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Ford Thunderbird: An American Icon for Fifty Years
Automotive Mileposts Celebrates
Thunderbird's 50th Anniversary

Or should that be 51st Anniversary?

Published February 20, 2005
Updated March 11, 2005 and July 1, 2005

February 20, 1955: A young Elvis Presley appeared at Robinson Hall in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Actor Kelsey Grammer was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. And the public introduction of the new 1955 Ford Thunderbird had been made one year ago to the day. And in the year that followed that introduction, it had already begun to change America, and influence the way people felt about cars. And ever since, the Thunderbird has been admired, yearned for, accepted, and respected as the trend setter and leader in the personal luxury car field. It has been the car all other personal luxury cars have been judged by, it has been the one to beat, to imitate, and to emulate.

Fifty years later, if there's only one thing that can be said about the Ford Thunderbird, it should be stated that no other car has adapted to change over the years as well as the Thunderbird. It has been everything from a sporty two passenger convertible, to a luxurious four door family sedan, and a lot of other things in between, as well as after. In and of itself, this is quite an accomplishment, but when you factor in the market segment the Thunderbird has competed in over the years, it is a huge achievement. Perhaps one of the most lucrative markets of all for auto makers, the personal luxury market was the top of the line. It served as the crowning effort of all auto makers. Indeed, the Thunderbird alone is responsible for creating this market. The folks who purchased personal luxury cars were a bit more selective than typical new car customers, and weren't satisfied with the standard Cadillac deVille, Lincoln Continental, or Imperial Crown—they wanted something more special, something that you didn't see everywhere. And over the years, the Thunderbird has met those needs like no other car in the world.

It all started after World War II, when American GI's returned home. American car makers had switched over to building parts for the military, and since there were shortages of raw materials, no new cars were built during the war years. When the war ended, the new cars were mostly warmed over 1948 models, some delivered without chrome bumpers and whitewall tires due to material shortages that still plagued the country. But that didn't matter, it was new and car hungry Americans snapped up anything new like crazy. While serving, the GI's had fallen in love with the European sports cars, like the MG and Triumph, which made the new cars being offered by the American manufacturers seem downright stodgy in comparison. Chevrolet was the first to respond to this need with a mass-produced car, the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. Another car, the 1954 Kaiser Darrin also was produced, but it never caught on and was dropped after just 435 cars were built.

After Ford got wind of what was in the works with the sports car project over at Chevrolet, they knew this would require a response in some way from Ford, and a program to build a Ford sports car was was put on the fast track. The new Corvette came out in 1953, and was a sensation. It was powered by a six cylinder engine that could have used a few more horses, and was a bit utilitarian in its creature comforts. There were no roll up windows, just side curtains. And you'd better like white paint with a black convertible top and red interior, because that was the only color choice. Options consisted of a radio, heater, and whitewall tires. That was it. After Ford had a chance to see the new Corvette, they decided that their sports car would be more in tune with what Americans wanted. It would have an features like an eight cylinder engine, roll-up windows, and a clock with sweep second hand as standard equipment. And it would offer luxury options like a power seat and power windows to pamper buyers who desired such things.

Ford had a short time frame to get this new car to market, so it borrowed heavily from the existing parts bins. This gave the new Thunderbird a distinct Ford Family look, yet it would still stand apart from the rest of the Ford line. In fact, other Ford cars would capitalize on the Thunderbird's instant popularity, with advertising promoting the Thunderbird look—almost as if it were the T-Bird that was the inspiration for the look—instead of the standard Ford line. What Ford came up with was a real traffic stopper. The pre-publicity was enormous, with the Thunderbird appearing on magazine covers, the subject of news stories, and a lot of speculation as well. Americans were ready for the Thunderbird, and on its introductory day, Ford dealers accepted orders for around 4,000 cars! Overnight, the Corvette took second place in the sales race, a position where it would stay, as the Thunderbird outsold it by a huge margin every year.

