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Review: 2002 Ford Thunderbird

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowden and Aaron Gold

The Car Place


Head-turning, neck-breaking retro good looks Easy to drive Plenty of V8 horsepower Boulevard comfort Wind not bothersome with top down Passenger compartment stays quiet I want one


Dealers are gouging terribly -- SHAME on them Lacks features it needs at this price Impossible-to-attach tonneau cover Inferior exterior door handles -- they were better in 1955 Smash-your-finger top closure Very limited trunk space Needs rollover protection Where are the whitewalls? I can't afford one

Specifications Style: two-seat roadster Engine: 3.9-liter V8 Transmission: five-speed automatic Drivetrain: rear-wheel-drive Horsepower: 252 hp @ 6,100 rpm Torque: 261 ft-lbs. @ 4,300 rpm EPA mileage: 17 city/23 highway Weight: 3,775 lb. Base price: $38,465 Price as tested: $39,795

First, the bottom line She was 16. She was lovely. And for her birthday, her daddy had given his darling daughter a 1955 Ford Thunderbird in its first year of production.

Tooling into the high school parking lot, that topless turquoise two-seater framed a portrait of Lolita loveliness, a combination of anatomical and vehicular beauty that remains burned into my memory nearly a half-century later. Mona Lisa and wire wheels. Marilyn Monroe and a billowing fender skirt.

If cars are the body armor we don daily -- and they are -- then this T-Bird was a Maidenform bra in an era when that was the sexiest image young eyes ever saw. It was eye-popping, jaw-dropping, head-turning, drop-dead gorgeous. And Stephanie was wearing it.

Oh man, I was smitten. By Stephanie. And her car.

Teen timidity prevented me from ever even thinking about expressing an interest to Stephanie. I mean, she might have gone out with a James Dean-wannabe driving a flame-painted, lowered, moon-disked, Lakes-pipe equipped '49 Mercury with suicide doors from which the exterior handles had been removed. Might have.

Still ... fear of failure won out over dreams of conquest. I watched from afar.

Stephanie seemed as unreachable as that magnificent metal she drove.

That's how I remember the first T-Bird. A serious car buff even then, I knew how it came about, better actually than I knew how Stephanie came about. I knew Ford had been in a race with General Motors to build a two-seat sports car that could compete with increasingly popular imports. That competition began in 1951, a planning year.

As the two companies neared production, GM became determined to be first to market with a sports car. One way this could be assured was to bypass traditional stamps needed for metal hoods, trunks, fenders and doors. GM opted to mold these parts with a plastic compound. Thus, in 1953, the Corvette was born -- surely one of the most striking car designs of all time. Plastic Fantastic, we called it.

Ford was miffed. Round One went to GM.

The new Corvette aspired to be a genuine sports car. From its birth, it was destined to run with the big dogs someday. As sports cars evolved, so would the Corvette. And that has been the case, right up to today.

Ford shifted emphasis for its planned "sports car." The Thunderbird would not be called a sports car, not be advertised that way. It would be a "personal car."

A two-seat boulevard cruiser.

And so it came to be in 1955 that this personal car came to market. With metal parts. A less-than-overwhelming engine and a number of luxury touches absent from the Corvette, which was downright crude by comparison.

Thankfully for all of us, both cars found a niche.

But few would argue that over the years the Thunderbird lost its way. The two-seat beauty from 1955-1957 became a four-seater in 1958. Small and sharp became fat and boxy. Fat and boxy became fat and projectile-shaped. It got worse and worse and worse as sales soared. Purists turned elsewhere and the Thunderbird became just another family hauler. But Ford had won Round Two -- the marketplace. By going mainstream, the Thunderbird had become a solid seller.

Over the years, though, its popularity slipped as its uniqueness was homogenized out of existence. In the end, its sole claim to fame was that Ford used a T-Bird template for NASCAR race cars.

Big whoopee, huh? It was a nothing car. Win on Sunday and nobody gave a damn on Monday. Hey, all NASCAR racers look like identical melted-soap bars.

A T-Bird should be special.

So Ford pulled the Thunderbird from its lineup in 1997 and went back to the drawing board. It appears the overriding question to be addressed was: What exactly is a Thunderbird? And the answer was found in T-Bird history. Early history.

