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Hemmings on Thunderbirds

Fabulous Thunderbirds

FEATURE ARTICLE from Hemmings Classic Car

Hemmings Classic Car - JULY 1, 2007 -
BY JIM DONNELLY AND MARK MCCOURT
Big or small, two seats or four, they're blue-oval legends

It was originally conceived as an American sports car, but in its initial execution, it wasn't exactly that. And if you try to describe what the Ford Thunderbird has been during 43 consecutive model years, plus a rocky revival that briefly ensued in 2002, you almost need a Peterson's Field Guide to keep everything sorted out. During its history, the Thunderbird has reinvented itself more times than Madonna and David Bowie combined. The Thunderbird is really a symphony in three movements -- roadster, boulevardier and luxury hardtop, with both two and four doors at various points.

After all, it was a sports car at the outset, or something like one. Then it was transformed into a see-and-be-seen luxury hardtop and convertible, defining the big-volume personal car long before that market cubbyhole even had a name, or before Chevrolet could assert that the Monte Carlo invented it. It's been a lower-priced Lincoln alternative, the very definition of downscale '70s cachet (with opera windows and halo roof, naturally), an even smaller personal hardtop, a NASCAR legend, the face of Ford in NHRA Pro Stock drag racing, a credibly Euro-themed sport coupe, and near the end, the definition of the slowly dying hardtop. Within the exception of a production hiatus between 1997 and 2002, 11 generations of Thunderbird were continuously hatched from its introduction in late 1954 until Ford flushed it away for good -- or at least, for now -- in a trickle of 2005 sales. It's been a switchbacked, veering history, in a changing cut of clothes from Cale Yarborough's Nomex to Arnold Palmer's double knits, but always quintessentially American.

The Thunderbird was, at its core, a car for strivers. More than 4 million of them were ultimately built, which allows the Thunderbirds to perch among a couple of other creatures, the Mustang and Taurus, as one of Ford's most compelling post-war successes. There are enough definitions of a Thunderbird to please just about any collector. And make no mistake, collectible they are, indeed: A premium-quality Early Bird can easily clear $75,000 today, but the more recent they are, the more affordable they become. An AACA national first winner built in the mid-1960s was recently seeking just a little more than $20,000. A solid two-door from 1970 was offered at just half that. Birds with decent plumage and reasonable mileage from the '70s and '80s can be had for the price of a flat-screen plasma TV, or less. Befitting any Ford legend, they have a huge community of fans and aftermarket parts suppliers.

Ford lore recounts that the Thunderbird's gestation began in the autumn of 1951, when Ford Division chief Lewis Crusoe visited the Paris salon with design consultant George Walker, who was famed for having wrested the final 1949 Ford concept away from the storied E.T. Gregorie. Crusoe was intrigued by the European sports car, something that was beginning to dot the stateside landscape in the hands of the gentry. Crusoe asked Walker why Ford couldn't build a similar car with a halo of exclusivity. The story becomes a little fogged at that point, but Frank Hershey, who was Ford's design director from mid-1952 on, would claim that at that point, he was already aware that General Motors intended to build the Corvette, and cleared an area of the design studio where the 1955 full-size Fords were being planned. As he told Automobile Quarterly, Hershey puttered along on a two-seat concept of his own until Chevrolet introduced the Corvette in late 1953. Ford engineer Bill Burnett then whittled a 1953 two-door into the rough dimensions of a Thunderbird, and restyled 1955-version sheet metal was adapted to fit the eventual production car.

The two-seat Early Birds offered up to 300hp in supercharged trim by 1957, yet despite the brawn, their sedan-based chassis deflate them as a real sporting deal. Regardless of familial looks (even though the Budd Company built their bodies), the first Thunderbirds' production numbers confirm its specialty status, its thin performance credibility vis-  -vis the grand imports notwithstanding. Just over 53,000 were built between 1955 and 1957. To the legions that embrace them, what happened next borders on the sacrilegious.

Budd was better known for building railroad cars. The escalating cost for it to build Thunderbird bodies, coupled with an overall restyling planned at Ford, doomed the two-seat Thunderbird, although a two-seat 1958 model was momentarily debated. Robert McNamara guessed that adding another pair of seats might make the Thunderbird less marginal. Chief stylist Joe Oros penned a memorable theme with wide, dual pods at the rear, topped by the now-trademark Thunderbird fins. While the four-seat Thunderbird was under development, Ford was preparing a leap in its manufacturing protocols, which resulted in the four-place 1958 Thunderbird being built with unitized body construction. It's a winnable debate that the unibody, along with its four-seat luxury theme and stirring, flight-inspired looks, makes the second generation of Thunderbirds more significant cars than the first. It's proof positive that they were more popular, with sales hopping to 37,000-plus in recession-dragged 1958, a total that vaulted by another 30,000 the following year. Ironically, despite the original Thunderbird's sports-car pretensions, it's the not-so-fondly named "Square Bird" that enjoys the stronger speed heritage today, thanks to its optional 430-cu.in. Lincoln V-8 with 350hp. It runner-upped in the inaugural Daytona 500.

