2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

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Ford Motor Company of Canada

By Chris Chase

In 1998, Volkswagen began selling its New Beetle, the car that revived the spirit of the original people’s car. Then Chrysler followed suit in 2001 with its retro-themed PT Cruiser surfer-wagon, and BMW entered the fray in 2002 with its modern interpretation of the Mini Cooper. Ford decided it didn’t want to be left out of all the fun and in 2002 it brought back one of the most illustrious nameplates in its storied history: the Thunderbird.

Like other retro-cool cars, Ford’s new T-Bird grabbed people’s attention with its smooth lines and laid-back looks. Initial reactions were good, too, and it seemed like the newest of the new “old” cars was set to take off. But unlike those other retro-mobiles, the Thunderbird never really got off the ground. During its four-year production run, it never met the sales expectations Ford had set for it, and was considered by many automotive journalists and car enthusiasts to be a flop.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird; bottom photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

One of the main reasons could have been its initial $51,550 base price, which was more than $4,000 higher than the Lincoln LS V8 sedan with which this new Bird shared its powertrain: a 4.0 litre V8 pushing 252 horsepower through a five-speed automatic. The T-Bird also shared its basic platform with the Lincoln (and the Jaguar S-Type), though Ford added extra chassis bracing to the Thunderbird to make up for the lack of a fixed roof. The Thunderbird shared the LS’ dashboard, a cost-cutting measure that seemed a little out of place in a car in this price range. Ford did liven things up with body-coloured accents, though.

In 2003, horsepower was bumped up to 280 in the hopes of luring more buyers, but a corresponding price hike made the extra ponies less attractive.

Consumer Reports (CR) gives the Thunderbird a worse-than-average reliability rating, citing a number of trouble spots.

One of the T-Bird’s more common faults was with its engine’s coil-on-plug ignition coils, which were prone to fail. This thread at ThunderbirdForum.com suggests that Ford offered owners an extended warranty covering the coils for 10 years or 160,000 km, on 2003 through 2005 models. It appears the throttle body is a source of trouble for some owners, as well.

CR notes transmission problems, but doesn’t provide any details. This site does, however, discuss the nitty gritty of what can, and often does, go wrong in the Thunderbird’s transmission (code-named 5R55N in 2002 models and 5R55S in 2003 and later cars).

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