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CATEGORIES (articles) > Cars we emulate > Ford > Ford Thunderbird 1st to 11th Generation

Ford Thunderbird 1st to 11th Generation


Ford Thunderbird
Manufacturer: Ford Motor Company
Production: 1955-1997
2002-2005
Class: Personal luxury car
Similar: Chevrolet Monte Carlo
First generation "Classic Birds"
1957 Ford Thunderbird
Production: 1955-1957
Body style: 2-door, 2-seat convertible with removable hardtop
Engine: 4.8 L 292 Y-block V8
5.1 L 312 Y-block V8
Second generation "Square Birds"
1959 Ford Thunderbird convertible
Production: 1958-1960
Body style: 2-door hardtop coupe
2-door convertible
Engine: 5.8 L 352 FE V8
7.0 L 430 MEL V8
Third generation "Bullet Birds"
1963 Ford Thunderbird convertible
Production: 1961-1963
Body style: 2-door hardtop coupe
2-door convertible
Engine: 6.4 L 390 FE V8
Fourth generation "Flair Birds"
1966 Ford Thunderbird hardtop
Production: 1964-1966
Body style: 2-door hardtop coupe
2-door convertible
Engine: 6.4 L 390 FE V8
7.0 L 428 FE V8 (66)
Fifth generation "Glamor Birds"
1967 Ford Thunderbird Fordor
Production: 1967-1971
Body style: 2-door hardtop coupe
2-door landau
4-door pillared hardtop landau
Engine: 6.4 L 390 FE V8 (67,68)
7.0 L 428 FE V8 (67)
7.0 L 429 V8 (68-71)
Related: Lincoln Continental Mark III
Sixth generation "Big Birds"
1975 Ford Thunderbird
Production: 1972-1976
Body style: 2-door hardtop coupe
Engine: 7.0 L 429 V8
7.5 L 460 V8
Related: Lincoln Continental Mark IV
Seventh generation "Torino Birds"
1977-1979 Ford Thunderbird
Production: 1977-1979
Body style: 2-door hardtop coupe
Engine: 5.0 L 302 Windsor V8
5.8 L 351M V8
6.6 L 400 V8
Related: Ford LTD II
Eighth generation "Box Birds"
1980 Ford Thunderbird
Production: 1980-1982
Body style: 2-door coupe
Platform: FR Fox
Engine: 2.3 L Pinto I4
3.3 L 200 I6
4.2 L 255 Windsor V8
5.0 L 302 Windsor V8.
Related: Ford Fairmont
Ford Mustang
Mercury Capri
Mercury Cougar
Mercury Zephyr
Ninth generation "Aero Birds"
1987 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe
Production: 1983-1988
Body style: 2-door coupe
Platform: FR Fox
Engine: 2.3 L Pinto I4 (turbo)
3.8 L Essex V6
5.0 L Windsor V8
Related: Ford LTD
Ford Mustang
Lincoln Continental Mark VII
Mercury Capri
Mercury Cougar
Mercury Marquis
Tenth generation "Super Birds"
Production: 1989-1997
Body style: 2-door coupe
Platform: FR MN12
Engine: 3.8 L Essex V6 (NA/SC)
5.0 L Windsor V8
4.6 L Modular V8
Wheelbase: 113.0 in (2870 mm)
Length: 198.7 in (5047 mm)
Curb weight: 3701 lb (1679 kg)
Related: Lincoln Mark VIII
Mercury Cougar
Eleventh generation "Retro Birds"
Recent model Ford Thunderbird
Production: 2002–2005
Body style: 2-door convertible with removable hardtop
Platform: DEW98
Engine: 3.9 L AJ35 V8
Related: Jaguar S-Type
Lincoln LS

The Ford Thunderbird is a car manufactured in the United States by the Ford Motor Company. It entered production for the 1955 model year as a two-seater sporty car; unlike the superficially similar (and slightly earlier) Chevrolet Corvette, the Thunderbird was never sold as a full-blown sports car. Ford described it as a personal luxury car, a description which named a new market segment. In 1958, the Thunderbird gained a second row of seats for greater practicality. Succeeding generations became larger and more luxurious, until the line was downsized in 1977 and again in 1980. Sales were good until the 1990s, when large 2-door coupes became unpopular; production ceased after 1997. In 2002, a revived 2-seat model was launched, was available through the end of the 2005 model year.

Genesis

Three men are generally credited with creating the original Thunderbird: Lewis D. Crusoe, a retired GM executive lured out of retirement by Henry Ford II; George Walker, chief stylist and a Ford vice-president; and Frank Hershey, a Ford designer. Crusoe and Walker met in France in October 1951. Walking in the Grand Palais in Paris, Crusoe pointed at a sports car and asked Walker, 'Why can’t we have something like that?'

