Weekly Craigslist Hidden Treasure: 2002 Ford Thunderbird

Car Culture

Controversial for some to this day.

The best and worst thing about the eleventh-generation Ford Thunderbird was its retro styling. It was either loved or hated with few opinions lying in the middle ground. Why did Ford decide to resurrect one of its most famous nameplates after a nearly five-year market absence? Here are the answers why: the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Plymouth (later Chrysler) PT Cruiser. Retro styling was suddenly in and Ford didn’t want to miss out. Fair enough, but what matters most here is the execution of that retro design. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t.

The 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird was classified as a personal luxury car with V8 power and a convertible soft top (a body-color hardtop with a circular port window was optional). On paper, it was a brilliant tribute to one of Ford’s greatest models, circa 1955. But in reality, it had several downsides. For starters, it was not particularly fun to drive.

Granted Ford never intended it to be a sports car, but some effort to instill fun would have been appreciated. Its platform was capable of providing that, but there was a drawback: this global architecture was initially designed for sedans. Ford owned Jaguar at the time and the platform also underpinned the Lincoln LS, Jaguar S-Type and the first-gen XF. Fortunately, the platform was also rear-wheel-drive, a key Thunderbird trait, alongside its V8.

And speaking of engines, this retro Thunderbird came powered by a naturally aspirated 3.9-liter V8 with 280 hp and 286 lb-ft of torque. In a car that weighed a hefty 3,700 pounds, that level of output is only just adequate. The only transmission was an uninspiring five-speed automatic because again, this Thunderbird was no sports car and Ford made no effort to give it a performance image. In many ways, Ford really didn’t know how to market this Thunderbird because it was just so different from anything else in the lineup.

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However, this wasn’t the only reason why the heavy coupe/convertible never caught on. The design was one reason, but so was the price tag, which hovered around $40,000. Ford dealerships also didn’t really know how to sell a luxury coupe like this. Sure, they could easily sell expensive pickup trucks but the Thunderbird was something entirely different. Only two trim levels were offered, Deluxe and Premium, though both came with lots of standard features, including perforated leather-trimmed seats, keyless entry, a security system, an in-dash CD changer, a premium audio system, and dual-zone automatic climate control. Premium models received heated seats and chrome aluminum-alloy wheels.

Starting in 2002 Ford launched several special editions, such as the Neiman Marcus, James Bond 007, Pacific Coast Roadster, and the 50th Anniversary "Cashmere” Special Edition. Production was limited, ranging from 200 examples to 1,500, but overall Thunderbird sales never took off. They did best in the first model year, with 31,368 units sold. And then it went downhill from there.

By 2005, the writing was on the wall at Dearborn and Ford wisely decided to cease production after that model year. It was best to focus on the Blue Oval’s true sports car, the Mustang. But still, this 21st century Thunderbird wasn’t a terrible car, it just wasn’t necessary.

The exterior certainly had personality, unlike its interior, specifically the dashboard that was literally yanked directly from the Lincoln LS. There are still plenty of used examples on sale today for fairly decent prices, such as this one located in Los Angeles. You can buy it right now on Craigslist for $9,800. Generally speaking, it looks to be in good shape inside and out but it does have 108,000 miles on the clock. Fortunately, it has a clean CarFax report and title. If retro design is your thing, then this Ford Thunderbird will look great parked next to your New Beetle and/or PT Cruiser.