Sunday, August 19, 2018

T-Birds go up to 11: in defense of the 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird?

Yellow 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird convertible
2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird. Photo by IFCARE (Wikimedia Commons).
By Bill Hayward
Although I do remember running across a short news story or two when the new, retro-styled 2002 Ford Thunderbird was about to debut, I have to say that these cars were essentially not on my radar at the time—even less so ever since, until very recently. 

Part of the reason for that, of course, is that at the time I was at a much more of a practical-minded lifestage when it came to vehicle needs. Transportation options like minivans and SUVs were top-of-mind, not two-seater roadsters. It was just this year that I started thinking again about the 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird and getting curious about what I might have missed by not paying attention when it was still in production.

Spotting two 11th-generation Ford Thunderbirds in my area over the past several months—both driven by white-haired gentlemen who looked like retired doctors—is what piqued my curiosity again. These sightings motivated me to do a bit of research to see how much these retro roadsters, produced from 2002 through 2005, might have to offer an enthusiast today—especially in terms of what appeal they might have outside the white-haired retired doctor demographic. 

Unfortunately, as appealing as the idea is of a modern (well, at this stage “relatively modern” is more accurate, since the newest of this generation is now 13 years old) reinterpretation of the original 1950s T-Bird, my findings suggest a very mixed bag.

11th-Generation Ford Thunderbird: The Pros

The good thing about the last generation (for now, anyway) Ford Thunderbird is that, for the first time in decades, the model returned to what it was originally intended to be: a curvy two-seater sports car. 

You may have heard the classic story behind the original Thunderbird: Ford executive Lewis Crusoe came down with a bad case of “Europe envy” when he beheld some of the British and European sports cars at the Paris Auto show in 1951, like the Jaguar XK-120. The result, four years later, was the birth of the Ford Thunderbird.

The two-seater roadster configuration did not last very long, and from 1958 through 1997 the Thunderbird took a very different evolutionary path. From 1958 on, it was really no longer a sports car at all, but a four-seater coupe or convertible, more of a personal luxury car with a demographic appeal akin to that of the Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado. 

Having no vehicle to occupy the same slot as the Corvette among American automakers was a gaping hole in the Ford lineup for many years. So the return of the T-bird as a roadster in 2002 was, in theory at least, a bright new development.

Other pros? The front-engine, rear-drive powertrain configuration was an obvious plus, which in theory helped the 11th-generation Thunderbird’s credibility as a true sports car. Also a theoretical strong point was the Jaguar-designed 3.9-liter V8, which made a respectable-for-its-time 252 horsepower, upgraded to 280 horsepower for 2003-2005. On paper, the elements were there for a sports car that could deliver respectable performance. 

Visually, the design arguably had even more of the “ponton look” characteristic of classic curvy European sports cars than did the original 1955 Thunderbird. The 2002 T-bird had a long and sleek silhouette, with an elliptical grille a bit reminiscent of Jaguar E-types. 

From a pricing standpoint, the market seems buyer-friendly for those interested in 11th-generation Thunderbirds. Good-condition examples with under 100,000 miles appear to be available in the $10,000-$15,000 range. While that certainly isn’t dirt cheap for a 13- to 16-year-old car, it isn’t outrageous either. The relative rarity of this generation of Ford Thunderbird could be pushing the price up a bit.

It’s worth noting that, when new, the 2002 Ford Thunderbird had a starting MSRP close to $40,000. So $10,000-$15,000 for one with potentially more than half of is useful life still ahead is not outrageous. 

2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird: The Cons

Did you notice above that I used the word “theoretical” a lot in describing the pros? This is probably a big clue to the nature of the problems that made sales of the 11th-generation Thunderbird so lackluster. 

Launched in an era in which “retro” was a bit of a thing—the Chrysler PT Cruiser being perhaps the most visible example, and the return of round headlights to the Mustang in 2005 not very far behind—the 11th-generation Thunderbird was perhaps a bit too retro. Somehow, the look strikes me as just a little cartoonish.

In terms of design language, the things that Ford got right with Mustangs from 1994 on—essentially, it was all about tastefully integrating classic styling cues that clearly said “Mustang” into an essentially modern framework—may have been what Ford got wrong with the last T-Birds. A cartoonishly retro look may have been just what put the 2002-2005 Thunderbird into the “old white guy’s car” slot. 

