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.