The Last Thunderbird

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All of us know – or have heard about – the apparently healthy, successful person who one day just drops dead unexpectedly.Thunderbird 1

In a way, this is the story of the Thunderbird. For decades, it was one of Ford’s most successful models and the name remains an automotive icon.

But the car’s as dead as Rudolph Valentino.

The last one rolled off the line a decade ago (2005) after a brief, not-quite-three-year resurrection following a prior ten-year absence from Ford’s model lineup.

Unlike most four-wheeled flops, however, the last T-Bird was neither ugly nor  horribly built. Most people who saw it liked it. At the 2001 New York Auto Show, the assembled automotive press – not an easy bunch – clapped for it. Motor Trend magazine named it “car of the year.” It was a very close contender for North American Car of the Year, a major accolade.

The problem – for Ford – was that not many people bought it.Thunderbird 2

This happens occasionally.

But, why?   

Well, for openers, the last T-Bird was probably too pricey. Because despite its glamor, it was still a Ford.

A very expensive Ford.

The first year for this abbreviated final generation (the eleventh, if you’re counting) carried a base price of $34,695. That was in 2001. How much is that in 2015 money? Just under $46,000 according to the fed’s CPI inflation calculator. Not many Fords cost close to $50k – to start – back in 2001. You could buy a new Mustang GT that year for just under $25k or about $33,000 in today’s federal funny money.

Ford management probably gave some thought to selling the T-Bird through Lincoln dealerships (as had been done in the past with some success; see, for instance, the de Tomaso Pantera). This might have given the Thunderbird the luxury car patina it so badly needed.

But then, it had always been the Ford Thunderbird.Thunderbird 3

And after all, GM had no problem selling the Corvette – an exotic (and exotically priced) high-performance sports car through its Chevy stores, the fiberglass-bodied 180-MPH supercar sharing floor space with proletarian Malibus and Cavaliers.

Besides which, Lincoln Thunderbird just sounded awkward.

Of course, they could have just called it Thunderbird, left it at that – and sold it through Lincoln stores.

But they chose instead to sell this not-established car – which had been absent from the marketplace for more than a decade and which had no existing buyer base at all (unlike Corvette) – as a Ford with a Lincoln-esque MSRP.

Meanwhile, you could buy a new Lincoln – or even a Jaguar – for about the same money.

Iceberg ahead. Better do something now.Northamerica 01detroit 2002 thunderbird

Ford did nothing.

The (briefly) resurrected T-Bird might have shared a platform with Lincolns (LS) and mechanical components (its engine) with Jaguar (S-Type) but increasingly status-minded buyers of the early 21st century wanted – demanded  – the premium car badge, the cachet and the dealer experience to go with the premium car MSRP.

While people back in the ’60s and ’70s would pay big bucks for a T-Bird – even if was a Ford – by ’01 that willingness had mostly evaporated. The car’s high price and low status proved to be its Achilles Heel

Well, one of them.

It didn’t help that the T-Bird, despite its nicely executed  “retro-futuristic” bodywork, very obviously shared its interior with the same-year Lincoln LS. The dashboard/gauge package was virtually identical. The steering wheel looked like it could be interchanged from car to car – and probably could have been.Thunderbird yellow

To be fair to Ford, this was (and still is) a common stylistic weakness affecting all modern cars. Or rather, cars built in the Air Bag Era. There is only so much designers can do when they’re required to plant a big plastic blob – the air bag – in the middle of the steering wheel. The freedom to create new/unique horn buttons and trim rims and spokes that once upon a time allowed designers to highly individualize the appearance of a car’s cockpit via the steering wheel has been a dead letter since the federal government decided to force-feed air bags to the public via mandate beginning in the mid-’90s.

Also problematic was the two-seater layout, which greatly reduced the car’s everyday viability. High-performance two-seat roadsters like Corvette (and the Mazda Miata, BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster and so on) can get away with being impractical because they’re high-performance roadsters… or at least, plausible as sports cars.

The last T-bird was neither.

It was heavy, only moderately quick – and absolutely not made to corner. Which was actually in keeping with the Thunderbird’s roots.

Problem was, those roots were graying.   Thunderbird old:new

T-Birds, historically, were large personal luxury coupes – with a second row of seats. That’s what was hot in the ’60s and ’70s.

Not so much since then.

Though the very first Thunderbird (1955) only had two seats, it was not marketed as a Ford alternative to the Chevy Corvette. Subsequent T-Birds (1958-up) had four seats – and were designed to be large, comfortable, luxurious, posh-riding cars. The Last T-bird was a small car – relative to prior T-Birds and generally.

