By on November 16, 2020

The Ford Thunderbird is popular here at Rare Rides, apparently. Thus far, we’ve covered one from 1982 which was hacked into a convertible, and one from 1988 which was turbocharged and very good. Today’s Bird hails from 1979, which was the very last year the model was large(ish) and in charge.

Ah ha, you’ll think, this article will be very similar to the ’77 Lincoln Continental Mark V featured here recently. Surely they’re the same car, just in different levels of luxury, right? In previous generations of Mark-Thunderbird adjacency, that assumption was correct. But things changed for the Thunderbird and Mark in 1977. That year, the new Mark V kept on keepin’ on with the Mark IV’s platform, while the seventh gen Thunderbird moved down market a bit. It migrated to the same platform as the Cougar, Torino, and LTD II.

You see, things were changing in the car market and the personal luxury coupe was the hot ticket. Ford needed a replacement for its original cheaper-but-Thunderbird-like offering, the Elite (nee Gran Torino Elite) which wasn’t selling. So the Thunderbird became a bit less than it was before, and brought with it some name cachet.

The Thunderbird’s switch-up was necessary in part because of competition from Chrysler and General Motors. Those two companies had their intermediate personal luxury cars (like Monte Carlo and Cordoba) pinned to lighter and cheaper family sedan platforms. The old Thunderbird with its Lincoln personality was too expensive, too large, and too heavy. For 1977, the new generation brought with it a $2,700 price drop (some $12,000 adjusted for inflation), and meant it was priced competitively with its competition.

Because of its new and more common underpinnings, the T-bird offered four different V8 power plants depending on how much fuel a customer wanted to consume. The smallest was the 4.9-liter (302) Windsor, along with two different versions of the 5.8-liter 351. The largest option was a 6.6-liter 400, of the Cleveland family. Californian People’s Republic buyers were offered only the 351. CAFE rules meant the 400 was not available in 1979.

Consumers took notice of Thunderbird’s sudden affordability, and started buying Birds like never before. In 1977 Ford shifted 318,000 Thunderbirds, and moved a best-ever 352,000 in 1978, before sales dropped down to a still considerable 295,000 in 1979. Today’s navy over camel example is light on options, and lacks T-tops or power windows. Its current owner pulled it out of the storage location where it resided since 1991, and got it back to running condition. The slightly imperfect specimen is yours for $5,000.

[Images: seller]

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53 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1979 Ford Thunderbird, Last of Largesse...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Heresy: “…the 4.9-liter (302)”

    The 302 has always been called a “5.0” by Ford, despite having the same 4.000″ x 3.000″ cylinder dimensions as the 4.9 Pontiac 301.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Ford historically just called it the 302 before the late ’70s. Then they also referred to it as the 4.9 or 5 Liter. It was Ford marketing that concocted “5.0” and ran with it, but only marketing used it.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      When they went metric they needed to differentiate the 302 cubinc inch V8 (4.9L) from the also available in trucks 300 cubic inch inline 6, also 4.9L. So they were a little creative in their rounding. Marketing did the rest in a similar manner that my Challenger proudly wears “HEMI’ badges on the fender when the combustion chambers are not hemispherical in the least.

      At the end of the day, nobody cares either way.

      • 0 avatar
        MoDo

        The 3rg gen hemi indeed has hemi chambers, its just vastly improved over the 1st and 2nd gen versions.

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          Didn’t the current 4th gen motors move away from them?

          • 0 avatar
            ToolGuy

            Not that I’m allowed to care (was told on TTAC that nobody does)…

            Here is an 18-year-old article with the ‘controversy’ outlined:
            https://tinyurl.com/y2r6xurs

            Wikipedia says 3 generations of “Hemi” at “Chrysler” and this link should put you at a picture of the ‘current’ shape:
            https://tinyurl.com/y2khyyb4

            Compare the more-complex shape in the other picture at the end of the wikipedia article.

            tl;dr: Art is confused, or wrong, maybe both, but probably neither.

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            Live and learn…I am new to Chrysler stuff.

            The Gen IV bit I got from the forums. There was an update in 2009 (The Eagle Revision). Some refer to that as “Gen IV”, but you are correct…FCA does not. Incidentally I thought it had changed more…I hadn’t really looked.

            If you care that much about the combustion chamber designs of FCA motors, jump on into the forums. It is likely a topic second only to the bumper guards in intensity. I’d say no, not a “true Hemi” but as I purchased it, it obviously doesn’t bother me that much as is the case with most people that actually purchase them.

            Do you own either version? both? I’m guessing probably neither.

  • avatar

    Might want to double-check your figures:
    1974 Gran Torino Elite: 96.064
    1975 Elite: 123,372
    1976 Elite: 146,475

    While that might be half of the same-year Monte Carlo’s sold, ~400k cars in three years is hard a poor seller.

