|Is it a Bird...
Is it a Plane...
Or is it a Pontiac?
1970 Ford Thunderbird Two Door Landau with Special Brougham Option package
|Return to Index|
Vol. 2, No. 3
|The personal luxury car market was exploding in the late sixties and early
seventies. What started as a new concept in automobiles in 1958 with a
single model, the Ford Thunderbird, was by 1970 a rapidly growing market
segment. The personal luxury cars were so popular that another market had
begun to develop around it. This was the "entry level" personal
luxury car. Although never referred to as "entry level" by the
manufacturers, they were much more affordable than the true personal luxury
cars. Players in this field included the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac
Grand Prix. Not truly luxury cars in the normal definition, they offered
plusher interiors than lesser models, distinctive styling not shared with
any other cars, a higher level of standard equipment, and more available
optional amenities than other cars offered by their manufacturer for its
other models, but they weren't adorned with the same snob appeal and exclusivity
that the true personal luxury cars exuded.
Almost as if some of the manufacturer's didn't quite understand what it took to be labeled a personal luxury car, these cars were advertised in many cases as if they were the real thing. But true luxury car buyers knew better. The car that started it all, the 1958 Ford Thunderbird, was different than anything else on the road at the time. Smaller than traditional luxury cars, it was low and sporty and didn't pretend to be everything to everyone. You had to be able to afford a Thunderbird, and not just financially, there was more to it than that.
Families didn't exactly flock to the T-Bird because it wasn't really accommodating to families, and Ford never intended it to be. After all, there were Sedans and Station Wagons for them. What was the target market for the Thunderbird? A successful young couple without children, yes. A single career gal making good money, yes. Professionals, yes. Retirees desiring something youthful, yes. But you wouldn't be likely to find one sitting in the garage at The Brady Bunch house. And quite likely Ford didn't care, because the T-Bird was hot hot hot at the time. They were selling about as many as they could make, and each car was generating a nice profit for Ford Motor Company.
The personal luxury car was the car for someone who had made it financially, and could probably afford to drive almost anything they wanted. But the personal luxury car was something a bit more selective than the ordinary luxury car. It was in a word, personal. Designed to be built by the buyer, it had many of the luxury features found on the traditional luxury models, but not all of them were included as standard equipment. And a good many features found on the personal luxury cars weren't yet available on the traditional models, which made the personal luxury cars somewhat trendy, as they always offered the latest gadgets and innovations.
The first car to try to compete with the Thunderbird was the 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire, which was originally available as a convertible model only. It was followed by the Pontiac Grand Prix in 1962. Both of these cars were based on full-sized models, and lacked the true flair and distinction of a personal luxury car. This also holds true for the Chrysler 300s, which were certainly sporty and powerful, but they were also based on the full size Chryslers of the time. Next came the 1963 Buick Riviera, which was followed by the Oldsmobile Toronado in 1966, the Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado in 1967, and the Continental Mark III in 1969. These cars all hit the mark: they were true personal luxury cars and as such were generally considered to be the finest cars built by their respective manufacturers.
What did these cars all have in common? They had distinctive styling that looked like nothing else on the road, unique interiors, a high level of quality control, powerful V-8 engines, and something known as class to set them apart. All of these things combined make a personal luxury car, and while never intended to be the fastest cars on the road, they did need to have enough torque to beat the neighbor's Fairlane, LeSabre, Delta 88, or Newport. Some would say that the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix had all of these attributes as well. And they did, but it was on a different level.
Both the Monte Carlo and the Grand Prix of the late sixties and early seventies had distinctive styling, unique interiors, a high level of quality control, powerful V-8 engines, and they were among the finest cars that Chevrolet and Pontiac offered. But they both missed the mark on several points. They weren't the same size as the true personal luxury cars. Their interiors, while plush, lacked the refinement of the others. They were also lower priced, which made them more common on the roadways, a sure fire killer for personal luxury car buyers. Exclusivity is worth its weight in gold in this market segment. Pulling up to the Country Club or market and finding 2 or 3 other cars just like yours already parked there does nothing to feed a personal luxury car owner's ego. After all, they paid big bucks for their car, they deserve to feel good about their purchase.