Walker promptly telephoned Ford's HQ in Dearborn and told designer Frank Hershey about the idea. Hershey took the idea and began working on the vehicle. The concept was for a two-passenger open car, with a target weight of 2525 lb (1145 kg), an Interceptor V8 engine and a top speed of over 100 mph (160 km/h). Crusoe saw a painted clay model on May 18, 1953, which corresponded closely to the final car; he gave the car the go-ahead in September after comparing it with current European trends.

Unlike the Corvette, the Thunderbird was never a full-blown sporting vehicle; Ford's description was personal luxury car, and the company essentially created this market segment.

Naming

There was some difficulty in naming the car, with suggestions ranging from the exotic to the ridiculous (Hep Cat, Beaver, Detroiter, Runabout, Arcturus, Savile, El Tigre, and Coronado were submitted among the 5,000 suggestions). One serious suggestion was Whizzer. Crusoe offered a $250 suit to anyone who could come up with a better name.

Stylist Alden "Gib" Giberson submitted Thunderbird as part of a list. Giberson never claimed his prize, settling for a $95 suit and an extra pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue.

According to Palm Springs Life magazine, the car's final name came not from the Native American symbol as one might expect, but from an ultra-exclusive housing tract in what would later be incorporated as Rancho Mirage, California: Thunderbird Heights.

Generations

1955-1957 "Classic Birds" or "Little Birds"

The car was shown at the first postwar Detroit Auto Show on February 20, 1954. The first production car came off the line on September 9, 1954. It went on sale on October 22, 1954) as a 1955 model, and sold briskly; 3,500 orders were placed in the first ten days of sale. Ford had only projected building 10,000; eventual 1955 sales were 16,155.

As standard, the 1955 Thunderbird included a removable fiberglass top; a fabric convertible top was an option, although commonly specified. The only engine option was a 292 Y-block V8. The exhausts exited through twin "bullets" above the rear bumper, as was the fashion.

For the 1956 model, Ford made some changes. To give more trunk space, the spare wheel was mounted outside, Continental-style; the exhausts were moved to the ends of the bumper. Air vents were added behind the front wheels to improve cabin ventilation. To improve rear-quarter visibility with the removable hardtop in place, "porthole" windows were made available as a no-cost option. An optional 312 Y-block V8 was made available for those that wanted more performance.

1956 sales were 15,631, the lowest of all three 2-seater Thunderbird model years.

For 1957, a more radical restyle was performed. The front bumper was reshaped, with heavier sides, "bullets" at the ends of the grille, and the section below the grille dropping down. The grille was larger. The tailfins were made larger, more pointed, and canted outward; larger round tail-lights were fitted. The spare wheel moved inside the trunk again, which had been redesigned to allow it to be mounted vertically and take up less space. The side "Thunderbird" script moved from the fins to the front fenders. The styling was so influential, the later British Anglia bore an uncanny resemblance to it. The Corsair was heavily influenced by the later "Bullet bird" of 1961-63.

Engine options increased, because Ford went racing with the Thunderbird that year. As well as the standard 292 and 312 engines, versions of the 312 were produced in higher states of tune, and even a few McCulloch supercharged versions, rated at 300 and 340 hp respectively.

1957 sales were 21,380, including three extra months of production because the 1958 models were late.

The 1957 Thunderbird would be the last two-seater Ford ever built and sold to the public until the 1982 Ford EXP.

1958-1960 "Square Birds"

Although the original Thunderbird was successful as an image-builder for Ford, the corporation's executives -- particularly Robert McNamara -- felt its sales volume was unacceptably small. Market research suggested that sales were inherently limited by its two-seat configuration, making it unsuitable as an only car for families. Therefore, the second generation, introduced for the 1958 model year, was designed as a four-seat car.

The four-seat Thunderbird, like the new Lincolns, was designed with unibody construction, eschewing a separate chassis. The intent was to allow the maximum interior space in a relatively small exterior package. Both the new Thunderbird and the new Lincolns were produced at a new assembly plant at Wixom, Michigan, built as part of a corporate expansion plan to increase the sales of up-market cars (Mercurys, Lincolns, and Thunderbirds).

The new Thunderbird had a distinct new styling theme, sharply angular and formal, but extremely low slung. The look, which was quickly propagated to the rest of Ford's car line, earned this generation the nickname "Square Bird." The design was driven entirely by the styling department and approved before the engineering was considered. The design was one of two proposed, styled primarily by Joe Oros, who later worked on the Ford Mustang; the losing proposal, by designer Elwood Engel, was reworked in size to become the 1961 Lincoln Continental.

The new Thunderbird was nine inches (230 mm) lower than the standard American car of the time, at 52.5 in (1.33 m), with only 5.8 in (147 mm) of ground clearance. The significant transmission tunnel intrusion required to fit the powertrain into such a low car was turned into a styling feature by covering it with a large, full-length center console dividing the front and rear seats and containing ashtrays, switches, and minor controls.