I'm not going to give Ford credit for the popularity of retro vehicles. I do believe Volkswagen had the idea first and its retro New Beetle was a runaway success, followed by Chrysler's truly cool PT Cruiser. But Ford caught on faster than GM, that's for sure.

In creating the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, designers borrowed cues from the 1955-1957 models and modernized as many as they could, with some deviations forced by today's safety standards. It is most likely those standards that eliminated the machine-gun bumper guards and the eyebrow lids on the headlights (but expect aftermarket producers to offer these soon if not already!).

The front of the T-Bird retains the egg crate grille and the former bumper guards now house parking lights. Strangely, there is NO place for a front license tag. And the hood scoop -- non-functional as always -- is centered in the Inspiration Yellow hood (T-Bird was the first American production car with a hood scoop).

The rear of the new T-Bird bears little resemblance to an early Bird. About all it shares in common is a small trunk.

During test week, the Ford Thunderbird proved immensely popular with other motorists, who frequently shouted approval. No one had anything bad to say about it. With the singular exception of my barber, who glanced out the window, expressed admiration for the style, and then said: "Where are the whitewalls?"

Yeh, Ford. Where are they?

The major appeal of this car will be its uniqueness (25,000 a year, limited production). The major drawback will be lack of value. Dealers are price-gouging mercilessly as this is written. That "as tested" price above will only draw a chuckle from dealers advertising the fact that they have a T-Bird only $10,000 above sticker price.

Only the auto industry and its sorry history of horse trading could get away with this. If you go to Wal-Mart during back to school week, you're not greeted with suddenly-$10 packets of paper ("Well, hey, the demand is here and we can always charge more when demand is high."). Ford should stuff any dealer inflating the sticker and send 'em no more T-Birds. A price is a price is a price.

Even at $40,000, however, it's not comparable to better two-seaters near its price level. Features we'll detail later are missing. It's not what the T-Bird is, but what it isn't that brings it up short.

But I'll still miss it. I loved the attention and the car is so easy to drive. This is true no-sweat boulevard cruising, where even the wind doesn't muss your hair and the stereo is always on the Oldies station. Yes, I wanted to keep it. I wanted to show it to Stephanie, see what she thought. Me! Mr.Flame-Painted Mercury, in a 2002 T-Bird!

Whatcha think, beautiful?

Timidity stopped me again.

Safety A new model like the T-Bird will take time to crash test, so no results are available yet.

The chassis, engine and dashboard are from a Lincoln LS, but that doesn't automatically mean results from the LS can be applied to the T-Bird. We'll have to wait for crash results.

Standard safety features include dual front air bags and dual side air bags housed within the seat backs. These side bags deploy a bit taller than in most cars and claim to protect not only the chest area, but the head as well. The passenger seat front air bag can be deactivated by inserting a key in a switch and turning, thus allowing a child to safely ride there.

There are no rollbars, as there are now with many two-seaters. Ford claims the windshield has been strengthened considerably, perhaps enough to avoid collapse under rollover pressures. Still, it would be preferable to have built-in roll bars, maybe trailed by those tear-drop shaped headrests used so effectively on the '62-'63 Thunderbird Sports Roadster four-seater convertibles. Taller, more narrow this time, Ford.

Child seat anchors are standard here, as is a glow-in-the-dark interior trunk release (now required). Anti-lock brakes are standard, as they should be, but needed traction control is an option on this rear-driver.

Handling/Performance Just for the record .. once again .. the Ford Thunderbird is not and is not meant to be a Corvette-beater.

Somehow, that seems important to some people. Guess it's the King of the Hill mentality. Well, Ford is about to play the game, people.

Next year, Ford will sell a "Living Legend" version of its famed four-time 24 Hours of Lemans winner, the GT40. That it's on the right. It will have -- ready for this? -- 500 horsepower off the showroom floor. Expect GM to match it and Chrysler to attempt to keep the Viper as the baddest in the land. Should be fun. To watch.

If this really matters to you, skip the T-Bird and spend your insurance dollars elsewhere.

You'll get your jollies next year trying to pick from three American asphalt burners.

The 2002 T-Bird is by no means underpowered, however. For me and for 99.99 percent of you, this car accelerates, brakes and corners in outstanding fashion. It's light years beyond the original T-Bird.

