By on August 18, 2008

You can't go home againFirst 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.

Some memories are best left undisturbedIn 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.

The original T'bird acutally used color in the interior.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.

Leather embossings do not a Thunderbird makeFor 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. 

"Retro" shouldn't apply to ride and handlingIs 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.

Remember when large round taillights were a Ford trademark?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 

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72 Comments on “2003 Ford Thunderbird Review...”

  • avatar

    This sounds almost like a Chevy SSR review, great design flawed by mechanical execution. Just one of the numerous chances Ford had to hit a string of home runs.

  • avatar

    I had a chance to drive a VVT T-Bird when they were still new.

    In the rain.

    With the hardtop in place.

    And rain coming through between the hardtop and the windshield.

    Wasn’t impressed. I was, however, impressed with that powerful V8! That thing sounds great and really has some get-up-and-go to it.

  • avatar

    I drove one of these a couple years back (the friend still has it). I definitely found the entire chassis to be very sloppy, even in mundane around-town driving. I was guessing the engine at ~230hp, since the power didn’t seem all that usable…it appeared to be tuned for noise, first and foremost. I had no idea that leadfooting would see those kinds of 0-60 numbers.

    I see what they were doing with the retro, but the car came out looking much “older” (in terms of buyers) than most other retro efforts. In other words, between its look and its price, I can’t imagine anyone under the age of 50 even went to look at them. Nothing against that demographic, but carmakers often try to Ensure their cars appeal to broader base of buyers, especially the potential lifetimers.

  • avatar

    Thanks for reinforcing my thoughts; I’ve been thinking about one of these recently having seen a few around here. Wife would love a convertibile but I don’t think I’d buy one of these turkeys.

    Maybe if it was real cheap.

  • avatar

    Honestly, I always thought this generation of T-Bird was the car that looked worse in person than in pictures. It reminded me of a’57 left in the microwave for a few minutes too long. However, as an example of how not to manage a valuable brand it is high up in the rankings. Maybe if it was a wee bit more affordable, or if the interior was nicer, or if Ford applied running improvements etc. etc. they may have had a winner (or at least something that would have placed). Now it’s just a occasional blip on one’s consciousness when you see an old guy driving it to the golf course.

  • avatar

    I was excited about this car coming out in 2003. I went to the dealer for a test drive and was floored by the sticker price. The hard top was 11K on top of that. The salesman told me if it was 29K he could sell them every hour on the hour, but the price was just too high.

  • avatar

    I was really surprised when this car came out amid all of the hoopla. What was I missing? I thought the car looked like a lump. There wasn’t enough style for it to be called ugly. It was just this big nothing wallowing down the road. Then I heard about all of the problems with the leaky, squeaky roof scrubbing paint off the car and the cheap interior and thought that Ford was way out of touch with current car design. This car may have been great in 1972. Oh it was retro. It recalled all of the boring crappy designs and execution of the ‘70’s. What a bomb.

  • avatar

    I still think this does not look like the classic thunderbirds. It certainly has a retro look to it, but when I see the real thunderbirds that this was modeled after I cannot see the resemblance.

  • avatar

    The Thunderbird can’t be faulted for sharing Ford DNA. It’s the same for all manufacturers, foreign and domestic.

    That’s why when you sit in a Honda Fit, you know it’s from the same family as the Acura RL.

    Conversely, when you sit in a Town Car, you know it’s from the same family as the Focus.

  • avatar

    Despite the horrible reviews back when they launched, the equally horrible sticker, I still thought that [externally] this was a great looking car. I’ve never been inside one and I’ve very little lost-love for Ford, yet I inexplicably like this things.

    Of course I’d never buy one, but it really begs the question: Why can Ford do the externals so well and fuck up everything else so bad?

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Retro bird fever overwhelmed my usual commonsense and disdain for things Ford. The dealer wanted an insane $4,000 premium on top of the already extremely steep list price, and the hard top sold for an enormous additional amount. Test drives were not permitted. God gave me feet for a really good reason. I ran like the wind.

    I think he sold two of them, one black and the other yellow. I still see them around here in the summer time. If one goes up for sale I might look at it. I doubt they held their value well.

  • avatar

    One other thing of note, when seeing them in person. The 17″ flat-spoked chrome wheels are an abomination. They look like they’re made of painted plastic, or possibly like what you’d find at a “rent-a-dub” place in the seedier parts of town. Very low quality finish that really grabs your attention. My $0.02.

  • avatar

    I’ve never driven the year described, but having been behind the wheel of my mother-in-law’s recently restored ’55 Thunderbird (she’s the original owner), it sounds like an honest interpretation of the original. And that’s not a good thing.

  • avatar

    No car in recent memory has gone from “hot” to “not” as quickly as this one did. The reviews were murderous.

    The basic problem is that Ford failed to properly reinforce the body structure. This in turn led to softer suspension tuning and sloppier handling than in the LS sedan.

  • avatar

    Affluent Yuppies would have paid ten thousand dollars more for a well built machine.

    The same is true for the Mustang, which should cost $5,000 more and come with an independent rear suspension.

