Fifty years ago, Ford introduced a small sporty car with a Southwestern name and, in the process, created an icon. The car was called Thunderbird — but not right away. Before settling on T-Bird, Ford considered and rejected more than 5,000 names for the new two-seater, including Hep Cat and Arcturus. The chosen name proved prophetic: The car had wings for the company, lasting for decades and defining the personal luxury car segment.
Fast forward five decades, as we witness the retirement of one of Dearborn’s great nameplates. This month, Ford will build the last of the 2005 Thunderbirds. T-Bird will not return for 2006, going instead on indefinite hiatus; the brand put back on the shelf for future use.
While some 4 million Thunderbirds have been built since 1955, this is not the first time that production has been interrupted. Ford discontinued the car in 1997, only to bring back an all-new version in 2002. Though half a century of evolution had seen Thunderbird’s size and style vary widely, the latest-generation cars have a throwback, first-generation feel. As with the classic “Little Birds” of 1955-57, they are available only as two-seat roadsters.
Ford celebrates the passing of its icon with a limited-production run of 50th Anniversary Editions. The commemorative cars all wear a classy-looking coat of light-gray metallic paint called Cashmere, with standard matching, removable hard top, and 16-spoke, 17-inch machined wheels. Cashmere, stone and gold colors accent the interior, which includes a gold-tinted 50th Anniversary script on the instrument panel, and insignias embossed in the seatbacks. Each of the 1,500 cars will have a numbered plaque on the inside of the glove box door. Sticker price is $44,430, including delivery.
Driving the 50th Anniversary Edition reveals all that is special (and not so special) about the latest generation Thunderbirds. T-Bird styling is retro inspired: a classy shape with old-school styling cues such as a 1955-influenced egg-crate grille, fake hood scoop and porthole windows in the hard top. Bringing up the rear are a set of oversize, round taillights — a fixture on Fords for much of the ‘50s. Inside, the look and feel are elegant; the comfort level high. Soft, green night lighting bathes the gauges, and behind the passengers is a wraparound, carpeted parcel tray. But, there’s less here than meets the eye when it comes to storage spots. The center console cubby is tiny, the door pockets thin and shallow, the glove box largely spoken for by the owner’s manual. This may have flown in the simpler 1950s, but 2005 America is a nation of stuff, and there’s little place to park it in the T-Bird’s cabin. The trunk is wide, if none too deep; its 8.5-cubic-foot capacity has you covered for a weekend getaway or your golf date, but not both.
Unlike the options offered in the original cars, 2005 T-Birds have one powertrain — a 3.9 liter V-8, coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. Rated at 280 horsepower and 286 foot-pounds of torque, the V-8 is comfortably quick off the line, with ample kick for passing.
Thunderbird rolls smoothly down the road, with a cushioned ride. Handling is more sporting than sports car. Top-down wind levels never become objectionable, and it’s quiet enough at highway speed to carry on a conversation without having to shout. Rough roads coax considerable cowl shake out of the chassis.
Even as Ford ushered in the first of the T-Birds in 1955, it was at work, designing their replacements: the larger, four-passenger models that arrived in 1958. The reasoning was simple — there was a bigger market for a bigger car — and Ford’s analysis proved right on the money.
Some 48,482 “Square Birds” were sold in 1958, more than all three years of Little Bird production combined.
Still, America’s heartstrings were tugged hardest by the stylish, sporty two-seaters. So, when Ford brought back the marque in 2002, it was torn between the Little Birds and the Square Birds, for inspiration. In the end, Ford aimed right down the middle, and that as much as anything explains why the latest Thunderbird is now to be the last Thunderbird — for now. Elegant and classy, T-Bird is a ‘tweener, neither short and sporting in the manner of the first-generation cars, not spacious and stylish, as the four-seat, grand touring cars that followed. And, the price point where it built its nest was thick with cars that were highly competitive.
When it debuted as a 2002 model, Ford said it expected to build no more than 25,000 Thunderbirds a year. The production prediction turned out to be optimistic. By 2004, sales had slipped to 11,998 units.
Ford calls the 2005 Special Editions, “calm, cool and collectible,” and it’s no mere marketing spin to say that the 50th Anniversary cars have a legitimate shot at being future collectibles. The formula for collector cars often mixes a desirable design with limited production and exclusive price. The golden anniversary cars measure up well on all three counts. However, those considering a buy-and-hold position on these T-Birds had best be patient. New cars — even collectible new cars — typically depreciate for eight years or so before bottoming out and starting to rise again — if they do rise again.
While future performance is debatable, there’s no arguing the fact that the 50th Anniversary edition Thunderbird is a classy sendoff for a storied marque.
Here’s hoping that it comes back soon; and when it does, it comes back strong.