Beneath the innovative monocoque construction, the remainder of the engineering was conventional. Ford's new FE-series engine was used, with 352 in³ (5.8 L) displacement. Standard transmission remained a three-speed manual transmission, with optional overdrive or Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission. Front suspension was independent, with coil springs and unequal-length A-arms. The rear was initially a live axle suspended by coil springs, which were intended to be interchangeable with optional air springs that were cancelled before production. Drum brakes were used at all four wheels.

Various delays conspired to have production start only on December 20, 1957, much later than the normal September start; the 1957 Thunderbird was thus built for three extra months.

The new Thunderbird captured Motor Trend's Car of the Year award in its debut season, the first of three it would eventually accumulate. While many fans of the earlier, two-seat Thunderbirds were not happy with the new direction, Ford was vindicated with sales figures of 37,892, more than double the previous year despite losing three months of production and 1958 being a very poor year for car sales—the Thunderbird was one of only two cars to show a sales increase that year (the other being the Rambler. Only 2,134 convertibles were built, mostly because the convertible model did not become available until June 1958.

For the 1959 model year, Ford made changes to the front, rear, and side ornamentation, and made leather upholstery available for the first time. The rear suspension was revised, discarding coil springs for Hotchkiss drive, with parallel leaf springs. A new engine, the 430 in³ (7.0 L) MEL-series, was available in small numbers. Sales almost doubled again, to 67,456 units, including 10,261 convertibles. Thunderbird advertising in 1959 targeted women in particular, showing glamorous models in country club and other exclusive settings, and the sales figures bore out Ford's marketing plans.

1960's sales figures hit another record: 92,843 units sold, including 11,860 convertibles. A rare option in this year was a sunroof; this "Golde Edition" (Golde was a German company whose sunroof patent Ford licensed) sold 2,530 examples.

1961-1963 "Bullet Birds"

1961 saw new and much sleeker "Bullet Bird" styling, with a pointed nose and rocket-ship lines, terminating with twin jet exhaust-like round taillights with fins above. Sales were strong, if not quite up to record-breaking 1960, at 73,051 including 10,516 convertibles. A new, larger 390 in³ (6.4 L) FE-series V8 was the only engine available. The Thunderbird was 1961's Indianapolis 500 pace car, and featured prominently in US President John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade, probably helped along by the appointment of Ford executive Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense.

1962 saw strong production figures of 78,011 (including 9,884 convertibles) and the introduction of the Thunderbird Sports Roadster. This model included a tonneau cover that covered the rear seat area, effectively transforming the car into a two-seater model, as well as Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels and special trim. Despite its appealing appearance, which earned a number of high-profile sales, including the model owned by Elvis Presley, its impracticality and high price led to poor sales. The tonneau cover was available through the 1964 model year, but few were sold.

Also introduced in 1962 was the Landau model, with a vinyl roof and simulated S-bars on the rear pillars. This was the beginning of the 1960s/1970s fashion for vinyl roof treatments, and a vinyl roof was a popular Thunderbird feature for the next twenty years.

1963's numbers were down at 63,313. The Landau became the number 2 model after the standard hardtop, at 12,193 sold, while a Limited Edition "Principality of Monaco" Landau model, personalized with a plaque displaying the owner's name and the car's limited production number, were limited to and sold 2,000 units. They all came with special white leather interior and a rose colored vinyl padded roof with Landau irons. Only 5,913 convertibles and 455 Sports Roadsters sold, indicating a decline in convertible popularity at the time.

1964-1966 "Flair Birds"

For 1964 the Thunderbird was restyled yet again, discarding some of the rocket-ship styling cues of the previous generation in favor of a more squared-off, "formal" look. Dimensions changed only fractionally, and the suspension, engine, and transmission remained as before, but continued efforts to minimize noise and vibration from the unit body led to a weight increase of some 244 lb (110 kg).

The Thunderbird's sporty image had by that time become only an image. The standard 390 cu. in. 315 bhp engine needed nearly 11 seconds to push the heavy T-bird to 60 mph (96 km/h), although with enough room a top speed of about 120 mph (200 km/h) was obtainable. The softly sprung suspension allowed considerable body lean, wallow, and float except on smoothly surfaced highways; there was an export suspension package available as special order. Contemporary testers felt that the Buick Riviera and Pontiac Grand Prix were substantially more roadable cars, but the Thunderbird remained the leader of the market segment.

The revised 'bird was initially offered as a hardtop, a convertible, or Landau, with vinyl roof and simulated landau irons. The tonneau cover and wire wheels of the Sports Roadster remained available as a dealer-installed option, although only 50 were sold. Total 1964 sales were excellent: 92,465, up nearly 50% from the previous year.

