by Grant Yoxon
Having once succumbed to an overpowering urge to own a 1963 Thunderbird Landau, I know all about emotional purchases.
The ’63 was a beautiful car – white vinyl top, white leather interior, fold-away steering wheel – and with its 300 horsepower, 390 cubic inch engine, a powerful highway cruiser. It was an attention-getter of the first order, eliciting comments from passers-by and other drivers whenever it was stopped and wherever it was parked. If I didn’t want to talk about the T-bird, I left it in the garage, which sadly, is where it spent most of its time.
As transportation, the Thunderbird just wasn’t a very practical car. Despite its size – it was 205 inches (5,207 mm) long and weighed 4,203 lbs. (1,906 kg) – the interior was cramped and the trunk was small (for cars of that period). Handling was cumbersome to put it mildly and, riding on 14-inch tires, it was a real handful on a bad day in January.
But I loved it anyway. The “reverse wedge” styling with its long high hood, rearward seating position and short rear deck (relatively speaking) was particularly attractive to me.
My interest in Thunderbirds faded as the ‘bird grew a beak and added four doors and disappeared completely when the Thunderbird became a Lincoln Continental clone in the early seventies.
While classic Thunderbird lovers disagreed with the directions Ford took the car, no one could disagree that from a financial point of view it was the right direction. From 1955 to ’57, Ford sold 53,166 two-seater Thunderbirds. After 1958, when the car became a four-seater, Ford never sold less than 50,000 Thunderbirds per year in any year except 1971. In 1978, an astounding 352,721 LTD II-based Thunderbirds were sold.
When Ford down-sized the T-bird in 1980, sales also down-sized and despite a serious attempt to revive the car in the late 80s and early 90s, the Thunderbird, as a brand, was just about done. In 1997, the Thunderbird was withdrawn from production.
Withdrawn, but not gone, for in the works was a new Thunderbird, one that would be what the Dearborn accountants in 1955 feared the original would become if a rear seat was not added – an upscale, niche-market, limited production roadster.
Ford dipped into the past, took the features that Thunderbird lovers loved – the egg crate grille from the ’55, the reverse wedge styling of the ’61 to ’63 third generation, for example – then smoothed and modernized the look. The result is an impressively attractive automobile that stops traffic even now, nearly 18 months after its introduction at the 2001 Detroit auto show.
This Thunderbird would be a “personal car”, to use Ford’s words from the fifties to describe a vehicle that was not sporty, not practical and not family oriented. It was then and is now a feel-good car, an object of self-indulgence. As “my” car, the ’63 Thunderbird made me feel good whenever I got behind the wheel.
Remarkably, I felt exactly the same sense of self-gratification when I climbed into the personal car reborn, the 2002 Thunderbird. The warm and fuzzy feeling started the moment I turned the key, the power steering wheel moved down into position and the 3.9 litre V-8 rumbled to life. What a wonderful sound.
This may be a thoroughly modern double-overhead cam, four-valve per cylinder engine, but it gives up nothing to the 390 cubic inch big block that powered the ’63.
Though billed as having 252 horsepower, the 3.9 in our tester pulled stronger than the 300 horsepower 390. Under the hood, though, we discovered a “Ford Authorized Modifications” sticker, making us wonder if some reprogramming had taken place after early reports called the new ‘Bird sluggish.
Any sluggishness should soon be officially cured, as the 3.9 litre gets 28 more horsepower and 25 more foot-pounds of torque in 2003 thanks to variable cam timing and electronic throttle control.
Power is delivered to the rear wheels via a five speed close-ratio electronically controlled automatic transmission – nothing fancy here except for very crisp, well-spaced shifts.
New for 2003 is an available Select Shift transmission, which allows drivers to shift gears like a conventional manual transmission but without the clutch. The new transmission features a one-piece die-cast aluminum case for reduced weight and reduced powertrain bending characteristics.
