Some people buy their Curbside Classics; others inherit them. In my case, I married into mine. More specifically, my wife came with a 1995 Thunderbird as standard equipment – not a bad deal. When we married, the car was 10 years old, and now that we’ve been married for 10 years, the T-bird is celebrating its 20th birthday, and I’m proud to say it’s still with us. So to celebrate 20 years of enjoying a great car, I decided to write this biography for what has become one of my favorite websites.
When my wife bought her first new car, a Thunderbird seem like a logical choice to her. Her former car –the only other car she’d owned – was a 1967 Mustang, with a 289 V-8 and a 3-speed manual transmission. Her parents had bought the Mustang before she was born, and stubbornly held onto it all though the years of having a growing family. She was driven home as a newborn in the Mustang, years later took her driver’s license test in the Mustang, drove it to her college graduation, then as a commuter car to work. By that time, in 1995, the Mustang reached the end of its road. Twenty-eight years of being a daily driver, nearly 300,000 miles, and a generous amount of Midwestern rust meant that – despite all the sentimentality attached to it – the Mustang had to be put out to pasture.
How does one replace a car like that? Well, she considered a 1995 Mustang, but it was too flashy. The Thunderbird, on the other hand, was just right, with classy, understated styling but a sporty demeanor and a powerful V-8. Plus, the Thunderbird carried lower insurance rates and could comfortably carry four people.
So, on December 28, 1994, she bought a Champagne Metallic Thunderbird LX, with a 4.6-liter V-8, from Bo Beuckman Ford in St. Louis, for $17,400. Upon delivery, the car had seven miles on the odometer. In the back of her mind, driving home from the dealership, she hoped she could keep it as long as the Mustang; right now we’re eight years away from being there.
In the mid 1990s, the car marketplace had already drifted away from personal coupes. Once a common sight, full-size two-door cars were dwindling away, with the Thunderbird one of the few remaining examples at the time. In 1995, Ford still sold over 100,000 T-birds, and people who bought one were treated to a very pleasant and comfortable car. But by that time, the T-bird had only two more model years left before being discontinued after the 1997 model year.
Our Thunderbird’s early life included the highest-mileage years of its first two decades. At the time, my (future) wife lived in Jefferson City, Mo., and had an amusingly short five minute drive to work. However, the vast majority of its miles were accumulated driving around rural Missouri to visit family. Several times a month, in good weather and bad, the T-bird would drive to northeastern Missouri, a 250-mile round-trip rural drive that included winter salt, ice, and (just once) a collision with a deer. While the deer damage was repaired, the road salt would surface as rust a decade after its last ride down a salty Missouri road.
During its first five years, the T-bird racked up 80,000 miles this way. Reliability was excellent, and aside from a few minor repairs, it led a trouble-free life. In 2000, however, the T-bird was packed up and driven out to Northern Virginia, where my wife got a new job. Its life was about to change dramatically.
In Northern Virginia, the Thunderbird led a life antipodal to what it had lived in mid-Missouri. No more open, rural roads–but no more daily commutes or bad-weather driving, either. And definitely not as many miles. My wife took a train to work and lived in a high-rise apartment, with the T-bird parked in the garage below. Overall, not a bad life for a well-driven five-year-old car. In hindsight, it was these years of 24-hour garaging and low miles that saved the T-bird’s life. Between 2000 and 2005, the Thunderbird logged only about 20,000 miles total, and experienced things (like the tires dry-rotting), that only low-mileage cars get to worry about. The garaging of course, was a boon for the paint and interior as well.
After my wife and I married in 2005, the T-bird’s life of ease largely continued, though it did spend two years outside without a garage. But it became our pleasure car, getting driven occasionally, at a rate of about 2,500 miles per year. Around that time we made one last pilgrimage back to the T-bird’s native Missouri. Having made several similar trips in rental cars or in my own Ford Contour, it was obvious to us that nothing beats a full-size V-8 car for long-distance driving. The T-bird, on open roads, is clearly in its element like few other cars could be.
Many beloved cars that survive harsh climates, high mileage, and many other dangers are ultimately doomed by one big change: a family. Having kids turns one’s automotive world upside down, and we experienced this phenomenon in 2007. A 12-year-old two-door car with 100,000+ miles is not the most rational family vehicle. Unfortunately, neither was a 1998 Contour, with a tiny back seat and a poorly functioning air conditioner. But through the fog of sleepless nights and a crying baby, we made a monumental decision: We would keep the Thunderbird.
We did this by buying a third car (possibly the subject of a future article), and semi-retiring the Thunderbird. (The Contour, meanwhile, was replaced by a minivan in 2010.) With occasional, light-duty driving, we hoped the T-bird might last many more years. Light-duty in this case meaning being garaged most of the time: I drove it to work a few days a month, but never in ice or snow, and still tend to drive it about 1,500 miles per year.
Ironically, our kids (now in elementary school) love the Thunderbird, and get very excited on the unusual occasion when we see another one on the road.
Of course, everyone who has an aging car has to deal with the occasional major repair, and our T-bird is no exception. Several years ago, I noticed rust forming on one of the rocker panels near the rear wheel, a common place for T-bird rust, and no doubt a holdover from its early days in Missouri. We decided to have it repaired (knowing, of course, that there’s no guarantee it won’t come back), and commit ourselves to keeping the T-bird going. Then came suspension repairs, as the whole front suspension had to be rebuilt, at a cost that probably exceeded the car’s value. Again, we decided to do it. And just last year came the dreaded one: transmission problems.
The transmission is probably the weakest link on this generation of Thunderbird, and we’ve known for a long time that a transmission failure was a distinct possibility. Yet it came as a surprise one day to get in the car at work and discover that there was no second gear. Ugh. A new transmission costs nearly $3,000 which, even given our commitment to the Thunderbird, would have been a tough pill to swallow. But fortunately, after taking it to one transmission shop that said it needed a new tranny, we took it to another shop that fixed the transmission with a $300 repair. Yes, the transmission may still fail from something else, but for now we have our T-bird back and she’s shifting better than she did when new.
Our car is getting old enough that occasionally people comment about it – saying they used to have one, or that it’s in such good shape that we must be original owners (which we are!). It’s a satisfying feeling, of course, and makes us want to keep it forever. Plus, of all our three cars, the T-bird is our kids’ favorite. So, will we keep it forever? Who can tell? We’d love to, and we’re well on our way to doing so, but life throws out surprises, and it’s hard to say whether we’ll be able to devote the time, space or resources to keeping a 1995 car running forever.
But we’ll try. And right now, having survived in excellent condition for two decades and 130,000 miles, the T-bird might get a chance to hang in there for a lot longer. In the meantime we’ll keep enjoying it, and enjoying a pride of ownership that only increases with age. And if we keep it for another nine years, our now seven-year-old might well take her driver’s license test in it…