Several features intended for the new generation were delayed until 1965, when front disc brakes became standard equipment and sequential turn signals were added. The latter feature flashed the individual segments of the broad, horizontal tail lights in sequences from inside to outside to indicate a turn. The delay resulted from legal difficulties with various U.S. state laws on vehicle lighting. Sales, impacted by increasing competition (including from Ford's own Mustang), dipped to 74,972.

For 1966 the larger, 428 cu. in. (7.0 L) V-8 became optional, rated at 345 gross horsepower (257.4 kW) and providing a notable improvement in 0-60 acceleration (to about 9 seconds). A new Town Hardtop model was offered, featured a roof with blind quarter panels for a more 'formal' look (at the cost of rear visibility). The Landau model was replaced by the Town Landau, which retained the previous model's padded roof and landau S-bars, but applied them to the Town Hardtop's formal roof. The Town Landau was by far the best-selling model, accounting for 35,105 of the 1966 model's 69,176 sales.

There was a very rare special order 427 available through certain ford dealers for 1963-1965 Thunderbirds, 120 of these 'high performance' T-birds were made. Only 6 are still known to exist today. See a 427 tbird at http://www.cardomain.com/ride/2080960. It is documented that Bob Tasca a well known drag racer of the 60's ordered a factory fitted 427 1964 T-bird that was said to do 0-60 mph in 6 seconds flat with a top speed of 135 mph.

A "Flair 'Bird" later had a major role in the TV series Highlander as protagonist Duncan Macleod’s main mode of transportation.

A green 1966 Thunderbird convertible was prominently featured in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise, starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, and directed by Ridley Scott.

1967-1971 "Glamor Birds"

This fifth generation saw the second major change of direction for the Thunderbird. Having moved from being a two-seater quasi-sports car in 1955-1957 to a four-seater personal luxury car in 1958, the Thunderbird had fundamentally remained the same in concept through 1966, even though the styling had been updated twice. The introduction of the Ford Mustang in early 1964 (as a 1965 model) had, however, challenged the Thunderbird's market positioning. It, like the Thunderbird, was a small, two-door, four-seater with sporting pretensions, but it was substantially cheaper. The Thunderbird's sales suffered. Ford's response was to move the Thunderbird upmarket, while some fans of the classic Thunderbird consider 1966 to be the last year of interest.

For 1967 the Thunderbird would be a larger car, moving it closer to Lincoln as the company chose to emphasise the "luxury" part of the "personal luxury car" designation. Other companies had already done the same; the Buick Riviera, in particular.

Mindful of the company's problematic experiences with the 1958 Lincolns, Ford chose to abandon the Thunderbird's traditional unibody construction for this larger car, turning to a body-on-frame method with sophisticated rubber mountings between the two to reduce vibration and noise.

The convertible, increasingly a slow seller, was dropped. Instead, the company introduced something new to the market segment; a four-door model ("Fordor" in Ford parlance). Perhaps to emphasise the Thunderbird's closer ties to the Lincoln marque as it moved upmarket, the rear doors were backward-opening suicide doors as on the 1960s Lincoln Continental. The four-door would remain available through 1971 but never generated substantial sales.

The new 1968 Lincoln Continental Mark III was based on the four-door Thunderbird chassis, and from that point until the late Nineties, Thunderbirds and Continental Marks were generally related cars, the Thunderbird following the Mark's growth to enormity in the 1972 model year. The Mercury Cougar also often shared components.

Styling

The 1967 styling would be radically different from what came before. Ford's stylists delivered a radical shape that in many ways anticipated the styling trends of the next five years. A gaping wide "fishmouth" front grille that incorporated hidden headlights was the most obvious new feature. The look was clearly influenced by the intakes on jet fighters such as the F-100 Super Sabre, and was enhanced by the flush-fitting front bumper incorporating the bottom "lip" of the "mouth".

The sides were the barrel-like "fuselage" style that became so popular during this period. The belt line kicked up "coke-bottle" style after the rear windows, again a styling trait that would prove ubiquitous. Large C-pillars (and a small "formal" rear window on the 4-door) meant poor rear visibility but were the fashion of the time.

The taillights spanned the full width of the car, and featured, as in previous Thunderbird models, sequential turn signals.

In 1971, Neiman Marcus offered "his and hers" Thunderbirds in its catalog, with telephones, tape recorders and other niceties. They retailed for $25,000 for the pair.

1972-1976 "Big Birds"

These were the biggest Thunderbirds ever produced. They housed massive 429 in³ (7.0 L) or 460 in³ (7.5 L) V8 engines. These cars weighed in at around 5000 lb (2250 kg). They were the kings of the road. Unfortunately, due to their enormous proportions and large engines gas mileage was abysmmal. These cars averaged anywhere from 8 to 12 miles per gallon (29.4 to 19.6 L/100 km) depending on driving condtions. With the 1973 oil crisis taking its toll on the United States, automobiles where forced to downsize and become more efficient.

