Low Volume Retro: Ford Thunderbird

Classic Cars

Though it wasn’t a commercial success, the Thunderbird taught Ford some valuable lessons.

In stark contrast to the intentional low-volume cars from Morgan, we have the Ford Thunderbird, a decidedly retro approach to the car's most recent generation which ended up a huge flop. Unlike some other early retro offerings from Detroit, the Thunderbird actually seemed like a sensible idea for a time. But a strong start gave way to dismal sales just a year later. This is not low volume by design, but rather a demonstration of the limits of retro appeal.

Back in 2002, Chrysler was selling PT Cruisers in such staggering numbers (the total eight-year production reached 1.35 million units) that Ford and General Motors realized something needed to be done. For GM, this would mean stealing away the PT Cruiser's designer and turning out the HHR, more or less the same car, just with a bowtie on the front. Ford would take another route, introducing retro-styled new versions of older models. Some of these were fantastic, but their first shot at it failed to gain much traction.

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The Thunderbird of 2002 through 2005 could really be thought of as a convertible coupe version of the Lincoln LS. The exterior styling is obviously completely different, but the platform is the same, and quite a bit of the interior is carried over as well. But the exterior styling was what Ford had figured would be important, and to be fair, it was particulalry well executed. The looks of the car genuinely echo the original, and it was a fun car to drive with the top down. It was no performance car, the 3.9-liter V8 engine produced just 280 horsepower to pull around the surprisingly heavy 3,700lbs of car.

There was talk at Ford of making an SVT version, complete with a supercharged Jaguar V8, but it was eventually realized that people who wanted a supercharged Jaguar V8 were also generally willing to pay the extra money to have have one. Marketing was also a problem for the Thunderbird. The original had competed with the 'Vette, but she had long ago evolved out of this small segment, and in the absence of a direct competitor, Ford had a difficult time explaining just what this new Thunderbird was exactly. There were some small German convertibles which were similarly comfortable, but Ford wisely decided not to compare their car to the cheaper BMW and Audi drop-tops.

The phrase they eventually went with to describe the car was "personal luxury car," the same one used to describe the original. The problem is, the original hadn't really sold all that well either. It was only when Ford made it bigger, adding a back seat as well, that sales actually took off, and this retro version wasn't doing much better. Sales in the first year would fall a few thousand short of Ford's 25,000-unit annual goal, and would be much worse the following year, continuing to decline every year after that.

The car was a niche vehicle copy of one which Ford had built too many of in the first place, and many of the people who might have wanted one already owed a vintage copy of the first one. Though not a pure sports car, the Thunderbird was a reasonably competent vehicle. The chassis was well sorted out, and it handled curves the way it was supposed to. At least, as well as a non-sports car could be expected to. A 0-60 time of 7.0 seconds wasn't especially quick, but it was fine for a convertible cruiser. But then there was the price, which started at $35,000 and was often inflated by dealers anticipating a much bigger demand than ever materialized.

That's a lot of money to pay for a car with not much to offer beyond a roof that comes down. A Chrysler Sebring could offer that for $10,000 less, and while the T-Bird was indisputably better-looking and more comfortable, it's hard to say that's something worth ten grand all by itself. Ford did manage to make some improvements to the car in 2003, bumping power up by 28 horsepower and adding a selectable shift mode to the automatic transmission, allowing for later upshifts and helping to add a bit of sportiness. This shaved half a second off the 0-60 time, but it still wasn't a spectacular improvement.

Improvements were made to the parts-bin interior as well, but this was also too little too late. In truth, there was nothing exactly wrong with the Thunderbird as a car. It was fine for what it was, if a bit on the pricey side. But it was completely irrelevant to the market, and the real mistake in Ford's thinking was that retro appeal alone would move cars. They failed to recognize that the PT Cruiser was also one of the most spacious vehicles in its price range, and that the retro looks were a bonus, not the reason for buying it. Retro for retro's sake will always be a niche, and that's fine, it's just something which needs to be understood from the outset.