It was only 186.3 inches long overall and rode on a 107.2 inch wheelbase. About the same size/wheelbase as a new (2015) Mustang (107.1 inch wheelbase; 188.3 inches long overall). But unlike a Mustang, the ’02 T-Bird wasn’t especially sporty – a major mismatch.

The ’58 Thunderbird, in contrast, stretched regally 205.4 inches from bumper to bumper and rode on a 112-inch wheelbase. With each successive – and successful – generation, the car got bigger and plusher. Overall length peaked at 225 inches in 1972, with the wheelbase elongating to 120.4 inches.

But it was more than that, of course.Don Draper

Timing was arguably the fatal problem for the short-lived final-generation T-Bird.

Or rather, the car was out of time with the times.

Imagine Don Draper from Mad Men – cigarette, Vitalis hair gel, Sinatra hat – teleported into a modern metrosexual corporate boardroom. He’s still as cool as a Christmas cucumber, but also as out of place – as out time – as the T-bird was in 2001.

Historically, the Thunderbird was a cruiser built for a slower-paced world, long since vanished.

It’s one thing to take your restored ’62 convertible to the Veteran’s Day parade. Everyone will smile; you’ll have a great time.

Fast forward 50 years. Most new car buyers are not interested in cruisers. By the time of the eleventh generationT-Bird’s introduction in 2001, big two seater cruisers were extinct as a class. There were retro-themed modern muscle cars, sports cars and sport sedans.Thundrebird mint green

But cruisers had become synonymous with oldsters; the marketing people had seen to that. Everyone wanted to be the next BMW – or at least, competitive with what BMW was offering. By the early 2000s, GM’s Cadillac division was trying to reinvent itself – to shed the Old Man Stink it had acquired oh-so-gradually in the post Mad Men era of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. Buick was on death’s door – seemingly destined to follow Pontiac (RIP) to the glue factory.

Ford’s Lincoln division was in trouble, too – and has yet to recover.

It was at this perfectly not-propitious moment that Ford decided to bring back a traditionally themed Thunderbird. One that looked – and drove – a lot like the classic T-Birds of the early-mid 1960s.

The Jaguar-sourced DOHC V8 (downsized slightly to 3.9 liters for the T-Bird) sounded great and whisked the car along gracefully – just not forcefully. The last T-bird did not have bucket seats – and the suspension (like the engine) was set up for graceful just moseying-along, enjoying the scenery – with the top down, your left elbow propped on top of the door and your right hand steering the course, ideally with a Benson & Hedges cigarette in your mouth and Sinatra on the stereo.

'83 Thunderbird ad

But by 2001, most people drove with the windows up, the AC cranked  – and rap on the radio. Sinatra was history. And so was most people’s interest in graceful moseying along.

Ford should have known better.

The last successful Thunderbird was the ’83-’88 ninth generation, which (along with the same era Mustang GT and 5.0 LX) almost singlehandedly revived Ford from the coma of the late 1970s. It was a sleek, graceful – and modern – car. A luxury-performance car. The wheelbase had been trimmed back to 104.2 inches and you could order (beginning in 1983) a turbocharged four-cylinder engine (a first-ever for Thunderbird) paired with a five-speed manual transmission and sport-tuned chassis. The market loved this car – and (unlike the last T-Bird) bought this car.

Rather than try to revivify the ’55 Thunderbird – two seats, Mad Men vibe – a Thunderbird more like the ’83 Turbo Coupe was what the times called for. On the order of 122,999 1983 Thunderbirds were sold – more than twice in one year the total number of eleventh-generation T-Birds sold during the entire three-year production run.Thunderbird door

Ford did try – sort of – to make up for its marketing/positioning mistake by muscling up the T-Bird in 2003 with a 280 hp version of the Jaguar-sourced V8, and by adding “SelectShift” driver-controlled gear changes to the standard five-speed automatic transmission. An SVT (Special Vehicles Team, Ford’s in-house high-performance/tuner car department, which put together the SVT Cobra Mustang and SVT Lightning pick-up) high-performance version of theThunderbird was reportedly seriously considered, too. It might have featured a supercharged engine (like the Cobra Mustang and Lightning F-150) and other enhancements.

But it would have been like putting a trailer hitch on a Porsche 911.

The fact was that not much could be done to make the car a better fit for the times without completely re-doing the car.