Big looks, big power, big room, big luxury: this quartet of attributes would forever reverse the Thunderbird's origins as a curiosity. Restyled in 1961 as the Bullet Bird or Ballistic Bird, with its pointed front and barrel tail lamps, the Thunderbird had a two-seat reprise, of a sort, with the 1962 Sports Roadster's bolt-on, fairing-fitted tonneau cover. Lee Iacocca proved that he liked cars that did more than just look fast, by approving a tri-power, G-code version of the 406-cu.in. V-8 for the T-bird with 350hp. As the Thunderbird was squared off again for 1964, the motivation got another boost, with engine options including the 425hp, 427-cu.in. waiting on the order sheet. Sales would exceed 92,000 in 1965, the best Thunderbird year yet. Success aside, yet another magma-spewing upheaval was in the offing.

Iacocca's post-Mustang word still carried godlike force at Ford when the Thunderbird's next generation was under development. He demanded that it be offered as a four-door, a monumental shock when the 1967 Thunderbird first hit the showrooms, even though a four-door prototype was briefly mulled before 1958. Other that the quattroporte identity, the new T-bird was instantly recognized by its massive Supercar turbine-intake frontal treatment, possibly borrowed from the wacky Ford Gyron show car of 1961. The 1967 T-bird was really an exercise in positioning a Ford-badged car north of Mercury but south of Lincoln, a niche-prying that had most recently spawned the Edsel. No such humiliation this time, though, as the two- or four-door Thunderbird would enjoy huge buyer acceptance. The cars, today dubbed Glamour Birds by their admirers, burst out of the gate with nearly 78,000 sales in 1967, and over the generation's run, through 1971, production would just miss 230,000 units. A new 429-cu.in, 360hp big-block V-8 became standard in mid-1968.

Despite the available rear suicide doors, pretentious landau roof and sybaritic environs (including the swing-away steering wheel, today a highly prized replacement component), the 429-cu.in. V-8 ensured that the Glamour Bird could still swing like Ken Norton despite its 4,400 or so pounds. That legacy crashed to a halt in 1972, when another redefined Thunderbird, this from the brief tenure of Bunkie Knudsen, emerged, sharing its chassis, and more, with the equally new Lincoln Continental Mark IV. Its 120.4 inches of wheelbase made it the biggest Thunderbird ever. Engine choices were limited to the desmogged 429-cu.in. V-8 or the even more voracious 460-cu.in. V-8, ligatured down to just 224hp. These gargantuan, pitifully underpowered cars were excoriated by the era's buff books, but still sold at more than a trot, a hair over 299,000 in all, before the stuffed-to-popping Birds became extinct after 1976.

By that time, Detroit's most debased excesses of sumo-sized big cars with ha-ha horsepower and horrific post-OPEC mileage had largely run their course. A sweeping, somewhat convoluted product realignment was underway at Ford before the last of the Mark-based Birds were built. The personal-luxury market then was being defined, in terms of sales, by the aforementioned Monte Carlo. Ford tried countering it with the Gran Torino Elite beginning in 1974, simply renamed the Elite in 1975. Elite numbers blasted to 146,000-plus in 1976, but the Torino line disappeared that year, reskinned into the angular, 302-powered LTD II for 1977. The Elite was likewise dropped, and the Thunderbird was radically downsized onto the LTD II platform, which also went underneath the Mercury Cougar XR-7. The latest Thunderbird shed wheelbase (114 inches), overall length (215.5 inches), and weight (3,907 pounds) compared to its immediate forebear. Most importantly, it also shrank in cost, its base price cleaved by some $2,700, nearly the cost of a new Pinto. Given the Thunderbird's history up to that point, the regression should have theoretically tanked in the market. As history has proven, though, dollar-stretching "prestige" sold big during The Me Decade, and an amazing 670,000-plus Thunderbirds sold by 1978. The Birds, it seemed, were Canada geese, just everywhere.

The party discoed on when another downsizing, in 1980, plopped the Thunderbird on Ford's more widely circulated Fox platform, which it shared with the Ford Fairmont and Mustang, along with their Mercury kin. It was also the final Iacocca-approved T-bird. The next version would be a dramatic reversal of the Thunderbird's looks, from three-box 1980 convention to design matador Jack Telnack's flowing curves, sitting atop an extended-wheelbase Fox platform. Born in 1983, the aerodynamic Thunderbird would be the first to soar for real, its silhouette becoming Ford's main presence in big-time racing. If Suzanne Somers personified the Early Bird, Bill Elliott and Bob Glidden flew its latest successor. Performance was real again with the Turbo Coupe, a monochromatic Thunderbird with a 140-cu.in., turbocharged inline-four that traced its roots to Germany and produced 142 very sudden horsepower. Bucking industry convention, Ford tooled up a brand-new MN12 rear-drive platform for the Thunderbird in 1989, as a launching pad for the Super Coupe, with its supercharged 3.8-liter, 210hp V-6. Sales of everyone's coupes steadily declined, however, and the last MN12 coupe was built in 1997. The subsequent return to a pair of seats, on a shortened Lincoln LS/Jaguar S-Type platform, triggered few tremors of excitement and tiptoed into oblivion.

"Ford couldn't have done a better job ruining the post-2000 Thunderbirds if it had been trying," said Dick Stern of Los Angeles, a historian with the Classic Thunderbird Club International. "They priced them too high, then the dealers tried to add even more. I think the Thunderbird will come back, but I think it'll be in a very different format than in the past."

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This article originally appeared in the JULY 1, 2007 issue of Hemmings Classic Car and this article was used with permission.
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