    But at least the ‘stang is price-competitive. There was no reason to buy the T-bird other than looks, and that’s just not enough.

  • avatar
    jerry weber

    A friend of mine and myself each put down a couple of thousand with the local ford dealer for one of these thunderbirds. We got a beautiful packet, a scale model of the car and other wonderful stuff. We were even invited to Philadelphia to drive the car, which we did. But, the PR dept was way ahead of the production dept. Nothing loses it’s luster quicker than newness. Delay after delay and bad press started to do the water torture trick on this car. First we thought, look if we don’t like the car we can flip it for at least what we paid, given the backorders and limited production. However, with each ensuing month, we realized that the entire car was melting out from under Ford and us. So, we asked for and got our deposit back, Ford having no other saleable cars in their store for us, we moved on to foreign iron. How many of others were like us out there in America in 2001?

  • avatar

    All this time I have no idea that car was a convertable, I thought it was just a hardtop made to look like one. I have yet to see one with the roof off, and I have seen probably about 10 since it came out.

    Why was this car so damn expensive when it came out, I could never see where that money was going whenever I read stuff on the car. Doesn’t it sit on a slightly modified Mustang platform?

    I would rather have a late 80’s or 90’s T-bird than this kind of ugly car.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Doesn’t it sit on a slightly modified Mustang platform?

    The Retro Bird shares the DEW98 platform with the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-type. The current Mustang uses the D2C platform, which is unique to the Mustang.

  • avatar

    I worried that it’s Ford quality would be the problem and it sounds like it was.

    The domestics have to understand that their cars MUST last 200K miles with few issues. Their customers would welcome the resale value.

    When the T-bord arrived I got excited – expected some style beyond the basic shape of the car but no, like the article reads – it is standard Ford inside.

    Remember when cars came with body color panels inside? Remember when chrome was everywhere? That’s part of the charm of those cars.

    Obviously the original vehicles had body color everwhere b/c they were steel inside and out. Obviously all of that chrome could blind the driver on a bright day but it coudl be done safely. See the BMW Mini. See the VW Beetle.

    I heard a story from a used-car dealer friend. He bought one used with under 10K miles on it for pennies b/c it just wasn’t a popular seller…

    The T-Bird is an example of Detroit’s problem to me: this car isn’t best of anything. Not the most durable, not the most trendy, not the most sporty, not the most luxurious, etc. Just ho-hum for big bucks.

    And I still want to like it.

  • avatar

    That 3.9 is the engine the Lincoln Taurus should have. Not some puny V6.

  • avatar

    The DEW98 was actually a really good chassis, but it was expensive and Ford made a lot of compromises on every car they built off it.

    The S-Type R and LS Sport were probably the best of the lot, let down by reliability and an anemic powertrain respectively. The Thunderbird was the worst.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    William, thanks for a great read.

    To all the TTAC journalists — personally, I love reading about new car impressions, but it’s equally as interesting to find out how formerly new vehicles are getting on.

    From what I’ve read from TTAC commenters, this group of educated pistonheads will all likely let owner A of a desirable vehicle take the depreciation hit. And we’ll swoop in, buy at bargain prices, and drive our used cars all the way to the bank.

    For example, a new Porsche 911, 996 version would have set you back, with most popular options, mid- to upper-seventies in say, 2000. Today, the 996 has fallen below prices being asked for older 993 models, making the 996 possibly the performance bargain of the decade.

    Or is it?

    Wring one out for us, please.

    I’m also wondering…

    How’s a five year-old Miata holding up? As well as an S2000?

    Whatever happened to Lotus Esprit? Is it even worth putting on a shopping list any more?

    Remember the Mercury Marauder? How’s grampa’s hotrod today?

    The Chevette is heaped with scorn on this site. But is it really as bad as we remember? Could it possibly make an Aveo look good in comparison?

  • avatar

    The DEW98 was actually a really good chassis, but it was expensive and Ford made a lot of compromises on every car they built off it.

    Is that NOT Ford excuse for everything they cant appear to get right but the rest of the automotive world just does! I cant buy the arguement that such things like RWD chassis and IRS are TOO expensive. How is it that smaller companies like Nissan can manage to equip their cars with such and still make a profit while Ford can’t?

    How is it that Ford designs a platform and then decides that it is too expensive to effective make use of and why do they feel comfortable telling us this fact? I only get the impression that Ford is a company that does NOT have a clue.

    Back to that T-bird.

    The first question regarding this car that I feel was never successfully answered is Who T F actually wanted a retro T-Bird?
    The answer to that question was answered over 40 years ago, NO ONE REALLY! Why the hell do you think the T-bird kept growing and changing? The original was NOT a valid, sustainable concept. There is NO point to a compromised two seat car that does NOT drive or handle well. Chevy got that message quickly with the Vette and made moves to make the Vette a 50 year success. Ford on the otherhand had no plans to even add any real tech or effort into the T-bird and that is why the car constantly changed to fit the “flavor of the model year”. 2dr 2 seat, 2dr 4 seat, 4dr????
    Not for nothing but a Lincoln MarkV, one of the ugliest, tackiest cars ever made was a very popular car in the late 1970s, but do you want one today? Should Ford make a retro Mark V for the remaining leisure-suit hold-outs?

