Curbside Classic: 1974 Thunderbird – A Mark By Any Other Name…

(first published 4/25/2012)   This is it. The biggest Thunderbird ever built, a Mark IV in disguise. It’s hard to believe this car is related to the trim, befinned 1955-57 two seat T-Birds, but the Seventies changed a lot of people–and cars.

This was not the Thunderbird’s first drastic change. The 1958 Squarebird added a back seat and, with the possible exception of the 1953 Studebaker Starliner, created the personal luxury car market. Low, sleek and powerful, the T-Bird became a luxury Ford – an oxymoron at the time, for even though it was a Ford model it was considered on par with a Lincoln – unthinkable ten years prior.

The Squarebird gave way to the Bullet Bird in 1961, a very sporty and luxurious mode of transport for the Jet Age. Ford really had a knack for creating new market areas, and the T-Bird was one of their best exploits in that area. Folks who would never have considered a Ford in the past – people who were doctors or lawyers and drove Lincoln Continentals, Buick Electra 225s and Oldsmobile Ninety Eights, were looking at – and buying – Ford’s personal luxury car.

My grandparents were such people. When my dad was a kid, my grandfather, who was a lawyer and an insurance executive, had a ’62 or so Buick Electra, and my grandmother had a metallic lilac ’60 Catalina convertible with a white interior. That Pontiac was traded in on a navy blue ’65 Thunderbird convertible, with a white leather interior. She kept it all the way to 1977; she liked it that much. By 1964, the smooth, sporty looks of the 1961-63 ‘bullet bird’ gave way to crisp, rectangular lines, and one of the coolest interiors of the Sixties. The last of the Flair Birds came off the line in 1966.

Much was new for the 1967 Thunderbird, but not all of it was good. First of all, the convertible was gone, a victim of low sales. It was replaced with – are you sitting down? – a four door sedan. Yes, a four door sedan. This mini-Continental sported center-opening doors and Brougham-tastic landau irons on the sail panels, which hid the cut lines for the rear doors. A neat idea, but was this really a T-Bird?

Of course the two-door hardtop returned, for a somewhat more traditional Thunderbird experience. Then, in 1970, a ‘Bunkie Beak” was tacked on to the 1967-vintage body, making it look like a Grand Prix. During this time, sales were slowly but surely sinking, from 77,956 in ’67 to only 36,055 ’71s. A new direction was needed. What next?

What was next was more. More wheelbase, more front and rear overhang, more luxury gadgets, and more velour. The 1972 Thunderbird was completely redesigned, and shared much with the also new for ’72 Continental Mark IV. The 1972 Thunderbird (and the Mark IV) were approved by Ford President Bunkie Knudsen just before his departure from Dearborn. This was a big ‘Bird. Total length was now 214 inches, with a 120.4″ wheelbase and 80″ width. The 1972 model came in a single Landau two door hardtop bodystyle – the four-doors were history – and was priced at $5293. Sales rebounded smartly, to over 57,000.

The 429 CID V8 was standard equipment, with a 460 optional. Either way, you could have any transmission you wanted, as long as it was the 3-speed C6 automatic. Like the previous Thunderbird, the ’72 shared a lot of parts with the Mark – the windshield and side glass were identical between the two, not to mention most of the dimensions and the running gear. Thanks to the 1973 federal bumper standards, the ’73 T-Bird got a new nose (shown above) with requisite chromed battering ram, a new grille, headlights in separate pods, and new parking lamps. Also new was an opera window in the C-pillar, a must-have on ’70s personal luxury cars. It was initially an option, but was soon made a standard feature. Sales went up again, with over 87,000 sold for 1973.

Five mph bumpers were added to the back for ’74, so a similar restyling was applied to the back of the car. While attractive, it was not as good-looking as the full-width tail lamps and integrated bumper of the 1972-73. One of the T-Bird’s defining features, bucket seats, were eliminated for ’74.

Thanks to the new rear bumper, curb weight was up to 4800 lbs. The 429 was dropped, and all Thunderbirds now had the 460 as standard, for a less than stellar 11 mpg. Well, what do you expect? This is a large, in charge luxury coupe, not a Pinto!

Between 1974 and 1976, the Thunderbird remained essentially the same. Ford kept interest up with lots of special decor models. Our featured CC is a Burgundy Luxury Group Thunderbird, which was available in 1974 only. It included special burgundy metallic paint, color-keyed vinyl roof and premium bodyside moldings, and a burgundy interior in velour or optional leather.

Inside, the Thunderbird had its own unique door panels, upholstery, and round gauges set in a color-keyed panel, unlike the Mark IV’s square instruments in a fake-wood slathered instrument panel. As much as I love the Mark IV, I kind of like the Thunderbird’s instrument panel treatment better. And dig that CB radio! Breaker Breaker, this is Velour Bird rolling on I-80 at mile marker 257, where’s the nearest gas station?

While the Continental Mark IV was the cream of the crop in Ford’s personal luxury coupe lineup, an argument could be made for choosing the Thunderbird instead. Consider: A 1974 Thunderbird went for $7,330 ($34,106.36 adjusted) while the Mark IV was a princely $10,194 ($47,432.50 adjusted). For nearly three thousand dollars less – a not-inconsiderable sum in 1974 – you could get a very comparable car – assuming you could live without the chrome Parthenon grille, hidden headlights, spare tire hump and oval opera windows.

Here is a 1974 Continental Mark IV, with the Silver Luxury Group, no less. Though it had several unique styling cues, when you compare it with a similar shot of a ’76 T-Bird below, you can see how choosing a Thunderbird over a Mark could be a wise decision. Despite this, sales of 1974 Marks and T-Birds were neck and neck, with 57,316 and 58,443, respectively. Well, you did get a lot more snob value with the Mark!

The T-Bird had the same overall look (though the sheetmetal was different), dimensions, and gave up nothing over the Mark in comfort. It was also a much greater value. By 1976, the last year for the 1972 body shell, there were no less than three Luxury Groups: Creme and Gold, Bordeaux, and Lipstick (shown above and below).

The oddly-named Lipstick Luxury Group was the sharpest choice, in my opinion. Bright red paint, bodyside moldings and vinyl roof graced the exterior, while inside was white vinyl upholstery (or optional leather) with red-and-white door panels, and red carpeting, seat belts and instrument panel. It made for quite the flashy machine.

A couple weeks ago, my brother told me about a cool Thunderbird he saw parked for sale in Moline. I tracked it down the very next day. This ’74 model was in great shape, with only a little rust around the cornering lamps making it less than pristine. If you believe the sign, it only has 19,125 miles on it.

I have seen this car before in downtown Rock Island, but that was before I started carrying a camera in the car. It has to be the same one, as these are really scarce here in the Midwest. I can’t remember the last time I saw another one of these.

After 1976, the T-Bird went on a diet, and lost its relationship with the Continental. In fact, it would be essentially an LTD II with hidden headlights and a special ‘basket handle’ roofline, but it would set records for T-Bird production that may still yet be unbroken. This ’74 shows how the Thunderbird handled the Great Brougham Epoch. If ever there was a Thunderbird Brougham, this is it.