The sporty T-Bird was not marketed as a sports car by Ford. Only a handful of ads referred to the car as a "sports car." The Thunderbird was advertised as a personal car, a car that could be ordered to fit the needs of individual owners. It came in only one configuration, a two passenger convertible. It could be equipped with a folding soft top, or a removable hard top, or both. The T-Bird was also built with all-metal construction, except for the hard top, which was fiberglass. The Corvette, in contrast, was all fiberglass construction, a new and unproven concept that some weren't so sure about. The T-Bird seemed to be better constructed because of this fact, and no doubt that helped Ford Dealers move a lot of T-Birds out the door.

About the time the first Thunderbirds hit the streets, Ford planners were finalizing the process of taking the Thunderbird in a new direction. Realizing that sales of a two passenger car would always be somewhat limited, it was determined that a four passenger car would have more wide spread appeal, and that would result in more sales volume. The two passenger T-Birds were selling very well, but those GI's who yearned for a sporty car a few years earlier now needed the additional room to support a growing family. Plus, Ford was getting complaints about lack of luggage space, an overly warm passenger compartment, and poor rear vision due to blind spots with the top up or hard top on.

This all happened at an opportune time for Ford, which was about to finish construction on a new Lincoln Assembly Plant in Wixom, Michigan, and there would be plenty of capacity to build the new Thunderbird there, alongside the newly-designed unibody Lincolns. Quality control would be a top priority at Wixom, so Ford could ensure a quality built car with strict attention to detail. Ford carried over the 1957 Thunderbird into the 1958 model year, as the new four passenger Thunderbird would not be ready for introduction with the rest of the 1958 Fords. It would have to wait until January 1, 1958, for its formal introduction. A gala New Year's Eve affair for a few deserving individuals was held at the Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs, California to preview the new car. Production on the Hardtop model began on January 13, 1958, and dealer sales started a month later, on February 13th. Convertibles wouldn't be available until June, due to issues with the somewhat complex power top mechanism. It should be noted that 1958 was not a good year to introduce a new car. The Edsel, another new 1958 introduction, comes to mind as a perfect example of what can happen. In fact, the Thunderbird and the Rambler were the only two cars in the industry to show an increase in sales in 1958, and the new T-Bird was given Motor Trend Magazine's Car of the Year Award.

The new four passenger T-Birds were a huge success, in spite of a few weak areas. The suspension was a little too wallowy, and the steering was not as precise as it could have been. Brakes were also an area of concern, as these unibody cars were heavy, and brake fade was a very real possibility if the brakes became overworked. Nevertheless, the Thunderbird was America's new dream car, the car everyone would love to own. There was virtually no competition in the marketplace, as the Thunderbird was unique in its interior layout, with bucket seats up front, a full-length console down the center, and a rear bench seat upholstered to match the front buckets. The Convertible had a power-operated cloth and vinyl top that lowered into the luggage compartment. The opening and closing of the deck lid, and positioning of the extension panel were still manual through 1959, but this process became fully automatic in 1960.

In 1959, the Lincoln 430 V-8 engine became available for the Thunderbird, providing 350 horsepower. A Hardtop with Sliding Sun Roof was available in 1960, providing closed car safety and comfort with the panel close, and the open air feel of a convertible with the panel open. Only 2,500 were built, making them among the most rare Thunderbirds, and very popular with collectors today.

In an effort to provide even more luxury, the 1961 Thunderbird was totally new. To describe the car as sleek is an understatement. The new T-Bird had a sharply pointed front end, that flowed backwards in a smooth contour to large, round tail lamps with small fins capping off the rear quarter panels. This was the era of space exploration, and no other car exuded the rocket ship influence like the Thunderbird. This series saw power steering and power brakes move to the standard equipment list, and introduced original concepts like the Swing-Away Steering Wheel, that moved over to allow more entry and exit room. People did double takes when they first saw the steering wheel and column pushed ten inches to the right. This was a Thunderbird exclusive in 1961, and became standard early in 1962 production. More luxurious models like the Landau were introduced in 1962, as was the Sports Roadster, a convertible with a fiberglass tonneau cover over the back seat to give the Thunderbird more flexibility and uniqueness than ever before. With tonneau on, it was a sporty two seater again—with a very long rear deck. With tonneau off, it was a four passenger convertible. The best of all worlds! The Sports Roadster never sold well, and was discontinued quietly near the end of the 1963 model year. The Sports Roadsters are the most sought after Thunderbirds of all, right behind the coveted original two passenger models.

