Some automotive names have a special magic about them. An aura that tells the world, this is not just another car. Well, the Ford Thunderbird is one such name. But one that sadly has been much mistreated over the decades, and put in hibernation altogether since 1997. But rejoice Ford fans, because for 2002, the Ford Thunderbird is back! And this time, it looks like it has regained its old winged magic, and then some.
And it won’t take long for passionate T-Bird loyalists and newcomers to the brand to realize the new 2002 Ford Thunderbird delivers some strong magic indeed! For one thing, its looks alone are plenty intoxicating. As Thunderbird designers have done a masterful job of blending styling cues borrowed from long hood-short deck T-birds of the 50s and 60s into a thoroughly modern flying machine that is instantly recognizable as a Thunderbird.
The most obvious heritage-inspired details include the chromed egg crate grille that’s topped by the classic long-winged Thunderbird emblem. A distinctive but subtle nonfunctional scoop graces the hood, while the also non- functioning chrome louvers set high in the front fenders also embraces early T-Bird roadsters. And at the rear, the large round tailights stir up memories of the “fighter jet” school of design, a look that was popular with many cars throughout the ‘50’s. Another tip of the hat to “the good ol’ days” can be found in the optional 83 pound removable hard top, complete with its nostalgia-feeding T-Bird porthole windows.
But the cast 17 inch wheels and tires propel the T-Bird instantly back to the 21st century, and so does the smooth operation of the fully lined electric soft top that requires nothing more than the flip of a latch and the push of a switch to release it from the chrome-trimmed header and put you in the wind. There is no wind blocker, but our drivers didn’t feel it was much of an issue, as wind buffeting is minimal. But there is a nice and welcomed heated glass backlight.
There’s plenty of 21st century technology under the Thunderbird’s svelte bodywork too. As it shares its platform with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type. In fact, two-thirds of the parts come from other Ford vehicles.
The structural rigidity lost to its topless nostalgia is somewhat compensated for by the addition of three sturdy X-braces mounted to the underside of the car. And, for the most part, they work well. Cowl shake is barely perceptible, and it’s not until you encounter really rough going that the T-Bird begins to feel a little squishy.
Contributing to this T-Bird’s smooth and quiet ride is the generous 107.2 inch wheelbase, and a nearly 50/50 weight distribution front to back. Another is the careful tuning of the independent short-long arm suspension found at each corner. Ford engineers targeted what they call a “relaxed ride” by using coil springs with fairly low spring rates. But don’t confuse relaxed with sloppy. Ride control and a sporting edge are maintained with larger-than-normal diameter shocks. A 31 millimeter tubular stabilizer bar is used in the front, and a solid 18.5 millimeter bar is found in the rear. A variable-assist, vehicle speed sensitive rack and pinion steering unit lets you keep a firm hand on control.
Still, in keeping with the original 55-Bird, this head-turning new coupe is more Sunset Strip cruiser than road course bruiser. Cruising power is also borrowed from the Lincoln LS. As under the hood is the LS sedan’s all aluminum 3.9 liter, DOHC, 32-valve, V-8 with the same 252 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. It connects to the LS’s 5-speed automatic transmission, but without a manual-shift mode. On the other hand, the final drive ratio was lowered for extra oomph. Each driveline is computer balanced to keep noise and vibration to a minimum. Preliminary 0 to 60 time is 7 seconds. Not bad.
Momentum is slowed by four-wheel discs with ABS and electronic brake force distribution. To help this rear-drive bird fly in bad weather, all-speed traction control is optional.
While the T-Bird’s exterior design may stir the best memories of days past, there’s far less nostalgia to be found in the up-to-date interior. True, it is still a two-seater, and the door trim panels and the tuck and roll leather seats are unmistakable T-Bird touches. But the driver gets 6-way power adjustable seating with manual lumbar adjustments. And there’s front and side impact airbags, a power adjustable steering wheel - which fronts a set of simple, but clear, analog gauges - and the center stack which houses the stereo and climate controls, were more or less lifted directly from the LS and deposited into the T-Bird with just a few subtle tweaks. A competent, functional approach that while not inspired, is cost effective.
Behind the seats is a carpeted shelf for small stowables, and the trunk has a capacity of 6.7 cubic feet. Just enough for a drive down the coast.
When it comes to putting your money down, one of the 25,000 2002 Ford Thunderbirds can be had in any of five colorful flavors, also drawn from the past. The “deluxe convertible” is priced at $35,495. For the slightly more optioned “premium convertible” bring $36,495. Add the removable top to the deluxe package and you’re looking at $37,995. Drop it on the premium model, and your price is $38,995. Dealer gouging is extra.
Like that other legendary bird, the Phoenix, the Ford Thunderbird had to endure some pretty nasty business before rising triumphantly from the ashes. But no mythical creature is without its high drama, and after all, it makes for a great fable. And we think this new T-Bird magic will fuel automotive folklore for decades to come.
Engine: 3.9 Liter, Dohc, 32-valve, Vtec, V8
Torque: 267 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7 Seconds