    Unless you are a 65 year old “Ford Man” the T-Bird does not rate much. Yuppies do NOT want one and NEVER did!

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I remember sitting in one of these in a Ford showroom not long after it came out. My reaction: “40 grand for this, they must be joking”.

    If you want that sweet engine in a more complete car at a bargain price, pick up a late model used Lincoln LS.

  • avatar

    I never liked the Thunderbird.
    the new design to me looked horrible – even for a retro look (try a dodge Challenger). What really turned me off was the stupid movies that used this car in it to promote it.

    I knew a two door for this price from Ford would never catch on – but, they’ve been headed down this road ever since they took the Mercury cougar and turned it into a silly little Mitubishi-like sports car. Ford won’t wake up till everyone passes them by.

  • avatar

    Nice review, Bill. I drove one when they were new and felt the same way. If you like the look, that’s about all it had going for it. Chopping the roof on the DEW-98 was a terrible, terrible idea.

    And the boring Lincoln LS dashboard? Only the Lincoln Mark LT is a better example of Ford’s ruthless beancounting.

    The only reason I’d want one is that they are still new enough for my parents to drive (and they like the style) and the 50th Anniv Edition might look nice next in a collection with the 20th, 25th, 30th and 35th commemorative editions.

  • avatar

    How is it that smaller companies like Nissan can manage to equip their cars with such and still make a profit while Ford can’t?

    Ford–even today’s Ford–as well and GM and Chrysler cannot stand to make a low-margin car. Part of this is that they do have cost issues, but a lot is because management is rated by gross margin dollars and percentage, and a low GM% looks really bad to their management, who in turn do the same, all the way up the food chain.

    So they do everything they can to get the perceived margin up. Even if discounts and resale and such slaughter the GP, they made their margin target in development.

    If you look at the new Focus, you’ll see this mentality in full effect: it wasn’t redesigned to meet a price point, or a design language–those were just secondary–it was done to take cost out of the design. That the car is selling is dumb luck of the worst kind, because it’ll tell Ford’s management that cost cutting is the way to go.

    Can’t find a new model to bash, so you dig up a six-year-old to remind us all that Ford formerly sucked, and we shall never forget (or forgive)?
    I think, if TTAC has the opportunity, that they should do a retrospective on the DEW98. The sad history of that platform encapsulates perfectly why they’re in their current state.

    I’d like to see the LS and S-Type “chapters” as well so that we can get some retrospective on why Ford is in the state it’s in. These were three cars that, given how excellent the underlying platform was, should have been converting 5-Series and E-Class owners en masse and signalling that Ford really had arrived.

    But they didn’t, and their replacements (the MKZ/MKS; I don’t know about the Jag) were mediocre by comparison. They didn’t build on the DEW98’s strengths but instead took away everything that made the car worthwhile and came back with something cheaper.

  • avatar

    I wanted to like this car when it came out, but just couldn’t. I still can’t. A retro attempt like this should conjure up nostalgia for the original and at the same time be unique and desirable on its own terms. This design achieved neither.

  • avatar

    One of the major complaints in reviews of the original 1955 T’bird was poor outward visibility, hence the last minute addition of portholes to the ’56 model. This retro T’bird elaborated the same sin with the silly cut down windows and the ugly windshield frame trying to double as a rollbar. I’m sure many who sat in one of these at the dealer showroom, as I did, quickly decided that this was not a good place to spend any amount of time, though, as the lady program manager for this thing revealed in an early press release, there was indeed a fine little spot created behind the seats to store a woman’s purse. This T’bird is, in my opinion, an excellent example of what passes for “design” today in Detroit; a collection of “cues” and “language” strung together by a committee to fit on some inappropriately sized but readily available “platform”. To further guarantee that this ‘bird wouldn’t fly, the dealers shamelessly embellished the first models to arrive on the lots with huge “market adjustments” to the price. Our local dealer tacked on over $15,000 to the MSRP, thus certainly pissing off large numbers of potential buyers.

  • avatar

    The domestics have to understand that their cars MUST last 200K miles with few issues. Their customers would welcome the resale value.

    The hucksters at Ford would rather sell under-developed, corner-cutting cheap junk that breaks (so as to sell lots of spare parts) to people who keep ‘buying American’ out of a misguided sense of ‘patriotism’.

  • avatar

    Too bad.

    A classic look with horrible future.

  • avatar

    When I saw the car on the main page, my immediate thought was, “They still sell this thing?” Thankfully, that’s not the case. I have to admit, I find the styling to be simple and elegant, with the exception of the front grille which appears to be made of the same kind of plastic as leaded Chinese toys.

    jerry weber : Isn’t that what happened to the Soulstice too?

  • avatar

    The new Thunderbird was yet another exercise in price-gouging, both by the manufacturer and dealerships, which quickly ruined what could have eventually been a successful and continuing model run. I read somewhere that the price of the original 1955 Thunderbird, adjusted for inflation, was a whole lot less than what it cost to get into the new Thunderbird when it first came out. Then, towards the end of the 2005 model run, dealerships couldn’t give the things away, virtually assuring cancellation.