A powerful new engine option was available for 1962-1963. Known as the "M Engine," (the "M" denoted its code in the VIN plate), it consisted of the 390 V-8 engine,which was standard on all Thunderbirds, with the addition of a chrome engine dress-up package, three 2-barrel carburetors, and a few other modifications. This upped the horsepower from 300 to 340. Fuel economy suffered, as did dependability. If the carburetors weren't tuned properly, the car wouldn't run correctly, and could backfire and cause engine fires. Due in part to these concerns, this was not a popular option, making cars so equipped highly regarded today.

1963 saw the introduction of another model, the Thunderbird Limited Edition Landau. Only 2,000 were built, and each was painted in Corinthian White, with a dark Rose Beige vinyl roof and White leather interior with dark Rose Beige instrument panel and carpeting. Simulated Rosewood paneling on the instrument panel, console, doors, and rear quarter panels was unique to this model. Each came equipped with a numbered nameplate mounted on the console indicating which number of the 2,000 a particular car was. Princess Grace of Monaco, the former movie actress Grace Kelly, assisted Ford designers in the selection of colors and materials for this special car.

The Thunderbird got its first true competition this year, the 1963 Buick Riviera. Available only as a four passenger, two door hardtop, the Riviera was sleek and sporty, and packed with luxury features. Buick sold 40,000 Rivieras in 1963, but the Thunderbird was still the top seller, selling over 60,000 cars. The race for top position in the personal luxury car market was on, and more competitors were on the way to make the challenge!

While sales of the 1961-1963 cars had been good, they did not achieve the same heights as the 1960 models. Ford was concerned that the public hadn't fully accepted its sleek, rocket-shaped styling during this cycle, and looked to the 1958-1960 models for inspiration. Attempts to "square off" the 1963 Birds no doubt helped sales some, as did the media frenzy surrounding the January 1963 introduction of the Limited Edition Landaus in Monaco, but it was obvious Ford needed to respond to the needs and wants of their customers like never before, especially with several new competitors looming on the horizon.

The 1964 Thunderbird was a totally new car, except for the drive train which was carryover from 1963. It retained the pointed front end, but in profile exhibited chiseled body lines that were a real treat to the eye. Large rectangular tail lamps appeared in back, and the overall shape of the rear end was somewhat reminiscent of the tail lamp and deck areas of the 1958-1960 Birds, which had round tail lamps inset within large cubicles, and a depressed area in the center of the deck lid. The interiors of the 1964-1966 Thunderbirds were straight out of The Jetsons, with individual round pods for the gauges, and a linear speedometer. New slim-contoured bucket seats provided more rear foot room, and a coved rear seat with pleated upholstery made passengers in back feel like they were in an exclusive club cocktail lounge. Improvements such as Silent-Flo Ventilation allowed the inside air to change several times a minute, with all the windows up, and a new Deep Well trunk design provided more luggage room than ever before.

To celebrate Thunderbird's Tenth Anniversary, a 1965 Thunderbird Special Landau was introduced in the Spring of 1965. The Special Landau models were painted Emberglo metallic, a shimmery copper color that was offset by a Parchment-colored vinyl roof and interior. Interior appointments were in Emberglo, and unique woodgrain was featured on the instrument panel and console, as well as the door panels and rear quarter trim panels. Special Landau plates were mounted to the front doors and roof belt line moldings. A Parchment-colored steering wheel replaced the simulated woodgrain one used in the regular Landau models, and the deluxe wheel covers had Emberglo accents instead of the usual black ones. A few Special Landau models were painted Wimbledon White instead of Emberglo, and at least one was painted Navajo Beige, a shade that closely matched the Parchment vinyl roof and interior. Ford built 4,500 Special Landaus in 1965.

