First impressions last. Wrong. Psychologists say humans develop their strongest positive feelings to someone or something if they hated it at first. For instance, I once detested Hondas. After spending some time driving various Hondas, the brand earned my no-longer-grudging respect. The converse is also true: we reserve our most negative assessments for someone or something that we loved at first. The human psyche doesn't like to be disappointed. Sadly, the 2003 Ford Thunderbird falls into this latter category.
The history of the T-Bird is littered with hits and misses. It is hard to argue that the "Classic Birds," "Square Birds," "Bullet Birds," "Flair Birds" and "Glamour Birds" of the fifties and sixties aren't momentous automotive designs. And then the seventies happened.
Back when bottoms had bells, Ford sacrificed art for gargantuan proportions, crude boxy angles and shameless badge engineering. During the eighties and nineties, T-Birds regained some lost ground. But the models were so stylistically removed from their classic ancestors that they defied comparison. Literally.
In the short-lived thirteenth generation, Thunderbird rediscovered its roots. Produced from 2002 through 2005, the "Retro Birds" were Camelot-on-wheels. The model resurrected the classic American two-seat convertible. The round headlights and fog lights, hood scoop, large checkerboard grill and long tapering lines returned, coordinated in a thoroughly modern package. So what if the last T-Bird projected a little more Jackie-O than JFK. Is that really so terrible?
My 2003 tester with 25K miles in Mountain Shadow Gray looked like no other car on the road. In a good way.
From the first glance, the interior impresses. Embossed leather seats comfortably coddle. The dash is organized with elegant simplicity. But then you begin to notice that the Blue Oval beancounters wreaked haptic havoc. The T-Bird's switchgear and gauges are fashioned from cheap brittle plastic that could have been recycled from a bin of '88 Tempo parts, that were (in fact) shared with the already ageing Lincoln LS. The ‘Bird's foot well leaves no spot for the left foot to rest, and the elbow rest on the center console is too high. Forty large for this?
Turn the engine over and you are greeted with a rich V8 burble. Equally impressive: Ford's 180 watt, eight-speaker audio system. You'll want to turn that stereo up to obscure all the squawks and squeaks that plague this bird. The seal between the top of the windshield and the front of the removable hardtop roof eeks like ten-year-old Docksiders®, especially at parking lot speeds. Above 80 mph that same seam begins to howl in the wind. And the steering wheel of my tester moaned like a squeegee on glass with every turn.
For the last T-Bird, Ford sourced the 3.9-liter Jaguar AJ-V8 DOHC engine. From 2003, the powerplant was good for 280 hp and 286 ft-lbs of thrust. The engine features a two-stage variable valve timing system that really launches the 3700lbs. T-Bird when it engages from 3,500 rpm to redline. Sprints from rest to sixty take 6.1 seconds. Rolling starts are much more impressive. So much for paper stats. In reality, ugh.
Ford mated that delightful Jag powerplant to the most dim-witted five-speed automatic I have ever driven. The T Bird's ponderous shifting algorithm is even slow at processing manual inputs from the Tiptronic-style shifter.
The Ford's suspension poses another conundrum that I could not resolve. It provided too little relief from road surface imperfections at low and moderate speeds to make a good boulevard cruiser. At the same time it lacked the tautness required to be an athletic corner carver. The T Bird rolls through the corners deeply from side to side AND up and down. Quick maneuvers elicit poorly dampened yaw angular inertia.
Is the T Bird supposed to be a sports car or a stylish tourer? It certainly doesn't move with Miata's lithe elegance or bob and weave like a Boxster. Yet its ride is too unrefined and interior too cheap to compete on the luxury front with the likes of Lexus or anything hailing from das Vaterland. It's too expensive to be an economical alternative, yet evidence of cost cutting is everywhere. Why? Affluent Yuppies would have paid ten thousand dollars more for a well built machine.
Ford started with a great design but utterly failed in execution; the company never developed a coherent definition of "relaxed sportiness." And then did nothing to rectify its mistakes. In its final years, Ford made trim and paint changes, including 2005's 50th-anniversary badging.
The retro Thunderbird betrayed the market. It lured pistonheads with drop-dead looks and performance potential- and failed to deliver on anything other than exterior aesthetics. Whittier could have had the "Retro Bird" in mind when he rhymed:
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
Test vehicle provided by CarMax