    To this day, a few leftover 2005 ’50th Anniversary’ Thunderbirds can still be found lanquishing on lots with dealers still wistfully hoping some dope will plunk down enough money for them to get back the big-bucks they paid for the things.

  • avatar

    I think a lot of us would like the 1989-1997 T-Bird back.

  • avatar

    Count me as one who would LOVE to have the modern equivalent of the ’89-97 T-Bird back!

    Here’s a suggestion for Ford:
    Design and Produce a new RWD platform in Small, Medium and Large sizes in order to spread costs across multiple desirable and profitable niche and mainstream models.

    For example:
    Small: Mustang (and Cougar, perhaps?) And yes, downsize it please (See 1965-1968.)

    Medium: Thunderbird. Give us killer good looks and powerful engines in 4-seat coupe and convertible bodystyles.

    Large: Lincoln Continental: See 2005 concept. Now tone down the retro a bit, modernize the look, and we may have a proper flagship here.
    (Perhaps add a full size Ford to the lineup to replace the Crown Vic? Galaxie/Falcon, anyone?)

    Unfortunately post-daydream, I highly doubt the ‘personal luxury coupe’ segment will ever come back to the volumes of the 80’s. But then I think Nissan/Infiniti seem to be making a similar strategy work with the 350Z/G35 sedan & coupe platform and I wonder: Why Not Ford?.

  • avatar

    That’s a “thoroughly modern package”? It looks like a retarded frog with braces.

  • avatar

    I think a lot of us would like the 1989-1997 T-Bird back.

    The problem is that once again Ford B*tched and moaned about how the IRS and the platform were too expensive (NOT PROFITABLE ENOUGH).

    …………..this coming from a company that has engerinned a IRS for its SUVs, to make them handle more car like!!!!!!!!

  • avatar

    Not for nothing but a Lincoln MarkV, one of the ugliest, tackiest cars ever made was a very popular car in the late 1970s, but do you want one today? Should Ford make a retro Mark V for the remaining leisure-suit hold-outs? ”

    Yes please.

  • avatar

    i don’t like the way it looks, it shoulda had fins like the ’57

  • avatar

    I tried to sit in one of these once. It was very cramped inside. I think it’s only claim to fame is that whatsherface drove one in the Sopranos.

    As someone mentioned above, I saw these things lingering on lots for eons after it was out of production. It was the Crossfire of it’s era.

  • avatar

    The car was just plain… er, well, plain!

    You’d expect touches of chrome here and there, just enough to make it dressed, but not overdressed.

    The lackluster interior could have been from a Focus, too.

    The car looked like it “needed” something, and at 35k+, that’s crap.

    Even the Crossfire had more “panache” than the T-Bird (Damn W/Faint Praise)

  • avatar

    The original 2-seat Thunderbirds adopted the same long-hood, short rear deck proportions of the then contemporary Jaguar XK-120, but incorporating styling elements from Ford’s own mainstream sedans of the time, to stunning effect.

    This retro-mobile failed to recapture the same long-hood, short rear deck proportions of the original. The hood was too short, the rear deck too long, and the overall general proportions suggested the Chrysler Sebring convertible. If the car had a rear seat it might have worked.

    All of the nice retro details picked up from the original Thunderbird: the mesh grill pattern, the single round headlamps and taillamps, the hood scoop, the side grills on the front fenders, were not enough to make up for the awkward-looking proportions. The cheap interior fittings and dubious quality made a bad car worse.

    It was ugly.

  • avatar

    whatdoiknow1: Not for nothing but a Lincoln MarkV, one of the ugliest, tackiest cars ever made was a very popular car in the late 1970s, but do you want one today? Should Ford make a retro Mark V for the remaining leisure-suit hold-outs?

    Sorry, but the Mark V was stunning. Both it and its mini-Mark styled Thunderbird cousin sold better in those years than any other car with those legendary names. Judging by the price of mint-condition Mark Vs and Disco-chickens on eBay and the general age demographics of people who remember 70s cars (i.e. more are alive than those who remember the 50s), remaking these “classics” makes much more business sense than the retro-chicken we have here.

    Put another way: I’d hit it.

  • avatar

    I thought this was a beautiful car when it came out… until I saw one in a showroom. It has the cheap plasic to be sure and the reviews weren’t that great at the time either. Why someone can’t make a car that looks this good with a great fit, finish, powertrain etc I don’t know. Most cars built today have no style, this did but you need substance also for this much money.

  • avatar

    The car was just plain… er, well, plain!

    That’s my thoughts too — just nothing really great about the car in any way. The premium the Ford dealers were charging for the first Thunderbirds didn’t last long.

  • avatar

    As the owner (for the last ten years) of a 1992 Thunderbird, I’d love to see the return of the affordable midsize RWD coupe. But it’s not going to happen. Of course, the Mustang is almost that big these days – but having test-driven a current V6 Mustang, I think I’ll stick with the old T-Bird.

  • avatar

    During the preproduction hype about the retro-T, one of the ladies I work with was crazy about it. She had pictures and calendars and… plans to buy one.

