Ford Thunderbird still gets plenty of attention. People stop and stare, ogling its retro form with unabashed appreciation, looking it over stem to stern as it glides past in traffic.

The bright-red, 2003 T-Bird test car also garnered many unsolicited compliments.

Still, during my time with the Thunderbird last month, Ford announced it would cease production of its stylish roadster after the 2005 or '06 model year. The end is coming because Thunderbird has a critical problem: Despite the apparent adoration, not enough people are buying them.

Thunderbird made a huge splash when it was unveiled in 2001, complete with waiting lists and markups. But it was soon labeled a boulevard cruiser, with a soft ride and modest performance, rather than a sports car. Of course, it was never meant to be a sporting machine. But in this world of comparably priced Chevrolet Corvettes, Audi TTs, Honda S2000s, BMW Z3s and other two-seater sports cars, Thunderbird became an anomaly.

Last year, Thunderbird fell nearly 6,000 short of expected 25,000 in sales, with some languishing on dealers' lots.

This is the second time Ford has killed off the Thunderbird name. In the late '90s, the company discontinued the then-bloated four-seater with the promise that Thunderbird would rise again to resemble the memorable 1955-57 T-Birds, which remain favorites among collectors.

That promise was kept. And because the current Thunderbirds will endure such a limited run, they also may become hot collectors' items. Though probably in the distant future.

What it is:

Ford's effort to relive past glory spawned this attractive image car, an enjoyable cruiser for two. Thunderbird is the perfect craft for a top-down sunset drive with a favorite passenger, though it falls short on sporty performance.

Engine and transmission:

The smooth 3.9-liter V-8, the same engine used in Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type (which also share the same chassis), has been upped to 280 horsepower from 252, and the difference is immediately noticeable. Despite substantial heft, the T-Bird moves out nicely from a stop and cruises quietly at freeway speeds. Acceleration is strong but not in the same territory as a V-8 performance car, such as Corvette or Mustang GT.

A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available, underscoring T-Bird's mission as a cruiser.

Handling and drivability:

Though the mushy suspension blunts its sportiness, Thunderbird is well-balanced and corners with minimal body sway. In some ways, this car drives as retro as it looks, feeling like a vintage American convertible. Once I got used to it, I found it to be enjoyable and even fun, as long as I didn't push too hard.


The retro look has held up well, still attractive and distinctive. Bringing back a blast from the past can be problematic. Check out the fast fade of the Chrysler PT Cr uiser and the Volkswagen New Beetle, both of which went from overheated desirability to normal transportation in just a couple of years. Stay tuned for the future success of the Mini Cooper, which is still riding high for such a little car. Thunderbird is a more expensive, limited-edition example of retro-mobile, so its story is a bit different.

The test car came with the removable hardtop, complete with a porthole in the rear pillar like the '57 T-Bird. The top now comes standard. Removal and installation takes two people.


The red-and-white interior is roomy and pleasant looking, though the center console is too bland.

It looks like it came straight from the Ford parts bin instead of being designed specially for this special car.


Just over $40,000 gives you a limited-edition car that will at least get you noticed and possibly envied. It comes fully loaded with features, including 17-inch chrome wheels. ptions were an interior package with a color-coordinated steering wheel, shift knob and other pieces, $595; a Select Shift transmission that allows manual gear changes, $130; and shipping, $605.

Bottom line:

Handsome and fun but lacking some of the sporty characteristics of the competition, Ford Thunderbird is going away - again.

Ford Thunderbird

Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door convertible, rear-wheel drive.

Base price: $40,260.

Price as tested: $41,590.

Engine: 3.9-liter V-8, 280 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 286 pound-feet torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 107.2 inches.

Curb weight: 3,775 pounds.

EPA mileage: 18 city, 24 highway.


Handsome styling.

More engine power.

Roomy interior.


Too-soft suspension.

Interior glitches.

The end is near.