Curbside Classic: 1979 Ford Thunderbird – It’s All In The Name

The year was 2011.  I was in the thrall of my new avocation, which was that thing called (then, as now) Curbside Classic.  It seemed that every day I stopped to shoot photos of cars and trucks that were potential subjects to grace these pages, which were the the joy and delight of millions.  My ability to find cars outstripped my ability to write about them.  Sometimes there were constraints on my time.  Other times there were constraints on my enthusiasm.

I am nearing the end of photos from 2011 that I have never written about.  I stopped to shoot this one because even in 2011 it was becoming unusual to see these cars in this kind of condition.  But enthusiasm to write about it?  That was kind of an unusual thing too, and I just never got there.  So let’s do something about that, shall we?

What’s in a name?  A lot – which is something that everyone knows.  People all over the world might have grown up loving movies made by guys named Archibald Leach or Marion Morrison, but we will never know.  We DO know how it worked out after those guys changed their names to Cary Grant and John Wayne.

It was always the same with cars.  The F-85 was never anywhere near as popular as the Cutlass.  And as popular as the Chevelle and Malibu might have been, it was the Monte Carlo that hit the big time when it came time to sell a “personal coupe” in the 1970’s.

Ford had done pretty well naming cars, with Mustangs, Mavericks, LTDs and even Torinos.  But Ford had ownersip of one name that was head and shoulders above the rest – Thunderbird.  The Thunderbird name was affixed to cars that were “Unique in all the world”, cars that were almost universally desired.  The Thunderbird name always punched above its weight, and was responsible for more than a few Ford-branded automobiles sharing garage space with much more expensive and exclusive vehicles.

Part of the secret was that Thunderbirds had always been fairly expensive cars.  This became a tougher market once the Continental Mark III came along midway through the 1968 model year, and lots of those upper-income buyers chose the Lincoln-branded personal coupe over the one sold at Ford dealers.  The Thunderbird retained a certain cache’, but the cars themselves became less and less special, until it had more-or-less become a budget Continental Mark IV with dumbed-down styling and less standard equipment.

Ford’s personal coupe wilderness was not just about the Thunderbird of the mid-1970s.  One class down, the Ford Elite suffered the same kind of problem.  Whether the car or the name (and probably both) it just never caught on the way cars like the Cutlass Supreme, the Monte Carlo, the Grand Prix or even the upstart Chrysler Cordoba managed to do.

In 1977, Ford gave the Gran Torino/Elite a much-needed makeover.  The regular Gran Torino, in a kind of truth-in-advertising moment, became the LTD II.   The personal luxury derivative, however, became the recipient of the great Thunderbird name.  The rest, as they say, was history.

Nobody has ever argued that the 1977-79 Thunderbird was a breakthrough design.  The basket-handle roof was a hat-tip to the 1955 Fairlane Crown Victoria, and rooflines had been creeping in this direction for several years.  Nor has anyone ever argued that this was a great car.  Under the skin it was a more-or-less average product of the Ford Motor Company of its time, for better or worse.  Everyone knows the worse part – the emission-strangled engines that were better at drinking fuel than turning it into power and the horridly ungainly 5 mph bumpers that were all function and not at all about form.  Floaty suspensions, dead, unresponsive steering and pack-trailing engineering were part of the Ford Package of the mid 1970’s.

There was also the good stuff, with bodies that no longer suffered from the really bad rust problems and had some of the most substantial-sounding door slams in the industry.  There were better-than-average interior materials and a freeway ride that took a backseat to nobody in isolating the driver from the cruel world.  Fords of that era also tended to have fairly decent levels of fit and finish and involved far less drama in the service department than some competitive cars.

In the 1930’s, Packard put its prestigious name on some less expensive cars – and sold a bunch of them.  1977 was the year that Ford did the same thing by exiting the “near luxury” market and repurposing the great Thunderbird name on a far less expensive personal coupe.  How much less expensive? The base MSRP of the 1976 Thunderbird was $7,790.  Ford built 52,935 of them.  The 1977 Thunderbird listed at $5,063 and demand exploded.  318,140 units was the final tally for the smaller, lighter and far, far, less expensive Thunderbird.

I had never paid enough attention back in the day, but now know from this car’s bolder grille texture that it is a 1979 model – the final of this model’s three-year series.  Inflation was a problem in 1979 and the base price had jumped to either $5,411 or $5,999 (depending on the source).

The new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations also took hold that year, which led Ford to eliminate the 400 cid (6.6 L) V8 from the option list, leaving the 302 (5.0) and 351 (5.8) V8s as the only choices.  Demand remained strong, though, and Ford still managed to push 284,141 examples out the door – some of which were quite luxurious, though not quite as much as Ford’s advertising guys tried to suggest.

Unbeknownst for everyone at the time, all kinds of disasters were lurking around the corner.  The one that affected almost everyone was the combination of soaring fuel prices and a crashing economy, which put the entire automotive industry into the doldrums.  But Ford found a special and unique way to amplify things with the new 1980 version of the Thunderbird.  Inflation had run the price up to $6,432, but this time you got far less car for your money.  Production dropped to 156,803, and dropped again by about half each of the next two years until hitting 45,142 units for 1982.

The Thunderbird name, though possessed of some magic, had limits.  No name, no matter how magical, could sell a turd like the 1980-82 successor to this car.  However, in 1977 Ford’s best nameplate was able to give a decent mid-sized personal coupe that booster shot of charisma needed to turn an ordinary car into one that was very popular.  Nobody who bought these thought of them as equals to the great Thunderbirds of the past.  But we were used to that in the late 1970’s, because so few new cars were equal to their predecessors.

Although this version was the first, it would not be the last ordinary car to wear the Thunderbird name.  Some were more successful than others, but none of them was more successful than this one.  Was that kind of success enough to make it worthy of the Thunderbird name?  When these cars were common, this was up for debate.  Decades later they seem to have earned their place.  These were not among the great Thunderbirds.  But for their time, they were good enough to bring just a little “Thunderbird magic” to a wider audience.


Further Reading:  1977 Thunderbird (Paul Niedermeyer)