    She seemed like the perfect customer for the car – mid-50’s successful female with an eye for a pretty convertible and the money to indulge herself.

    However, when the car actually appeared, the pictures came down. The love affair ended with a trip to the dealership. Too expensive and too plain and ugly in person. She ended up in a Lexus.

    Personally, I’ve always thought the best analogy for the old T-Bird and the new was the old Elvis compared to the new Elvis aafter he’d gained 100 pounds.

  • avatar
    Dangerous Dave

    Ford had an opportunity to revive the Thunderbird as a 2 passanger luxury coupe/convertible and totally blew it. The body style is totally bland with a capitol “B” and actually looks old, not retro. They took a few styling ques from the original but toned them down instead of exagerating them. Maybe the clay model sat under hot lights too long and melted into a lump. The car doesn’t reflect sportiness or luxury. The crap interior and performance didn’t help either. Another thing I’ve noticed is that most of the paint colors are downright ugly. I was excited to hear this car was coming out and extreamly disappointed with the result.

  • avatar

    Obviously, greedy dealers aren’t the only ones who felt that the retro-Birds were worth more than people were actually willing to pay for them.

    Just for kicks, I decided to check out the 2002 to 2005 Thunderbirds listed on eBay. I immediately thought, “Some of these owners must be in la-la land,” as I saw dozens listed over $20k. C’mon, even a three- to five-year-old Benz or BMW is hard pressed to fetch over 50% of original MSRP!

    So to test my hunch, I next checked out the completed auctions on eBay for 2002 to 2005 Thunderbirds. Guess what? Of the 99 ‘birds with auctions that ended in the last 30 days, only 11 actually sold.

    I have no idea how this compares to other makes and models, but it seems as though people are hanging onto the hope that these cars are already collectible. Yeah, right. First, the car has to be somewhat desirable, and secondly, somewhat rare. I’m not sure the ‘Bird passes either test.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    I think Ford’s fatal mistake was shifting to a two seater. The LS platform was simply too big and fat to be suitable for a two seater. If this car had used Mazda’s sports car platform it would have had more of a chance to succeed. But even then the market would have been limited.

    Ironically, the T-Bird’s wheelbase was long enough for Ford to have pulled back the roofline and offered a four seater harkening back to the classic 1958-66 era designs. That may have had a bit less sex appeal, but it also might have significantly broadened the car’s market. Here history is instructive. Ford had a pretty darn good reason for abandoning the original two-seater T-Bird: It didn’t sell very well. (Alas.)

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    What bugs me about this car is not that Ford attempted to offer a distinctive low-volume niche convertible, I give them a lot of credit for even attempting this! What bugs me is that they killed it without improving upon its obvious weaknesses. If it were a better car, its appearance would probably look a lot better to a lot of people. If you remember, the design stirred up a lot of excitement before it launched. So the Thunderbird ends with this as what people will remember. Shame on Ford!

  • avatar

    Great review. I like these reviews of the older models.

    Say Flashpoint what do you drive? I have a “silly little-mitsubishi” coupe that wants to meet you at track day.

  • avatar

    Ford must be the only company spending millions of dollars on designs that are continually a backward step. By the comments here it appears they have failed because they haven’t stepped back far enough

  • avatar

    I love these reviews of late model cars. Well done! I do not anticipate on purchasing a new vehicle in the foreseeable future because I would prefer a used car with more bells-n-whistles.

    I recall all of the hype surrounding this car’s debut, but when it came out … :-( The styling was the only selling point on the car, and that was botched. It was, IMHO, too boring. I am a fan of relatively simple styling, but this was lacking in details that make or break a modern retro design.

    On a somewhat different note, has anybody here driven/owned the Lincoln LS? Despite my preference of stick shift whips, I have a strange obsession with the LS V8. How does the car ride/handle? Is the transmission relatively responsive? Reliability/repair costs? Fuel economy (I know, it’s a thristy V8 in a performance vehicle, but I’m looking for real world info here)? I would seriously consider a used 2006 LS in 2011 (when I get back from my job overseas) if I decide to live in an area with much traffic.

  • avatar

    On a somewhat different note, has anybody here driven/owned the Lincoln LS? Despite my preference of stick shift whips, I have a strange obsession with the LS V8.
    A family member has one and I’ve been in it a few times. I’ll try to answer

    How does the car ride/handle?

    It rides and handles very, very well. Think E39 5-Series.

    Is the transmission relatively responsive?

    No, the transmission programming is awful. It’s easily the worst aspect of the car. It makes it really hard to take advantage of said chassis.

    I can’t speak to the V8, but the V6 is gutless. Apparently, if you can find one, the manual transmission was actually very good.

    Reliability/repair costs?

    Bad, but typical for a late-nineties domestic.

    Fuel economy (I know, it’s a thristy V8 in a performance vehicle, but I’m looking for real world info here)?

    The V6 wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful either. It’s not a very heavy car for it’s size and age (there’s a lot of aluminum in it’s construction). Ford’s powerplants don’t tend to be fuel misers, despite being comparatively weak.

