Ford Thunderbird Concept: American Icon Is Back
Check out the introduction of the Thunderbird on video direct from the 1999 North American International Auto Show
4 January 1999
DETROIT, Jan. 3 -- An automotive legend is reborn as the Ford Thunderbird makes its return as an all-new concept car at the North American International Auto Show.
Since its introduction in October 1954, the Thunderbird has been an American cultural icon -- with trademark design cues that set it apart from the crowd of sports cars available at the time. Today, the all-new Thunderbird concept draws on that rich heritage and introduces a modern interpretation of an automotive legend.
"The Ford Thunderbird has an emotional hold on the American public that spans decades and generations," says Jac Nasser, Ford president and chief executive officer. "This timeless classic is an important part of Ford Motor Company's heritage and, indeed, this country's automotive history.
"The new concept car is an indication of where we're headed with the Thunderbird when it goes back into production for the new millennium," Nasser continues. "It's also just one example of the exciting and dynamic new cars we plan to introduce in the future."
The new concept features design elements from Thunderbirds of 1955-57 and 1961-62, simplified into contemporary forms. The cues include porthole windows, aluminum-finished chevrons, hood scoop, round headlamps, taillamps and fog lamps, and the trademark Thunderbird badge.
"The design of the Thunderbird concept reflects the attitude of a simpler time," explains J Mays, Ford vice president of Design. "The unbridled optimism and the confident attitude of the 1950s comes through in an absolutely modern design."
The Thunderbird concept's stance is designed to be relaxed and confident -- achieved through a negative-wedge design in which the front of the vehicle appears to be set slightly higher than the rear. The 18-inch, eight-spoke aluminum wheels and P245R50-18 tires help give the car an equally sporting stance.
A circular theme runs throughout the vehicle, starting with the round headlamps and fog lamps and extending to the taillamps. The removable hard top with its porthole windows has the signature cue from the original Thunderbird.
"This is an aspirational design," Mays says. "Simple shapes combined with timeless materials and textures convey a relaxed, confident look and a feel that is the true essence of the original Thunderbird."
The oval grille opening remains true to the original with an aluminum-finished egg-crate design. Two large fog lamps are set into the front bumper along with a secondary grille opening below them.
The scoop is integrated into the hood design rather than serving merely as a prominent addition.
The wraparound windshield is set at a 64-degree angle and surrounded by a wide band of chrome, as are the porthole windows. The signature windows are also functional, allowing additional light to enter the vehicle and providing better rearward visibility when the top is on.
Chrome slash marks on the front quarter panels are cut into the sheet metal. They are a modern interpretation of the chevrons that were prominent on the original car.
The concept also features cues from 1961-62 Thunderbirds, which were more equally proportioned than their predecessors. Thus, doors are set to the center rather than to the rear, and a crisp line runs from the headlamp straight back to the taillamp, hinting at one of the car's legendary fins.
The car's interior continues the design theme by combining modern materials and finishes with the flair of two-tone interiors of the past. Two black leather-wrapped bucket seats are stitched with a washboard-like pattern.
The interior door panels are covered in black leather with yellow leather inserts and brushed aluminum accents. The instrument panel sports white gauges with turquoise pointers. The upper instrument panel, steering wheel and floor-mounted shifter are covered in black leather. The lower instrument panel and glove box are accented in yellow leather, matching the car's sun-mist yellow exterior.
A black leather-wrapped tonneau cover is visible when the hard top is removed.
The aluminum-finished Thunderbird badge features a turquoise insert across the wings and is prominently placed on the vehicle's nose, rear and across the front seat backs. The aluminum-finished Thunderbird script stretches across both rear quarter panels.
The Thunderbird name has a rich automotive heritage but originates from Arizona and New Mexico. According to legend, Thunderbird ruled the sky and was a divine helper of man. The great wings -- invisible to mortal man -- created the winds and the thunder and provided rains in the desert, where fate had brought the Native Americans.
The name is fitting for a car that has become an American legend. Thunderbird's appeal extended far beyond its roots in Dearborn. In 1961, the car caught the eye of the newly elected president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy demonstrated his passion for the Ford Thunderbird by including 50 of them in his inaugural procession.
This is only one example of the Thunderbird's role as an American icon. Thunderbird represented the carefree and youthful attitude of the 1950s and 1960s. The Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" heralded, in a song, aspects of the American car culture, as did the street cruising scenes of Thunderbird in the film "American Graffiti."