To its credit, Ford did not let the T-Bird languish. Once it was clear (after the very first year) that sales were never going to pick up, the decision was announced that production at the Wixom assembly line would cease after the end of the ’05 model year. Thunderbird rear  

The last one saw daylight on July 1, 2005 – only halfway through the model year.   

Unlike the Edsel, the Pacer, the Aztek and other automotive atrocities that deserved their fate, the Last Thunderbird is a car that just got dealt a bad hand. Had it been introduced in 1968, it almost certainly would have been a winner – and considered a classic today.

T-Bird Trivia: 

* A very limited run of just 200 Neiman Marcus Edition Thunderbirds was offered during the inaugural (2002) model year. These all stickered for just over $40,000 in ’01 dollars (about $53k in 2015 dollars) and harkened back to the His and Hers matched pair Thunderbirds offered by Ford and Neiman Marcus back in 1971.

* Ford projected annual sales of 25,000 Thunderbirds – and this goal was actually exceeded during the car’s first year (2002) with approximately 31,368 cars sold. However, the 25,000 per year target was never met after the ’02 model year and by the ’04 model year, sales had plummeted to 11,998. The final – abbreviated – model year (2005) petered out quietly with just under 10,000 cars delivered.

* Total production of the eleventh generation Thunderbird was 68,098 units.

* In 2003, Ford secured a place for the Thunderbird as co-star to Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Die Another Day. The movie car was painted teal (“Coral”) blue and a production version featuring the same palette was also available that year.

* In a 2009 retrospective piece, Road & Track magazine included the Last Thunderbird among its “10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History” roster.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.

Copyright 2015, Eric Peters  

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73 COMMENTS

  1. Child Support Fairness Act of 1993
    Sponsor; John Glenn 1 of 100 Upper Borg Chamber

    Provides that assets forfeited as a result of violation of Federal law shall be subject to valid State court judgments for the payment of delinquent child support.

    Directs the Secretary of the Treasury or the Attorney General to notify the Child Support Enforcement Division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of the names of any individuals whose assets are seized.

    Directs the HHS Secretary to then notify the appropriate State agency of the name of any such individual who is delinquent in child support and inform such agency of the seizure.

    Requires the State agency to then notify the appropriate party to whom such child support is owed.

    Allows such party to petition the Secretary of the Treasury for arrears payment from seized funds within 30 days from the date of notification.

    Establishes a trust fund for the making of such payments and related expenses.

    That’s one small step for a Borg. One more giant affirmation to the non-assimilated that resistance is futile. To boldly go where no Borg has gone before.

    Strength is irrelevant. Negotiation is irrelevant. Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply. A neural transceiver is required for maximum communication, we will work as one mind. You will become one with the Borg. Why do you resist? We only wish to raise quality of life for all species.

    In their collective state, the Borg are utterly without mercy; driven by one will alone: the will to conquer. They are beyond redemption, beyond reason.

  2. There is another reason that the cars didn’t sell. It was the dealers.

    I was eager to buy one of the new Thunderbirds until I visited my local dealer to see about availability. The salesmen very arrogantly acted as though they ‘might’ do me a favor and put my name on the long list of those waiting for one (they actually had a chalkboard in the showroom with a list of names) and they would do so if I gave them a $1,500 premium over list up front. I turned on my heel, left the dealer and never went back again.

    • You nailed it, I did the exact same thing 2003. When everyone was buying SUVs Ford dealers thought they had something way to special for MSRP. WRONG.
      I flip back and forth from Trans Am’s, Mustangs, Corvettes, T birds, I wanted my first new car, but decided against it after that and went back to buying six-year-old cars that I always wanted at the perfect price point

  3. Thunderbird styling was bland and neutered. About as agressive as
    a jelly bean.
    No thunder in that bird. Even a Ford Focus has more.

  4. Mercy me,things ain’t like they used to be-I miss the good ol days with more freedom-when did the Americans,sell out to the Bankers and Madison Ave?(Been going on a long time my friends)whats the Future hold,read science fiction and pick out the 10% that will come to pass and look at the Murals on the new Denver airport.
    Give you a hint Friends,we are not alone-call em Grays,Angels,Demons,whatever you like(start with the “Disclosure Project”-Like Darwin do you?then consider the Drake equation)

  5. Didnt the Taurus do as much to save Ford?

    As to Doomed:

    Putting the Phaeton in there?
    Not true from a global sales perspective, where it’s done well, but for the NA market, similar story to the t-bird in terms of sales years, not volume of course.

    Theres nothing you can fault about its engineering though…
    we have an 06, still love it, BTW

    • Driving a Tiguan in that Clover passing vid?