Two new models were introduced for 1966—the Town Hardtop and Town Landau. Both lasted for only one year, but the Town Landau was overwhelmingly the most popular model of the year. The Town models eliminated the rear quarter windows, and brought the roof line forward to meet the front door glass, which gave the car a very elegant appearance. A contoured headliner with full-length overhead console was included as standard equipment. The Safety-Convenience Control Panel, an option on other models, was provided as standard equipment only on the Town models. The warning lights moved overhead into the roof console, placing emphasis on the interior roof like never before. A new Highway Pilot Speed Control option would place controls within the spokes of a unique steering wheel, and an optional StereoSonic Sound System played prerecorded 8-track tapes through 4 high fidelity speakers, mounted near the bottom of the door panels, one speaker near the front, and another at the rear of the panel.

1966 would be the final year for the Thunderbird Convertible, as sales continued to erode each year and no longer justified continuing this model in the Thunderbird lineup. Plus, it was obvious the T-Bird's competition had no plans to introduce a convertible. At this time factory air conditioning and stereo sound systems were becoming all the rage, as were vinyl covered hardtop roofs, which simulated the convertible look with the top up. Convertibles were on the way out, and in a decade would be completely gone from American car production. (But they would return...)

A second competitor appeared this year, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. This huge car featured a powerful Rocket V-8 engine under the hood, front wheel drive, concealed pop-up headlamps, flat floors inside, and was named Motor Trend Magazine's Car of the Year for 1966. The Buick Riviera also saw its first major restyle, which was even more sleek and muscular-looking than the original 1963 model.

If 1958 was a year of big change for the Thunderbird, 1967 made it pale in comparison. Ford marketing had learned over the past few years that typical Thunderbird customers were outgrowing their cars. And Ford had a gap in its line up, with nothing to offer its customers in the form of a specialized four door car. Ford had identified a potential market for an upscale sedan, positioned between the Lincoln Continental on the high end and the Mercury Park Lane/Ford LTD on the low end. The Thunderbird was the perfect platform for such a car. Gone were the Convertible, the Town models, rear leaf spring suspension, the Swing-Away Steering Wheel, and unibody construction. New was a Four Door Landau model, a Tilt-Away Steering Wheel, coil spring suspension all around, and body on frame construction. Ford was very quiet about the Convertible being discontinued, and people walking into Ford Dealer showrooms in the Fall of 1966 were more than just a little bit surprised at what they saw. The 1967 Thunderbird Four Door Landau was the world's first four door personal luxury car, a segment of the market that would grow tremendously during the 1970's, but was perhaps a bit ahead of its time in 1967. Nevertheless, sales of the new four door model were very strong, easily outselling the best sales year of the convertible model it replaced. The 1967's were so popular that they became Thunderbird's fourth best sales year to date, and this was with more competition than ever before.

The rear doors on the four door model were hinged at the rear, allowing them to open from the center of the car, just like the 1961-1969 Lincoln Continentals. Nick named Suicide Doors, they did and do make access to the back seat much easier. A portion of the roof rear quarter was attached to the door, and opened with it to allow additional room to enter and exit. The simulated S-Bars on the roof sides were repeated inside the car, and a formal, limousine-type rear window gave the car a very upscale, exclusive appearance.

A new Tilt-Away Steering Wheel automatically popped up and over to the right when the door was opened, to the delight of drivers, and the T-Bird was certainly on the scene as far as current styling trends went. Concealed headlights hid behind the grille when not in use, and opened automatically when the light switch was activated. Open wheel wells front and rear were the latest thing in the late sixties, a trend the 1966 models hinted at with their emphasis on no rear fender skirts. New gizmos and gadgets appeared like never before on a Thunderbird, making the 1967 standard equipment list longer than ever.

Five special 1967 Thunderbird Apollo models were specially built for Abercrombie and Fitch, and rear quarter windows slid horizontally to open and close on the two door models. A Power Vent was added to the standard MagicAire Heater, which forced air through the car and out the rear vent. Capable of changing the air inside the car several times a minute, even when it was standing still.

More new competition appeared in 1967. The Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado was a styling masterpiece that was a big hit with Cadillac customers. The factory couldn't keep up with the orders for a few months, and the overall design today remains as one of GM's all-time finest. In the Spring of 1968, Thunderbird's most fierce competitor to date was introduced, a stunning Continental Mark III that was built off of the four door Thunderbird platform. The Thunderbird and Continental Mark series would be closely tied together, as never before, for the next nine years.

