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2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird

I can't believe we haven't done a post on this generation of Thunderbird yet. We've already hit the mid-'80s version and some of the earlier gens have been mentioned here and there, but this one seems to be ripe for the Lust pickings. After all, time hasn't exactly been kind to it, having popped up on a few "Worst" lists, including Car & Driver's Dishonorable Mentions list of The 10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History: TBirdYellow

Ford’s relaunch of the Thunderbird as a two-seater in 2002 seemed like such a good idea. The styling was gorgeous, the concept car had earned raves at every car show, and nostalgia for the 1955–57 two-seat Birds was at a fever pitch. . .The result was an overweight, softly sprung roadster that looked great outside, was agonizingly boring inside, and was dreary to drive. And at about $40,000, it was stupidly expensive. If anyone were to drive this T-Bird, it would be platinum-haired women prone to carrying small dogs wherever they go.

Okay then.

Not that I'd disagree with the overall assessment -- sales don't always tell the whole story, but they rarely tell an outright lie -- but I've still always fancied this generation and feel the need to raise its profile some and maybe cast it in a bit more of a favorable light.

People have differing opinions on the whole idea of "neo-retro" styling. Some love it, some hate it, some play it by model. The Thunderbird wasn't the first to have a go at this genre, the New Beetle, PT Cruiser, and Plymouth Prowler having paved the way earlier. Those models had met with varying degrees of success -- and to be honest, had very different market niches as well -- so it was probably a fair bet that Ford could have gone either way with a restyled Thunderbird, a model that had disappeared the previous decade.

TBirdBlueIt certainly seemed a sure bet when it first came out, having been named Motor Trend's Car of the Year at its debut, and receiving generally quite positive reviews. I thought it was a stunner in the looks department: nice simple lines, nothing too ornate to draw attention away from the overall shape of the car, and managing to look nimble, elegant, and powerful all at the same time. In my view, it manages the neo-retro look just about perfectly: a modern take on a classic with enough styling cues from the original to make the lineage unmistakeable without looking dated right out of the gate. I think the design still holds up well and probably will for some time. Leastways, whenever I see one I still pause to take a good long look at it.

The color palette was, well, eccentric, designed to reflect popular colors of the 1950s. Some of us are all over the whole 'mid-century modern' schtick (some more than others) but I realize that fixation is not (yet) widespread, so the colors wouldn't appeal to a wide array of the car buying public. The available colors changed over the model run, but generally consisted of primary colors along with a few pastels, all named in such a way as to elicit a sort of quiet refinement. . . .well, mostly. "Torch Red" was one of the big eye-catchers along with Thunderbird Blue. The latter was one of the original colors for the '55 and is sort of a light turquoise aqua; in reality it's not all that bright, but it does tend to stand out. I quite like the Inspiration Yellow (top photo), more of a pastel yellow than, say, school-bus yellow. Another of the pastels was called Desert Sky Blue, another light pastel, that could be had with either the same color removable hard-top or a "performance" white top.

Probably the most stand-out color was called Coral (photo) and was a "007 Special Edition" which was used in the Bond film Die Another Day, driven by Halle Berry's "Jinx Johnson" character. In the movie it had a matching Coral hard-top but the car was put for sale to the public with the white top. Rumor has it that Berry was offered the movie car to keep but she opted for the Evening Black version instead. The Coral is undoubtedly the most polarizing color for this model; a slightly pinkish light orange isn't really for me, but I imagine it appeals to someone since 700 were built and sold. TBirdBondCoral

Despite its initial positive reception, the car failed to meet sales expectations due to pretty much the same factors that have plagued many American cars for years. It was pretty pricey for a 2-seater and wasn't particularly astounding in either performance or luxury for that price. It was largely a modified Lincoln LS and priced within that range, around $40k. But for that price you got two fewer seats and doors, a cool body, and not a whole lot else. There was talk (and even a concept car) about making an SVT edition with a supercharged V8, but that was shot down and never came to pass. Perhaps the bean counters at Ford had a financial justification for that, but I, along with many others, think that might have saved the car. Having a truly high-performance version as sort of a "halo" edition might have made the model more acceptably cool, much like the hi-po Mustangs contributed to the Mustang lineup as a whole. Sadly, we'll never know, and the neo-retro T-bird went extinct once again after the 2005 model year.