      I did that last year, only diff was clover was going about 8-9 below posted.
      16/25, then 26/35 then 32/40.

      Legal passing started with the 40, so I did.

      early morning, no traffic, one car in other lane, a couple 100 ft away, no prob.

      but clover was an unmarked mouth breather
      pass wasn’t illegal, didnt even exceed the limit, so he used the catch all careless driving.

      u know he did this on purpose..

      • Hi Chris,

        Yep, a Tiggy…

        Sorry to hear about the mouth breather… this is why I never leave home without the V1….

  6. My mom had had 68 and a 72.I loved them.Than it was 76 ? 77 ? they stated cheapening them up.(my opinion) Because they were eating the market share
    of The Lincoln Continental ? My parents switched over to Town Cars, Town Coups,
    and Continentals.Those cars were my favorites!Only thing missing was fuel injection.
    Now there all over priced,pieces of shit!!! Great analysis on bygone era Eric. I think
    I will go look at my Bill Blass,Givechy,Cartier,and Pucci brochure and try
    remember a better time?

  7. Bought a new ’77 with the 400 motor. Made a 300 mile trip, every other weekend, to see my daughter. Super road car!

    • Hi Stbernadnot,

      I’ve had a chance to drive a few classic T-birds; really enjoyed it in every case. Of course, I am biased toward the cars of that period, especially the big/heavy/V8 Detroit stuff of that period!

      • The car Ford should have built and didnt was the “Forty-Nine”

        based on the Lincoln LS , Thunderbird and Jaguar it wouldnt have cost hardly anything extra to produce.

        they would have sold millions of em

        the big 3 need very much to capitolize on retro cars, because this is the one segment that the Japanese, Korean and German companies cant compete.

        • Plus the idiots at Ford forgot that while now, everyone wants a 55-57 T-bird as a toy, they did NOT sell well back then and they sold more in 58 alone as a 4 seater than in 55-56 and 57 combined !

  8. I had always wanted a 55-57 Bird, but could not afford one. About 12 years ago I purchased a 1960 Thunderbird (Squarebird). I did a great deal of mechanical restoration to the car. I changed to the old worn out 352 to a rebuilt 390, added aluminum intake and headers with 2-1/2″ dual exhaust. The car wasn’t a looker, but it ran really well. I got more comments from folks about that car than any cars I had ever owned and that included a 1964 Corvette, 1959 MGA, 1971 240z, 1994 Thunderbird and several Mustangs. The last Thunderbirds (2002-2005) didn’t appeal to me, I thought that they were, what should I say “boring” My 1960 Bird (weight 3840 pounds) with the modified 390 had about 325+ HP, the 2005 Bird (weight 3774 pounds) had 280 HP. I am sure that the 2005 Bird stopped better, handled better and had a great stereo.
    All my Squarebird had was some “excitement and style” I sold the car to a friend and he finished the restoration of the body, today it is a real looker…I really miss that car.

  9. I’d buy any T-Bird that had a young Suzanne Somers in it.

    Edsel’s failure still puzzles me. My dad had several, including a “hot rod” he regularly took to the drags (that was the family car!) and later, a couple of station wagons. They were good, reliable cars. They were also fun for us kids to play in when he parked their tired carcasses in the woods.

    He also bought new a 1964 (if memory serves) Jeep Wagoneer, which was the shoddiest-built piece of garbage I think he ever had to suffer. Yet Jeep prospered. Go figure.

  10. Dear Eric,

    Touching eulogy to the Thunderbird. You pretty much nailed the zeitgeist and its impact on the “T-bird”.

    Another poignant memory from an America that is no more.

    • Thanks, Bevin!

      I’m putting together about 25-30 of these for the book. I’m about halfway there. Working on getting the deal (publishing contract).My last book came out in ’08 – just before everything (in publishing) curdled. I’d like to get back to doing a book every year or two. It’d definitely help, financially. But it’s also a more permanent form and writers are notoriously vain!

      • Dear Eric,

        Good to hear!

        People are embarrassed to admit it, but leaving behind a legacy is important.

        I’ve been considering authoring a book on anarchism myself.

        • Hi Phillip,

          Thanks!

          I’m titling it Doomed … because it’s about cars tat failed for one reason or another. Not necessarily bad cars (like the Thunderbird). Just cars that didn’t survive.

              • IIRC, the Bronco used a shortened F-150 (F-100?) frame, while the Explorer used a modified Ranger frame.

