It all began in 1954 with the 1955 model, a two-seat convertible
based on the Ford sedan of the day. The dramatic styling was more a factor than horsepower
in early Thunderbirds, but the car had flair and appealed to what would become the
"personal luxury" segment of the market in the 1970s. While the sporty types
drooled over British and Italian imports, the average American with a couple of extra
bucks could tool around in a mid-fifties Thunderbird.
The 1958 Thunderbird, with room for four, started a new era, and outsold its
predecessors by a wide margin. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Thunderbird
soared. However, by the end of the fuel-conscious 1970's, most of the style had
evaporated, and the Thunderbird had its wings clipped.
So, in 1998 Ford put the Thunderbird on a well-deserved sabbatical and went back to the
electronic drawing board. The new 2002 Thunderbird is the result. Based on the platform
upon which the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type are built, it returns to the two-seat,
top-down glory of its first three years, but with a 21st century heart.
Ford made sure we would recognize the new car. It wears the Thunderbird logo, of
course, and a chrome egg crate grille and a hood scoop reminiscent of the original. The
headlamps are round, capturing both the original car and the recent revival of circular
lights. The sides of the car slip back in a reverse wedge, with the tail tapering down to
round tail lamps that evoke the 1961-63 lights and match the new car's headlamps. The
chromed windshield pillars and header make it resemble a 1950's show car.
Inside the new T-Bird is handsome, but not as thrilling as the Buck Rogers whiz-bang
interiors of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most of the interior shape comes straight
from the Lincoln LS, but tasteful use of brushed metallic accents on the dash that streak
into the doors gives it a little extra distinction. The Thunderbird script logotype is
emblazoned on the right side of the dash and inscribed on the metal threshold plates.
The seats feature an attractive tuck and roll stitching, but feel a little like they
are inflated. Behind the two seats is a parcel shelf, terminating in a curved panel that
mirrors the back seats in the 1960's Thunderbirds. You sit close to the ground in this
T-Bird - it stands just 52 inches tall. The brake lever is located on the right side of
the console, something my wife found a little unsettling. The needles of the gauges are
rendered in a traditional 1950s Thunderbird aqua.
The Thunderbird comes only as a convertible, but a removable hardtop is available at
extra cost if you want to seal yourself in for the winter. It has the traditional porthole
on the rear pillars, just like a '56. The convertible top in my tester was quick and easy
to drop. You simply pull down the attractive center lever and press the top-down button.
All the windows drop in unison like students in an Aikido class, while the top folds
neatly into the rear compartment. It takes only nine seconds to make the transformation.
The vinyl boot was a bit of a chore to install, so I just ignored it.
Riding in any convertible is fun, and the Thunderbird revels in it. There is some cowl
shake on occasional rough road surfaces, but a cross-car beam ties the frame structure
together and three X-braces under the car keep it from moving around much. Overall the
ride is more tuned for comfort than eager back road gymnastics. Powering the 2002
Thunderbird is a 3.9-liter dual overhead cam V-8 that puts out 252 horsepower and 261
lb.-ft. or torque. Through its five-speed automatic transmission, this adds up to plenty
of oomph. My Inspiration Yellow tester earned 17 city, 23 highway using premium fuel.
Because it is based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, some trunk space is eaten up by the
differential. That leaves just 6.7 cubic feet, enough for two golf bags or some groceries,
but that's about it.
My tester was a 2002 model, but the 2003s are on their way. If you want to wait for
one, there are a number of upgrades to enjoy. Perhaps the most significant is a boost of
the engine to 280 horsepower and 286 lb.-ft. of torque, thanks to electronic throttle
control and variable cam timing. For '03 you can order a Select Shift transmission that
permits manual shifting without a clutch. All-speed traction control is now standard
equipment, as are two-speed, variable interval wipers with a heated park position. The
instrument cluster has been tweaked, and there are two new interior colors.
Ford is releasing a limited run of 700 James Bond Edition Thunderbirds this November in
conjunction with the new James Bond movie Die Another Day. In the film, Halle Berry, as
Jinx, drives a coral custom T-Bird. These cars feature 21-spoke chrome wheels, solid white
seats, and white-trimmed lower door panels and speaker covers. The shift knob and steering
wheel wear Black Ink leather. Each James Bond Edition car gets a numbered commemorative
plaque on the inside of the glovebox. Pricing information will appear before Christmas.
Motor Trend magazine gave this new Thunderbird its coveted Car of the Year award for
2002. You can place one in your driveway for about $39,000. It's a trip from the past and
into the future all rolled into one.