Monday, April 27, 2009

Style for The Average Joe, Personal Luxury Cars

The Personal Luxury Car, Part I - The Ford Thunderbird

For the average Joe, the Monte Carlo, the Cordoba, or Thunderbird was an attainable and affordable prize for his hard earned money. Unlike more expensive and exclusive luxury cars, they were cheap to operate, and since they were built using tried and true parts, simple to repair. The auto industry couldn’t have wished for a more lucrative market. A car built with off the shelf parts, on the chassis of the average sedan, all for a hungry market wanting something “special”. The personal luxury car was a profit goldmine. Ford usually gets the credit for creating the niche with the introduction of the Thunderbird in 1955.

The origins of the Thunderbird are not as clear as some would have you believe. There are stories of Ford executives wanting a sports car after a trip to Europe.

Many assume that Ford was responding to Chevrolet’s Corvette.

It’s known that stylist Frank Hershey was already studying possibilities for a special car on a shortened Ford chassis, with heavy input from Joe Oros and Bill Boyer contributing. Each one a noted Ford designer under chief Ford stylist George Walker at the time. Each one claims to have penned the car entirely on their own. It’s difficult to say, as even Fords archives are not clear. Even the origins of the name of the car are in question, supposedly Thunderbird was chosen from a contest with over 5000 suggestions, the winning name chosen by a Ford employee whose prize was a pair of pants (?). Native American folklore, in contrast, does note a mythical bird, the Thunderbird, born of thunder from the dark night sky that rescued a native tribe from doom.

Concept drawings of the Thunderbird '52-'54, side view proposals
Early conception sketches and drawings show an egg crate grille influenced by Ferrari, identical headlights/tail lights from the ‘55 Ford sedan and twin exhausts inset at the bumper. It was low and sleek, without the usual gaudy chrome that adorned many cars of the time. The car was never planned as a direct rival to the Corvette, it had modern conveniences like roll up windows, A/C, a hardtop and other options the ‘Vette couldn’t offer.

1955 Thunderbirds
It was presented as a sporty personal car, a cruiser, not a sports car. And at under $3000 it beat the fiberglass Corvette soundly in sales. Not to mention the 292 cu in V8 with 198 hp on tap certainly had the power edge over the standard wimpy stove bolt six of the Chevy.

2nd Generation Thunderbird sketch, a two seat concept, not four as the actual model
1958 introduced a bolder restyle and the inclusion of two more seats. Ford market studies revealed an appeal for a four seat T-Bird, as the current configuration couldn’t be considered as a single family car, i.e., Average Joe wanted a sporty ride, but needed a back seat to carry the kids. So the ‘58 T-Bird grew longer and very low, incorporated dual headlights, a larger, lower placed grille surrounded by a massive chrome bumper, (un)inspired body side moldings and larger more pronounced tail fins.

“If you really analyze the 1958 Thunderbird, it had enough design on its side, back and front, for five automobiles.”

The overall look was definitely in step with 1958 styling cues, but the added bits of 50’s styling excess is not as easy on the eye as the ‘55-‘57. Designer Gene Bordinat noted,
"If you really analyze the '58 Thunderbird, it had enough design on its side, back and front for five automobiles."

In ‘59 Ford offered a bigger 430 cid V8 borrowed from upscale Lincoln to help motivate the larger car, but even with the jump in power, now nearly 350hp, a 1000 lbs increase in weight and size over the two seater made it no sprinter.
Nonetheless, Fords market study was dead on, the sales of the fourseat “Squarebirds” at nearly 38,000 units, was more than double the previous model.

Third Generation, "bullet birds"

'61 T-Bird concept (not a Lincoln). Ford Quicksilver concept.
The ‘61 model had some hurdles to clear before it came to be, as surprisingly, the ‘61 Lincoln Continental was originally supposed to be the ‘61 Thunderbird. In 1958, the development for the next generation T-Bird was not going smoothly and two competing proposals were commissioned. One by Elwood Engel, based on the recent Continental MkII. And the other by Joe Oros, Ford studio head, proposed a sportier car based on the directive of new Ford division chief, Jim Wright, and the Ford Quicksilver concept. Behind the scenes the two opposing concepts were really a result of a power struggle between the design studio and the Ford chief. To save face, the decision was left to Ford's Product Planning Committee. Engle’s proposal was deemed “too pretty to be a T-Bird” and became the ‘61 Continental. Oro’s car (ironically, with heavy development from Engle and his staffs input), became the 1961 T-Bird.

The bullet nosed birds, were much cleaner in the design than the previous model. Body moldings and fenders with a high bright bladed “beltline” were incorporated as a theme for the entire car, starting at the front cowl, and flowed down the body, ending in slightly canted fins at the rear over two pod-like, turbine-shaped taillights. The ‘61 introduced many innovations like a swing away steering wheel and the ’62 Sports Roadster version (credited to designer Bud Kaufman ) incorporating a racing style tonneau top covering the rear two seats to create, in effect, a “two-seater” again. Of the early 1960’s the bullet birds are probably the most attractive and most representative of car design of the era.