The engine pumps out a respectable 252 horsepower. The reason this is not a pavement-scorcher seems to be its weight -- 3,775 pounds. That's heavy, particularly for a smallish two-seater. Part of the weight problem can be attributed to extra bracing needed to strengthen structural integrity for a car without a roof. X-braces were added to the car in three locations.

Whatever, the T-Bird is not a burnout machine like the Bullitt Mustang. It's true to its original purpose: Be the consummate two-seat boulevard cruiser.

Handling is biased toward comfort, although few will feel that the T-Bird lacks any cornering ability. The steering is a bit heavy but centering is good at speed. Parking is not a chore. Visibility, even with the ragtop up, is superior to some of today's awkward sedans. The rear window is glass.

The five-speed automatic -- there is no manual option -- was a bit fussy. It tended to downshift at the slightest movement of the accelerator pedal. Upshifts, however, were very smooth. This does not have any kind of clutchless shift option. Again, not needed at all in this type of car.

Braking is very powerful and places the T-Bird among the leaders in its class.

Routine tasks such as merging with interstate traffic or passing a slower vehicle were never a problem. The onrush of power is very smooth, but gets the job done. If Ford decides enough buyers want more horsepower, it's easy to envision a supercharger for this V8 and maybe something for that fake hood scoop to do.

The figures below are from computer testing the 2002 Ford Thunderbird.

Ford Thunderbird Performance Data

Acceleration (mph) 0-30 0-40 0-50 0-60 0-70 0-80 0-90 0-100

Elapsed time (secs) 2.6 3.8 5.0 7.0 8.9 11.8 15.0 18.6

Top speed 137 mph

Quarter mile 15.4 @ 91.3 mph

Power-to-weight ratio 14.9


The special two-tone interior in our tester was its only option -- an $800 option.

Worth every cent, given the overall price of this car.

It turned a rather bland spot into a yellow-and-black sea of loveliness. Rolled and pleated seats. A yellow shift knob. White instruments with black numerals and a glowing blue needle that matches the color of the T-Bird emblem on the trunk and steering wheel.

Yes, yes, it's an LS dashboard, but that's a good dashboard and parts sharing helps keep this from costing $60,000.

Still, all is not well here.

Begin with those door handles. They're the little nailbreaker type that thwart rescue should a door be stuck shut. Believe it or not, the original Thunderbird in 1955 had better exterior door handles. And Ford surely knows better. The Escape and other current Ford products have the better bar design handles. This was one-too-many rummagings of the parts bin. And on a $40,000 car. Uncalled for.

Open the door and note that the word Thunderbird is scripted on the aluminum door sills.

Now slide into the driver's seat. There are multiple power adjustments and a manual lumbar adjustment. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes to further aid the fit of any size driver.

The window sill is at the perfect height to rest a left elbow on -- as boulevard cruising demands. The proper low height accomplishes two things: The driver doesn't look like he or she is auditioning for a Munchkin role in a remake of the "Wizard of Oz" and wind doesn't scream down a shirt sleeve into a ticklish armpit.

The bucket seats are nicely comfortable, lacking the extreme side support found in sportier cars. Hard to believe the original T-Bird had no center console and featured essentially a bench seat with two depressions.

The windows are driver-side one-touch power down, but not one-touch up. Since Volkswagen can provide one-touch up and down for all windows in under-$20,000 cars, why can't Ford pony up this highly desirable feature in a $40,000 car?

And the tonneau cover is a disgrace. It's supposed to snap on, with the rear sliding under metal to secure it. No way. This thing wouldn't slide, wouldn't snap, wouldn't fit. Stuff it back into the trunk, where it fills almost all of the space.

As for the ragtop .. well, there are worse ones. The Corvette convertible's manual top is the absolute pits for any car its price. But this power-operated top managed to smash one of my fingernails so severely that it has turned black and may fall off. Here's how the ragtop works: A lever centered atop the windshield has a button to depress, then it pops down. Two side latches are automatically released and then a switch on the dash powers back the top. It's in closing that trouble can arise.

The two side latches are supposed to automatically retract and deploy (one was awaiting replacement and the flaw was pointed out to me on delivery of the car). That flawed one was not the problem. The "good:" one was.

