Los Angeles - Every era searches for its own style, something to express the temper of its times. In the 1950s, Americans were brash and energetic, confident that they could bend the twentieth century to their will. You can find the romance of those times in the 1955 Ford Thunderbird--streamlined, dipped in chrome, and rumbling with V-8 power. And in the 2002 Thunderbird, you can see the same confidence, only this time Ford itself is taking center stage.
The Thunderbird first came into being shortly after the Chevrolet Corvette was shown to the public in January 1953. Within months, Frank Hershey's design studio at Ford had begun work on a similar two-seat roadster. Like Chevrolet's, Ford's design reference was the Jaguar XK120, which was then revolutionizing automotive tastes in America. When the 1955 Thunderbird arrived, it delivered American standards of style and luxury in a Jaguar-size package, and it overwhelmed the Corvette in the marketplace.
The '02 Thunderbird owes its creation to much the same kind of story. This nameplate always has been caught up in the tides of change at Ford, and good intentions frequently have been squandered in the name of practical economy--the curse of Ford since the days of Henry and the Model T. The sporty, two-passenger Thunderbird of 1955 gave way to a 2+2 model in 1958, as family values overtook America. Then Ford debased the label by chasing the Pontiac Grand Prix, in 1967, with a larger, personal-luxury car. The aerodynamic 1983 Thunderbird revived the hopes of enthusiasts, but it languished too long without a suitable high-performance engine. And, although the 1989 Thunderbird featured a sophisticated new chassis, production costs ultimately led Ford to discontinue the Thunderbird nameplate altogether after 1997.
But even as the Thunderbird seemed tossed on the ash heap of history, Ford designers already were creating new concepts for the label. Every car company on the planet had taken to designing small roadsters, and the Ford guys thought that they should have an Audi TT, BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK, or Porsche Boxster of their own. Once design chief J Mays came on the scene in 1997, he helped refine the concepts into a serious study. And the car that was unveiled at the 1999 Detroit auto show shook the rafters at Cobo Hall.
Now, at last, the Thunderbird goes on sale this fall, with 25,000 expected on the street within a year. And we've been able to drive it. It's just as good as it looks, although it may be different from what you've been expecting.
When the Thunderbird arrived on the scene in 1955, it had the look of the new swept-wing jet fighters such as North American Aviation's F-100--spare, streamlined, and modern. The '02 T-Bird captures the same look and yet makes it remarkably fresh. All the design cues of the early Bird are in place, such as the egg-crate-like chrome grille, the hood scoop, the porthole in the hard top, and the round, swept-back rear fenders. At the same time, the Thunderbird doesn't seem as sappy as other retro-theme cars.
We think the Thunderbird's proportions are the secret of its appeal. Like a teardrop, the front of the car is prominent and leads the way, while the rest of the car tapers to a low rear-fender line. The enormous wraparound windshield is laid back at an acute, 67-degree angle, and it energizes the overall shape of the car. The chrome band that runs from the A-pillar and across the windshield header provides a unique signature of style. This is a car that looks fast and sleek. The single false step in our test car is the set of chrome wheels that are part of the premium trim (one of three trim packages offered); they're a blast from the 1980s, not the 1950s. An ignition key that looks as if it comes from someplace other than the bin of Taurus parts would be nice, too.
Our experience on the street suggests that the Thunderbird's look cuts across the conventional barriers of age and gender. We expected some notice from people old enough to remember the original T-Bird of the 1950s, but we were surprised to get shouts of recognition from kids in school yards. We got double takes from guys in Toyota pickups and inquiries from people at the supermarket. The T-Bird also had enormous appeal to those who cared about fashion and style. They told us that they were worn out by the relentless entreaties from the world of consumerism to buy into the latest "new & improved" thing. They said the Thunderbird offered real style--lasting style. This is an interesting aspect of the retro look and perhaps an indication that we haven't yet seen the end of such designs.
When the Thunderbird first took shape in 1955, Ford engineers whittled down a Fairlane sedan into the right-size package. Much of the same strategy can be found in the new T-Bird, which is based on the platform of the Lincoln LS, minus 7.3 inches of wheelbase. It is a fine choice, since this is one of Ford's most sophisticated platforms (it's also under the Jaguar S-type) and offers much of the best stuff in the corporate parts bin. Lightweight aluminum suspension members, front disc brakes with four-piston aluminum calipers, and electronic brake-force distribution are just some of the pieces in place here.
Ford engineers tell us that they were surprised at the amount of torsional rigidity that was lost when they sliced off the roof from this sedan platform and created a convertible, even though their computers predicted it. They worked hard to improve chassis rigidity by installing three braces beneath the body pan--an X-shaped brace under the engine, another one under the middle of the car, and a stout lateral brace behind the passenger compartment. Thanks to these and other measures, the engineers figure that they managed to double the Thunderbird's torsional rigidity to about 6000 pound-feet per degree, which they believe to be in the same league as the BMW 3-series convertible and the Mercedes-Benz CLK cabriolet. Unfortunately, doing so inflicts a weight penalty, so this car tips the scales at a substantial 3775 pounds.