For me, and many others, the Thunderbird always presented something of a quandary. Was it a sports car? Noooo. . . .a pony car? Noooo. . . .a luxury car, ala maybe a Continental Mark II? Hmmmm. . .no. It was supposed to represent something of an elegant cruiser, but with something of a sporty flair to it, what Ford used to call "personal luxury" whatever that means. They very often have looked quite stunning (though the look also tends to be polarizing) and makes one think of the Thunderbird as a pretty high performance car. That has so often not been the case, ending up as a heavy, slow soft-riding slug, much like the current subject. Like no one could really decide what it was supposed to be so it ended up being a mish-mash of different philosophies. This one, at least in your humble correspondent's opinion, probably came closest to what (I think) it should've/could've been, which was an elegant but fast car, something like a cowboy version of a Jaguar E-Type. Close, but no cigar. Once again.

--Anthony Cagle

Credits: The Yellow T-Bird is from the Wikipedia page, and the Coral Bond car is from the Chicago Tribune site, although it's found all over the place. The Thunderbird Blue one is from GTCarLot.com.

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Do these 2002-2005 T-birds really drive that badly? Compared with what?

As for what a T-bird is, it seems it depends greatly on the generation. The 55-57 has a far different personality from the subsequent personal luxury T-birds.

Quick list of "neo-retro" cars:

2002-2005 Thunderbird
2005-current Mustang
2008-current Challenger
2010-current Camaro
PT Cruiser
HHR
Prowler
the new FIAT 500
the new MINI
the new Beetle (both the 1998-2011 and current 2012 Beetle)

Cars with just one or two neo-retro design elements:
2000-2007 Monte Carlo - tail lights return to something reminiscent of 2nd and 3rd gen
1991-1993 Cadillac DeVille - 1969 style grill pattern
Cadillac SRX (2009 - current) & CTS wagon - bladed tail lights reminiscent of fins
Lincoln MKX (2007-2010) - 1963 style grill pattern
"bustle-back" 80-85 Sevilles, 81-83 Imperials, and to some extent 82-87 Continentals
Honda CRZ incorporing CRX styling cues

There are probably tons more. Which are the most successful?


Saw one of these driving around Kitsap County, WA when I lived there for a few years.

Highly distinctive.

Overall, this newest iteration of the 'Bird is not too impressive to me. My favorite model was the bullet birds, '62, 3 and 4. I had a '62 convert, which was really neat. I bought it from the original owner in '65, and after a few years, rust started to show. Those converts had a "Sports Roadster" option that included a cover over the back seat and a headrest for the front seats. I tried to find an outlet to buy one of these aftermarket, but no luck. Interestingly, these bullet birds, in silhouette look like the Chrysler turbine experimental models of the early '60's.

I remember when they were new and were, umm... $40,000.

That's an insane price, even now.

Toronado, if I may, I'd like to add the Mustang II to your list. And could it have been one of, if not the first, retro-themed cars?

I like the idea of a new 2 seat-Bird. I'm at the point in my life where I'd like a fun, reliable, luxury convertible.

Sadly, the new T-bird did nothing for me. It's front and rear styling is...well, blank. I know they wanted to avoid making a copy of the first generation car, but all they did was take a 57 T-bird, carve it in soap and left it under hot water for 5 minutes. I've never seen a car with less personality/style or character. Would a point somewhere...anywhere have been too much to ask.

A couple of years back, I was on a cross country drive to Indianapolis for a car show. In the middle of Iowa I saw 3 of the new T-birds within 15 minutes. I figured frugal farmers got a good deal on some used cars and were enjoying them like an American Mercedes SL.

A friend just added one to his large collection (along with a Chevy SSR). I hope to talk him into letting me drive it sometime.
The style (or lack thereof) hasn't improved over time, but I wouldn't mind one IF I could get it cheap enough...say $15-20,000 for a like new example. Any more, and I'll get a used SL.

