- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

It's all about style.

There's no other rationale for the 2002 reincarnation, after nearly 50 years, of the original two-seat Ford Thunderbird.

The 'Bird was a sensation when it made its debut in 1954 as a 1955 model. At the time, the public perception of Ford was as a maker of mostly pedestrian family cars that competed with similar offerings from Chevrolet and Plymouth.

The Thunderbird changed that. Described as a "personal" car, rather than a sports car like its contemporary, the Chevrolet Corvette, it brought an image of class and excitement to Ford.

But despite the buzz it caused, the two-seat Thunderbird lasted just three years 1955 through 1957 before Ford redesigned it as a four-seater. That turned out to be an astute move because sales skyrocketed.

Over the years, the T-Bird went through multiple personality changes, some interesting and fun and some just plain dumb. But today, it's the early two-seaters that titillate collectors and evoke the oohs and ahs of the spectators at homecoming games and parades.

With differentiation and niche marketing becoming the norm in the automobile industry, Ford decided that the time was ripe for a new two-seat Thunderbird. But the company did not want to squander the mystique of the original, so the 2002 model was designed to evoke nostalgia for the mid-'50s.

In size, the new Thunderbird is about five inches longer than the '55 original. In looks, it most approximates the 1957 model. In dollars, it's about 14 times pricier than the first version (without considering inflation).

Like the original, the 2002 comes as a convertible, with a soft top and an optional removable hard top, complete with portholes. The base price, with the hard top, is $39,195. With the $800 interior "color accent" package, the test car topped out at $39,995.

It's unlikely too many buyers will order their T-Birds with the standard black leather upholstery because the color accent interior is the one that makes you feel as if you're sitting in a 1950s art-deco diner or at a soda fountain.

On the test car, it was an attractive combination of red, black and brushed aluminum. The 1955 T-Bird and the Ford Victoria two-door hard top had similar interiors. The instruments are gray on white with turquoise-colored needles, attractive but not easy to see in dim light.

Like the original, Ford cobbled the 2002 Thunderbird from existing parts. The basis of the new model is the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-Type, both products of the Ford Motor Co. Power comes from a V-8 that drives the rear wheels through an automatic transmission.

The all-aluminum engine delivers 252 horsepower from 3.9 liters of displacement. Only one transmission is available: a five-speed automatic with tightly-spaced ratios that enable full-throttle acceleration to 60 miles an hour in about seven seconds. That's respectable in any company these days.

But the Thunderbird, though it performs well, is not about neck-snapping performance. It's about being seen, commented upon and envied.

Though it's certainly no sports car, and makes no such claims, the T-Bird does have something of a sports-car ride, despite the fact that the suspension is biased toward the soft end of the spectrum to impart the personality of a leisurely cruiser. On smooth surfaces, it feels cushy. But road imperfections are communicated harshly.

The retro-designed seats don't help much. They're flat, with virtually no lateral support, and are not terribly comfortable over long distances. There's also a shortage of headroom. Big people will balloon the top with their heads or, with the top down, might even wind up looking down the road over the windshield.

To minimize the dreaded "cowl shake" that is the bane of many convertibles, Ford added braces to the chassis. But it doesn't totally eliminate the trait, which manifests itself as a shaking of the steering column over clunky pavement.

The convertible top works easily. A single handle disengages it from the top of the windshield, and the touch of a button lowers it quickly into the boot. Luggage space is modest; under seven cubic feet, but usable.

There are a number of nifty features: The side windows automatically drop slightly when the doors are opened and closed, to minimize wear on seals; a six-disc CD changer nestles in the dash; dual-zone climate control allows comfort tuning for the driver and passenger, and there are storage cubbies in the doors as well as the now-obligatory cupholders.

Even with all that, the Thunderbird doesn't quite have the overall feel you associate with a $40,000 car. But then, it's not about that. It's all about style.


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