The surprise comes from the way in which all these elements have been tuned. Ford tells us that it decided to be true to the original car, which always was better suited to Palm Beach than to Sebring. As a result, the Thunderbird is a soft, heavy car that's happiest at touring speeds. Ford calls it "relaxed." The engineers tailored the springs to deliver a plush ride, then added large-diameter, twin-tube, low-pressure gas dampers to calm the ride motions. The characteristics of the Michelin tires also contribute much to this ideal of a soft, laid-back attitude.
As a result, the Thunderbird always feels like a big car, as if a sedan of the 1950s had been given a makeover. Over the bumps, the T-Bird quickly bends its knees, and the chassis cycles through the full range of suspension movement until the dampers soothe the wheels again. Sometimes harshness will find its way through the suspension, but, generally, the car is fairly plush, and it doesn't have the uncontrolled float that you might associate with softly suspended cars. You're most aware of the soft suspension tuning when the car waddles and pitches over parking-lot speed bumps or when it corkscrews across a hump in the freeway. Think of a two-door Lincoln Town Car, and you'll get the picture.
The Thunderbird delivers some authority when you step into the throttle, as there's a 252-horsepower, DOHC 3.9-liter V-8 under the hood. But this is by no means a quick car. The curb weight conspires against you, for one thing. For another, the V-8 has an impressively flat torque curve, with at least 90 percent of peak torque available from 2100 rpm to 5500 rpm, but this kind of power feels best during roll-on acceleration on the highway. When you hammer the throttle, the engine doesn't show enough eagerness to seek its redline, even with a short, 3.58:1 final-drive ratio. The throttle tip-in is fairly heavy, and the car leaves the line with a pronounced rush, but it lasts only to about 40 mph, when the pace of acceleration becomes more restrained. The five-speed automatic shifts smoothly under part-throttle, but it doesn't respond very well when your foot is hard against the floor.
We were a little crestfallen at the way the T-Bird declined any invitations to race (as were the dozens of dumped and breathed-on Camaros, Civics, and Eclipses that pulled alongside hoping for an informal exhibition of speed). And yet we weren't resentful. We liked driving this car--a lot.
Part of the reason is that the Thunder-bird is such a great place to spend time behind the wheel. The optional two-tone treatment of the interior is dramatic without being overstated, and the thick band of brushed chrome that circles the cockpit perfectly accents the look. The center console has been lifted from the Lincoln LS without much imagination, but the main gauges, with their lighted, aqua-colored needles, recall the formica-and-chrome designs of the 1950s. The seats are comfortable, and the thick rim of the steering wheel fills the hand nicely. The sound of the horn and the click of the directional signals might have been taken directly from a Fairlane of the 1950s. Overall, this is a wonderful cockpit, ergonomically correct and very well detailed.
You also can't get angry at the Thunderbird, because it simply drives so well. The steering is isolated from road shocks, yet the response is quick, direct, and linear. Every control is light in effort and yet perfectly natural. When you steer into a bend, it takes only a little effort to keep the car from pitching or rolling onto its bumpstops, and then the chassis arcs through the corner with reassuring steadiness. Everything is calm, natural, and intuitive. Anyone can hop into this car and feel at home within two minutes.
The Thunderbird also succeeds because it's such a complete car. Everything works the way it should. The hard top weighs 83 pounds, and you unfasten it with two allen-head screws at either extremity of the windshield header plus a lever beneath each porthole. The top stows vertically on a rollaway cart that Ford provides for the purpose. It's a sturdy piece, although it does shudder in place when the chassis crosses choppy pavement. When the hard top is removed, the T-Bird is generally free of turbulence, thanks to the protection offered by the big windshield. The electrically powered soft top, with its glass rear window, comes up and latches in place with minimal effort. The trunk is shallow, but the large opening lets you make the most of it, and it'll accommodate the two golf bags that are the standard for cargo utility in this class.
Sure, we're disappointed that the Thunderbird is not blazingly quick. But we're not put off, perhaps because Ford tells us right up front that this was never meant to be a sports car. The Thunderbird is a great top-down car, delivering the exhilaration of being outside while rolling down the highway to get ice cream. It has so much style that a simple drive becomes an event, a celebration, a parade. When the hard top is in place, the Thunderbird becomes far more masculine, a traveling car meant for long distances.
We also must admit that the Thunder-bird gets away with its approach because it has such style. Every gesture it makes is delicious, right down to the aqua bands that underscore the wings of the Thunderbird emblem, a styling device straight from the original T-Bird. If you think of the Thunderbird as simply a convertible, then you begin to understand its mission in life. This is not a '32 Ford hot rod meant for lighting up its tires. Instead, it's more like a '57 Chevy, a custom car meant for the pure enjoyment of driving. As advertised, the Thunderbird is relaxed. At a price that begins at $35,495 for the deluxe model and ends at $38,995 for the premium model with removable hard top, it should bring back the spirit of American chrome in a big way.