                Not sure what the Bronco II used, but it was pretty sturdy (rode with a friend of a friend who caught some air jumping irrigation bridges in California one time..)

                  • Bronco II, the vehicle Ford made too narrow, so as to sell to South America without modifications, basically gained two doors and a few modifications became the Explorer. It’s been reported that foreign engineers said the contract was to narrow and would cause stability problems for the bronco II, Ford bean counters/lawyers said it’s cheaper to pay the lawsuits then modify the whole car. Thus, the Firestone/Explorer scandal.

                • The only steeds worthy of the Bronco nameplate are the original versions built from 1966 to 1977.

                  The Bronco II and the F-150 based units had no soul.

                  • when Ford made the bronco larger in ’78, the sales skyrocketed, by 10X

                    and again when they made the Bronco even bigger and called it the Expedition,

                    it seems the larger the car, the more people buy.

                    then recently when they changed the Explorer from a rear wheel drive body on frame with optional V-8 to a 4 cylinder front wheel drive unibody minivan with hinged doors instead of sliding doors, people bought alot more.

                    hard to argue with sales figures.

                    but with the bird, they should have known that no one is gonna pay $40K for a Ford, when they can buy a BMW , Lexus or Benz for the same money

            • chiph, I recall the first Bronco. Car and Driver tested it and had a good time with it. They parked it on the beach and when ready to leave, it dug a couple holes and they had to get pulled out. A friend had a ’66 and that little thing would turn around in it’s tracks almost. It was a great pasture vehicle and with a V-8 would pull a trailer although you couldn’t see behind you.

              Many friends had Blazers and for the most part, worked hell out of them using them for 4WD pickups pulling big trailers. Limited slip front and rear and they’d climb a tree. A lot of them had 400’s in them with 375 THD and were really stout.

              I got to a switchback going up a really steep slope in my Nissan and could not go on. I had to back up a 100′ or so and get a running start to get past the slippery (crushed rock)part. We go back to the house and got a friend’s Blazer, went back to that exact spot, stopped, made sure were were exactly where the Nissan stopped and simply eased on up the hill. Then we put 3 more people in it and did it again. Like the Blazer, I don’t think a Bronco would have noticed it. Nissan and no aftermarket ever made limited slips for those pickups, a big disappointment. They had potential but 2 axle drive sucks the big one. I think that Blazer only had 2 axle drive too, just much better at it.

              I noticed the new GM pickups have Eaton lockers in the rear. I guess they mean business.

          • eric, called it Damned!!! and you can include those first years of Caddy’s with NS engines and stuff that just fell off. C&D did a test of the first year Sedan de Ville with a NS. It was white with side molding that looked like the drunk monkey’s uncles put it on. Next issue they were covered in Letters to the Editor saying basically, How much did GM pay you to say all those good things? Ugly POS don’t even have the molding on straight. And that car on the cover was really bad. Every piece of molding ended about half a width off from the next. I was the guy who asked if there was an optional for a seaman to walk the front deck and take soundings. Mark……..twain……those were some really ugly, sorry cars and their only redeeming quality was the NS engine. For some reason they really like to use them in the movies. You expect such from HW though.

      • Bookstores don’t seem to have a car books section any more, which around me is now just Barnes and Noble. When I was a kid and into grad school Kroch’s and Brentano’s were everywhere. The loop store had a feel that has just plain been lost. Their car book section was the biggest I ever saw anywhere. That’s where I got my Mustang books. The last book I bought there was a gear manufacturing handbook in 1994 or 95.

        • Yeah.

          It’s another symptom of the wilting of the American love affair with the car. Magazines are dying off, too. Or already dead.

          • Morning eric. It’s a damn shame ain’t it? Cars all used to have different feels, different smells even, you could get into a car blindfolded and know which brand it was. Back before Wagoneer’s had the “grand” moniker, you could smell the distinct leather used in them. I could tell GM plastic from Ford just by walking by a new car.
            Now I have to get out and walk around one trying to figure out what it is. Last one my wife had was and Edge but it took a while to find the little nameplate. She had a Sienna recently. I thought it was a small KW.

            • Car manufacturers all use many of the same suppliers for a lot components. It seems like, but I cannot confirm, that a lot of the design of these components is now done at the suppliers.

              IMO That’s why a seatbelt latch in one brand will feel like that in another. Same supplier to the same standard. Customized for that model. There’s no consistency to rely on. Give me a photo of a seatbelt latch or a door latch and I could tell the make once upon a time. They got the mileage out of the tooling. used it across their lines for many years. Now it appears a supplier makes it and just does some custom tooling for each model or each customer to make it a little different.