For 1964 the T-Bird was redesigned again, this time the theme retreated to a more purposeful design. Now the T-Bird had a longer rear with much larger taillights (sequential ones in ’65) the body tapering off to a flat tail and a more formal hood and body side styling. The look was not as flowing, but had a stronger looking front “face”.

Obviously Ford had the right idea as this model sold nearly 93,000 units, a record and up nearly half over the 1963 ‘bird. ’65 offered the famed sequential taillights and a 429 V8 w/345 hp. Finally after years of changing engines to keep up with the weight gain of the car, the new T-Bird was capable of some quick motivation and speeds over 120mph. But even with these welcome additions, sales dropped off to just over 70,000 units for ’65.

Why? Mustang.
Ford’s own, much cheaper, and in many ways, more attractively styled new four seat youthmobile was taking a big bite out of the T-Birds signature market. A moderately optioned Thunderbird cost nearly twice as much as a fully optioned Mustang. The market savvy decision to make the T-Bird a four seater back in ’58 was coming back to haunt Ford with the introduction of the pony car. The T-Bird was at a cross roads, Ford debated relinquishing the car completely to the luxury market as a 4 door sedan. By 1965 with the Mustang assuming the young sporty image the T-Bird once had, Ford believed the T-Bird no longer needed to portray a sporting image and could be focused directly at the personal luxury market.
1967 Ford Thunderbird Landau 4-door sedan.
Following that marketing concept, in 1967 Ford introduced a completely redesigned Thunderbird, as a large luxury coupe, and an equally large four door luxury sedan incorporating suicide type doors, a large open mouth grill and heavily styled fenders. As the 3rd & 4th generation convertible had fallen to less than 10% of T-Bird sales, for the first time in its history, no convertible model was offered. The ‘67 T-Bird was a major change in focus for the model, abandoning the Thunderbirds original concept completely. Sadly for the next ten years the Thunderbird grew into an overweight, gas guzzling (8 mpg!), bland, ugly joke...

The Big and even Bigger 'birds.
In 1970 the T-Bird changed into a huge luxury
barge (albeit with a large, almost humorous “beak” front end grille treatment) and the four door sedan was dropped. In 1972 the ‘bird expanded again to the largest size of its history gaining nearly 1500 lbs over the already huge ‘71. The Thunderbird was now, basically a re-skinned, lower cost Lincoln Continental, riding on the Continentals chassis and mechanicals. The gargantuan bird went on for 4 years with minor trim changes. The only major changes were the constant increase in engine size (up to 460 ci, 7.5 liters!) to help motivate the behemoth. Even with one of the largest engines on the market, EPA standards strangled the output to just over 200hp, not enough to get out of its own way.
Ironically Ford had hit on something, or the public just didn’t care as the sales for the supersized bird was up to almost 87,000 units in ‘73. A very neat feat considering Ford was asking almost $8,000 for a 5,000 lb, gas guzzling, mediocre looking, underpowered clone of a Lincoln Mark IV.

Still the writing was on the wall, the Arab Oil embargo, inflation and rising gas prices ate away at sales and demanded the T-Bird go on a diet and refocus its market identity. Luckily for Ford, the Elite, which had taken over the T-Birds former market, was selling nearly three times as much as the current bird. It was an easy plan to have the next Elite redesigned as the new, downsized Thunderbird.

1977 Thunderbird
So in 1977, like both GM and Chrysler were implementing, a new downsized version of the car was planned, and a smaller, redesigned Thunderbird was released. The new ‘bird had a sharper, more defined look with razor edged fender tops, split opera/landau windows and hidden headlights. Many of the T-Bird cues from the late 60’s returned including a egg crate grille and full length wall to wall tail lights, a basket handle split top was also featured. Realistically, the new ‘bird was not much more than a re-skinned Elite, which was built on a Torino/LTD II chassis, under the skin there wasn’t any innovation mechanically. Its laughable to call the ’77 T-Bird a mid sized car today, its huge by today’s standards, but with almost a half ton reduction in weight and 11 inches in length over the previous ‘bird and a $3000 price cut, the new T-Bird was taking a step (down-market) in the right direction. Sales surged to over 300,000 units, the highest figure in the history of the Thunderbird, and triple its previous sales record. The public snapped them up in large numbers, with little styling changes for the next three years.

1980 Ford Thunderbird
Under veteran stylist Gene Bordinat 1980 brought the emergence of the “Box” ‘birds. The car was based on the Fox chassis (shared with the plain-Jane Ford Fairmont and new Mustang). Transferring the bigger T-Bird styling cues to this smaller platform proved unsuccessful if not outright boring. It’s obvious the design was a cost cutting measure, to eliminate size, weight and production costs, as their seems to be have been no design inspiration at all. Ford did reduce weight by 900 lbs, but the combination of uninspired styling, a weak standard V6, and a brief recession kept the buying public away in droves, and sales tanked. At the end of the box bird model run in ’82, sales had fallen to just 47,000 units, less than 16% of the previous model run.

