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Unlike today, vehicle choices were pretty limited 50 years ago when the Ford Thunderbird first took flight. There were sedans, coupes, station wagons and convertibles, but essentially a Ford was a Ford -- straightforward variations on a common design. With the 1955 T-bird, however, Ford introduced the notion of a sporty "personal luxury car" -- a close-coupled two-seater with V8 power, a cushy ride and elegant styling. It also had the simple construction and reasonable price of a Ford.
What that first cozy Thunderbird convertible didn't have was much extra room for more people and things -- but when this was addressed in 1958, Ford's Thunderbird really took off. That year it became a bigger, heavier car, a four-seater available as a coupe or convertible with a blocky body that gave rise to the nickname "Square Bird." A much cleaner fighter jet-inspired body design debuted in the early 1960s and the sleek, missile-like profile earned these cars the moniker "Bullet Bird." The mid-'60s saw sharper-edged lines for the body, though the basic platform remained mostly unchanged.
Things really started to get weird in the later '60s, '70s and early '80s. Within this span of time, the Thunderbird convertible was dropped, a four-door version with suicide doors and landau irons was offered briefly, the car grew to the size and shape of a Lincoln Mark IV and was then downsized twice, first in 1977 and again to a Fairmont-based platform in 1980. Yep, the Ford Thunderbird "celebrated" its 25th anniversary in fine style, riding atop an economy car's chassis and sporting less than 130 horsepower from its V8 engine. But it did have a heavily padded landau top complete with opera lights as well as a digital dashboard, so things weren't that bad, right?
Interesting things happened during the mid- and late 1980s, when style and performance returned in the form of the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and its successor, the Super Coupe. The former had a turbocharged inline-4 while the latter sported a supercharged V6. The Thunderbird stayed with this format (standard coupe with V6 or V8 power and the hyper Super Coupe) through the late 1990s, at which point the Thunderbird died a quiet death due to slow sales and general disinterest in the personal luxury coupe market.
For the new millennium, Ford resurrected the Thunderbird. As a full-circle, retro-inspired return of the original two-seat roadster, the new Thunderbird garnered plenty of attention and initial hype. Still more about motoring with a little extra flair and panache than driving fast and hard, the Thunderbird seemed poised for success. It never met with much critical acclaim, however. Sales were brisk at first but slowed considerably afterwards. Ford ended production after four years.
Those shopping for a used Ford Thunderbird built in the last 20 years have lots of choices in terms of configurations, powertrains and styling. The best T-birds from the 1990s are the ones with V8 power. Driving enthusiasts may want to look for the performance-oriented but much rarer Super Coupe from the same era. Finally, the more recent two-seat roadster will no doubt satisfy those with retro "cruising" fantasies and could quite possibly become a future classic.
Most Recent Ford Thunderbird
In 1999 Ford displayed a concept car that brought the Thunderbird back full-circle to its roots as an open two-seat roadster. The response was overwhelming, and three years later it had a production version ready for 2002. The designers did such a great job that this "modern" Thunderbird managed to preserve the sleek styling cues of the original without looking like a four-wheel caricature.
As a basis, Ford used the same platform as it did for the Lincoln LS sedan. As such, some criticism was leveled at the Thunderbird's interior, as it was perceived as being too similar to the LS's and lacking in design flair. At the time, we suspected that buyers would have accepted a higher sticker price in exchange for unique, Thunderbird-specific pieces for the dash and center console. The pleated leather seats and door panels, however, recalled the days when auto upholstery resembled the seating in a diner's booth.
On the road, the new 'Bird performed quite well with its independent suspension and 3.9-liter V8 with a five-speed automatic transmission. But it didn't make the claims of a sports car; its mission in life was that of a comfortable boulevard cruiser. The Thunderbird gained 28 hp in 2003 for a total of 280. Detail changes marked its final couple years, with trim and paint changes and a Light Sand Appearance Package in 2004, and 50th-anniversary badging and more trim changes inside and out for 2005. Though flawed, it was still fun to drive and fun to be seen driving, and it largely succeeded at straddling the fine line between luxury and performance.
Past Ford Thunderbird models
The previous-generation Ford Thunderbird coupe was produced from 1989-'97. At its debut, a new fully independent suspension helped ride and handling, but acceleration was disappointing due to the combination of a hefty curb weight and 140-hp base V6. A more inspiring alternative was the new Thunderbird Super Coupe, (SC) which used a supercharged version of the V6 to produce 210 hp. It transferred its power to the rear wheels through either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. A special-edition 35th-anniversary model of the Thunderbird SC arrived in 1990, and a 200-hp 5.0-liter V8 returned to the Thunderbird lineup in 1991 -- the preferred choice for most Thunderbird buyers.
The base Ford Thunderbird was dropped from the 1993 lineup, and the car was now available either as an LX (with either the V6 or V8), or as a Super Coupe with the supercharged V6. Dual airbags were made standard in 1994, and this car also featured revised front-end styling and Ford's new, more refined SOHC 4.6-liter V8. The Super Coupe flew the coop after '95, leaving just the LX model to soldier on. There was a new instrument cluster in 1997 plus some new colors and a new rear spoiler, but the car itself was doomed as Ford shifted its focus to increasingly popular -- and profitable -- SUVs and trucks.
In reviews of this Thunderbird, our editors wrote that they liked the car's sporty coupe body style, V8 power and reasonable price. With its decent-size backseat, we claimed that it was "a car for closet enthusiasts who need a car that is more mature than the Mustang."
For more on past Ford Thunderbird models, view our Ford Thunderbird history page.