(first posted 10/25/2014) In 1997, Ford decided that its time and resources would be much better spent designing and developing a gigantic SUV that you could buy with a 6.8L V10 and that coupes that weren’t named “Mustang” weren’t really worth the effort anymore. Presented with this news we all thought that the good old phoenix would rise no more. But we weren’t counting on one small thing: Retro.
Yes, Retro, all the rage in car design from the very tail end of the ‘90s and way into the early ‘00s. Brought to us by the adorable, flower-vase equipped Volkswagen new beetle in 1997 and carried to this day by cars such as the Fiat 500, and the MINI. That is when the manufacturers don’t get creative with their air pumps and turn them into ungainly crossovers. No segment was spared from a little retro touch. Even the Mustang when it got a refresh in 2005 went to a “Suddenly it’s 1964” look. However, after the Probe Ford knew better than to take the Mustang fanbase for granted. So they decided to get into the retro trend by resurrecting a Model name rather than risking one that was alive and kicking (Bucking?).
In an appropriate way to bookend the History of the Thunderbird, not that they knew they were doing that, the final generation T-Bird returned the model name to the place where it had come from. A sporty looking two-seater convertible with rear wheel drive and a V8. No four seats. No sedan option. No Brougham. No turbo coupe or Mercury Cougar counterpart. This was going to be an uncompromised Thunderbird, just get it as close to the original as possible and pay no attention to the rest.
It was never going to work.
At first glance, it really is difficult to see what the problem was; the Thunderbird was based on the same platform as the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-Type. It had the same engine as the LS too, a 3.9 L V8 that was good for 252HP connected to a five-speed automatic. The styling is absolutely gorgeous, although personally I think the front could’ve been a bit less rounded. As it makes the car look either frightened or like a fish depending on the light. Whatever complains you could make about the front-end were atoned for in the side profile and in the back. Of Special note is the triumphant return of Ford’s awesome Jet-exhaust taillights. Which have always been a favorite in your author’s opinion.
Things started to fall apart on the interior though. Oh dear, it seems I have accidentally gotten a picture of an LS interior instead of the Thunderbird’s, I apologize. No wait; is that the logo on the steering wheel? Yes, unfortunately when they decided that the Thunderbird would be based on the Lincoln LS they decided they might as well just rebody an LS and be done with it. It’s not a bad idea on paper and you can certainly do worse interiors. But it was completely out of line with the rest of the design. Later models would add a little color to the interior but the damage was already done. At least it saved some R&D money, which would mean that the T-Bird would be within the reach of the masses and bought by everyone who could appreciate that pretty pretty body right? Right?
Nope. In fact, Ford decided that it would be a much better idea to sell it for around $40,000. A 2003 Mustang GT was $23,000. A Lincoln LS could be had for $32,000. To put it into perspective, a Thunderbird SC from 1989 could be had for $29,667.42 when adjusted to 2003 dollars. If I must be forced to point my finger at the one thing that made the thunderbird fail; I could only point it at the ridiculous pricing.
I’ll put it this way, it was more expensive than the most expensive BMW Z3 at the time. And if I were someone looking for some retro style and a two-seater coupe for around that price, I knew which one of those two I’d get. A Bond Girl may have driven a Ford Thunderbird, but Bond himself drove a Z3. Ford expected that the Thunderbird would sell around 25,000 units per year. It didn’t even come close, making the bulk of its sales on 2002, where they made 19,085 owners very happy. On its final year only 9,220 models rolled off the lots and the Thunderbird went back to its peaceful slumber. The V10-powered SUV was also going down around this time, proving once again that there is such a thing as “Too Big”, even for America; but that’s a story for another day.
At least we can take comfort in the fact that Ford learnt their lesson and their next foray into retro, the 2005 Mustang, Was nothing less than a total success. Sensibly priced and with an interior designed to match the expectations created by the exterior. It created a design language that is still with us and that we can thank for the lovely crop of retro-styled muscle cars we have on our streets today. Up to and including the awesome 707HP Challenger Hellcat.
In its final outing, the Thunderbird found closure, all its life it had been tossed from segment to segment and from platform to platform; and just when it seemed it had carved a niche for itself the powers that be went ahead and threw a curve ball and it had to find its niche all over again. By taking it back to where it had started it managed to get the spotlight back and be as liked by everyone as it was on those first glorious years. At least, until they looked at the price tag.