I always thought Ford nailed the styling on the "Retro Bird." The price was far too high, and the styling seems to have made promises the drivetrain and suspension couldn't fill--but I have a friend who owns one, and he thinks the world of it.

@Chuck,

I hadn't thought of the Mustang II.

It does reprise some of the 65-66 and 67-68 styling after Mustang styling had begun to evolve into another direction, gradually from the 69-70 and then more radically with the 71-73. So yeah, the Mustang II has more styling cues in common with the original than with the 73.

But was this intentional on the part of the designers? Or was it just the next stage of general Mustang styling?

On the Mustang II, given the side body indentions, the triple taillights, the grille, even the profile on the hardtop... I'd say Ford tried to take a lot of styling elements from the original and shrink it. Even the logos were similar.

Mustang II: http://www.shnack.com/history/pics/1974FordMustang_large.jpg

Original Mustang: http://www.fordmuscleforums.com/attachments/makin-progress/3510d1205720501-1965-mustang-street-strip-car-65strip.jpg

IIRC, the designers definitely were attempting to "retro-ize" the look of the Mustang II. They were consciously aiming to wrest it back from its bloat and make it more like the original pony car, with a good dash of import coupe and personal luxury on top. Obviously successful as it was one of the best selling Mustangs of the entire lineage.

I imagine to be successful, any neo-retro car needs to be a good car to start with, "good" as in build quality, performance, and price/value. Plus being the right car for its niche. The New Beetle did all of that reasonably well (being a Golf and all) and it didn't go overboard with the styling (IMO): successful. Ditto the Mustang, Challenger, and Charger (which one could argue against as "retro" to be honest).

OTOH, you had the Prowler which was just an odd and largely impractical car, and the GTO which was a great car but didn't look anything like the original and failed. Someone did a post on the PT Cruiser and I think that would have been better (and longer lived) but they don't seem to have done anything with it since inception.

The Charger I wouldn't say is retro at all. However, one I totally forgot is the Toyota FJ Cruiser.

My mother owns one of these... it's the same blue as the one pictured above.

I've never driven it, but the engine feels powerful enough. I will say that the interior finish looks extremely cheap. I don't know if they used stainless steel inside, but it looks like it's made of plastic. It has the same silly interior pieces from the same generation Mustang. It's not the best-looking car to ride in.

Bought car new. Paid $4000 over sticker. Except for the defective engine coils (guaranteed on every other year but 2002) I love the car. Drive it every day in Florida, all winter long. Quite fast enough, rides and drives well. Car is incredibly underated.

It amazes me how many people who proclaim to be experts on automobiles they know nothing about. If more people who think they know this car, took the time to read about it, might have a better understanding of what Ford's intention was when they bought it back. Ford never intended to build this car more then the 4 years it was built. In fact it did as well as the original 2 seater's did. It is not a muscle car, but as Ford said a personal luxury car that has more then enough power, that offered all the same luxury other brands offered at that time at the same price point. It's styling was unique with many of the characteristics of the original baby bird with a modern flair. It handled well and powered by a Jaguar designed V8 known as the A8 series which was rated as one of the top 10 best engines of that time. This car is now 10-12 years old and still looks awesome today. It has held up extremely well. As far as resale value, it kills most high end vehicles such as Benz, BMW's Lexus ( Glorified cookie cutter Toyota) costing far more. Most Birds are still maintaining a 40-50% resale value while the fore mentioned may be holding 15-25% of value. All in all this is a great car that in time will become a collectors vehicle.

As to the last comment, AMEN! I don't know how the so called automotive experts, writers etc. can pass judgement on a car they haven't even driven. I have owned a 2002 Retro Bird for 9 years and have personalized it, customized the suspension, added an electronic chip to boost the BHP. It corners now like it is on rails having moved the wheels out 2 inches on each side and raised the rear suspension having gone up one size larger tires, Pirelli's and used Mustang Bullet wheels. All done for less than a thousand dollars. 300 H.P. in this small light car is more than plenty enough. There are tons of inexpensive after market accessories available to modify the exterior look from front to rear and to take the plain interior to custom in under an hour!

So don't knock it if you don't try it!

Love the car!

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