1977-1979 "Torino Birds"

For the 1977 through 1979 model years, the Thunderbird nameplate was shifted to the smaller chassis that had underpinned the discontinued Ford Torino and the LTD II, as Ford's first effort at downsizing the car. The squarer, sharper styling was popular, and this generation of Thunderbird sold well, helped by a $2,700 drop in price from the previous year.

Compared to the enormous 1972-1976 T-Birds, the car lost 10 in of length and 900 lb of weight, while height and width were essentially unchanged. A substantial part of the weight reduction was in the drivetrain, where a small-block V8 replaced the heavy big-block V8 of previous years.

The standard engine outside of California was the Ford 302 engine (302 in³, 5.0 L), while the larger 351 (5.8 lL) or 400 (6.6 L) were available as options. In California, the 351 was the only engine available. Although power was definitely down by 1977, the lighter car did compensate.

1980-1982 "Box Birds"

1980 saw a new, shrunken Thunderbird that was little more than a sedan with nicer trim; though in post-fuel-crisis America, these vehicles could be thought of as intermediate-sized, rather than compacts. The 1980 Thunderbird was a unibody car, weighing 800 lb (363 kg) less than the 1979 model, and was 17 in. (432 mm) shorter. It was based on the new Fox platform, and the lighter weight resulted in better gas mileage.

The Box Birds were not well received by the general public, and were considered by many to be only a Ford Fairmont with Thunderbird styling. It was also because the T-Bird didn't come with aggressive engine options. It had a base 4-cylinder, with the optional 3.8L V6, 4.2L V8 or a 4 cylinder turbodiesel. In its final year, there was a 5.0L V8 option available. Mercury's own version of this car was the Cougar. The Box Birds possessed a unique body style that was all their own, with squarish upright lines favored by Ford design vice-president Eugene Bordinat.

They were luxuriously appointed, and fuel efficient for their size. The six cylinder models were known to get up to 30 US mpg. The 1980–1982 Thunderbirds offered flip-up headlights, and were the only Fox-body cars to have them. Digital instrumentation was also available, along with a variety of trim packages from which to choose. Though somewhat underpowered, they drove well, could easily keep pace with traffic on the open road, and offered considerable luxury in their size class.

Power was somewhat scarce due to the new emissions control laws coming into effect in the late 1970s.

With the second gas crisis of 1979 came a second downsized Thunderbird, but this time it was too much of a good thing. While the downsizing of '77 had made the Thunderbird perfectly proportioned and a perfect competitor to GM's "personal coupes", the '80 model was too small, and too much like the Fairmont on which it was based. The "Fox" platform was capable, but T-bird was sabotaged by the product planners, who wanted to save money by tying the car closely to the Fairmont, and later Granada. While it kept it's unique styling, most of the aesthetics of the successful '77-'79 edition were lost, and sales slid by nearly 50%. Another problem was that T-bird didn't get gas mileage that was good enough to justify its shrunken proportions, and wasn't prestigious enough to justify its relatively high price. The interior was smaller, the trunk not as big, and visibility got worse with the new body thanks to the huge C-pillar and enormous vynil half-top. The '80 models were offered with two V8's, the standard 255cid, and the larger and more powerful 302cid. For '82, the 302 was dropped. The base engine for '81 was the underpowered 200cid inline six cylinder, with a 3.8 liter V6 replacing it in mid-'82. The best and most reliable engine of all of these is the 302cid (5.0) V8, because it is the cheapest to fix, and has had the fewest problems over the years. It also happens to be the easiest Ford V8 to upgrade, performance-wise. Electrical and and brake problems are common on the early cars, and so is rust. In fact, the scythe of rust is usually what brings these cars to the junkyard, though lax assembly quality and engine problems have more than a little to do with the demise of many of these cars. This T-bird was more thought-out and efficient than the old one, but so many problems make for an unhappy ownership experience. The older one wasn't a model of quality or efficiency, but it's better than this one. Then again, so was the next generation of T-bird, the so-called "Aero-bird". Chances are, you won't even be able to find one of these today - there are so few left thanks to rust and quality problems, and the model's short life, that good ones are hard to find. Not worth it as an everyday car thanks to the headaches, but a potential classic because of rarity.

1983-1988 "Aero Birds"

However, 1983 saw a much improved and aerodynamic car and the launch of the Turbo Coupe, and a much sportier image. Reputedly, in 1980 following a change in leadership, the new chief designer Jack Telnack was asked by executive Don Petersen "is this what you would want in your driveway?" Telnack's negative response prompted a redesign of the Thunderbird with the aero style that subsequently flowed on through the Taurus and various Lincolns.

