2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

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 the New Beetle, the PT Cruiser and the Mini Cooper, 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.

One of the main reasons was 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.

In 2003, horsepower was bumped up to 280 in the hopes of luring more buyers, but the $5,000 price hike made the extra ponies less attractive.

Fifty grand was a lot of money to ask people to pay for a car that, for many, wasn’t a feasible choice as their only mode of transport, whereas the Mini, PT Cruiser and New Beetle all had seats for four and at least some everyday practicality. Ford itself seemed to forget that the original Thunderbird didn’t sell that well until it grew back seats in 1958 (from its introduction in 1955 until 1957, all T-Birds were two-seaters). Many purists lamented the changes the T-Bird underwent over the years, claiming that Ford sold out the nameplate in the name of higher profits. It’s not surprising then that Ford chose to model the re-born version of this iconic car after the concept as the original was based upon.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

But whatever the reasons for its lack of success in showrooms, Ford announced earlier this year that the new-generation Thunderbird’s wings would be clipped this summer, with production ending in July 2005, despite early plans to continue production until at least 2006. Just because you can’t buy one new anymore doesn’t mean you’re out of luck – keep reading and find out how the used market has treated this rare bird of a roadster.

As mentioned, the Thunderbird was based on the same platform that underpinned the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type but got a unique, more relaxed suspension tuning more fitting for the boulevard cruiser that Ford envisioned its reborn roadster should be.

The Thunderbird also 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.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

Out on the road, the T-Bird’s V8 returned decent mileage though the Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption ratings varied year-to-year. For 2002, NRCan reported a rating of 14.4 l/100 km city and 9.9 l/100 km highway. Those figures improved in 2003 (13.4 city/9.1 highway), got worse again in 2004 (14 city/9.4 highway) and improved again for 2005 (13.3 city/9.0 highway).

The Thunderbird fared well in U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing. It earned four and five stars respectively for driver and passenger protection in front impact tests, and four stars for side impact protection. Driver, passenger and side airbags were standard, as well as ABS and traction control.

It also received praise from another source, too, for its reliability. Consumer Reports found few faults, and notes no significant sources of trouble in 2002 and 2003 models, and it goes so far as to recommend the 2002 model as a used car.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
2002 Ford Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

Two recalls were issued for the Thunderbird, both dealing with the safety of the seats in the event of a collision. Details of both are at the end of this article.

It’s a tough call as to whether its used values make the Thunderbird a bargain or not, considering they were pricey as new cars. Depreciation seems to have taken its toll, however, according to the Canadian Red Book. A 2004 model is valued at $41,250, roughly 73 per cent of its original $56,775 M.S.R.P. There are cheaper convertibles to be found (one of which is Ford’s own Mustang) and many more expensive too (such as Chevy’s Corvette, BMW’s 3-series and the Mercedes-Benz CLK droptops) but its tough to say how relevant price comparisons are given that the Thunderbird is in a class of one in many respects. The later 280-hp T-Birds have the power and refinement to compete with the German models, but not the handling. The Mustang, while cheaper, is nowhere near as smooth a performer. The Corvette beats the ‘Bird in power and handling but doesn’t offer the same slick ride.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider a T-Bird as an alternative to any of those other cars. If all you’re after is open-air motoring in a distinctive package, then it’s worth a look, especially considering the car’s ability to turn heads. That ability, though, is partly due to the car’s rarity. Used T-Birds are out there, but if you don’t live in a major city, be prepared to go out of your way to find one.

This new interpretation of the original may not achieve the same collectible status as the iconic original T-Bird, but it will certainly earn a place of honour in automotive history.

On-line resources:

www.thunderbirdnest.com – The Thunderbird Nest is dedicated almost exclusively to the new-generation car, with only one section in the site’s forums set aside for discussions about T-Birds from 1955 to 1997. The site has more than 2,000 registered members, which is significant considering the car’s rarity. Membership is free.

www.thunderbirdforum.com – This site pays a little more attention to past Thunderbirds, with separate forum sections for each generation of the car. However, the new car is still the centre of attention for the site’s almost 1,800 members. Membership is free, but financial donations to help with site maintenance are encouraged, and contributors gain access to a private members-only area.


Transport Canada Recall Number 2002111; Units affected: 1120

2002: On certain vehicles the driver’s side seat belt contacted the seat recliner during a 35 mph NCAP full-frontal barrier impact test. The edge of the recliner mechanism caused a partial cut in the lap portion of the webbing. Correction: dealer will install an insert behind the driver side seat lower trim panel.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2004237; Units affected: 1549

2004: On certain vehicles, the power seat track may contain fewer welds than specified between the track recliner bracket and the lower support bracket. This condition may cause a squeak/rattle condition to develop, and possibly result in a loose seat. In the rare circumstance that a vehicle having a seat with insufficient multiple welds is in a collision, the seat may not perform as intended potentially increasing the risk of an injury. Correction: Dealers will replace the upper support assembly on all power seat track assemblies.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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