High tech advancements like a printed circuit for the instrument panel were introduced about this time, and a first in the automotive industry was the introduction of an optional fiber optic Rear Lamp Monitor in 1968. This was the first use of fiber optics in a production automobile, and allowed the driver to view his tail lamps through the rear view mirror. Tubes transmitted light from the bulb to the monitor on the rear package shelf. A non-glowing jewel in the monitor indicated a corresponding burned out bulb. Being able to watch the sequential signals operate in the monitor is quite a treat! A front bench seat with center fold-down armrest became standard in 1968, making Thunderbird travel available to six passengers for the first time ever, and a Power Sunroof option gave Thunderbird its first production open air option since 1966. In 1969, the Buick Riviera would outsell the Thunderbird by several thousand units for the first - and only—time.

The 1970 and 1971 Thunderbirds were all new from the windshield forward, but retained their 1967 styling from there back. Even though the Bird was up for a restyle in 1970, it was delayed due to the Mark III program, which wasn't scheduled for restyle until 1972. Even though the styling was somewhat dated at this point, Ford did not allow the Thunderbird to go without improvements. Enhanced sound insulation, and advancements in suspension and steering geometry made these Birds the best handling, best driving, Thunderbirds ever. Contemporary magazine tests of the time raved about how well these cars handled, calling the experience "uncanny," and original owners in many cases retained them longer than usual, because they were such great cars to drive.

In 1972, the Thunderbird would become bigger than ever—and more luxurious. With styling that mimicked the new Continental Mark IV, sales of the Bird began an upward swing again—the first big increase in four years. A huge increase in standard equipment happened mid-year 1973, with power windows, opera windows, air conditioning, vinyl roof, and automatic seat back release moving off the options list. A corresponding increase in base price also occurred. Special editions would create interest and sales for discerning customers who wanted something special in the 1974-1976 period. These included the Burgundy, White and Gold, Jade, Copper, Silver, Bordeaux, Lipstick, and Creme and Gold Luxury Group packages. These were mostly trim packages with special color combinations, luggage compartment trim, etc., to set them apart from other Birds. High fuel costs and fuel shortages hit hard during these years, and big cars were not selling as well as before. Once again, the time was right for a change, and once again, Thunderbird led the way.

The 1977 Thunderbird was a much different car than its predecessor. Everything was less than it was before—engine displacement, the standard equipment list, base price, length, wheelbase, and weight among them. One thing that was more than ever before were the sales figures—they went up, up, and away! The 1977-1979 Thunderbirds are without question the most popular T-Birds ever. 1978 was the best sales year, in part due to a special model called the Diamond Jubilee Edition, in observance of Ford's 75th Anniversary. This model was decked out like no Thunderbird before—almost everything was standard. A similar Thunderbird Heritage model would follow in 1979.

The Town Landau name was resurrected for a loaded top of the line model in 1977, and would continue to be offered through 1982. A T-Top Convertible was introduced in 1978, which featured two tempered, tinted glass removable panels over the driver's and front passenger's seat. As popular as this series was, continued concerns over fuel supplies and economy during this time prompted yet another big change for the Thunderbird in 1980. Smaller was the word—and it would usher in a period unlike any other before in the Thunderbird's proud history.

Customers looking at the new 1980 models were shocked. Across the board, every Ford car it seemed had gotten smaller. From the mighty Lincoln Continental on down, efficiency and economy were the watch words. The Thunderbird was 17 inches shorter, and dropped 700 pounds in weight in 1980, its 25th Anniversary year. The new Birds were very boxy, but retained many of the styling touches from the previous series, including concealed headlights, full-width taillights, and wrap-over roof styling. A Silver Anniversary Edition was released, which featured a distinctive Anniversary Silver Glow paint treatment, and was the most fully equipped Thunderbird ever. Standard appointments on this model included an electronic instrument cluster, keyless entry, cast aluminum wheels, AM/FM stereo search radio, a specially-padded silver rear-half vinyl roof with unique high gloss wrap over moldings, and horizontal Coach Lamps below the opera windows with a Silver Anniversary script embedded in the lens.