In 1987, the Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe was redesigned and came with such notable features as automatic ride control, anti-lock brakes, and the intercooled turbocharged engine from the Ford Mustang SVO. All this resulted in a personal luxury car that produced 190 horsepower (142 kW) from a 2.3 L 4-cylinder engine and had a 146 mph top speed. The Turbo Coupe was Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1987.

The 1987 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe

Ford Motor Company, like the Chrysler Corporation, was hit hard by the recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet Ford, without the government assistance that Chrysler had, turned itself around by reinventing many of the products that it made. The 9th generation Thunderbird, introduced in 1983, symbolized this renaissance.

The 1983 Ford Thunderbird was built on the same "Fox platform" as many other Ford products including the 1980-82 Thunderbird and the Ford Mustang. Unlike the previous generation T-Bird, the new-for-1983 model was redesigned with a more aerodynamic look. The drag coefficient of this body style was a mere 0.35 (the lower the number the less wind resistance). The 1983 T-Bird came in base, Heritage, and Turbo Coupe models. Both the base and the Heritage came with either a 3.8 L (232 in³) Essex V6 that produced 110 horsepower (82 kW) mated to a 3 speed automatic. A new 5.0 L (302 in³) Windsor V8 with 140 horsepower (104 kW) was available with the former two models as well. The Turbo Coupe, the top-of-the-line model was special for several reasons. Not only was it the first Thunderbird with a 4-cylinder engine, it was also the first Thunderbird with a turbocharged engine. It used a 2.3 L (140 in³) turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with Ford's EEC-IV or Electronic Engine Control - Fourth Generation. Unlike the other models, the Turbo Coupe came with a standard 5-speed manual transmission (yet another first!). Other improvements included a limited-slip differential (called "Traction-Lok") larger tires and wheels, and a sportier interior complete with analog gauges.

For 1984, the Thunderbird few changes were made. The Turbo Coupe gained a 3-speed automatic transmission as an option.

By 1985, the Turbo Coupe gained power to 155 horsepower (116 kW), but not much else changed for the Thunderbird. A 30th Anniversary Edition model was offered, but was based on the Elan model and most models came with the V8.

By 1986, Ford was already hard at work on the so-called "MN12" project. Supposed to compete against the BMW 6-series, Ford believed that the new Thunderbird would be too big a change for the public and still wanted to capitalize on the success that the "AeroBird" brought. So for 1987, Ford redesigned the Thunderbird and made a good car even better. Larger glass areas and flush headlights further reduced aerodynamic drag. Replacing the Elan were new LX and Sport models. The latter came with the V8 while the LX came with the V6. The much-improved Turbo Coupe earned the honor of being the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 1987. For starters, the 2.3 L turbo-4 now included the air-to-air intercooler that was found in the Ford Mustang SVO and boosted power up to 190 horsepower (142 kW) for the 5-speed manual transmission. New for the Turbo Coupe was a 4-speed automatic rated at 150 horsepower (112 kW). The automatic had detuned turbo boost of 9.5 lbf/in² (65.5 kPa or 0.655 bar) instead of 10 to 15 lbf/in² (70 to 100 kPa or 0.69 to 1.03 bar). Ford's rationale for that was "transmission durability". Otherwise, the Turbo Coupe also came with anti-lock 4-wheel disc brakes, Automatic Ride Control, and 16-inch 225/60VR performance tires. Automatic climate control was also an available option.

1988, the final year for the Turbo Coupe, saw only a minor change. The 5-speed manual transmission now allowed the full 15 lbf/in² of boost in all forward gears (as opposed to the first two gears). Alas, the Turbo Coupe was replaced in 1989 by the Super Coupe which had a 3.8 L supercharged V6 engine—a radical departure from the old turbo-4. Though the Turbo Coupe only lasted 6 years, it remains a good buy with its high-tech electronic features and high-performance turbocharged engine.

