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1968 Ford Thunderbird:
Consumer Reports Road Test

Just how much did they hate it?

In its July 1968 edition, Consumer Reports magazine reported on road tests involving five specialty cars. The cars tested were the 1968 editions of the AMC Javelin, Ford Mustang, Dodge Charger RT, Buick Riviera, and Ford Thunderbird. While this may seem an odd combination at first, CR indicated that these were chosen because they would likely not be for one-car families, but would likely be for personal use in a multi-car household. Two compacts (Javelin and Mustang) were chosen for the test, the Charger was the intermediate choice, and the Riviera and Thunderbird represented the luxury car segment.

All cars were purchased on the open market by Consumers Union (CU) shoppers. (CU is the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.) Therefore, none of the cars had any extra care placed in assembly or dealer preparation than a typical car anyone could purchase off a dealer's lot. The magazine notes that quality can vary greatly between two otherwise identical items, so basically their reports are a snapshot in time, and shouldn't be used to judge all similar items. Nevertheless, issues with assembly, quality, and performance in their testing can also be indicative of all like items.

The Thunderbird chosen was the most popular model, a Tudor Landau. The car was Wimbledon White with a black vinyl roof and black vinyl bucket seat and console interior. This seating configuration was the most popular, so that's what they got. On delivery, CR noted that quality control is not one of the things you get for the premium price of these luxury cars, which set the tone for the rest of the article.

CR's Thunderbird was reported as delivered with a slashed tire, leaks in the exhaust system, an accelerator pedal not completely mounted and windshield wipers that rose up off the windshield at 60 mph, among other "deficiencies." CR continued that more serious issues such as a defective engine carburetor spacer and a plugged crankcase ventilation hose were noticed, both vital components of the emission-control system.

During testing, CR reported that the maze of vacuum lines and actuators behind the instrument panel developed hissing leaks, and loops of electrical wiring were found hanging down to entangle the feet of those in front. Perhaps none of these issues are major defects, but they do indicate lax quality control. (Editor's note: We wondered if the test Thunderbird was built at the Los Angeles plant, which was building T-birds for the first time in 1968, or if it came from the Wixom Assembly Plant, the traditional location where Thunderbirds had been built exclusively since 1958. Our money is on Los Angeles, as quality control at Wixom was pretty high during this time, especially with the new Continental Mark III program underway.)

1968 Ford Thunderbird Tudor LandauAnd it gets worse. The road test revealed considerable floating and suspension bottoming, with considerable vertical and lateral shake, which the magazine cited as evidence of a less-than-taut structure. CR went on to say that the T-bird's handling was way under par for a contemporary car, comparing it to the sloppy handling of a mid-1950s American sedan! Test drivers noted that while negotiating corners at their test track under controlled speeds, the car couldn't seem to make up its mind whether it wanted to plow straight ahead with its inside front tire rolled under (and smoking) or to oversteer abruptly, with its rear tires rolling under and sliding. Wallowing and lateral skating were noticed if bumps were encountered while cornering. CR mentioned that the Riviera's handling was much improved, with little of the roll or wallowing in turns.

Had enough yet? There's more. During deceleration tests after 1/4-mile acceleration runs, the brake pedal sank to the floor, along with violent shuddering and smoke pouring from the front disks, accompanied by illumination of the brake warning light. The magazine said the light stayed on for weeks, until the car was returned to the dealer for service. Overall, the Thunderbird's brakes were rated as adequate for normal highway operation, as the test runs represented extreme conditions that few drivers would ever encounter. Fade resistance, recovery and stability of the brakes were good under normal driving situations.

CR didn't care for the placement of the windshield wiper switch, which they noted was a vital control, at a full arm's stretch from the driver. Vision to the rear scored an unsatisfactory rating, as there were no visual clues to where the car ended, which could explain the banged up rear quarter trim on most of these cars over the years. Forward visibility was none too good, either, since the fenders slope downward and away from the driver's line of sight, and the right front corner is further obscured by the power bulge in the hood.

Rear seat knee room was judged to be inadequate, rear seat head room was quite limited, and rear seat entry and exit was difficult. Further, CR didn't like that the interior door handles were out of reach to rear seat passengers.

The luggage compartment didn't score well, with comments that the Thunderbird's trunk is about the same size as that of the compact Ford Falcon, and the high lip and low floor make loading and unloading heavy suitcases a real chore.

You may find yourself wondering if there was anything CR liked about the Thunderbird. The bucket seats got decent marks for comfort, providing good support. It would have been nice if the seat backs had provided more lateral support, though. The front seat belts, which were incorporated into the seat structure itself, were a big hit since they allowed adjustment of the seat without readjusting the seat belt, and they left the rear floor area uncluttered.

An analysis of the test results had the Buick Riviera on top in all areas except for seating comfort and ride. The Thunderbird's accommodations were judged more comfortable, as was its ride, but its handling fell far below current standards, which resulted in the comparison to the mid-1950s sedan.

The good news is that the Thunderbird outsold the Riviera in 1968, and Ford must have taken this criticism to heart as it made big changes to the Thunderbird for 1969, which resulted in a lower stance, heavy duty suspension as standard equipment on the two door models, and improvements to braking, all of which garnered rave reviews by the car magazines when they road tested the 1969 model.


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