Sales during the 1980-1982 period never met the same heights as the 1977-1978 models, as Thunderbird's traditional customers were not pleased with what they were seeing in the new, smaller cars. Things would not be improving, either. In 1981, another shock came with the announcement of a six cylinder engine as the standard power plant for the first time ever. Sales dropped again, and while a dizzying array of combinations of paint, vinyl roof, and interior trim was available for 1982, sales continued their downward spiral, with just 45,142 cars built for the year. Obviously, change was necessary.

And it arrived in 1983 in yet another down sized redesign. But at first impression, the 1983 Thunderbird looked bigger than the 1982 model. In reality, is was shorter and narrower, and not a big hit with the typical over-40 Thunderbird crowd. But younger buyers loved it! It was quite radical looking in 1983, the result of years of intensive wind tunnel testing. Ford determined that fuel economy improved considerably when a car offered less resistance to the wind. Previous versions had all the aerodynamics of a brick, but the slick new 1983 design slipped through the wind like —dare we say it—a Bird! Sales nearly tripled over 1982, and once again, the T-Bird was a hit! A four cylinder Turbocharged engine was part of the Turbo Coupe model, another first for the Thunderbird, making the Turbo Coupe one of the year's most talked about cars in the automotive press.

A new FILA model was added to the lineup for 1984, as sales continued to increase. The slippery new Birds were very popular, which was a good thing leading up to Thunderbird's 30th Anniversary. Ford celebrated this event with a 1985 Thunderbird 30th Anniversary Limited Edition model, which was painted a beautiful Medium Regatta Blue Metallic with graduated silver metallic striping. Sales took a slight dip in 1985, but increased again with the mostly unchanged 1986 models.

In 1987, the Thunderbird would be awarded as Motor Trend Magazine's Car of the Year for a second time. The heavily face lifted Birds were even sleeker than before, but for some reason sales suffered. Thankfully, output was up around 20,000 units for 1988, even though styling changes were minimal. The roller coaster sales ride was just getting started, and this trend would continue for the next 9 years.

The restyled 1989 Thunderbird had a slightly longer wheelbase, and a lower profile. The car just kept getting sleeker with each restyle, and was one of the cleanest designs on the road at the time. A hot new Super Coupe replaced the Turbo Coupe, and for the third time in its history, and for the second time in three years, the Thunderbird took home the "Car of the Year" award from Motor Trend. In spite of this, sales dropped from 1988. A special 35th Anniversary model was released in 1990, and only 5,000 were built. With a distinctive special Black and Titanium two-tone paint treatment, they were highlighted by blue accent striping, black road wheels, and unique badging on the fenders. A special suede and leather interior finished off the package, with Commemorative Badging appearing on the front door panels and interior floor mats. Sales declined again this year, but 1990 was still a great year to own a new Thunderbird.

Changes to the 1991 models were minor, and sales took yet another dip, which was beginning to concern Ford. Statistics showed that the Thunderbird was losing customers at a higher rate than automakers as a group. For 1992, all Thunderbirds were treated to the same front fascia as the Super Coupe, but this didn't transfer over into the sales department. Thunderbird sales dropped again, for the fourth year in a row.

As the Bird entered 1993, its sleek look dating back to the original 1983 design, was wearing well, but had not been generating the sales figures Ford wanted for the past few years. It had outlived many of its competitors at this point, but was facing a very uncertain future. In an effort to improve sales, Ford added value pricing to the Thunderbird LX model this year, which finally churned up some interest with the new car buying public. The Thunderbird name still had magic, and sales increased to 122,415 cars, its best sales record since 1988.

Several styling changes were made to the 1994 Thunderbird models, including more rounded front and rear ends. Interiors were upgraded with aircraft-like twin pod instrument panels that took a step back to the 1961-1963 era. All of these changes made a definite improvement in the sales department, with a healthy increase over 1993.

In a strange move, several options were dropped for 1995, including the anti-theft alarm system, engine block heater, Traction-Lok axle, and heavy-duty battery. Sales once again took a dip, dropping to 114,823 units. In this, the T-Bird's 40th Anniversary year, Ford for the first time didn't acknowledge the event by releasing a special edition. It would seem that the writing was on the wall for the Thunderbird. The Super Coupe was discontinued in 1996, leaving just one model, the Thunderbird LX. The hood, grille, headlight, and bumper areas received minor styling updates, and the anti-theft alarm system and traction control returned to the options list after a one year absence. Sales of 85,029 cars were putting the future of the Thunderbird in grave danger, for the very first time in its history.

