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To admit to a liking for the 2002-’05 Ford Thunderbird feels a bit like giving away a guilty secret. But here goes.
Its appeal has grown on me by stealth; I didn’t take much notice of the 1999 show car by J Mays or even the late-2001 launch of the production version, where it garnered feverish interest and public approval, feeding an apparent appetite for a blue-collar glamour car that was going to come in at under $40k.
There was later a flicker of recognition at a test day when Ford had one on hand to try. I can’t recall if I drove it, but it struck me as something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in.
I have only recently learned how short-lived these 11th-generation Thunderbirds were, and how the applause that greeted them 17 years ago has now turned, in some quarters, to sneers and derision.
Car and Driver even voted it one of its most embarrassing ‘car of the year’ winners.
I don’t care about any of that. All I know is that they look great, my epiphany moment coming when I snatched a glimpse of an all-black example cruising through west London.
With its wraparound ’screen and tapering rear wings it looked compact and elegant, clearly American yet somehow not out of place in a European environment.
What had appeared feminine and sensual with its top down suddenly looked like a focused, masculine machine wearing a hardtop.
Apart from the slightly undistinguished 17in wheels the shape is hard to fault, and it has aged well.
With the black paint highlighting the chrome perfectly and the profile looking squat and slightly sinister among the Euroblobs, the vision caused me to remember the pictures I’d seen of Ian Fleming posing with his black 1956 Thunderbird.
This was the car the Bond author treated himself to after selling the rights to Casino Royale, and which must have cut an amazing dash in post-war London.
I somehow feel that Fleming would have approved of the 2002 Thunderbird, too.
Wisely, its creators took the decision to make the 2002 Thunderbird only as a two seater, realising perhaps that the search for increased space inside was where the visual rot set in with the original cars: just compare the well-balanced look of the 1955, ’56 and ’57 cars with the guppy-mouthed obesity of the 1958-’60 Thunderbirds.
Today, the legacy of that decision is a car that still drives impressively, if not absolutely outstandingly.
Although 68,000 were built through to June 2005 at the Wixon plant in Michigan, this breed of Thunderbird is not easily found in Blighty; a black one we had our eye on was sold before we could drive it. So it was left to Dave Fox Cars in Staffordshire to send us off in this 2002 example.
Torch Red (one of the five somewhat lurid launch colours, echoing the 1955 car) with contrasting white porthole hardtop is not my preferred colour scheme.
But, as I say, these are rare things so we can’t be too choosy, and at £13,000 this one looks like decent value.
But surely being a left-hooker-only two-seater must limit the retro T-bird’s appeal? Fox, who bought this 75,000-mile Deluxe at an H&H sale and has now owned it twice, confirms that they are not easy cars to sell.
The hardtop was a $2500 extra on the Deluxe (it is fitted to 88% of all 2002-’05 Thunderbirds) that weighs 89lb and needs two people to manhandle it off the car, plus a third helper to reattach it if you want to avoid scratching the paint.
There are no Mercedes-style electronics to secure or unhook the roof: you unlatch it manually from the header rail with two long Allen keys.
They are not particularly easy to use and slightly tarnish the smooth image of what is supposedly a sophisticated ‘personal luxury car’.
Then again, at $38,000 for the basic Deluxe version (less the chromed alloy wheels of the $40k Premium) this was a much cheaper ride than the Mercedes-Benz SL.
For that you got a 250bhp, 3.9-litre quad-cam V8 (an America-only derivative of the AJ8, built in Ohio) matched to an overdriven five-speed automatic with, in the best T-bird tradition, no manual option.
Post-’03 versions had 280bhp, thanks to variable valve timing, plus traction control and an improved ’box with manual override.
There were minor tweaks to trim, seats and instrumentation and some new road-wheel options for 2004, but the car remained mostly unchanged throughout production.
The well sorted and widely used underpinnings served the model well, and they seem to suffer only from fairly minor electrical problems in middle age.
This one has the perfectly acceptable early five-speed auto, which is generally well matched to the Thunderbird’s relaxed feel.
It’s not slow, mind, or anything close to it: if anything, pulling away can be a little too crisp and it’s easy to chirp the tyres or lurch when you wanted to waft.
Generally, though, the Thunderbird launches itself with the effortless urge you expect from a modern 4-litre V8 and has all the performance you could seriously want from a car such as this; anybody who criticises the ’Bird on that basis is looking for a different sort of car altogether.
With its slightly soft and floaty ride on all-round short-arm/long-arm double-wishbone suspension, it would be easy to dismiss this late Thunderbird as a flabby ‘cruiser’.
The hacks did in period, for sure: it was perhaps unfortunate for the 2002 Thunderbird that it was born into the beginning of an era when European-style cornering poise was becoming the expected norm.
Owning up in print that you liked ‘ride comfort’ was like admitting that you spent your weekends wearing loud plaid trousers on a golf course, trying to stop your combover from hinging in the breeze.
Now, with the combover well under way, maybe I should invest in those loud slacks because I quite enjoyed the softness, a nod to the silky ride the Detroit heavyweights of 50 or 60 years ago prioritised over handling.
And this is not at the expense of body roll or wallowy, lurchy behaviour; the T-bird goes about its business tidily, has direct and linear steering and, best of all, a really good, liberally braced shell that rarely betrays the inherent structural compromises of an open-topped body.
Making it drive well seems to have been a fairly straightforward task for Ford; it was in the marketing and detail presentation of the Thunderbird where it seemed to lose its way.
Ford dealers, mostly in the business of selling pick-ups and SUVs by the 2000s, were not in the habit of having to retail such an expensive car.
Then, once inside the flagship Ford, you can’t help wondering how many potential Jaguar and Mercedes conquest sales were lost when the customers saw the Thunderbird’s bland, penny-pinching interior in the plastic.
Presumably it wasn’t quite so disappointing to behold in 2001. Today, surrounded by creaky, brittle materials, cheap switchgear and the ugly steering wheel, the Thunderbird’s tenuous spell is broken, the appeal of the car, for me, almost lost.
Rather than cutting costs to make it more accessible, you can’t help thinking Ford would have been better off giving it a more special, bespoke interior and charging more for it.
Someone was working along the right lines with that stainless trim slashing across the fascia into the doors, but the dash itself could be out of any Hertz rental.
The white-faced instruments look cheap, the two-tone seats are on the garish side and it lacks that hewn-from-solid feel that buyers of German cabriolets expect.
On the other hand everything works perfectly, including the powered soft-top with its glass rear window.
And it is such pretty car, such a pleasing and friendly one to drive, that you start to think of more neutral colour schemes that could work.
Ford itself got the message and ditched the bright and breezy ’50s-style yellows, blues and reds for more grown-up and sober shades in 2003, with quieter, single-colour interiors.
Here, possibly, lies the answer to the interior ‘problem’. Find a black one with a black cabin and you’d have a beautiful dual-purpose grand touring convertible that makes a rare and interesting alternative to those ubiquitous SLs.
As the final iteration of the Thunderbird line (at least up to now), the 11th-generation cars probably suffer from being lumped in with all those other – mostly awful – ‘retro’ designs that appeared around the same time.
But I don’t think that criticism is justified; for me, this is a car that evokes the best elements of its predecessors but still has a fresh, clean feel of its own.
Where even the likes of BMW have struggled (I never thought the Z8 was a pretty sight), Ford has successfully repeated this difficult visual manoeuvre with the latest Mustangs.
It’s easily the best-looking Thunderbird since the mid-’50s original (that wouldn’t be difficult) – and maybe even the best-looking of all.
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Dave Fox Cars
This was originally in our June 2019 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication