T-bird spreads wings Ford's original Corvette-killer takes a softer turn in retro update

  • Driver

MONTEREY, Calif. — Nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.

Just as well, actually. Cars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, VW New Beetle and the new MINI are, by any objective measure, vastly better than the cars that inspired them.

Now comes the 2002 Ford Thunderbird.

It unashamedly draws its styling cues from its 1955-'57 progenitors. Like them, the new 'Bird is a two-seat roadster.

The long, low, rectangular profile, wide egg-crate grille, hood scoop, round head- and taillamps and the round portholes in the $5,000 optional hard top make this unmistakably Thunderbird.

Fog lamps mounted low in the grille on the new car mimic the "dagmars" — the chrome bomb-shaped protrusions — of the mid-'50s version. More stringent Canadian bumper crash tests don't allow any damage to functional components in a 8 km/h crash, so these lights have been deleted from our cars. However, there is nothing to prevent a customer from adding them later, and they will surely be made available at a friendly price.

Canadians will also not get the chrome-alloy wheels that will be optional in the U.S. — an issue of trying to keep the model mix as simple as possible, given the small volume of cars our dealers will be able to get. I think the regular alloys look better anyway, and are more true to the spirit of the original.

Ford's design boss, J Mays, claims the new car is not "retro." Maybe he has a different definition of that word.

Mechanically, the 2002 T-bird borrows heavily from the front-engine, rear-drive DEW98 platform, which provides the basis for the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type sedans.

Bob Johnston, vehicle engineering manager for Thunderbird, says they began with a shortened LS floor pan, but found that the Jaguar's rear bumper crush absorption structure fitted the configuration of the T-bird better, so the end product is an amalgam of its two cousins.

Johnston noted that any car loses about 75 per cent of its rigidity when you cut off the roof. A series of braces throughout the car bring back about 25 per cent of that, which still ranks the new T-bird among the best in that regard among convertibles.

The hard pieces in the all-independent double-wishbone suspension — control arms, uprights, drive shafts — are shared with Jag and Lincoln, but springs, shocks and anti-roll bars are uniquely calibrated.

Only one powertrain is offered — the 3.9-litre 252-hp, four-cam, 32-valve V8 used in the Lincoln LS but derived from Jaguar's 4.0 L sweetheart, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.

The manual-auto shifting feature that's available on LS is not used here — yet.

Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution, to ensure the rear wheels are developing maximum retardation before ABS kicks in, are standard. All-speed traction control is an option in the U.S., but will be standard in Canada.

One aspect of the new Thunderbird that is definitively not mid-'50s is the way it drives. One of the great disappointments of my automotive career was my first chance, about 20 years ago, to drive a 1955 T-bird, a car I lusted after as a kid. It drove like — well, a 1950s car. Apart from nice urge and great sound from the non-emission-controlled V8, it was heavy, leaden.

The new car is none of that, except for the stout push from the V8 and the nice, throaty burble from the exhaust.

The five-speed autobox shifts smoothly but quickly. "Relaxed sportiness" was what the engineers aimed to achieve in the car's deportment over the road.

And if a customer wants to fling his/her car about on twisty two-lane roads, it had to respond willingly. They've done a nice job. Cornering power is limited more by the lack of side support in the seats than by the suspension — drive too hard and you'll be flung unceremoniously about the cockpit.

It might not be a true sports car — neither was the original — but it is a pleasure to drive nonetheless.The body structure feels remarkably rigid for such a large open car. If you hit bumps of a certain size at just the right speed, you can feel a hint of flexing, but it's far better than most convertibles, and there is none of the dreaded rear-vew mirror vibration that plagues most ragtops.

Designers were able to achieve a reasonably calm top-down interior environment without adding on wind deflectors. Your hair will still get mussed about, but my co-driver and I proved you can have a non-shouting conversation at 90 mph (145 km/h).

The power-operated soft-top encloses the cabin well, and doesn't flap about. It stows neatly behind the seats.

Ford's interior designers even provided storage space behind the seats.

The trunk is big enough to carry two sets of golf clubs — as vehicle engineering manager Johnston said, "I don't often golf alone." The dash cap and centre stack, containing the dual-zone air conditioning controls and the stereo, is lifted largely intact from the Lincoln LS; as in that car, it is probably the T-bird's biggest drawback. The trim materials don't appear to be of the highest quality — again, I point automotive interior decorators, or perhaps the bean-counters who control their budgets, to the VW-Audi family. This is one part of the car that the owner sees every moment he or she is in the car; why would you skimp here? Overall, however, the T-bird is a remarkable achievement. Even in car-jaded California, it was a genuine traffic-stopper, among men and women, old and young alike.

List price will be $51,550, with the hardtop adding exactly five grand to the tag. Trust me; with only 2,000 cars available, you aren't going to be paying anything less than list in the first model year.

And if you don't have a deposit down already, or aren't on very good terms with your friendly local Ford dealer, you're probably going to have to sit out this model year.

Cars start to arrive in showrooms in late September. Ford says the total production run will only be 25,000 units per year.

They'll do that for six years, then shut it down – all to maintain the value of the car. It's hard for a business to turn customers' money away. If demand is strong enough for long enough, you have to figure Ford will find a way to meet it.

Only a handful of options will be available, prime among them an upgraded interior with splashes of body colour in the seat upholstery, on the dash, and on the steering wheel. It looks way cooler than the basic-black fitment; I can't imagine customers passing on it.

Finally, there's the name — Thunderbird. A perfect name for a truly American car, it was suggested by a young Ford designer named Alden "Gib" Giberson for the original in 1954.

According to the legends of the Native Americans of the southwest U.S., the Thunderbird was a divine helper of man, whose great flapping wings created the winds and thunderstorms that brought life-giving rain to the inhabitants of the desert.

Presumably, this spirit has now caused lightning to strike twice.

Jim Kenzie can be reached by e-mail at: jim @ J

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