              • So you mean the car ‘makers’ or should we say, assemblers, just look at the suppliers catalog and go ‘eeny-meeny’ or maybe, 1 from column A and 2 from column B.

                • depends on what part we are talking about. Most things would be customized to varying degrees and would need to meet specifications.

                  • 10,000 components, each supplied by the lowest bidder.

                    What could possibly go wrong? 🙂

                    BTW, “meet specifications” seemed to be more “that will do” as long as the price was significantly cheaper than an exact match to specifications on RFQs. At least before I got out of manufacturing a couple of years ago. I knew I was leaving several years back when “will it last until our warranty expires” became more important to management than “does it match our RFQ spec?”.

                    • “10,000 components, each supplied by the lowest bidder.
                      What could possibly go wrong?”
                      Isn’t that what Neal Armstrong (or one of them thar asternuts) said about the Apollo missions?

  11. I owned one of the late 80s T-bird. It was a nice looking car that helped my dating life when I was single, but it was fiercely unreliable, like every UAW-built car I’ve ever driven. Constantly breaking down.

    And then I got kids, and a 2 door car started to seem like a bad idea.

    • Hi Jim,

      Yup!

      Back in the ’80s, the T-Bird was hugely popular; saw them constantly. But they attrited quickly. I haven’t seen one in years. Where’d they all go?

      In contrast, I see early ’90s Corollas in use as daily drivers literally every day.

      • I remember getting rid of my T-bird at about 120K miles. The transmission had been on the verge of failing for about 15,000 miserable miles, kept slipping and lurching, but the car was so obviously close to the end of its working life that it wasn’t worth repairing the transmission. Drove it to a charity place to donate it, and about 1 mile away the imminent engine failure idiot light came on, overheating or some such, as the engine made dire noises.

        Got a notice in the mail that it had sold at auction for something like $175, I’m guessing for the scrap value.

        In contrast, recently got rid of my first Toyota, a 1999 Camry, at 130K miles, bodywork beat all to hell from my kids learning hard lessons about how not to drive, suspension jolting, rusting out in a duct-taped spot on the roof — and still started up Ever. Damn. Time.

        Probably will be on the road another 100K to 200K miles as a rusty beater beach car before something major breaks.

        • Hi Jim,

          Similar experiences here with both my Nissans. Neither of which – so far – has ever coughed up a significant mechanical problem. But I must say that when I roll the old Pontiac out of the garage (usually, under its own steam) emotions stir. Almost always good ones, but regardless. The old stuff was Soviet compared with modern stuff – especially modern Japanese stuff. But, it had style, personality… heart.

          • Hi Eric,

            When I was much younger I wanted a Pontiac Trans Am in the worst way — it had style, and sounded cool, and was a pussy magnet (admittedly, possibly entirely the wrong women, but that really isn’t a concern for most teen and 20something kids).

            But I just looked up the stats, and a stock 1976 Pontiac Trans Am with a 400 cube engine had less horsepower, slower 0-60 and quarter mile times, and a slower top speed, not to mention what I assume is way worse handling, than my oh so very reliable, comparatively bland, less soul-stirring 2007 Avalon.

            And yesterday, I oh so briefly opened it up on the freeway coming home from work, and the smallish V6 revved up to 5000 rpm and the car shot up to 80 mph — for a few wonderful seconds — before I took my foot off the gas.

            Because Texas cops.

            So maybe, style and soul stirring can come in more than one form — even in an Asian branded car — as someone who has dated several Asian women can attest to.

            • All true, Jim. (Except for the handling part; believe it or not, the mid-late ’70s Trams-Ams handle superbly, even by modern standards. And with modern tires, you’d be amazed what they’re capable of, even in otherwise stock condition. Now, the brakes are another story…)

              But, here’s the thing: It’s true the engines (400 and 455) were shockingly weak as delivered. But the potential locked up in those gigantic V8s is enormous – and easily accessed.

              Without even breaking into the engine.

              Simply replacing the god-awful factory exhaust (these cars were severely gimped by a “y” pipe single exhaust that fed into a hugely restrictive single catalytic converter) with either tube headers or (better) the early cast iron RA III-style manifolds and a 2 1/4 or 2 1/2 inch dual exhaust, plus a power tune (re-jet the carb, increase ignition timing) would transform these cars.

              Now, add a mild performance cam – and an earlier set of heads to increase the compression (another real weakness of the mid-late ’70s Pontiacs) just a tad, to around 8.5:1 or so.