During the late sixties and early seventies the personal luxury car market was undergoing change. Convertibles, never a true player in the field, were becoming very scarce. The 2 door hardtop model was the preferred choice, with Thunderbird abandoning the convertible after 1966, Lincoln after 1967, and Imperial after 1968. Only Cadillac would offer a true personal luxury convertible by 1971. And buyers were looking for cars that could be tailored to their individual needs, which meant various seating arrangements, rooflines, and body styles needed to be offered, as well as a sea of options to customize the car to the owner's individual needs.
Government regulations addressing automotive safety, emissions, and fuel economy were impacting the automotive world, or soon would be. A true personal luxury car at this time had to meet the requirements of the buying public as well as fit into the corporate profit picture. This was the time when many personal luxury cars began to make concessions, where they had not done so before. This saw Ford putting a front bench seat in a Thunderbird as standard equipment for the first time in 10 years, and it would also mark the beginning of another car, which would influence the Thunderbird more and more in the years to come.
Since the very beginning in 1955, Ford restyled the Thunderbird completely every 3 years. The third year of a series normally saw extensive interior and exterior updating, in order to keep the car fresh. This happened in 1957, 1960, 1963, and 1966. But what happened in 1969? No new sheet metal. No major change anywhere, really. The Thunderbird got split tail lamps for the first time since 1965, and Tudor Landau models featured the blind rear quarter roof line of the '66 Town models, but that was about it.
Perhaps a closer look at what was going on internally at Ford during this time will explain this better. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen was hired by Ford and reported for work in February 1968. Unhappy that he wasn't promoted at GM, where he had spent the past twenty years, Knudsen was more than happy to accept a presidential position at Ford. Insiders at Ford knew what was going on, and no one wanted to stick their neck out too far during this time. So, the changes from 1968 to 1969 for the Thunderbird were not as elaborate as in the past, although many small details were changed, which gave the car an updated look without taking too many risks.
Knudsen was most proud of his days at Pontiac Division, where he took the division with a reputation for building stodgy cars for older people to a division known for its power, performance, and excitement. If it worked for Pontiac, maybe he could do the same at Ford. While Ford wasn't known for building stodgy cars, Knudsen felt he had the right idea at Pontiac and was determined to make his mark at Ford quickly. And so he did. The 1969 models were pretty much wrapped up before he came on board, so 1970 would be the first to truly show his impact.
The 1970 Thunderbird is perhaps the most obvious of them all. In fact, trade sources at the time said much of the design work for a new 1970 Thunderbird was scrapped on Bunkie Knudsen's orders and a crash program was begun in March 1969 to redo the car. Needless to say, this is very late in the year to still be working on a new design slated to debut in 6 or 7 months. Changes included the center grille and hood section which protruded forward in a very Pontiac-like manner, and was decidedly not a Thunderbird styling tradition. In back, the full width tail lamps returned, but in an inverted "U" design, very reminiscent of Pontiac tail lamps at the time. One has to wonder how he convinced the top brass at Ford to approve these designs. A year later, in 1971, Knudsen would again make his mark with the redesigned Custom 500/Galaxie 500/LTD line. Again, a protruding hood and grille treatment and down-turned tail lamps. Virtually all of the new designs that came from Ford during 1970 and 1971 bear Knudsen's distinctive mark, which is somewhat heavy for a Ford design, and very Pontiac-like in their overall appearance.
Behind the scenes, Knudsen was becoming more powerful and placing more demands on Ford. Ford dealers who attended a preview of the 1970 models during the Summer of 1969 were very unhappy when they saw the new Thunderbird, and they let their feelings be known to Ford Executives. Sales for the 1970 Thunderbird barely exceeded 1969 sales, which weren't all that hot. In fact, 1969 was the only year that Buick's Riviera outsold the Thunderbird! Suddenly the Thunderbird was becoming cold in the marketplace. Changes would need to be made quickly in order for Thunderbird to remain "unique in all the world." Finally, Ford World Headquarters took notice of the issues surrounding Knudsen, and terminated him in September 1969, just days after his 1970 Thunderbirds hit the showrooms.