Completely redesigned and now sitting on it's own platform again, after six years of being a souped-up Ford mid-size, the "Aero Bird" Thunderbird was a groundbreaking car for Ford. After many years of very linear and upright designs, the new T-bird's aerodynamic shape looked positively svelte compared to it's immediate predecessors. The new car was a little smaller than the boxy 'bird it replaced, but the difference in size was not apparent, mostly because of the new car's curvy shape. The Thunderbird ended up sharing its chassis and much of its styling with both the Mercury Cougar (as it had since 1977) and the Lincoln Mk. VII (T-bird and Mk had shared a platform in the early seventies), but the car's identity was immediately apparent to any and all viewers. The accommodating interior and quiet-but-capable road manners were liked by many, as was the renewed emphasis on performance in the T-bird, where most of the T-birds since the sixties had been focused more on Luxury. The base engine was Ford's 3.8 liter V6, which gained fuel injection for '84. A special model, called the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, was available from the start with a turbocharged version of Ford's 2.3 liter four, putting out 150 horsepower. For 1987, this engine was improved, and was putting out nearly 190 hp. Available from '84 on was the 302cid (5.0 liter) V8, which put out about 160 hp by 1988. Thunderbird's exterior was freshened for '87, and the car looked even more aerodynamic. The one major flaw in this Thunderbird is the narrow front seats, and the small steering wheel. These can seem unnatural when coming into a Thunderbird from a wide American car, and once experienced can make nearly all other cars seem roomier, even though T-bird offered plenty of room up front, despite the perceived smallness of the seats and front compartment. Suspension and rust problems are common on the early cars, but improved with time. For large coupes, it's hard to beat those restyled '87-'88 T-birds, though the early ones aren't known for quality. This T-bird is by far the best one discussed here, though for 1989 a whole new Thunderbird appeared, changing the character of the car once again. These cars are at the bottom of their value curve so the examples out there vary wildly from totally trashed cars to hot rods to pristine originals. As with any car of this era and price, take your time and shop around for the best one you can - Ford made hundreds of thousands of these cars so it's worth shopping around if this is the one you want.

1989-1997 "Super Birds"

In 1989, the new, much-anticipated Thunderbird model premiered. Classified as the MN-12 (Mid-size North American Project 12), the Thunderbird now had four-wheel independent suspension and a slightly smaller, more aerodynamic body. Engine options fell to only two for 1989 as Ford dropped the V8 option for the new T-bird. The base and LX models were powered by the 140 hp (104 kW) 3.8L OHV V6, which many felt was underpowered for the almost 3800 lb (1725 kg) car.

A 210 hp (157 kW), 315 ft·lbf torque supercharged and intercooled version of the 3.8L V6 was included in the top-of-the-line Super Coupe (SC). The Super Coupe was available with a 5-speed manual transmission as well as the AOD 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission, the only transmission available in the other Thunderbirds. The Thunderbird SC was Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1989. The 8.2 to 1 compression ratio was combined with six computer controlled, sequential fuel injectors. When running at a maximum 15,600 rpm, the supercharger provided 12 psi of boost, producing 210 bhp at 4000 rpm and 315 ft·lbf of torque at 2600 rpm.

In spite of this the car was considered a failure by some in management; it badly missed its weight and cost targets, and the higher price needed to pay for the improved features resulted in a big decrease in production volume compared with the previous model. The program manager was publicly criticized by Ford Chairman Harold A. Poling at the company's internal celebration of the Car of the Year award, and he resigned a short time later. The Lorain Assembly Plant reduced line speed from over 70 per hour to 40 per hour because of the reduced demand.

Few were impressed with the Supercharged-6', and in 1991, most who wanted a powerful Thunderbird opted for the 5.0 L OHV V8, rated at 200 hp (149 kW). In 1994, the Thunderbird received some minor exterior updates and a redesigned interior that featured new sweeping curves on the door panels and dashboard areas, but the most dramatic change was the new 205 hp (153 kW) 4.6L SOHC V8 which replaced the iconic and much-loved 5.0. The 4.6 brought with it an updated electronic control system (EEC-V), and an electronically-controlled 4R70W automatic transmission. The Super Coupe continued on in 1994 with the same supercharged V6 as before, but now with 230 hp (172 kW) and 330 ft·lbf (447 N·m) of torque. This was made possible due to a number of changes. The M90 superchager was given a larger square style inlet, a larger attaching inlet plenum, 70mm throttle body, teflon coated rotors, and a stronger fuel system. These increases in output would be short-lived, however, as the Thunderbird Super Coupe was discontinued after the 1995 model year.

In 1996, the Thunderbird received its last styling update. Available in LX (V6 or V8) or Sport (V8 only) trims, both featured redesigned headlights and taillights, smoother re-styled front and rear fascias, body side cladding, new wheels (15 inch on LX, 16 inch on Sport), and a slight hood bulge, which was necessary to fit the updated 4.6L engine's taller intake manifold, now composite. V8 models still made 205 hp, but now made 280 ft·lbf (380 N·m) of torque, an increase of 15 ft·lbf (20 N·m). Unfortunately for owners, the composite intake had a tendency to crack and leak antifreeze. The base LX model continued to use the 3.8L V6 as its engine but now made use of the EEC-V computer which before was only found in 4.6L V8-equipped models. Torque output from the V6 remained the same as before but horsepower increased to 145 for 1996. In 1997, Ford made few notable changes, trying to save as much money as they could on the floundering coupe. As a result, the 1997 Thunderbird's appeal suffered even more, as the only options available were power sunroof, power driver seat, remote keyless entry, and a CD player. A low drag coefficient contributed to an impressive and consistent 24-28 mpg on the highway.