    I would seriously consider a used 2006 LS in 2011 (when I get back from my job overseas) if I decide to live in an area with much traffic.

    If the car is solid, it might not be a bad choice. You’re getting something that’s a good 90% of a BMW E39 540i but with lower maintenance costs; they made some real interior improvements towards the end, but unfortunately dropped the manual.

    My real issue (other than the transmission) is that it’s pretty cramped inside.

  • avatar

    Redbarchetta :

    Why was this car so damn expensive when it came out…

    Bingo. Ford made 3 fatal errors with this vehicle. In order of severity:

    1) Price point. I’ll reiterate what Redbarchetta said. WHY was this car priced SO damn high? There was absolutely no justification for it. When this car was released, I thought it would/should be a high style competitor to the then popular Chrysler Sebring Convertibles. In order to be in that price point and be truly comparable to that model, two other changes needed to be done (see below).

    2) Make it a 4 seater.

    3) Give it V-6 power instead of V-8.

  • avatar

    A damn shame.
    I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping to find a loaded ’04 model of one of theses in black for $15,000 at max at one point, but the review killed it for me.
    Was the body flex and squeaking noise really that bad?

  • avatar

    psarhjinian: thanks for the info. If I make the switch to an auto in the future, it would have to be a pretty competent cog swapper. The LS with an auto tranny does not seem to be the answer for me.

  • avatar

    First, a little background: I’m closing in on 40.

    Now, for my perspectives on T-birds. There were 3 kinds: (1) the 80s/90s that were kinda cool, America fighting back, getting it right (replay “Take this job and shove it”, staring Robert Hays), with a BMW 6-series overtone, (2) the original coupe and derivatives for the next 10-15 years. I understand that for some it was a cult car, but to me it was boring as hell. Not a ‘vette. Not weird like a Beetle. Just some boulevard cruiser for the American Graffiti set. and (3) gawd-aweful crap from the 70s.

    So, a priori, what did this latest T-bird mean to me? Absolutely nothing. I applauded it as a styling exercise, but to me it seemed like a old person’s car (see first line). This was the perfect car for a Florida retiree from the American Graffiti generation to drive to the golf course (cue ugly slack from Caddy Shack).

    Miata: cool. Mazda5, practical, but cool. 2003 Tbird? Why the hell would I pay that much money for an old man’s car? There was nothing passionate about that car — just some old farts’ nostalgia.

  • avatar

    OK, I’ll admit it. I own a 2004 Thunderbird.

    The dealer was desperately trying to clear them off the lot so I got a substantial dealer rebate (over $10K) and an additional discount off the price. First of all, I love the looks. Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but I’m OK with it. Second: I don’t care about four seats. With that out of the way…

    – Total cost of ownership is a fraction of what I’ve paid for previous cars (BMW 323 and 535s). The most expensive service call was $225 and my dealership was competent. Of course that dealership just closed last month…
    – Incredibly comfortable. I’ve taken a couple of 1000+ miles road trips in it and am ready to take another.
    – Engine is surprisingly perky
    – Strong back end. I got rear-ended pretty hard once and took no damage at all. (other car was in bad shape)
    – Very tight turning radius for such a big car

    – The transmission
    – The creaky hardtop. My fix for this was to remove it permanently and go with the perfectly adequate softtop is adequate – I’m in CA so I don’t need to worry about snow, winter, etc.
    – Trunk space. The trunk is very shallow but wide so standard sized luggage doesn’t fit very well. Still I manage to fit two guitars in the back whenever I go to band practice (but the amp has to ride on the passenger seat)

    Overall I’m glad I bought it and have been happy with it overall. However, I wouldn’t buy another one.

  • avatar

    My only experience with the retro Bird was a ride in one owned by a friend. The Bird has the appeal in looks and that is it. Hard noisy rough ride. The V8 was muted. Most likely for those who had the bucks for image and otherwise could care less.

  • avatar

    I happen to own one of these same color as pictured which to me suits it perfectly. Have had for a few years now. Bought on a clear out similar to ckbarrus. My thoughts much the same. Biggest gripe is the headroom as I am quite tall. Not much more than an inch head room. The trunk is also too small for luggage and a couple of backpack golf bags. To me the handling is great. Don’t know why would need any better unless driving like one shouldn’t be anyway. I don’t see the criticism in the interior admitting haven’t really compared it to much. I do plan on keeping this car for life as it is used for not much more than Sunday driving.

  • avatar

    Wow! I am stunned by all the bashing of the Retro Thunderbird. Being the original owner of a 2002, I can attest to the fact that it is true to the original concept of the 55-57 Thunderbirds. It is a V-8 powered personal luxury car, not a sports car. The Thunderbird offers V-8 powered touring at a relative good price point. Name another two seater with V-8 power that can say the say? While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I find it to be a stylish roadster that still draws stares of admiration wherever I drive it. Admittedly, the interior leaves something to be desired, but, like the orginial, it shared parts with other Ford models as a cost saving measure. I have really enjoyed my ownership experience, and I am sorry that others do not love the Retro T-Bird as much as I do.