So what made the 1970 Thunderbirds so cold in the market? Certainly the warmed over 1967 styling didn't help, although all of the Birds competition for 1970 also carried over their 1969 styling. For 1971, the Toronado, Riviera, and Eldorado would be all new, and the Bird's sister, the Mark III, would be in its third - and final - year. By 1971, the Thunderbird was very dated, from the windshield back it wore 1967 styling; the roofline on the 2-door Landau was a throwback to 1969 and 1966 with its blind rear quarters; everything from the windshield forward was carryover from 1970, so it still looked like a Pontiac from up front.
The sleek new roofline for the 1970 2-door Thunderbirds was also a problem. Much lower than 1969, there was very little head room in back, and even less if equipped with the optional Power Sunroof. Complaints of poor rearward vision from 1970 Thunderbird owners were common, due to wide sail panels and a sloping rear window that completely hid the deck lid and rear quarters from the driver's view. Complaints about the grille being damaged too easily were also common, with some insurance companies reportedly charging an additional premium to Thunderbird owners to cover damage to the grille, which was poorly protected by the bumper, very delicate, and easily damaged if bumped.
Fortunately, some of the designs considered for the Thunderbird during this time were never implemented; most were very heavy looking, and seemed like they were more appropriate for a GM model instead of a Ford offering. In favor of the 1970 Thunderbird, most contemporary magazine articles lauded the Bird for its handling abilities, and Ford made very definite improvements to the Thunderbirds suspension beginning in 1969, and continuing into 1970. But the good points weren't strong enough to overcome the bad ones, and 1971 Thunderbird sales dropped to their lowest level since 1958.
The 1970 Thunderbird looked like no other car on the road when it was introduced, but some may have done a double take when they first saw one. The pointed nose was not something expected from Thunderbird, although the design itself was beautifully executed. The roof line on the 2 door models was also very distinctive and a new look for Thunderbird. There just wasn't enough "new" to generate sales. Interiors were very similar to the 1968 and 1969 models, as was the drive train, and few new options or features were made available.
People who've never driven a 1970 Thunderbird are often surprised at how powerful and agile the car is, considering its size and weight. Not a street screamer, but it will arrive within a few seconds of just about anything on the road. It is also a very comfortable car to sit in, and one becomes comfortable and familiar driving it within a few minutes. The instrument panel is well laid out, with gauges and controls placed logically and easily accessible.
It seems that Ford may have temporarily lost focus on what the Thunderbird was supposed to be during this time. Trying to compete with GM offerings by becoming larger and offering bench seats wasn't the answer. But the Thunderbirds future would be determined by a car from a sister division: the Continental Mark. For 1972, the Continental was redesigned and became the Mark IV. The Thunderbird was a clone, with just minor differences to set it apart from the Mark. Thunderbird sales jumped immediately, so the change was a good one. The Thunderbird was still somewhat sporty in appearance, but the luxury personality of the car was the more dominant feature. The change was brought about by Semon Knudsen's replacement at Ford, Lee Iacocca. Responsible for the Mustang, Iacocca had a better understanding of what made cars sell, and he knew that the Thunderbird had to change to continue to meet the demands of its customers.
In fairness, all personal luxury cars in 1972 were heavy, long, wide cars that offered a smooth, wallowy ride and gulped big quantities of gasoline when pushed hard. This is what the public wanted at the time, and this is what was selling. Gas shortages were looming ahead, and would change the way Americans bought cars, but in 1970, 1971, and 1972 there was no such worry.
The 1970 and 1971 Thunderbirds would be the last to offer a variety of body styles, seating arrangements, rooflines, and models. From 1972 on, the Thunderbird would be a 2 door car, with trim differences only to set the various cars apart. Ford abandoned the Four Door Landau after 1971, which may have been premature as specialty four door luxury cars were about to become very hot, with the increased interest in the Mercedes Benz, and with Cadillac's "international sized" Seville of 1975. It's no wonder Ford didn't sell many Four Door Landaus in 1969, 1970, or 1971, as they were barely mentioned. Advertising during this time featured the Two Door Landau, and mentioned the Four Door Landau, but didn't promote it other than that.