              None of these modifications are difficult or expensive and mostly use stock-type components. It’s easy to get 300-350 honest (and very street-drivable) horsepower out of a mid-late ’70s 400 or 455 Pontiac. And while that may not sound hugely impressive by today’s standards, bear in mind these engines – even in stock tune – also produced incredible torque. The 455 was easily capable of making 450-500 ft.-lbs. In a relatively light (by modern standards!) ’76-79 Trans Am, this would definitely roast your beans, so to speak.

              Point being: It’s not much trouble at all to make a mid-late ’70s TA accelerate as well or better than most modern performance cars. And it already had much more heart than any of them!

              • True, true – I have a ’78 T&A that I bought in ’02 for $2,200, pulled the motor since the old 400 poncho was tired & rattlely. I beefed up the bottom, and threw in a Comp cams RA IV clone grind, milled the heads till the machinist said “no more” and put in hi comp forged pistons, puts down about 300 HP, but well above 400 lb/ft, I can turn from one lane to the opposing lane with nothing more than the go pedal, clover would be horrified. Never got a ticket in that car, although I’ve been stopped once for “reason”, and I’ll go on record as saying he was generous in letting me go with a warning – “What am I supposed to do when some asshole drives by going 20 over the limit, sideways, in a yellow Trans Am?” He told me he was in the mood for an excuse, I told him I had one, but it wasn’t good “If I’d have seen you, I wouldn’t have done it.” “You’re right, it’s not a good one, get oughtta here.”

                • Excellent!

                  My ’76 can do that trick, too. The 455 and 3.90 gears working through 15x7s see to that… I haven’t had a ticket in it, though, since the mid-1990s.

                  I think because it’s now an “antique” – and at least in my area, the cops seem to be more indulgent toward an ancient and original/stock looking car with the black and white tags.

              • Funny thing I love about 70s American cars, big engines, poor quality control/tolerances. Pull a 79 Trans Am in the garage on a Saturday, pull the distributor cap, change the weights and springs, Pull intake and gasket match, adjust the screw on the secondaries of the carburetor and put an order in for new tires because you’re going to need them. 30 extra foot-pounds of torque

  12. Very nice description of the last T-Bird’s attributes……and what went wrong.

    I loved the looks of that car, and keep thinking of how Ford might bring back a viable successor.

    Like you said, the timing wasn’t right in 2001. Probably not right now either.

    But some year, maybe they could offer a two seat, hardtop convertible based on the Mustang chassis. About as much performance as the Mustang V-8, with very good but not harsh handling. A “well equipped” price around $50,000. Styling evocative of the early T-Birds, both inside and out. If the styling were an absolute home run, that Bird might Fly High.

    • Thanks, Mike!

      I was fortunate enough to have been at the car’s press reveal at the NY Auto Show. Ford gave away highly detailed scale models of the car. I still have mine. Also got to test drive the car/review it. I liked it.

      Unfortunately, not many others seemed to.

      I think Marc Cohn captured the essence of the early cars perfectly in that song.

      • Yeah, I like the lyrics. Think that was the four seat T-Bird in the video, which also looked great.

        Still, I gotta agree with Phillip. To me, that Beach Boys song epitomizes the T-Bird spirit.

      • eric, one thing I noticed right away on that car was the Jag styling. Oh, it had some real T-bird styling in there but I always thought there was a good bit of Jag styling in it too. Ford used the Jag stylists like step-children for several years. The convertibles really had the Jag look more so than the hardtops.

        • Well, I guess I should have said coupe but I always think of my high school English teacher and the way she slaughtered the language. It was coopay to her and cantaloopay. If that weren’t bad enough she’d mangle hors d’oeuvre to sound like whores doovray so we just drove her batty and called them horse duver. We’d be out in the pasture or the pens and ask somebody “horse duver?” Well, they do look absolutely scrumptious but I just “et” and then we’d have a great laugh. Oh, and before I forget, she somehow turned hiatus into hay I tus and that was so weird we’d just snicker at each other. And last but not least, uh Pard hite. She was a music major and shoulda stuck to it.

        • Hi Eight,

          Yep. That was during the PAG (Premier Auto Group) era, when Ford owned Jaguar and there was a lot of cross-pollination. Now Jaguar’s owned by Tata (Indian) and – my opinion – has completely lost its “Jaguarness.”