Ford Probe Concepts I & II
The Thunderbird was in trouble, but even before the disastrous box-‘bird was released Ford had considered new directions for their prestige car to follow. Jack Telnack, Fords new VP of Design and his studio team, had the answer. Fords designers for years prior had championed more aerodynamic shapes in the form of their series of concept “Probe” cars of the ‘70’s. And now was the time to put their design ideas into practice.
1983 Thunderbird
1983 and the new, aero-Thunderbird was as smooth and slick as the previous ‘bird was boxy and boring. The new design was a complete departure from all Thunderbirds and for modern cars as well. European in looks, it was aerodynamically smooth and clean, a confident design without a right angle or straight line to be found. The car featured limousine type doors and flush drip wells. In the rear a small notchback with a slight lipped trunk and full with tail lights. It’s difficult to state the impact of this car in the mid 80’s, and fully take into effect it had on changing the look of both the Thunderbird and the car industry as a whole. The success of this new Thunderbird paved the way for more aerodynamic cars, like the Taurus that would revolutionize car appearance and styling forever. In addition to the Aero-birds new slick lines, a new model, the TuboCoupe with a turbocharged 2.3 L 4 cyl engine w/5sp manual was introduced. For the first time in many years a sporting image and style was brought back to the nameplate. Sales were strong and the car added a V8 and trim options, a slight tweaking of the shape was updated in ’87, but few other changes.

1989 (MN12) Thunderbird
The 10th generation, code named MN12 (Mid-Size North American Project 12), Thunderbird was redesigned in 1989 on a longer wheelbase (but shorter overall length). It was lower, shorter and distinctively more European in its flavor. It’s easy to see reflections of BMW in its shape. The new design and look was a result of new program to reduce weight and focus the car towards a younger performance oriented buyer. In that respect the Turbo Coupe was dropped in favor of the Super Coupe with a supercharged, 210hp V6 engine. Unfortunately the car, while a confident looking design and much more efficient in fuel usage wasn’t exactly what Ford had hoped for, and the car missed specific design targets in its development. Most prominent was the cars heavy 3500 lb weight and cost overruns which greatly exceeded program and budget forecasts. To add insult to injury the public’s interest in rear drive personal coupes was waning in the atmosphere of minivans, luxury sedans and SUV’s, sales for the car started a steep decline. The MN12 cars continued on with minor changes, mostly cost cutting measures eliminating options and removing features to help keep costs down on the expensive to produce car. Finally in 1997, with sales in the basement, and costs in the sky, Ford pulled the plug and after 42 years of production, the Thunderbird was over.

2000 & The Retro-'bird
But not so fast, no sooner than the last MN12 T-Bird rolled off the plant floor was Jay Mays, Fords new VP of design, speculating and putting together a studio team for a new Thunderbird. The next T-Bird would be a low sleek two seat personal luxury car, a “retro” design. Bringing back the Thunderbird to its origins. J Mays and his design staff made sure the new retro T-Bird was true to the cars legacy. The new car would have all the classic cues of a Thunderbird, including the egg crate grille, porthole windows and a V8, all built on the Lincoln LS chassis. The car was introduced in 2002 to strong interest and 1000 pre-orders. Styling wise, Ford had hit the mark, the car had all the goods the original had plus a bit more. Initial sales were strong, but leveled off after the first year. Quickly though it came to be seen that a $40,000 two seater with only a 280hp V8, and sloppy handling had a limited appeal, and was not hugely popular with the 21st century buyer, despite its good looks. It had been suggested, jokingly that a second row of seats added to the car would help make it more attractive, much like the ’58 did. But Ford wasn’t laughing. So, one again, in 2005 with marginal sales, and only three years of production, sadly, the retro-‘bird too was discontinued. So far, there has been no word or future plans to raise the mark again.
1955 & 2002 Thunderbirds
In all, over a 50 year span, some 4.5 million Thunderbirds were produced.

Next time, part II, and GM and Chrysler’s personal luxury cars.



  1. very well researched...hard work visible..
    very informative

  2. Nice job done.Must have taken a lot of time in gathering all these info.
    Modify your car
    Buy good quality car parts at fair price

  3. Well done - I have two comments:

    1) I was under the impression that Elwood Engel had participated in the design work on the 64-66 T-Birds and that when he moved to Chrysler, that influence showed up in the Turbine Car. But the timing isn't correct so I must be wrong.

    2) Henry Ford II had a '52 Ferrari Barchetta that was reportedly given to him by Enzo Ferrari. There are pics of the car in the 55-57 Thunderbird design studio and the T-Bird has a number of design features including the exhaust through the bumper, the hood scoop, egg crate grille, etc.

    Los Angeles

  4. Those car collections were really cute. When I see on the the road, i kept looking at those. This give us very informative details of this car. Maybe this article, of read, will make people love the cars more.

  5. If only Ford Thunderbirds are still built today, then I would want to have one. Cars today aren't just as the same as they were before.