Hey, There’s a Cool Car: 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird
By Charles Krome
Here’s an example of a beautiful car that was, unfortunately, Jinx-ed almost from the very start. Which is only funny if you remember that “Jinx” was the name of the character played by Halle Berry in “Die Another Day”—and perhaps not even then. Regardless, the Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond film co-starred a number of PAG-era Ford products, including an Aston Martin Vanquish for Mr. Bond, a Jaguar XKR for one of the chief bad guys and a T-bird for Jinx—and it’s that last choice that caused the problem.
But let’s start back at the beginning: There were certainly some legitimate reasons to hate on the 11th-gen Thunderbird. The roadster shared too many obvious interior bits with the Lincoln LS—including, most egregiously, one of the driver’s focal points: the instrument panel—and that was sort of a tipping point in the T-bird’s reputation as a parts-bin car. But truth be told, those parts weren’t all that bad. The car sat on Ford’s global rear-wheel-drive platform of the time, which had been developed in collaboration with Jaguar and also was used for the Jag S-Type and the aforementioned ES. Those two cars might not have been world-beaters, but the pair, along with the Thunderbird, were better then they’re remembered. There’s no gainsaying the coupe’s striking exterior.
It’s a fine example of the still-lingering design ethos known as “retrofuturism,” aptly described in Wikipedia as incorporating “two overlapping trends which may be summarized as the future as seen from the past and the past as seen from the future.” The style generated a fair amount of buzz in the industry around the turn of the millenium, when vehicles like the Thunderbird, Plymouth Prowler and PT Cruiser, Chevy SSR, and VW New Beetle were all the rage, and it’s closely associated with the work of Ford designer J Mays (who penned the T-Bird and New Beetle and is currently the Blue Oval’s head designer and “chief creative officer”).
The approach worked quite well on the Thunderbird, which reached back to the 1955 original for much of its inspiration, including its size. Previous models had gotten up well over the 200-inch mark as the car became more of a luxobarge, and even the previous-generation version was a bit north of 198 inches. To put this into context, that’s about an inch bigger than today’s Ford Explorer. The 2002 Thunderbird was cut back to 186.3 inches, still nearly a foot longer than the ’55 Bird but much more inline with modern-day sports tourers, and roughly two inches shorter than a Cadillac CTS coupe.
And I suppose the fact that the Thunderbird was designed to be a touring car—not a full-on performance coupe—also was part of the problem. That’s not to say it was a slow car, though. The 2002 model originally came with a 3.9-liter V8 capable of 256 hp and 267 lb.-ft. of torque, and that was enough to propel 3,775 lbs. worth of Thunderbird from 0-60 in 7.0 seconds. Plus, a year later, power was upped to 280 hp and 286 lb.-ft. of torque, and the car’s sprint time was down to about 6.1 seconds. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find much nice to say about the Thunderbird’s suspension, but, again, it really wasn’t supposed to be a pure sports coupe.
The car got off to a decent start in the marketplace, with more than 19,000 sales in its first year, but deliveries fell off ye olde cliff soon after, despite some very favorable reviews from the press.
Consider: The revised Thunderbird was announced as the 2002 Motor Trend “Car of the Year” in January of ’02, earning absolutely rave reviews for its entire package, even those parts borrowed from Lincoln. Significantly, the magazine also was still geeked about the car it spent a full year as part of the MT test fleet. Yes, some flaws had become apparent, especially in terms of its ride quality and transmission, but the bottom line was “overall, we found our Thunderbird a competent, grand touring convertible. Despite our niggling, there’s no denying that it packs a ton of romantic appeal. It feels most at home cruising a boulevard or back-country road, top down, with good company at your side and cool tunes in the CD player.”
That might not be praise of the highest order—and I do realize that Motor Trend is hardly the gold standard of auto reviewing anyway—but it still seems surprising to me how quickly the tide turned on the Thunderbird. Rumors of its cancellation were flying fast and furious less than two years after its debut, and it was done after selling about 9,000 units in 2005.
And this is where Ms. Berry re-enters the scene. Although the idea of trying to attract customers to the Thunderbird by putting it in a Bond movie makes sense at first glance, I can’t think of a worse way to do it than by painting one pink—I mean “coral”—and spotlighting it as the top Bond girl’s top choice of ride. Yet that’s exactly what Ford did shortly after the Thunderbird launched, and, IMHO, that was the kiss of death for the car. As hard as it is to believe, America’s car guys—who are, overwhelmingly, actual “guys”—weren’t that interested in ponying up $40,000 to drive Halle Berry’s car. Go figure.
Now, I’m not saying some sort of sexism is the sole reason the last Thunderbird failed, but I’m also not going to be holding my breath for a Danica Patrick edition NASCAR knock-off any time soon.
(Photo bonus: I found the powder blue one first, then saw the opalescent white one just days later; oddly enough, it also was [legally] parked in a handicapped spot.)