I recently had the chance to drive a retro Ford Thunderbird, which was a sorta-luxury convertible that was a total flop. In fact, it was one of the few true flops of the retro car era that flourished in the mid-2000s — and spending some time with one showed me exactly why.
First, a little overview of the Thunderbird. The Ford Thunderbird name was once among Ford’s proudest: a signal of the brand’s capabilities in terms of style, pizzaz and head-turning design. Unfortunately, over the years, things turned bleak, and later Thunderbird models were more commonly spotted in rental car lots than up front at valet stands.
With this in mind, Ford decided to bring back the Thunderbird name for a retro model that came out in 2002. It would have a cool, old-school look, but a modern design. This was a good idea in theory — but it didn’t go so well in practice.
One big reason for this was the overall ethos of the car, as it was a massive, 2-seater, non-sporty vehicle. Based on the luxurious Lincoln LS sedan at the time, the Thunderbird’s dimensions were surprisingly close to the Lincoln’s — except that the Thunderbird had two seats, and it was intended to be sporty. So if you got the Thunderbird, you could only take one other person with you, despite having a car that was bigger than most midsize sedans.
Price, too, was an issue. Back in 2002, the Thunderbird started at $36,000, with the top-end Premium version coming in around $40,000. That translates to base pricing from $51,000 to $57,000 in today’s money — for a large, 2-seat roadster. The driving experience didn’t help much, either, as the Thunderbird was powered by a 3.9-liter V8 that made just 252 horses. That let Ford tout that the T-Bird did, in fact, have a V8 — but even by 2002 standards, that power figure was squarely in V6 territory.
And, of course, 252 horses didn’t exactly make the Thunderbird a rocket ship to drive. In fact, it was quite the opposite: despite the T-Bird’s cool, retro styling, and its 2-seater design, it was a very relaxed cruiser, rather than a sports car. This appealed to some members of the T-Bird’s demographics — namely, aging empty nesters — but it failed to attract new buyers or make the car especially desirable to anyone interested in checking out the new, cool T-Bird — since, on the road, it wasn’t particularly cool.
And there were other issues, too — like the low-rent interior primarily comprised of Ford parts bin items, which wasn’t what you wanted on a “special” convertible with a high price tag. There was also a significant lack of luggage space, owing to its sloping rear end, which made it even less practical.
Still, the Thunderbird did find some buyers — but not many, as Ford ditched it after just four years on the market. I admit I didn’t dislike driving it as much as I thought. It’s a smooth, relaxing convertible with a comfortable ride. But it looks like a Taurus on the inside, and it doesn’t drive much better than one — and my guess is that after the “T-Bird” fanatics got their cars, it just didn’t have too much appeal to any other buyers. These days, the T-Bird is a relic from a retro era, and an example of retro done wrong — and a failed attempt to revive a storied name. We’ll see if Ford makes another attempt someday, as the Thunderbird name still has a lot of cachet — even after a few failed models. Find a Ford Thunderbird for sale