    • 0 avatar
      Len Jeffrey

      I have owned a red 2003 for about 5 years now and I too am stunned by all of the negative comments. I still love it. Sure I have had the occasional problem with it and so have all other vehicle owners no matter what they drive. But when I am alone in that car all of my troubles just fade away. I admit that I am a dreamer even at 70 years of age. Something happens to me whenever I slide down into the driver’s side of that machine. Something that I cannot explain. I never thought that the car would attract attention before I bought it and I certainly didn’t buy it for that reason. I just liked the looks of it. Compared to most of the other bland-looking vehicles on the road. It looks to me that, as the designers of other makes were trying to come up with a shape and style for their new models, they simply gave up and left them looking like all of the other grey-coloured cars on the road-blobs on four wheels. I feel that few other makes and models of cars today can supply you with an ‘experience’ each time that you drive them.

  • avatar
    david b

    Let me just start by saying that I find this site more useful than most, and enjoy the entertaining reading. As to the Thunderbird, some of the criticism (rattles, howling, bad components)should be reserved for the test car. Not all Thunderbirds exibit these traits.

    I have recently purchased a 2004 with very low miles for half the cost of a new one at MSRP. I’ve compared the T-bird to other similar convertible cars, and found it to be much more feature rich and comfortable than comparably priced cars. Electronic and mechanical gadgets abound.

    First and foremost, this car is a touring car, not a sports car. Once you get beyond this car not being a sports car, you will be surprised at how well it really handles.

    The V8 engine is more than just for drinking gas or bragging rights. The T-bird launches from any red light or stop sign with muscle car authority. Gobs of low end torque are on tap, and easily leaves gas sipping commuter cars struggling to catch up. Okay, it’s not (and never will be) a GT500 or Charger, and I can live with that – and so can my cheap insurance payments. Drop in a Borla exhaust and CAI kit, and this car will rock even more.

    The Thunderbird is, after all, about the experience of the ride and being seen. Since it is a weekend cruiser, I really can’t fault the car for much, as it fits me to a T, and everyone who sees it, loves it. In my opinion, they have really came into their own now that the price has dropped so radically.

  • avatar

    I too have an 03 bird that I bought new in 03. I love the car. I realize it is not a sports car, or dragster, but a touring coupe. That does not however mean it runs like a wounded duck. In stock trim this car can accelerate with 95% of what you are likely to encounter at any traffic light. At the same time it is perfect for cruising on a summer night, top down, with oldies blaring thru the sound system or on an Interstate cruising at 70 mph +. My only real disappointment is the lack of aftermarket goodies, particularly performance enhancements. I do have a new exhaust system and CAI on order which should ( I hope) perk it up a bit more. I will probably never sell it.

  • avatar

    Affluent Yuppies would have paid ten thousand dollars more for a well built machine.

    Perhaps, but I doubt it’d attract enough to have made the car last any longer than it did. It seems to me this was somebody’s pet project that was destined to only appeal to a small group of buyers, and once those buyers had their fill it really had nowhere to go.

  • avatar

    Wow, I’m setting and having a rum & coke reading all of this. I think a lot of 57 bird owners didn’t buy their 57 new. In 20 yrs. when we are legislated a green car that goes woooooosh, this 03 bird will stick out, way out. Yea, I’m a old guy with a vortec in my Q3, 1600 juggs on my sporty and just rebuilt a Z3 in 08. All my wheels come from a salvage, even the boat. You are right, I would never pay $47K for a new thunderbird. I just bought a salvaged unit for $6K. It is on my bucket list. My 325i and Z3 BMW’s were OK but too common. Really, how common were 57 birds in their day? It’s the same scenario today, “Ma, I want a T-bird, but pa, where will we put the children?”. Point of fact, my 66 Nova (total cost $$1,800) SS-350hp 327 with dual quads was faster but my 56 ford PU (total cost $800) with a 383 transplant was even faster. I am going to restore this 03 bird, put edelbrock shocks on it, lube the seals with (Remember) Rub-Lube, redo the door panels and seats like FOOS does, put some nitrus in the trunk for kicks and a stereo that is a entertainment center. Also, I like the wheels. I had a 63 Bird and often drove it over a 130 mph with my right arm over the seat talking to my girl friend. But it rusted away.
    WHERE DO YOU THINK HOT RODS COME FROM—–WE COULDN’T BUY THEM THEN in the 60’s and we shouldn’t wait for a company to make them today. Everyone is complaining that someones not building the right automobile for them (and for everyone else). Yea, OK get your lifted station wagon (talk about wannabees) AKA mini-van for mamma, then build a car for yourself. This 03-Bird is a HOT SEXY, one of a kind (Just like the 57 bird) car and it is a shame we have to wait for it to become a jellopy before we can afford it. THINK, get a platform and build your own car………….

