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Count Your T-Bird Before It's Hatched

Show Notes * The 2002 production model is unveiled in Detroit, and Ford already has a buyer's sign-up sheet.


DETROIT — Bird Watching: The long-awaited 2002 Thunderbird was formally unveiled last week and, in an unusual move, Ford Motor Co. said it is taking orders for the two-seat roadster immediately, well in advance of the first deliveries this summer.

The T-Bird carries a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $34,595. A fully loaded model will list for $39,995 with the premium package: removable hardtop with porthole window, traction control, side air bags and a color-keyed interior that matches two-tone seats, steering wheel, shift knob and instrument panel with the car's exterior hue.

The initial five colors are black, red, yellow, white and a pale robin's-egg hue Ford calls Thunderbird Blue. Enthusiasts have been clamoring for original colors from the '50s such as dusk rose and coral sand; if Ford keeps to its promise of listening carefully to customers' desires, they can probably expect to see such colors down the line.

But because Ford says it will produce only 25,000 a year, would-be buyers will probably have to endure long waits--and hefty dealer markups--to get their hands on the car. In September, the upscale Neiman Marcus catalog sold 200 limited-edition silver-and-black Thunderbirds by telephone in two hours, 15 minutes. About 23,000 callers attempted to get in on the action, Ford said.

Company executives, taking the wraps off the production T-Bird at the North American International Auto Show here, gushed over the car that's likely to dominate auto magazine coverage--and year-end awards--this year.

The Thunderbird is for "anybody that loves cars and romance--it's not aimed at a particular group," said Chris Theodore, vice president of Ford's North American car division. "It's not a car you can do research on. It's a car you know people will love. You can wear this like a piece of jewelry."

A '49 for the 21st: Continuing the retro design boom seen at the Detroit show, Ford also hyped its main concept passenger car for the show, the Forty-Nine--named after the groundbreaking car that was the company's first newly designed post-World War II vehicle.

The '49 Ford was characterized by sweeping sheet metal and had radical touches such as integrated body and fenders, independent front suspension and rear quarter-windows that actually opened.

"We've taken all of the design language of the 1949 Ford and we've essentially paid homage to that vehicle," said Ford's design chief, J Mays, who also cited as influences the '54 Skyliner, the '55 Crown Victoria and "some of the Ghia concepts from the mid-'50s."

The two-door Forty-Nine has a tinted-glass upper body; thin, wraparound taillights; and round, multi-bulb, high-intensity, projector-beam headlights.

"There are a lot of people out there who want a little piece of the vehicle they were unable to own as a child," Mays said, referring to the original car that inspired legions of hot rodders. "I think this touches the 16- to 18-year-old in each of us."

Mays said the company is "very serious" in considering whether to produce the Forty-Nine and is studying its business case. Company sources say Ford could build as many as 50,000 a year.

Sold That Tiger: The inspiration for Buick's Bengal concept car was, naturally, a tiger.

Tiger Woods, that is. The popular golfer inspired the designers of the curvy convertible, making the Bengal the first car designed with a major sports figure in mind, according to the folks at the General Motors Corp. division.

At its debut in Detroit, they happily distributed photos of Woods posing with the swoopy sports car, whose grille suggests a huge Tiger-like grin.

Why Woods, barely 25 years old, for a car division whose average buyer is 60?

"Here's what we know about Tiger: He has two Porsches, so he likes sports cars; we know he's a big audiophile; and he likes golf," said David Lyon, the Bengal's chief designer.

The car reflects all that: sporty looks, killer sound system and rear jump seats just big enough for two custom-made golf bags.

"His involvement is mostly us being able to openly engage him in these ideas," Lyon said. The Buick team took the car to Orlando, Fla., to give Woods a walk-around, and "he was excited about it."

The entire dashboard is one giant speaker, not an instrument panel. Speedometer, odometer and other functions are projected onto the windshield in a heads-up display.

As with all concepts, there is no commitment from the auto maker to build the car. But two things stand out as unusual and hint that GM is on the verge of committing to the Bengal: the photo of Woods with the car even though it's just a concept, and one source saying Buick is already thinking of a specific price range, $30,000 to $35,000.

A Wagon Tale: Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus division unveiled its latest U.S. offering: a five-door version of the IS 300 sport coupe that was brought to the States from Europe last year.

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