By the end of the 1976 model year, the Ford Thunderbird was an extremely long car that weighed as much as today's Ford Explorer Sport. It progressed from a two-seat roadster/coupe that outsold the contemporary Chevrolet Corvette 23-1 to a victim of the OPEC oil crisis. In-between came “Camelot” and some adventures into the first "four-door coupe" – decades before Mercedes-Benz introduced the CLS-Class.
The oil crisis ended, but not without some significant changes in the automotive industry. Downsizing was the key to compete in this market. General Motors struck first by introducing smaller B- and C-Body full-sized cars across all five brands. Ford also had a downsizing plan, as well. All they had to do was redesign a stop-gap model introduced in 1974 into the latest generation of an American icon.
That stop-gap model was the Gran Torino Elite – later dropping the Gran Torino name for 1975. The 1977 Thunderbird picked up where the Elite left off. A cleaner design welcomed many back to the fold, including the return of hidden headlights. The "beak" remained, now made tastefully for the latter part of the decade. Its roof line was compelling with an “opera window” on the B-pillar and a pane of glass that ran almost flush at the C-pillar. That would become its signature for its three-year run.
The V8 engines became smaller – the 5.0, 5.8, and 6.6-Liter kind. Prices came down by $2,700 from 1976. The result was incredible sales for the mid-sized Thunderbird. Its apex was reached in 1978 with a record of 352,000 units sold. Though far from the dramatic two-seat roadsters of the 1950s and the symbol of "Camelot" of the early 1960s, this seventh generation Thunderbird brought back the excitement of those eras in a concentrated and dramatic package.
The mid-sized platform was due for downsizing to the Fox platform by 1980. It was Ford's response to GM's downsized A-Bodies, which included a quartet of personal luxury cars that began a very successful run well into the new decade. The result was perhaps the least memorable Thunderbird in its history. The boxy design and lack of character spurned customers away. It would also be the first V6-powered Thunderbird ever. The result was a severe tumbling of sales down to five digits by 1981.
By the dawn of the 1980s, designer Jack Telnack began to reshape the look of Ford's products. In his mind, the boxy designs that would drive Ford into the new decade would not cut it. In fact, Telnack openly criticized the 1980 Thunderbird in front of everyone at Ford.
Instead, Telnack turned to aerodynamics to transform the next generation of Ford automobiles. Such design ideals would play a significant part in this new design language. The roofline was rounder, more fastback-like. The front end was shaped with the wind, as did the rear deck. Curves would dictate interior design, as well. Efficiency was important, that it would still include a V6 and a V8 to the mix. But, to answer Buick's return to turbocharging – they considered a four-cylinder turbo engine as their answer.
The first result of Telnack's aerodynamic design movement in North America was the 1983 Thunderbird. Again, the reaction was complete shock. Some consumers did not understand the new T-Bird, while others – myself included – embraced the bold new design language as the arrival of the future. There were some familiar traits on the new aerodynamic Thunderbird, but a scan across the entire car would see the only carryover was that it was built on the same Fox platform as the previous shrunken model.
Alongside the 3.8liter V6 and 5.0liter V8 was a 2.3liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. No Thunderbird before would offer such an engine combination – let alone a four-cylinder. The Turbo Coupe also brought back the manual gearbox, something that has not been offered since the 1950s on a Thunderbird. While the outside of the Thunderbird attracted the curious, the interior did not fully catch up. That would take another couple of years for that to happen – a curvy dashboard and a new level of equipment that would match the exterior and the aspirations of the new Thunderbird. By 1985, the aero T-Bird became a complete package – Turbo Coupe, included.
The good news was a return to sales on the Thunderbird. Yet, it never reached the numbers that the 1978 Thunderbird earned. However, there was something significant about this particular generation. It would become the first car I ever rented – a 1985 Thunderbird with the standard V6. It would also be the first "new" car I ever drove in the shape of my father's 1984 V8-powered model – possibly the upscale Heritage model. In some way, the Thunderbird became an influential car in my collegiate years towards shaping this work decades later.