  • avatar

    We were lucky enough to purchase an 03 Torch Red May of ’08 with only 18K miles for $23K and my wife just has to smile when she thinks about driving it. We’ve discovered that most folks don’t know what it is and they will come up, compliment the car and want to know everything about it. We’ve not had the problems reported by some of the reviewers who have commented here. We have a hardtop but it stays in a spare room. Been caught in the rain a couple of times with the rag top; no leaks. The transmission shifting could be a little better, but you learn it’s just part of the character of the car, and someone needs to make a tire the same size as the OEM’s but besides that, it’s a freaking blast! We have a friend who has over 100K miles on his Bird and he still drives it across country. Will it be worth more than we paid for it in my lifetime? I doubt it, but that’s not why we decided to make the purchase. When you happen to come across someone on the road in a Retro, you wave at each other. Retro owners are even invited to events by the Baby Bird owners. That’s the 55 – 57 owners of the real deal. There is a group of folks at (that we are members of) who think the world of these cars like we do. These are machines and there is no machine that I’m aware of that is perfect. You accept them for what they are, try to understand it, and enjoy them. Like allyza866 we too own a number of vehicles. For you doubters, it’s time to give the ride a second chance. Prices are falling for us regular folk and my guess is you won’t regret it. Oh, insurance for some reason ain’t so bad! Regardless of the nay-sayers, I’ll sell the farm before I part with this machine.

    William C Montgomery, you are welcome to revisit your experience in a Retro anytime with our Phoenix and try to enjoy it for what it is. It’s a vert with 280 hp for the common person. We recently made a trip from the Tx Gulf coast to Hot Springs, Ark. and averaged a surprising 28 mpg and we tried to keep her cruise set at 72 mph where we were allowed. Not bad for a little V-8. Yep, Ford didn’t market the car well, priced it to high, could have done better in a couple of areas but for us, she’s a dream!

  • avatar

    Hi WIlliam. Been 4 years since you wrote this eval of the 2003 THunderbird. Sorry it took so long for me to see it but i found it the best write the now dead TBird has ever had. As a proud owner of 2003 Mountain Shadow Gray Tbird, I have to agree with 99% of what you said. What I didn’t realize within the first year of driving it, I’ve come to know it now. It’s still a beautiful car that still turns heads topped or topless and have have relatively little mechanical issues with it as it creeps up on 10 years.

    As for the drive. Yes, within the first few months, I recognized and even had it checked at the dealer for, 1) Wheel skip on bumpy roads or cornering, 2) Feeling the windshield wipers when my foots on the brakes, 3) crappiest shifting ever. I even had a Chip/CAN pro make some adjustments for it to help it, but it was obvious a Very powerful engine was being misrepresented by a poor shifting habits. They didn’t even free the select shift to let you go crazy. It even sucks (The reprogramming did help a lot).

    Other than that, I love the acceleration, especially already moving. It’s got the tight turning radius of my 84 Supra which can practically 180 in place. It’s comfortable seating that allows us to sit through a full tank of gas if we want without any discomfort. Love the big tank for the car, made for cruising.

    Overall, I’m still very happy I got it. Yes, when I need exhilaration I jump in my Supra still to take curves at high speeds while sitting comfy in the bucket seats, but when I want style, sport and luxury, it’s the TBird I go to.

    BTW, if you happen to know anyone that ever took on getting the performance from the Tranny, please send me names and numbers. THanks again for the write up and sorry it took me so long to find it!

    • 0 avatar

      I saw this write up years ago and the fact that this site is titled “The truth about cars” always annoys me. This is more like one man’s opinion about a car He doesn’t like or the Negative Nancy Report.
      I own a 2003 Thunderbird as well as several other cars. This car was never a performance car in the league of a lot of them. I would call it a gentlemans cruiser. The engine is peppy enough and the tranny shifts fine. Maybe it would not shift as well on the race course but the car wasn’t designed for that.
      Seriously, anything under 400 hp in the last 15 years is a pretender in my opinion. This car was not designed to be a competition vehicle but it does handle respectably well and it has held up well over the years.
      Mine is now 12 years old. It has been a reliable and enjoyable car all that time. The “plastic interior” pieces that I saw mentioned with disdain have held up well. The car has had zero issues to date. The almost 40K price was bemoaned in earlier posts. Well, you could have bought an XK8 Jaguar with basically the same performance for over 20K more or a Corvette for around 10K more. Guess what? They all had plastic too and as an owner of both, I can tell you that the Thunderbird rides better and the plastic has held up better.
      As far as the hardtop, I don’t use it but every car with a hardtop, t-top, targa top, folding hard top etc has gone through the leaky squekies. I use the soft top and it seals up fine in all weather and the whole car squeaks a lot less than the Jaguar or the Vette.
      I have been an SCCA racer and owned many Mercedes, Porsches, Vettes as well as a lot of others so I know what a car is and is not and how well it measures up. The Thunderbird is a fine car to own and enjoy. And put a smile on your face on a pretty day.
      If you don’t like the styling, buy something else. I don’t like the styling of a lot of cars. The Vette from 1984 through 1997 was ugly and plain in my opinion. So, gues what? I did not buy one even though they improved a lot of things when that car came out in 1984. I still respected it for what it was.
      Okay, I have said my bit. YMMV

  • avatar
    Len Jeffrey

    I agree fully with your comments. I’m in the Toronto, Canada area and am anxiously waiting for the better weather in March before I take my ’03 for out of ‘hibernation’ again.

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