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Automobiles

Ford Says Bye, Bye Thunderbird (for Now)

Culture: Firm says the dated classic will return with redesign. Cougar, Probe, Aerostar are history.

March 18, 1997|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Grounding one of the best-known nameplates in automotive history, Ford Motor Co. announced Monday that it will stop making the Thunderbird and three other tired, slow-selling models at the end of the 1997 model year.

But the fun won't end forever, as Ford insists it isn't taking the T-bird away for good. It said a revamped Thunderbird--the car celebrated by the Beach Boys in their 1960s hit "Fun, Fun, Fun"--will return someday.

The auto maker also will discontinue the Mercury Cougar, similar to the Thunderbird; the Ford Probe sport coupe; and Aerostar minivan. The moves will eliminate 2,500 jobs, Ford said.

The moves come a day after Ford said it would stop production of its top-selling Taurus sedan at two plants for a week. Ford said the Taurus closures were related to the strong dollar that makes its Taurus exports more expensive.

The decision to discontinue the Thunderbird and other models is seen as a long-overdue move by Ford to eliminate some outdated models.

"This does not spell trouble for Ford," said David Healy, an analyst for Burnham Securities. "It's a smart cost-cutting move to eliminate some money-losing lines."

Jac Nasser, president of Ford's automotive operations, said consumer tastes have shifted away from sporty coupes like the Probe and rear-wheel drive vehicles like the T-bird, Cougar and Aerostar.

"We've experienced a steady erosion of sales for these product over the last five years," he said.

Ford would not say when it will revive the Thunderbird, but analysts expect it will be shortly after the turn of the century. Introduced in 1954 as a Corvette fighter, the Thunderbird has moved far from its sports-car roots. It now does battle as a luxury coupe in a segment where industrywide sales have slumped 30% since 1991.

Ford sold 81,000 Thunderbirds in 1996. At its peak in 1977, the company sold 350,000. When it returns, it will be as a sports coupe evoking its original heritage.

"Our intent is to restore the Thunderbird magic," Nasser said.

Wes Brown, an analyst for CSM Forecasting in Farmington Hills, Mich., said the Thunderbird name still holds enough equity that a redesigned model should succeed.

"It should do fine as a roadster that harkens back to its '50s roots," he said.

Ford said the end of Thunderbird and Cougar production at its Lorain, Ohio, plant will idle 1,800 workers, and an additional 700 will lose their jobs in related parts plants. Production of the Econoline van will continue at the factory.

In St. Louis, Ford will stop building the Aerostar minivan. No workers will be laid off because production of the Ford Explorer will be increased at the factory. The need for the rear-wheel-drive minivan has diminished since the introduction of the more car-like Windstar and Mercury Villager and growing popularity of sport utilities that matched Aerostar's towing capacity.

The auto maker also will discontinue the Probe sports coupe made at the Ford-Mazda joint venture plant in Flat Rock, Mich. There will be no layoffs because production of a new Mazda model will begin this summer.

As for the Taurus, Ford said the one-week closure of plants in Chicago and Atlanta will furlough 4,700 workers. Sales of the Taurus, the top-selling car for the last five years, are flat and inventories healthy. But it is facing intense competition, including from Japanese rivals that have been able to cut prices due to the weakening yen.

Analysts speculated that Ford might be backing away from the strong incentives it has had to use to prop up Taurus sales or wants to send a message to Washington about its concerns over the strong dollar.

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