After 42 years of continuous production, the 1997 Thunderbird would be the last one built for awhile. Changes were minimal, but included a rear deck spoiler that was introduced mid-year 1996, and a revised instrument panel layout. Sales of 73,814 cars didn't exactly send the T-Bird out in a blaze of glory. The last car was built on September 4, 1997 at the Lorain, Ohio assembly plant. As it rolled off the line, the event was marked only by "a quiet affair for the plant workers," with very little being said by Ford Motor Company, other than "The Thunderbird will return by the turn of the century." And this only coming via press leaks, as nothing truly official was said at the time. What a sad end for such a dearly loved marque that had evolved so many times over the years to meet the needs of the time. In most cases, Ford's timing with the Thunderbird was impeccable, offering just the right car at just the right time.

The period of 1998-2000 was one of waiting for Thunderbird enthusiasts. That is, until the 2000 Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog arrived. In it was the opportunity to purchase one of the first two passenger Thunderbirds to be built since 1957. For a whopping $41,995, a total of 200 cars would be available. All of them would be painted Evening Black with Satin Silver metallic tops and black interiors with silver accents. Thunderbird emblems appeared on the seat backs, steering wheel pad, and were etched in the porthole windows. The Neiman Marcus logo appears on the instrument panel and on the floor mats.

On September 25, 2000, the phone lines were opened to take orders. Neiman Marcus sold out the entire production run in 2 hours and 15 minutes! This was a record for any automobile sold through the catalog. The first Thunderbird to be sold through the Neiman Marcus Catalog came in 1970—again announced in its Christmas Catalog, and sold only as a set—it consisted of a pair of 1971 Thunderbirds, one for him, one for her. Each included special styling and equipment, and the price for both cars was $25,000.

When the first production models hit the showrooms, there were reports that some dealers charged people to test drive the new car! Premiums of $15,000 over MSRP were also reported, which left a bad taste in potential customer's mouths. One has to wonder why Ford allowed this practice to happen. It is a shame that dealers would take advantage of their customers in this manner. And harking back to the introduction of the 1958 models, this all happened during an economic recession, certainly not the best time to introduce a new luxury car. Production was supposed to have been limited to 25,000 cars, but the Thunderbird was THE car to own, and Ford actually built 31,121 units.

On November 18, 2002, Job One for the 2003 model year rolled down the assembly line. Production started late due to the complexities of an engine upgrade. Just 14,506 2003 Thunderbirds were built, an indication that the frenzy from 2002 had cooled down considerably, and could not be sustained through another model year.

Job One 2004 came off the line on July 14, 2003, and production of the sleek two passenger convertibles totaled 12,671 for the year. Sales for 2005 to date are reportedly running even less than 2004, and rumors at announcement time that 2005 would be the final year for the "new" two passenger Thunderbirds likely hasn't helped sales much.

Personally, we'd love to see a new Thunderbird evolve, perhaps with sequential rear turn signals, and room for 4. Do you suppose there's any chance of coved rear seats in the future? How about the return of the Swing-Away Steering Wheel? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, there will never be another car like the Thunderbird, nor will any car ever again be able to shape and inspire the automotive world, or have the same effect on popular culture the way Ford's T-Bird has over the past 50 years.

So, Happy 50th Anniversary and Happy Unofficial 51st Anniversary, Thunderbird. You're still looking good after all these years!


March 11, 2005: Sure enough, Ford announced today that the current Thunderbird would cease production in July 2005. No official word on what the future may hold, just that the nameplate would be shelved for now. Apparently, there's always a chance it will be dusted off again in the future.

July 1, 2005: As announced in March, the final Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line at Wixom on Friday, July 1, 2005, ending this chapter in the Thunderbird's history. Some say it's a circle, and an ending only means a new beginning. Let's hope that's true for the Thunderbird.

Ford Thunderbird: An American Icon for Fifty Years