Left: 1970 Ford Thunderbird Four Door Landau
I wonder what would have happened had Ford updated the Four Door Landau a bit more in 1970. Perhaps if they'd dropped the S-Bar, made the rear door glass larger, restyled the rear window to make it larger as well and perhaps less rounded, less Limousine-like. Picture the rear roofline and window from a 1969 Lincoln Continental Sedan, only with a Thunderbird emblem on the sail panel. This certainly would have updated the Four Door, and possibly increased sales enough to justify continuing it for a few more years.
One does have to credit Ford and the Thunderbird for being the first to offer a four door personal luxury car, an idea that was good at the time, but perhaps just a little ahead of its time. Ford said that the front end of the 1970 Thunderbird was "shaped to slice the wind," and that it was "the most beautiful Thunderbird ever built." Uniqueness and distinction don't necessarily carry over to the sales department, so perhaps the 1970 Thunderbird was more on target than people think. Had Ford sold 100,000 of them, they would lose the exclusivity factor, which is a key element to the personal luxury car format.
As for the Thunderbird enthusiasts who insist the last collectible Thunderbirds were built in 1966, they are overlooking a few important facts: the Thunderbird held on to its market share quite nicely during this time, considering the new competition on the market. Competition that didn't exist when the last 1966 Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line. Had Thunderbird had more competition in 1965 or 1966, one wonders how well it would have sold, and if it would have been able to maintain its market share. After all, the Ford Mustang had an impact on the Thunderbirds sales in 1965, so one could assume additional competition would have also eroded sales.
The 1970 Thunderbird will always stand out because it was the first time a new restyle wasn't introduced after 3 years, and it was the first time that Ford deviated so far from traditional Thunderbird styling cues. The 1970-1971 Thunderbird styling would also only be available for just two years, which makes them very rare today.
As more and more people become interested in and collect cars from the seventies, they will discover how great these cars were and still are. Yes, they do like their gasoline and they do require more maintenance than today's cars, but few cars offer the same feeling going down the road. It's almost as if the Thunderbird can sense what you want it to do; and immediately does it for you. The ride and the interior quietness is still among the best ever today. Few know that all 1970 Thunderbirds underwent extensive pressure testing when new; the deck lid was sealed off, and the interior compartment was pressurized. Testers with stethoscopes then proceeded to check around doors and windows for leakage. If anything was found, the car was pulled from the line, repaired, and tested again.
It should also be noted that the aging 1970 and 1971 Thunderbirds still outsold their competition, which as mentioned previously, was all-new in 1971! So, obviously the Thunderbird still had something the others didn't. Perhaps it was a lineage that couldn't be imitated. Perhaps it was the overall performance of the car. Perhaps it was the feeling you got driving it, or the feeling experienced when you told someone your car was a Thunderbird.
Whatever it was, the Thunderbird still had it in 1970. In spite of the lack of a convertible in the line, in spite of increased competition, and even in spite of an attempt to make the Thunderbird a Pontiac for a couple of years, the Thunderbird overcame all of these negatives and soared higher than the rest.
In the 1970 Thunderbird brochures, Ford queried, "isn't this the way you ought to fly?" Sure seems like it to me!
For additional information see: 1970 Ford Thunderbird, Owner's Survey: 1970 Thunderbird or MILEPOSTS Garage: The Story of Bunkie Knudsen and Ford.
|If you have advice, tips, technical ability, or just know a secret or two about old cars, and you'd like to contribute, click here and tell us about it. We'll help you write it, and give you the credit for it! It's the perfect way to help out your fellow enthusiasts in the old car hobby.||
|Mileposts Garage Index | Automotive Mileposts
Recent Updates | Main Contents | AUTOPOSTS Forum
Vintage Car Care | Parts | Books | Magazines