In hindsight, an approach that was more “modern but with retro cues” might have given the last-generation Ford Thunderbird a more broad-based appeal akin to the Mazda Miata, which has enjoyed generations of stunning success within a special niche of the automotive market.
Weighing in at over 3,700 pounds, the 11-generation Ford Thunderbird was also arguably a little heavy for a 2-seat roadster, which also could have limited its appeal to enthusiasts. 

These cons seemed to converge to doom what was in many ways a promising rebirth of the Thunderbird as a sports car to being essentially a failed, very-low-production model. And although these vehicles have a lot of good points that make them worthwhile to own and preserve, it has to be understood that keeping a 15-year-old, very-low-production model in driving condition can be more challenging than it is for a 50-year-old high-production model like a 60s Mustang. 

Fewer than 70,000 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbirds were built.

Looking at the online forums, it appears that 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird owners are already struggling with parts availability and substantial delays in obtaining parts that are still available. As such, these cars at a minimum are questionable as daily drivers, although the challenges could be acceptable for a pleasure-only car for summer driving and year-round, nice-weather weekends.

Another challenging factor is that the platform mates of the 11th-generation Thunderbird—the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type—were also of relatively low production. And parts interchangeability across these models is somewhat limited, although there are some common components. Things might have been simpler if, for example, V8s from Mustangs and/or F-150s had been selected for the power plant, rather than the Jaguar-designed V8s that were used in the Thunderbird. 

Based on my own experience with cars of a similar vintage but more than twice the production level, other parts that need frequent replacement in older vehicles, like steering columns and steering racks, could also become challenging.

Also difficult for low-production cars, even in the 10- to 15-year-old range, can be “soft parts” like airbag and horn pad assemblies which, though easy to overlook when contemplating a purchase, can be bothersome and very difficult to find replacements for if they fail.

On the other hand, if you are someone with the skills, tools, and means to pull off creative swaps and retrofits, it can be a very different story as long as you aren’t trying to preserve a concours-quality trailer queen. 

The Bottom Line: Are They Worth Owning and Preserving?

The rarity of the last-generation Ford Thunderbird could eventually become a virtue on the collector market. It is commonly said in the collector-car world that today’s turkeys become tomorrow’s sought-after classics. And these are nice-looking, respectably-powered sports cars. They probably deserve more attention from enthusiasts outside the white-haired retired-doctor crowd. 

There are many appealing characteristics to the 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird, so if the strong points like the retro ponton look, the V8, rear-drive powertrain, and the two-seat roadster configuration appeal to you, it could be worth a look.

But be prepared for the possibility of some fairly challenging “responsibilities of ownership.” And given those potential challenges, I wouldn’t recommend depending on a 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird as a daily.

So what can we learn from the failure—and it’s hard not to call it that—of the 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird as an automotive marketing case study? 

The biggest takeaway is probably that Ford was not thorough enough in thinking through their target customer profile. It’s hard to imagine that they could have undertaken the rebirth of the legendary T-Bird  with old white guys as the only market segment in mind—although, to be fair, my sense that this is the primary segment that gave them some uptake has only an anecdotal basis and no quantitative backup.

But it also seems probable that the explanation lies there. They made these Thunderbirds so retro that the primary appeal was to people who had first-hand memories of the original T-Birds, which pretty much killed any chance of, for example, grabbing a share of the Miata market. 

Plus, the price point situated the last-generation Thunderbird in an awkward place. It was too high to be a Miata competitor. Yet at close to $40,000 in 2002, you were already in the price territory of European sports cars that might be a lot more appealing to an affluent but younger buyer.

As for the “too retro” notion, a short thought experiment might be informative. I’ll use a very personal example. I grew up longing to own a Jaguar E-Type. If Jaguar were to decide to build a new E-Type, what would I be more inclined, assuming sufficient means, to purchase? One that looks like a retro clone of the original, or a tasteful modern reinterpretation (which Jaguar, to date, has never created—the XK-8 being the closest they ever came)?

Probably the latter. If I had enough money to buy the hypothetical new generation E-Type, I would probably also be have enough—maybe even much more than enough—to buy a pretty good original example from the late 1960s or early 1970s. And that is probably just what I would do. The factors that would motivate me to buy the new generation would probably be very different from those that would drive me toward an original E-Type.

So, again—retro styling cues can be great, but too retro, or cartoonishly retro, creates a serious danger of limiting the market. And that just might be exactly what went wrong with the 11th-generation Ford Thunderbird.

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