made for each other.  But while 1967 eventually ended late in December, this Thunderbird had to stick around for a few more years.

Maybe the Thunderbird was doomed because Ford’s product planners were finishing up on the car that would doom it.  The Thunderbird had never really been meant for Fairlane customers or Galaxie customers.  The Thunderbird was aimed at Lincoln buyers.  T-Birds shared garages with a lot of Continentals back then, or were bought by those who could afford a Lincoln but wanted something more sporting.  But many of those buyers would desert the Bird for the Continental Mark III when it hit Lincoln showrooms in 1968, making the Thunderbird something it had never been before – the Ford luxury coupe that you bought if you couldn’t afford the Mark III.  It cannot be coincidence that T-Bird sales dropped off substantially in 1968.

Maybe it was the competition.  For years, Thunderbird had the market for personal luxury coupes virtually to itself.  Studebaker threw its final two darts at the T-Bird but missed with both.  Then came the Buick Riviera.  And the Pontiac Grand Prix.   Followed by the Oldsmobile Toronado.   And the Eldorado.  None of these was like the Thunderbird, exactly.  But each, in its own way, turned more towards luxury than sport (as was the GM way in that era).  But Suddenly, the Thunderbird couldn’t just be the Thunderbird any more.  Were Ford’s planners and designers reacting by suddenly tacking towards the GM vision of personal luxury?  Whatever happened, the magic seemed gone, or at least greatly diminished, when this car hit the showrooms.

Maybe it was just the car.  The 1960s was an unusually good decade for automotive styling.  This Thunderbird was not part of it.   The more I look at this car, I have to conclude that it was perhaps the least attractive Ford since the 58 Fairlane.   But the 58’s problems can be blamed on a botched facelift.  This car suffered from its ungainly looks in its original conception.  Ford styling had gone from strength to strength as the 60s began to look to the 70s.  The 64-66 Thunderbird was a styling triumph.  Even the 70-71 had a sleek, flowy kind of thing going on that was attractive in its way.  It was like Ford performing Bill Mitchell’s greatest hits.  But not the 67.   The styling is just off.  Like a great idea at 1:30 on a Sunday morning that doesn’t look quite so great in daylight.  Somewhere around this time, Stan Kenton’s progressive jazz orchestra did a collaboration album with Tex Ritter, the country star.  This Thunderbird’s style is kind of like that.  If I were forced to categorize this car’s styling, it would have to be filed under “miscellaneous.”

There is just something wrong with the proportions of this car.  Particularly from the side, it shows us those proportions that became Ford hallmarks of the mid 70s – lots of front and rear overhang which made the car look as if the wheelbase was about 12 inches too short.  So maybe, this car was the opening salvo of the Great Brougham Wars of the 70s.  Whatever the styling problem was, you know that something has gone horribly wrong with your personal luxury coupe when the 4 door mutation is actually better looking.

We have to address the 4 door thing.  When I found this car, I was a little disappointed that it was not the 4 door.  After all, the Thunderbird sedan is really the only memorable part of this forgettable generation of Birds.  But again, what was it?   Incredibly, dealers were given materials to convince sales prospects how superior the 67 4 door Bird’s styling was to competitors like the Buick Electra and the Olds 98 Luxury Sedan.  No, Really.   Did you know that the 68 Thunderbird 4 door even came with a bench seat?  What’s up with that?

I have labored over this piece through several sittings, unhappy with the resulting series of scattered and disjointed thoughts that don’t seem to come together into anything resembling coherence.  But maybe this result is what naturally comes from thinking or writing about the 67-68 Thunderbird.  Because after days of thinking about it, I still don’t know exactly what it was or why it was here.  I refuse to believe that I am alone.