The 2002 ‘bird is equally at home on the highway where it will pass slow traffic with ease, and on the boulevard, where it attracts admiring glances and positive comments at every stop light. Moving forward at a rapid pace is where the Thunderbird, and its driver, are most content.
Despite the good feelings and favourable attention, this Thunderbird suffers a number of weaknesses unbecoming of a car costing over $50,000.
Handling was unremarkable – though light years ahead of the ’63 – and the car felt heavy despite speed-sensitive variable assist steering. The fully-independent suspension is crafted from aircraft grade aluminum and provided a supple ride. But even with three cross braces designed to limit vibration through the chassis, our tester displayed a significant amount of wiggle and jiggle over rough roads.
Interior finishing was inconsistent; cheap plastic sun visors, exposed rear view mirror wiring, and generic-looking buttons and knobs contrasted with an otherwise attractively finished interior that featured brushed aluminum and chrome trim, black leather seats with red inserts, red shifter knob and red-crowned steering wheel.
While the ‘lipstick’ red interior inserts in our black on black test vehicle received mixed reviews, overall it added some pizzazz to the rather austere cockpit.
Modern looking, overlapping gauges, illuminated by turquoise coloured needles, are borrowed from the Lincoln LS. The Thunderbird gets its own analogue cluster in 2003.
The power-operated convertible top opened and closed with ease, but the tonneau cover was impossible to install. Scratches in the paint on the rear deck showed where others had tried and failed. We left it in the trunk, which is barely big enough to hold anything else.
Ford says the trunk is large enough for two golf bags. Don’t believe it. You’ll meet your golf partner at the course because you’ll need the passenger seat for your clubs.
Other nitpicks – no locking gas cap, exterior door handles that felt less substantial than those used on the original ’55 and enough heat seeping out from the transmission tunnel to keep you warm on cool evening with the top down and the heater turned off.
Thankfully, the T-bird has dual zone air conditioning and when the temperature heats up outside, you will keep the air conditioning on, pointed at the floor.
It is easy to forgive these shortcomings when the car makes you feel so good and everybody who sees it is so darned impressed. And most potential buyers – motivated by their emotional desire to own the ultimate personal car – will surely overlook these negatives.
And with planned annual production in the neighbourhood of 25,000 units, it is unlikely Ford will have any difficulty finding enough buyers willing to put down over $60,000 including taxes to own their dream car.
No practical minded person would ever consider buying a Ford Thunderbird.
But buying a car is not always a practical decision. For many people, myself included, a car is not just an object on wheels to get from point A to B. If cars didn’t pull at my emotional side, I wouldn’t be writing about them.
And just as I was taken by a ’63 with a white vinyl top and leather interior, I could be smitten again by the lure of a V-8-powered convertible. What the heck, if it feels right, do it.
New for 2003
- Engine horsepower increased to 280 and torque to 286 foot-pounds
- Electronic throttle control and variable cam timing improve engine performance, power and fuel economy
- All-speed traction control now standard
- Available heated driver and passenger seat
- Newly styled analogue instrument cluster
- Two-speed, variable-interval wipers with heated wiper park
- New exterior colours: Mountain Shadow Grey, Desert Sky Blue
- New Saddle interior package includes leather saddle seats, saddle leather steering wheel insert and saddle leather shift knob
- New additional interior colours: Black Ink and Whisper White
Technical Data: 2002 Ford Thunderbird
|Options||Interior colour accents ($995)|
|Price as tested||$56,035|
|Type||2-door, 2-passenger mid-sized convertible|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.9 litre V8, DOHC, 32 valves|
|Horsepower||252 @ 6100 rpm|
|Torque||267 ft-lb @ 4300 rpm|
|Transmission||5-speed electronically controlled automatic|
|Curb weight||1633 kg (3600 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2723 mm (107.2 in.)|
|Length||4732 mm (186.3 in.)|
|Width||1829 mm (72.0 in.)|
|Height||1323 mm (52.1 in.)|
|Trunk capacity||190 litres (6.7 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.4 l/100 km (20 mpg)|
|Hwy: 9.9 l/100 km (29 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|