Curbside Classic: 1970 Ford Thunderbird Sportsback – What Bunkie Took With Him On The Way Out The Door

(originally posted 05/06/2014)   You are totally forgiven if at first glance you think this is a 1968 Pontiac Grand Prix. Or worse, a 1967 Catalina. Thanks to a certain former General Motors executive, this Tin Indian doppelganger is actually the 1970 Ford Thunderbird.

The 1967-69 Ford Thunderbirds had decidedly left their youthful flair days behind, ditching the convertible and unibody construction for tomb-like isolation aided by separate body and frame construction. Although slathered with the latest in accessories, like the reintroduced sunroof that attempted to let the sunshine in, your typical sophisticated thirtysomethings of the Age of Aquarius were choosing their personal luxury elsewhere in more daring packaging.

That biggest challenge came in the form of Pontiac’s last Greatest Hit of the 1960s, the Great Grand Prix re-think (CC here). The grandiose G-Body, with its spectacularly long hood, was a runaway success and shifted the game of Personal Luxury away from big bruisers like the Toronado, Riviera and Thunderbird and down a size (and price bracket) to just above the mundane mid-sized sedan and coupe.

But true to Ford’s misstep patterns, it found itself stumbling upon a segment (Personal Luxury was accidentally a Studebaker Hawk creation, Pony Cars an outgrowth of sporty compacts like the Corvair Monza), and capitalizing on great initial success, only to allow product development to languish, and overdoing their entries in a given market to the point they’d wind up the complete opposites of what made them unique or desirable. After the Falcon and Fairlane got lost in the woods, it was the Thunderbird’s turn.

The four-door “Personal Luxury Sedan” was a bad enough misstep; adopting a series of Pontiac cues, brought to Ford courtesy of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, was an almost fatal blow. The “Bunkie Beak” was a watered down cue that looked straight out of the Pontiac studio. Although in hindsight, that “bird beak” truly captured the mythical bird aura of the Thunderbird, it couldn’t have come at a worse time to seem in any way unique.

In fact, the whole 1970 reskinning of the Thunderbird comes across as a proposal to keep the 1969 Grand Prix on the larger, swoopier B-Body shell, right down to the semi-fastback roofline that got progressively faster on GM B-Body coupes between 1965 and 1968. It is completely incongruous to the Broughamification of the T-bird that happened in 1967, and would return out of nowhere in 1972.

The second biggest nod to Bunkie’s old stomping grounds would be these delightful hockey stick tail lamps borrowed from contemporary Pontiacs. Which, well, in some ways could be interpreted as reversals of the original Edsel non wagon lenses, but we won’t get into a more complex game of “who’s cribbing who.”

At least underneath all of this brand identity confusion, the Thunderbird was a fine hustler once again. In a straight line. Not only was the 429 the standard engine by this point, the Thunderbird 429 used wedge heads, making these Thunderbirds perhaps the liveliest since the Lincoln 430 was stuffed under their hoods 10 years earlier.

Was it a complete failure? In some ways it put one of the biggest nails in the Thunderbird coffin, showing how much a fully unique product had lost its way in fifteen years. Then again, that’s a lifetime in the American Auto Industry. In an even shorter time window the Impala name went from show car, to special coupe and convertible to the sedan your dad regularly traded in.


As we know the ultimate bloat would set in with the cut-rate Mark IV edition Thunderbird, followed by the best-selling mass market Thunderbird. But what to make of these two forgotten years in the Bird Kingdom? For a car that rose like the Phoenix more times than a cat has lives, we can consider this one of those periods of Ash.

Related reading: 1971 Thunderbird Four-Door Landau, 1975 Thunderbird, 1976 Lincoln Continental Mark IV