The scene: It was late at night, very dark outside, and convertible interiors are hardly known for bright illumination. For some reason, the top, while closing, was not coming down securely against the windshield. It happens on many convertibles. Alignment gets off and the tops are a pain to close. But I couldn't see the "why" of this. I pulled down and pushed up on the lever. Nothing. I pulled again. Nothing. Then I reached under the top with a left finger and pulled the not-deployed latch out. Bingo. The center latch -- spring loaded -- slammed the top down, with my right hand's third finger in there.

I shall not describe the pain.

"There goes one star," my wife said knowledgeably.

"Not necessarily," I moaned. "I like this car."

In fact, it wasn't the ragtop that bothered me most. It was the fact that Ford -- way back in 1957 -- gave us the world's first retractable hardtop. The Skyliner model. Today, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz offer two-seaters with retractable hardtops. And while they are more expensive, one can only wonder why Ford didn't at least offer a retractable hardtop option. THAT would have been a bold step.

As it is, a detachable hardtop weighing 83 pounds and requiring two people to remove or attach is a $2,500 option. It has the portholes, bless Ford, but it a sorry solution in the year 2002. It's retro, all right. Same as 1955 and worse than 1957.

There's little to dislike about the appearance of the 2002 T-Bird. Even the squat in the rear is unique and mimics the original T-Bird's stance.

But I truly disliked the optional chrome wheels. They are a sore spot of today on a car of yesterday. Where are the classy wire wheels and the whitewalls? These extra-cost chrome wheels can be replaced by standard brushed aluminum ones. That's better, but all this spoke madness is getting out of hand. Let's retro back to round caps, okay? Maybe with spinners in the middle.

I also mourn the passing of bumper guards and exhausts that exited through them. Course, there's a reason for this. We don't really have bumpers anymore. At least, not as I remember them. What we have here, and on many new cars, is a piece of flexible plastic hiding an ugly piece of metal. And therein lies the problem.

I made an inquiry on this. How come, I asked, there are no machine-gun exhausts?

Well, I was told, for one thing the heat radiation from the exhaust pipes would melt the plastic covering the rear bumper...

Stop! Speak no more! 'nuff said. Oooooooo.

Only Mattel should make plastic cars. I'll chalk this up as yet another reason to dislike the spreading use of plastic for vehicle body parts (and much of the T-Bird is compound plastic compositions).

Parting Shots Reading a company's press releases, you'd think the new vehicle being described was the end-all of all time.

This 2002 Thunderbird isn't that. But it's a great start.

It looks good, handles well, performs more than adequately and is good for status for a year or two, at least.

It has flaws, many easily correctable, although I doubt Ford will bother. This is limited production, after all, on purpose. Demand exceeds supply as it is. Why spend money to improve it? And a major reason the retro T-Bird exists is to draw people into Ford showrooms so they can be convinced a Ford Taurus is what they really need.

We say goodbye to the Prowler this year. Great-looking, it never evolved beyond the crude rider it was in its first year. Will the T-Bird likewise fail to improve?

I hope not. Just as I hope General Motors realizes it has created a Corvette caricature with today's car and offers us a 1953 retro Vette with decent handling and power, but none of the world-beater stuff that just adds dollars to the sticker and really serves to limit the number of potential buyers.

'Nuff said.

COUNTERPOINT: Aaron Gold has a slightly less favorable view of the T-Bird than Bob. Maybe it's a generational thing, he says, as you can read here.

SLIDESHOW: Click here to open a slideshow of early T-Birds and how they compare to the 2002 model.

VIDEO: The inner child in all of us escapes periodically, particularly when there's no one else around to witness our play. So it is that we captured Brother Bob in this video we call "Amish Test Driver." It's available in a large Quicktime version or a much smaller RealPlayer version. During testing, these were taking a very long time to travel across the Internet. The QuickTime version can be replayed after downloading, so go get a coffee and catch up on watercooler gossip. It'll be ready when you get back.

3D A 3D program will display the Thunderbird in a variety of ways to show depth. You can use red-green glasses, crossed eyes or other viewing methods. Click here to view the photo and then click the photo and open "view" to select your preferred viewing method. Play with this a bit. I've found I almost instantly see the crossed-eye 3D image, right between the left and right views.