2002 Canadian Ford Thunderbird
Canadian Spec 2002 Ford Thunderbird
Click image to enlarge


by Greg Wilson

Unlike its 1955 namesake, the 2002 Thunderbird is not just a boulevard cruiser – its Lincoln LS-derived powertrain and suspension make it a capable performer too

Ford Thunderbirds were in production from 1955 to 1997, but the T-Birds everyone remembers were the 1955 to 1957 models. Like rock ‘n roll, drive-in diners, jukeboxes, and neon signs, early T-Birds became part of 50’s Americana, and live on in commercials, movies, and posters – and with the many T-Bird enthusiasts clubs around the world.

The retro-styled 2002 T-Bird is perfectly timed to cash in on the current wave of American nostalgia – particularly with the generation of people who couldn’t afford the original T-Bird when it was new, but now have the bucks to buy a new one. T-Birds are priced at $51,550 (plus $980 Freight), and if you want the optional hardtop with the classy porthole windows, the price is $56,550.


Something old, something new

2002 Canadian Ford Thunderbird
Canadian Spec 2002 Ford Thunderbird
Click image to enlarge

The 2002 T-Bird borrows many styling cues from early T-Birds, while somehow managing to look contemporary. Some styling features like the egg-crate chrome grille, round headlamps, large round taillamps, hood scoop, fender air vents, porthole windows on the hardtop, and replica ‘Thunderbird’ script on the fenders remind me of earlier Thunderbirds. But other features, such as the rounded body shape, swept-back windshield, body-coloured bumpers and 16 inch wheels are all 21st Century.

Inside, the T-Bird’s retro-look speedometer, aluminum dash trim, and two-tone bucket seats resemble 50’s interiors, but the centre instrument control stack, floor console, airbag-equipped steering wheel, and seat head restraints are strictly modern features.

In all, I think the 2002 T-Bird is a successful blend of old and new because it borrows some of the T-Bird’s memorable styling elements, but doesn’t try to look like an old car. This should make it attractive to both younger and older buyers.

Underneath, a modern platform

Underneath the sexy exterior is a modern rear-wheel-drive platform with an independent rear suspension. The 2002 Thunderbird uses a platform similar to the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type, and the same 3.9 litre DOHC 32 valve V8 engine with 252 horsepower. The only transmission offered is a five-speed automatic which doesn’t have a manual shift mode. 60% of the T-Bird’s parts are from other Ford products, so development costs were relatively low.


Canadian model doesn’t have standard fog lights

US spec 2002 Ford Thunderbird
U.S. Spec 2002 Ford Thunderbird
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There are some differences between T-Birds sold in Canada and those sold in the U.S.A. Canadian models don’t have those twin, lower fog lights in the front bumper – instead they have rather cheesy-looking body-coloured covers. Canada doesn’t get the fog lights because they don’t stand up to our tougher 5 mph bumper standards – the bumper is supposed to remain intact in a 5 mph crash test, but apparently the fog lights don’t make the test (the U.S. has 2.5 mph bumper standards). Rumour has it though, these fog lights are available as an aftermarket option and the covers will pop out pretty easily.

Another difference with Canadian T-Birds is that all-speed traction control is standard – in the U.S., it’s optional. Also, U.S. customers get a greater variety of interior colour combinations than Canadians. We get three choices, a standard interior (which is mostly one colour plus aluminum trim), an interior with body-coloured shift knob and steering wheel inserts, and a full two-tone interior with body-coloured lower dash and seat inserts. And Canadian T-Birds aren’t available with the optional chromed 16 inch alloy wheels – they come with standard alloy wheels.

The only major option is the hardtop which weighs 39 kg (85 lb.). It comes with a cart that allows the hardtop to be stored upright at the back of your garage. To remove the hardtop, there are two latches at the rear and two screws (which require a special tool) on the header.


First driving experience

I drove the new T-Bird for about three hours with the top up and down. The power top is easy to put up and down, and is released with a single lever. A flexible hard cover, which is normally stored in the trunk, is fitted manually over the top – it’s easy to do, but takes a few minutes. My personal gripe with this tonneau cover is that it’s bulky, and when the top is up, the cover takes up half of the trunk space of the already small 6.7 cu. ft. trunk.

2002 Canadian Ford Thunderbird
Canadian Spec 2002 Ford Thunderbird
Click image to enlarge

Driving with the top up, the T-Bird is surprisingly quiet with very little wind noise or engine noise. I noticed some tire noise on some road surfaces, but that’s probably because the engine was so quiet. I found the body extremely rigid – with the top down, the windshield and cowl hardly shook at all when traversing bumps. A strong body structure and three special ‘X’ shaped braces under the car keep everything tight. I’d be willing to wager that the 2002 T-Bird is several hundred times stiffer than the original ’55 T-Bird.

The 3.9 litre V8 engine is powerful and smooth and the five-speed automatic is crisp and sporty – I’m coming to the conclusion that five speeds are better than four. Acceleration is robust, and cruising at a steady 100 km/h produces an engine speed of just 2,200 rpm. With a long 107.2 inch wheelbase and a suspension tuned for a comfortable but not plush ride, the T-Bird is a great highway cruiser. But it also has surprisingly high cornering limits – perhaps not too surprising since it offers a fully independent short arm/long arm suspension and a front engine/rear-wheel-drive layout for optimum weight distribution. This car may look like a boulevard cruiser, but push it hard, and a different character emerges – the T-Bird just flies around the corners with superb grip and stability, and its standard four wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution on standard 16 inch wheels and tires (optional 17 inch) provide excellent stopping ability.

2002 Canadian Ford Thunderbird
Canadian Spec 2002 Ford Thunderbird
Click image to enlarge

The convertible top is very well insulated and fits snugly. It has a fairly big glass rear window, but the top edge is rather low which hinders visibility through the rearview mirror. Also, the right rear three-quarter vision is hindered by the lack of a rear side window. The top of the windshield is relatively low even with the power seat all the way down, so tall drivers will find it awkward. And the roof is a bit low for passengers over six feet tall.

I suspect most people will order the matching hardtop with the trademark porthole windows, and many may not even bother to take it off. It looks great that way, and the driver gets slightly better visibility through the right porthole when changing lanes.

With the top down, I and my co-driver found considerable wind buffeting just behind our heads at a steady 100 km/h. This is surprising given the extreme rake of the windshield, but there it was…

I don’t think any of my complaints will cause potential T-Bird buyers to change their minds. Only 2000 T-Birds will be available in Canada for the 2002 model year, and according to Ford sources, 1600 have already been spoken for. Like the 1955 T-Bird, the 2002 model is an image car – and will add a considerable amount of prestige to the driveways of those lucky Canadian buyers.

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