  13. Sorry guys, I’m old enough to remember the original Bird – my 1st grade teacher had a 56 – and I still like it. Actually like the 55-56 much better than “Dan Tanna’s” 57, though many consider that the classic.
    Never cared for the 4-seaters that began in 58.

    • I agree with your sentiment. The lines of the 55/56 are gorgeous and later iterations never quite measured up. (I’m 43, so I never had the chance to see many of them “in action”)

      I owned a 68′ briefly that I beat unmercifully(I was 19 at the time), including an off road baja style race with 5 people in the car with me(bench seats front and rear) vs. a Toyota 4×4 and I waxed his ass on a short course with whoops and the whole deal during a kegger in the SoCal mountains….and it took that kind of abuse for some time until I finally blew a head on the 390 V8….but honestly I’m surpised it didn’t give up the ghost before that considering how I abused it.

      No handling, no brakes, but a decent motor and plenty of room made it fun for a bit. Never once did I get a complement on the exterior(but I did on the interior).

      Sequential tail lights/turn signals and opposite sync’d wiper motors gave it some cachet…but not much.

      • That 390 was the best motor Ford ever made although later they made the 429(starting that year) and that was a good one. You must have overheated that engine cause they were normally pretty reliable. Of course with any Ford pushrod engine you always had the bent pushrod chance at any moment. So, was it a Tudor or Fordor or maybe the Mordor? Probably no optional buckets in front with the 390. Amazing how we trashed cars back then. I kept my ’67 Malibu Sport immaculate inside and out but I drove it down roads that even “angels fear to tread”.

        • Second that, Eight.

          I’ve had personal dealings with the 390 – also the 351C. Great engines. So also the 289/302. Ford made great V8s. And that’s coming from a Pontiac guy…

        • You, you got me thinking, I believe it was bucket seats…but I just remembered 5 guys in it with me, so I’m thinking the rear bench seating was hold 4 of them. (it was huge)

          Anyway, it was the 2 door to answer your question. I swear it handled the whoops with ease and with all the guys in the car the traction was pretty damn good.

      • Losing my mind again. You said it was bench seats and at 43 that sucker had been on the road quite a while and quite a long while for that model car. ‘Nuff said, it must have been a damn good car.

    • PtB, I’d agree with that. Seemed like they just took a Fairlane and built new sheetmetal for the 4 seaters. I never quite understood the thinking on that. They might have gotten wind of the coming FI 283 ‘Vette and decided to not go against it. If so, that was a good move since they had no power like the ‘Vette and the 58 was a real looker…..to me. I came close to buying a very nice one 10 years later. I was going to say they probably wouldn’t have sold me one when I was 8 or 9 but that’s probably not right. Cash on the barrelhead and I would probably been the envy of the 3rd grade.

      • 2nd generation 4 seater Thunderbirds 58 to 79, were not really Fords at all, technically, they were shortened, Lincoln Continental’s with a 390. “Thunderbird engine” I think it started as a 352 FE block. Found its way into Fairlane’s, Galaxies, Mercury’s, Mustang’s engine bay instead of the continentals, 430 or 420 Lincoln engine. They were built in Wixom plant, Michigan alongside the continentals. I think 80 to 83 might have been shortened, Town Cars with 84. Stretch Mustangs built in. I believe River rouge plant alongside the Mustangs. 89 was a mark 8 sister car back in Wixom. Last generation more all shortened Lincoln LS, I believe basically designed by Jaguar/Lincoln skunk works those days, I believe one Jaguar was assembled in Wixom. I don’t know which one, but probably a sister car to the T bird. I love the 63, got one in my garage next to my 81 Corvette build on my birthday 😉 my favorite car was built in Norwood, Ohio, Eric should know exactly make and model, and probably year of it. (The other factor was Van Nuys, California)

        • EDIT: the 63 Thunderbird and me share the same birthday, I wish it was the 81 Vette, but I’ve gone through five motorcycles, three cars, and a few girlfriends by that time.

        • EDIT: I should stop shooting from the hip, the 80 to 83. Did go to the Fox platform, but a fairlane sister, not Mustang, which was built on the Fox also. Stayed at Wixom, also, Ohio, Georgia. 83 – 88 was the same, 89 – 97 , just Wixom. Sorry for the corrections but I’d rather be corrected, than wrong. I’m strange like that 😉

  14. Another thing the new Thunderbird had working against it was the small size. Visually, it looks small.

    A cruiser convertible has always been larger. Not necessarily Eldorado sized — Chrysler’s K-car convertibles come to mind, because they were a 2+2 configuration and so .. “bigger”.

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