The personal luxury car segment was going strong. The popular part of the segment still had the quartet of A-Body coupes from GM, now called the G-Body. It seemed that the Thunderbird and the Mercury Cougar were evenly matched up with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Buick Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Chrysler withdrew from the segment by 1982, though they were developing an answer off of the K-Car platform. That took form in the 1987 Chrysler LeBaron coupe. Little did anyone know that it would be the convertible version that would steal a little bit of thunder from Ford and GM. Both companies already had convertibles, but not in direct competition to the LeBaron. The LeBaron also went head on with the Thunderbird with its 2.2liter turbocharged four-cylinder. However, Ford won the horsepower race with 155 against Chrysler's 146 in 1987.
After a revision in 1987 to shore up some aerodynamics, there was one last Thunderbird to introduce. A new platform was developed for the new Thunderbird with more premium targets in sight – namely the BMW 6-Series and the newly introduced Acura Legend Coupe. The tenth generation Thunderbird took on the latest Ford aerodynamic design language, eliminated the grille entirely – something the 1987 Turbo Coupe employed – and made it larger and heavier. It would be the first supercharged Thunderbird since 1957. However, by 1997 it was finished after eight years of languishing on Ford lots. Along with it was the personal luxury coupe segment.
Was that the end? Not entirely. Ford bought Jaguar and began transforming it to embody quality while maintaining its old world charm. As part of the plan, a new rear-drive platform was introduced spawning the Jaguar S-Type and the Lincoln LS mid-sized premium sports sedans. To complete the deal, Ford dealerships received a retro-designed Thunderbird from the same platform. It was one of those models that looked great as a concept car at auto shows, but failed to move customers at the showroom.
Though it had design paeans from the 1955-57 roadsters, it was simply too long and too big to really pay homage to the original. By 2005, the retro Thunderbird lost favor again with the motoring public. It never gained the numbers Ford was hoping for. Fifty years after it made its debut, the Thunderbird was shelved for good.
Telling the Thunderbird story requires understanding the trends in the marketplace during each generation. It also told how the Thunderbird was really one step ahead of everyone else. If not by design, but by advances underneath its silky skin.
Though I caught the Thunderbird bug in 1970, it would take another fourteen years to fulfill it. By 1985, a Thunderbird became a car I thoroughly enjoyed. So what if it only had the V6 and a few luxuries? My short stints in them stretched out the miles between Reseda and San Diego, along with a stint on a trip in the Bay Area.
The Thunderbird was an integral part of my early driving experience. It was relevant back then when the personal luxury coupe still had a market and loyal followers. By today's standards, two-door mid-sized coupes were practical, except for those wide doors creating interesting contortions for getting in the back seat. Let alone, the length of those doors were no conducive to tight parking gaps.
It would take one car to supersede the Thunderbird with its perch in my automotive experience. Ironically, it would also be shaped by Jack Telnack and his team – the first generation Ford Taurus.
By looking back at the original from 1955, the Thunderbird story was one of triumph in forging a new automotive segment in this country. It evolve by breaking the rules and inspiring its rivals to try to trump the T-Bird. When the competition thought they caught up to it, Ford went back and moved the bar further.
That car – the Thunderbird – is a relic of a past that banked on the greatness of the nation. It came from brighter days and survived the challenges it faced along the way. When it was all done ten years ago, Ford looked forward with no regrets.
For this work, it came at the right time. In accumulating driving experience and needing to experience what a new car was like, the Thunderbird became the first car that fulfilled that need. It captured the essence of what it was like to live on the “other side” of contentment. It opened the door of what would be possible in life.
It all lead to this work…thirty years later.
Truth be told – and in many ways – the Ford Thunderbird was indeed the right car at the right time.
All photos by Randy Stern