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Short flight for the T-Bird

Ford says the classic car will depart after the '05 model. The automaker calls it a collectible, intended for only a four-year plan.

May 14, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

A year ago Ford exiled the Lincoln Blackwood, and now it has issued walking papers to the Thunderbird.

The 2001 Blackwood was dumped a year after going on sale, while Ford waited two years after bringing back the '02 Thunderbird before saying it will depart after the '05 model run.

Ford insists that it never intended to sell either model indefinitely. Yet no one, including company insiders, remembers being told the Blackwood was an 18-months-and-out or Thunderbird a four-years-and-out model.

Ford says their early demise had nothing to do with sales or quality. However, the Blackwood was dropped after sales of the pickup/sport utility fell 9,100 units short of the first-year goal of 10,000.

The Thunderbird fell just 1,000 units short of its first-year goal of 25,000 units, but the year was 18 months long, not 12, as Ford awaited a peppier 280-horsepower V-8 to replace the underpowered 252-horsepower version for '03. Second-year sales of 4,500 T-Birds through March make it likely that sales again will fall short of the target.

Neither vehicle was trouble-free. The Blackwood had a tiny cargo bed. The Thunderbird gripes include a tight cabin; bordello-like cabin color scheme; a low, head-banging roof line; and a removable hardtop that rubs and scratches the body.

Ford dropped the Thunderbird after the 1997 model run, when sales of the sedan slipped to 79,000 from a high point of 322,000 in 1977.

The T-Bird that first bowed in the 1955 model year competed with the Chevy Corvette and was a classy- looking two-seater. But after only three years Ford turned the T-Bird into a sedan. Over the decades it added too many seats, doors and weight, while neglecting the car's style and power.

Yet the Thunderbird was an icon and Ford vowed it would return. In January 1999, then-Ford President Jacques Nasser secreted a handful of media in a hangar at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to unveil the prototype of a two-seat Thunderbird with a removable hardtop and its trademark porthole windows.

Although Nasser said he would never let it become a four-seater again, he never said it would be a four-year-and-out entry. Nasser, by the way, was Ford president for less than three years before he was out.

The T-Bird's planned obsolescence became public last month when current Ford President and Chief Operating Officer Nicholas Scheele answered an innocuous question at the New York Auto Show about how the 'Bird was doing.

He said the car was "a heritage model" intended for only a "four-year plan," and that Ford "must not overproduce it." But because "we don't talk about the future," the media would have to "wait and see."

So the media turned to Steve Lyons, Ford division president, to elaborate on the T-Bird's limited lifespan.

"We originally said that it would be a living legends model offered for four years, and that it might go away for a short time and then reappear. It was always meant to be a collectors' item that we didn't need to produce each year," Lyons said.

Lyons said continuing to build the 'Bird would diminish its value as a collectible, but unless Ford has all 24,000 of those 2002 retros hidden in a garage, why would it care about its worth as a collectible?

Does that mean the reason Ford is planning to drop the slow-selling and gas-guzzling Excursion sport utility after a four-year run is to keep collectors happy?

And how many of those who paid well over sticker for one of those first '02 retro 'Birds are celebrating that the car will last in the Ford lineup only one year longer than Nasser did?

"When Thunderbird first came out, dealers were getting $60,000 for cars [sticker-priced] at $40,000," said car collector Phil Kuhn Jr., who also owns the Chicago Car Exchange. "I waited six months and got one for $40,000. I've been offered $32,000 for it, since you can buy a new one now for $35,000. This [four-year run] should help it from depreciating as fast as it has, but I don't expect the value to go over the sticker price."

One company insider said keeping the 'Bird indefinitely would force Ford to tweak the styling every few years to keep interest alive, and some feared too many tweaks would ruin the design. But if styling is such a concern, why has the Crown Victoria survived?

Ford dealers, told a new halo car would be added when the 'Bird departs, hoped it would be the V-10-powered concept Ford 427 sedan.

But it seems unlikely now, because Ford lifted the front end off the 427 for its '05 mid-size Ford Futura. The original Futura, which was shown to dealers a few months ago, sported a different design.

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