In 1997 high performance Thunderbirds were released. The four prototypes produced by Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering division came with Cobra "R" brakes and wheels, a Tremec 5-speed manual transmission, and featured a 4.6 liter, double overhead cam V8 engine block similar to that found in the SVT Mustang Cobra. The SVE Thunderbirds also came with a cowl hood to accommodate the Eaton supercharger sitting atop the modular motor. However, this high-performance Thunderbird was not to be, as Ford not only pulled the plug on this project, but on the entire Thunderbird/Cougar line to close the 1997 model year. The last MN-12 Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line in Lorain, Ohio, on September 4, 1997.

2002-2005 "Retro Birds"

However, 2002 saw a new Thunderbird launched; this Retro Bird was again a two-seater and received the model's third Motor Trend Car of the Year honor. It was also nominated for the North American Car of the Year award that year.

The new Thunderbird was based on the Ford DEW platform, shared with the Lincoln LS. It followed the recent trend for nostalgic recreations of old-fashioned (or "retro") styling (see VW New Beetle, Chrysler PT Cruiser), being a recreation of the 1955-1957 two-seat Thunderbird in a modern style. Available only as a convertible with a removable hardtop and, according to automotive writer Jerry Flint, the new Thunderbird "turned heads wherever it went."

Ford expected sales of 25,000 units per year, but were never that high. Jerry Flint, writing for Forbes magazine on the demise of the newest Thunderbird, summed it all up by writing, "Ford dealers have been successful selling 35,000-45,000 USD trucks but have little experience selling automobiles in the near-luxury price range. If there was a marketing effort by Ford Motor, I wasn't aware of it. Naturally, sales didn't meet expectations."

The car had been intended for introduction during the 2001 model year, but instead was delayed for a year, probably dampening the initial enthusiasm of the buying public. The 40,000 USD price tag was considered steep, given the car's somewhat average handling and power (although the handling and power were both commensurate with that of the original 2-seater Thunderbird).

When the car was first introduced, demand far exceeded supply, which led to Ford dealers overcharging for the car. Then, when supply began to exceed demand, dealers began their usual pattern of "incentives" (discounting) to "move the car off of dealer lots," as reported in the 2004 New Car Buyers Guide, thus alienating original customers.

Though the Retro Bird body styling never changed, exterior and interior color packaging was inconsistent from year to year. For 2002, the car was available in bright red ("torch red"), bright yellow ("inspiration yellow"), and turquoise ("Thunderbird blue"), all reminiscent of 1950s colors. Furthermore, "retro" two-tone interiors (black and the color matching the exterior), were paired with these exterior colors.

"Whisper white" and "evening black" exteriors were also available in 2002, though with matching solid color interiors. They proved to be the model for the remaining years. Beginning with 2003, the two-tone "retro" interiors were sacked in favor of all-black (or other one-color) interiors. Gone were the bright yellow and turquoise exteriors, replaced with more subdued colors: "mountain shadow grey," "desert sky blue," and coral. Exterior and interior colors added for both the 2004 and 2005 model years remained subdued.

If Ford's tinkering with the exterior/interior packages were designed to boost sales, it didn't work, as sales continued to fall short of the company's hopes. Just 11,998 were sold in 2004. The Ford Motor Company announced in March 2005 that the Thunderbird would again be discontinued in July of that year, with 9,548 sold for 2005. Ford plans to release a new Thunderbird sometime in the years to come, but an exact date has not been specified. Interestingly enough, there was also talk of a performance edition from SVT, but once again, Ford decided it wasn't necessary. This could have been the savior of the retro birds however. The original 55-57 Thunderbirds came with several engine upgrades, and was definitely a high performance car of the day. Ford made no effort to give a performance image to the new Thunderbirds, and while the V-8 in the "Retro-birds" looked good on paper (280 hp, 286 ft·lbf), it failed to execute. At just 3.9Liters of displacement and a bodyweight of over 3700 lb, combined with rather poor gearing choice, it made for a feel more akin to a large luxury car than to a sport coupe. While a high performance version may not have saved the Thunderbird from what is at least a temporary extinction, it very possibly could have helped sales, as these cars had a stigma about them as an overpriced luxury car.

In the last 50 years, some 4.2 million Thunderbirds have been sold.

Sources

  • Automotive Mileposts, Inc. Ford Thunderbird. Retrieved on May 2, 2005.
  • Flint, Jerry, "Ford's Thunderbird Gets Axed," Forbes.com, April 22, 2003.
  • Gunnell, John A. (Ed.) (1987). Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, 2nd Edition. Kraus Publications. ISBN 0-87341-096-3.
  • 2004 Ford Thunderbird New Car Buyers Guide




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