The title of this article was the advertising tagline for the 1971 Ford
Thunderbird. And one has to wonder how many of Thunderbird's potential
customers for 1971 might have responded, "Whatever happened to change?"
Stuck in the mid-sixties with styling introduced in 1967, the 1971 Thunderbirds
were not prepared to compete in the personal luxury market segment, which
demanded styling that kept up with current trends. The Thunderbird was
certainly a trend setter when its new styling was introduced in 1967, with
styling that was very much in tune with what the new car buying public
wanted at the time. But with increased competition from the likes of Cadillac
(Eldorado, introduced in 1967), and sister division Lincoln, (Continental
Mark III, introduced in the Spring of 1968 as a 1969 model), in addition
to the Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera, and perhaps to a lesser degree
the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo, a car in this class demanded
styling that was updated on a regular basis. The Cadillac Eldorado had
all-new styling for 1971, as did the Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado.
The Grand Prix and Monte Carlo both bore styling introduced in 1969, so
they were both a couple of years "fresher" than the T-bird. Even
the Continental Mark III, which was basically developed using the 4-door
Thunderbird platform, was a couple of years newer than the Bird. And for
lack of a better way of describing it, going to market for a fifth year
with the same old styling killed the Bird in 1971. And there's a good reason
to justify why that happened.
Because both the Thunderbird and Mark III were lower production specialty
cars, the costs for development and tooling were shared between the two,
to reduce costs. Since the Mark III was in its third and final year for
its 1969 styling, and since both the T-bird and Mark series were due for
a major redo in 1972, it didn't make sense to restyle the Thunderbird at
the end of its normal three year cycle, which would have required an all-new
1970 model. So, instead Ford replaced all of the sheet metal from the windshield
forward on the 1970 T-bird, and called it a restyle. This was not the first
time this had been done, Ford also replaced all the sheet metal ahead of
the windshield for 1957 and 1966, and redid both front fenders for 1963,
but those cars were all in year three of their styling, not year FIVE.
The public saw through this attempt in 1970, and perhaps overlooked the
fact to some degree that the car wasn't really new at all, but lackluster
sales just barely better than in 1969 proved Ford hadn't really succeeded
in selling it as a new design. By 1971, enough was enough. The Thunderbird
was cold in the market. So cold in fact that sales nosedived to 36,055
cars, the worst year for the model since 1958 (sales of 37,892), which
didn't start production until very late in the year due to the introduction
of the new four passenger concept.
While the sales picture may have been mostly doom and gloom, the cars themselves
were...pretty much perfect. After four full years in production, most of
the kinks had been worked out, and quality was as good as it had ever been
for the Bird, if not better than ever. The Two Door Landau received an
attractive restyled roofline that first appeared on the 1966 Town Hardtop
and Town Landau models, which eliminated the rear quarter windows and moved
the leading edge of the roof forward to meet the rear edge of the driver's
door glass. This elegant design was repeated in 1969 as well, and Thunderbird's
traditional customers seemed to love its elegant looks. It should be noted
that for the first time ever in 1970, the Two Door Landau did not have
S-bars adorning the roof sides. A Thunderbird emblem with wreath appeared
in the lower front corner, which certainly gave the car a new look, but
many seemed to miss the S-bars, as they returned for one more year in 1972,
but disappeared again forever when Ford created something better in 1973
to replace them with. And while a lack of S-bars may have been OK in 1970,
since the Sportsroof design didn't have much of a sail panel, it was a
different story on the 1971 Two Door Landau with its wider blind quarter
roof panel, which seemed like it was missing something, and needed more
than just a small chrome emblem to break up all that space.
1971 was the end of the line for the Two Door Landau model (shown at left
in Green Fire Glamour paint) and the Four Door Landau model. For 1972,
the Thunderbird would be a much-changed car, and it would be available
in only one model, a 2-door hardtop. As mentioned previously, the S-bars
would make one more appearance for 1972, but they were then a part of the
vinyl roof option, and not a feature of a separate model, as they had been
in the past.
Few changes were made for 1971. A new grille with thicker vertical bars
differentiated the frontal appearance, as did a chromed valance panel under
the front bumper, which had been painted to match the body color in 1970.
A new Front and Rear Bumper Guard option was introduced, which included
rubber strips to cushion during minor impacts. The Brougham interior option
on the Four Door models now featured the Hi-Back front seats that were
sweeping all Ford Divisions by storm at the time, but other than that the
interiors were mostly the same as they had been the previous year. A new
squared off remote control mirror appeared on the driver's door, and would
be used with a different base through 1976. (For some reason, the remote
control mirror, a standard Thunderbird item since 1963, would be optional
for a time in 1972, and then return to the standard equipment list during
production, and for 1973 and beyond.)
Another likely reason for the lack of change was that the 1970 styling
had been conceived under Bunkie Knudsen's tenure at Ford, which was short
lived. He had not been a popular person while at Ford, and Lee Iacocca,
who took over some of Knudsen's responsibilities when Knudsen left, would
take the Thunderbird in a new direction for 1972, making it bigger and
more luxurious than it had ever been before. (Read The Story of Bunkie Knudsen and Ford [link opens in new window] for details.)
It's likely that most of the changes for 1971 happened under Iacocca's
direction, but there wasn't time to do much, so Ford and its dealers had
to be satisfied in the knowledge that for 1972 change would come, but they'd
just have to stick it out for one more year with the old styling.
Strangely, the lack of a complete restyle for 1970 seemed to set a new
precedent, because the 1972 styling would be carried through until 1976,
when the Thunderbird platform was down sized due to the gas shortage of
1973, in which Americans sought out cars that got better gas mileage, and
which eerily foreshadowed future problems in the oil industry.
The main objection many have to the 1970 and 1971 Thunderbirds is the pointed
front end, shaped to slice the wind, as advertising of the time stated.
But for many others, it's exactly that feature they find the most attractive.
The long hood on these cars is an incredible sight to behold, and it was
in keeping with overall styling trends of the time. The Pontiac Grand Prix
had a similar frontal treatment, as did other cars from both Ford Division
and Lincoln-Mercury, most notably the Mercury Cyclone.
Few advertisements were prepared for 1971, and as they had since 1969,
none pictured the Four Door Landau model. It was only mentioned in the
ad copy, if that. 1971 would be the first time a vinyl roof was available
as a factory option on the Two Door Hardtop model, which kept the same
Sportsroof roofline from 1970. Except for the front sheet metal, rear taillamp
panel, and side marker lights, the 1971 Fordor model could have been easily
mistaken for a 1967 model, unless you looked closely.
If rarity and dependability are key factors in determining which classic
car is best for you, the 1971 Thunderbird would certainly be worth considering.
Among the collectible years, only 1955, 1956, and 1957 saw fewer units
built. And as noted earlier, after four full years in production all the
little bugs had long been worked out of these cars, so they are generally
very reliable and dependable drivers even today.
Few may view 1971 as the end of an era for Thunderbird, but it does rank
up there when it comes to lasts. The last Four Door. The last Two Door
Landau. The end of the trademark sequential turn signals. The final coved
rear seats on two door models. And the last platform that was designed
solely for the Thunderbird nameplate. From this point forward, the Thunderbird
would always be tied in with another model, be it the Continental Mark
IV or Mercury Cougar, and as such would never be quite as unique or individual
as it had been in the past.
Whatever happened to individuality? When it comes to the Thunderbird, it
ended with the 1971 models.