2004 Ford Thunderbird
Photos: Ford. Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

In 1953, Chevrolet introduced a radical car for American tastes: the two-seater fiberglass Corvette.

It wasn’t a hot seller at first – GM almost killed it due to poor sales – but arch-rival Ford couldn’t ignore it, and so at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show presented a prototype so new it didn’t even have a name. The story goes that a Ford stylist received a new suit as a reward for dubbing it the Thunderbird.

It was a hit straight out of the box: the inaugural 1955 model outsold Corvette 16,155 to 700. For three years, it was a two-seater convertible, with removable hardtop. But for 1958, Ford chief Robert McNamara announced that Thunderbird would add a back seat.

T-bird fans called for his head, and legend has it that a worker wrote “Bye bye, baby” on the last two-seater in soap as it went down the line – but McNamara was right. Some 16,500 more people plunked down their cash for the four-seater 1958 than they did for the two-seater 1957, and Thunderbird began a full-size run (it even grew two extra doors for a while) that finally ended with the 1997 model.

But with a newfound public interest in older cars, Ford decided to revive the two-seater, with a version that pays homage to the classic styling with the performance of the Lincoln LS upon which it’s now based. It’s not a huge seller, and rumours of its demise have been in the air for a while. But Ford of Canada won’t confirm or deny it, and for 2005, in addition to regular cars, there will be 1,500 50th anniversary models available in North America, featuring a “cashmere” paint scheme, 16-spoke wheels with cashmere-coloured accent ring, and commemorative badges.

2004 Ford Thunderbird

2004 Ford Thunderbird
Click image to enlarge

Price will be $59,275, compared to the announced 2005 MSRP of $56,775 for the regular models, the same as the MSRP for the 2004 Thunderbird. My 2004 tester had the optional $5,000 hardtop, which is now standard for 2005, and a $500 SelectShift (manual upshift/downshift) transmission, $995 Light Sand Appearance Package and $990 freight charges added, for a hold-your-breath sticker of $64,360 before tax.

That figure is undoubtedly a large part of why Thunderbird didn’t quite take the world by storm. Two-seater drop-top fans will also look at the similarly-priced BMW Z4 or Nissan 350Z roadster; those who like the Bird’s looks may balk at the price of what’s essentially a third car (after more practical transportation for owner and spouse); and true-blue Bird enthusiasts know that you can get a real 1955-57 in decent shape for that price. And it came from the factory with numerous modern amenities, drives much the same as a newer car, and doesn’t depreciate.

Still, standing on its own merits, Thunderbird is a sweet trip. As mentioned, it’s a Lincoln LS under the skin, providing the ride and performance of a sports-luxury car that’s one of my favourites. The powerplant is Lincoln’s 3.9-litre, 32-valve DOHC V-8 aluminum engine, delivering 280 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 286 ft-lbs of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Thunderbird is a heavy car, tipping the scales at 1,715 kg (3,781 lbs) even before the removable hardtop is attached, but acceleration is respectable, and there’s plenty in reserve when you need to bang the throttle down at highway speeds.

The base transmission is a 5-speed automatic, which can be upgraded to a SelectShift, with its manual upshift/downshift feature. I’ve never really seen the point of them, especially on cars that have enough horsepower for passing; most people, it seems, play with it for a week or so and then just keep it in “Drive” once the novelty wears off. I don’t know if was inherent just to my test car, but the smooth shifts Ford promises weren’t always forthcoming: most of the time it shifted harshly when in Drive, and too quickly. Each gear could have run out a little longer for more even performance. The ’55 Thunderbird was available with a manual transmission, and it would be nice to be able to shift this newest Bird, too.

2004 Ford Thunderbird

2004 Ford Thunderbird
Click image to enlarge

Suspension is Lincoln’s independent front and rear, but shocks and springs are tuned for more of a sporty feel. The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion provides good feedback without being too harsh. This isn’t a sportscar by any means, although it does strike a good balance: the ride is still luxo-comfortable, but you can take it around twisty roads with confidence, and there’s almost no cowl shake. Traction control, with ABS and throttle intervention, is standard equipment.

I’ve driven all of the “retro cars” — Mini, Chevrolet SSR, et all — but Thunderbird feels most like the car it’s emulating. The view from the driver’s seat is almost that of my friend’s 1955, looking over the raised fenders and hood scoop. The heated leather seats are extremely comfortable, and are 6-way power for driver, 2-way power for passenger, while the leather-wrapped wheel is power tilt and telescope, and contains audio and speed control buttons. The dash is retro-lovely too, with a wide metal strip wrapped around it, and the trademark turquoise-blue Thunderbird logo. The experience continues in the cabin space: both old and new Thunderbird prove a tight fit in the hips and shoulders, although there’s lots of legroom. Unlike its predecessor, the modern version has a storage well behind the seats, but it’s difficult to access when the roof is up.

Storage woes continue into the trunk, which is (as is to be expected) extremely shallow and small. Ford claims it will hold two sets of golf clubs, and if they advertise it as such, it must be so — I’m not a golfer, so I had no way to test it — but it’s gotta be one awfully tight fit. Driving trips will be limited to the amount of clothes you can stuff into a carry-on bag.

The electric convertible top works quickly and easily (and didn’t leak in a touch-free car wash), but I didn’t care for the canvas tonneau cover, which is fiddly to fit into place and really isn’t very attractive. The car is surprisingly quiet with the soft roof up, and there’s a defroster in the rear window. The removable hardtop is a two-person operation and is meant for long-term use, such as in winter; it comes with a heated window, and a rolling cart and cover for storage. Listed as an option for 2004, it becomes standard equipment in 2005.

The styling garnered mixed reactions when I took it to visit some old-car friends. It’s old-style with a streamlined twist, and while I like the eggcrate grille and protruding face, I was less enamored with the tail: although big round taillights are a 1950s Ford tradition, there’s just a little too much flat red here. Breaking it up with a splash of chrome, as the ’55 did, might be an improvement. The original Bird’s large fender ensign is updated into a smaller, tasteful grille incorporating a V8 badge. The removable top has a chrome-rimmed porthole, like the ones added in 1956 when first-year buyers complained that it was too difficult to see out of the solid ones, although top-up visibility with either roof leaves much to be desired.

The standard 17-inch wheels are 7-spoke chromed aluminum, but can be upgraded to very attractive 17-inch, 16-spoke machined aluminum ones.

Ford has done a good job with this little car, and while it’s a shame that it hasn’t sold more copies, the exclusivity may pave the way for it as a “future collectible”. That doesn’t mean you’ll get rich buying one and putting it away, though, but that you can have great fun driving it until then. Hmmm. Can another four-seater be in the works?

Technical Data: 2004 Ford Thunderbird

Base price $56,775
Options $6,495 (Removable hard top $5000; Select shift auto transmission $500; Light sand appearance package $995)
Freight $990
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $64,360
Type 2-door, 2-passenger convertible
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 3.9 litre V8, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 280 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 286 ft-lb @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic w/SelectShift
Tires 235/50R-17
Curb weight 1715 kg (3780 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 241 litres (8.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 14.4 L/100 km (20 m.p.g.)
  Hwy: 9.9 L/100 km (29 m.p.g.)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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