    • 0 avatar

      So performance at <50% of potential is perfectly fine in your book, eh?

      Guess I’d love it if you were my boss.

      • 0 avatar

        Considering the Gran Torino coupe was selling ~30k per year AND the Elite demonstrated growth for each of the three years it was on the market.

        The thesis that the “Thunderbird replaced the poor selling Elite” is a little misleading.

        Of course, I’ve got a history of being pedantic and I’m arguing about mid-sized Ford product production numbers from 1975…I’d say that I should reconsider my life choices, but this is what I do. So, don’t mind me.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike Beranek

      Those are good numbers today, but back then the Big 3 owned most of the market. Cars like the Impala had six-figure sales years.
      I think they were looking for something closer to 250,000 per year.

    • 0 avatar
      tomLU86

      GM was selling large volumes of Cutlass Supremes, Monte Carlos, Regals, and Grand Prixs–in addition to large volumes of 2-door, 4-door, and station wagoan Malibus, LeMans, Cutlass, and Century. The Elite came up short big-time.

      The Elite was, as a period C&D article on the new T-Bird noted, in one of their more memorable quotes “Ford’s Elite was getting knocked out of the ring”

      Even Chrysler came up with Cordoba, 2 years after the 73 Monte Carlo brought “personal luxury” to middle America.

      Relative to Ford’s potential, the Elite was a loser. Restyling it (it needed to be more unique than a Torino with a Fordish interpretation of the 73-75 Monte Carlo) with unique sheetmetal, AND plopping the prestigious T-Bird moniker made it a winner in the marketplace.

      • 0 avatar
        Dave M.

        Favoring Ford, I liked the Elite and wish it had done better, but it couldn’t match the Monte or Cordoba. This move by Ford made sense, and they sure sold a ton of the downsized T-Birds. I also liked the XR-7 during this time as well.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I remember when Thunderbird went from the luxury Mark platform to the mid-size Torino platform. It was a brilliant move on Ford’s part to put the storied “Thunderbird” name on a more affordable personal luxury coupe. It was a huge success and a pretty decent car

  • avatar
    darisgin

    I owned one of these. 1993? Guy asking $500. I pointed out (conversationally) that the power windows didn’t work. He dropped to $300. I bought it and fixed the windows.

    At some truckstop in gosh-knows-where, I bought what must have been the LAST 8-track: Soundtrack to The Big Chill. I drove that car for 50,000 miles (I forget what it had when I bought it). My g/f “stole it,” and drove it for maybe another 30k.

    Biggest problem I encountered was uphill stop signs and stoplights in San Fran. You 100% could not see over the hood: I had to send my passenger out to check the traffic.

    I loved that car. Luxury and affordability, total reliability. Drove it cross country once (Cali to Massholio), AMERICAN A/C blasting across TX. (Anybody else *hate* Japanese/Euro a/c?)

    *Sigh.* Good times.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      Lol, you can’t see over the hood of a minivan in SF. All I can remember seeing my first trip there was sky or the bottom of a very steep hill. How did people drive there before automatic transmissions?

    • 0 avatar
      quaquaqua

      “Anybody else *hate* Japanese/Euro a/c?”

      What? Maybe that was a problem in the 70s or in a few models, but what on earth are you talking about?

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        The Germans – notoriously BMW – were satisfied with their AC, until the top brass visited a testing facility in Arizona, in July. They quickly realized why their dealers were asking for better AC.

        I’ve owned two Japanese cars with AC and 4 cylinder engines, and had to turn off the AC when accelerating up a freeway on-ramp. Going up sustained grades in Southern California, the AC blew warm. It’s less of a problem with a decent V6, but Summer desert travel in a V6 rental was still a problem.

        Bottom line: the Europeans and Japanese don’t have desert climates, nor do they have freeways that climb over mountain ranges for hundreds of miles.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          And A/C was rare in Japanese cars in the 1970’s and early to mid 1980’s. Read about Mr. Hondas refusal to have them installed at the factory.

          As to German cars. VW’s were air cooled in the 1970’s An A/C unit on a VW was like hen’s teeth. BMW and Audi were few and far between and not considered ‘luxury’ vehicles.

  • avatar
    MoDo

    Babysitters husband had the same car back in 89. He would always brag hoe expensive parts were for it, as if it was a true luxury car or something. One day when my dad picked us up I told him it was $65 just for some interior trim piece. He said, oh yeah, expensive parts, but the car is junk. Lol

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    These are rare now, but in the late 70s/early 80s, they were like buttholes and opinions: everybody had one, unless they had a Cutlass of some sort.

    It boggles the mind to think of how many different cars carried the Thunderbird name: smallish two-seat convertible (55-57), large four-seat convertible/hardtop (58-66), large two-door OR four-door sedan (67-71), ginormous two-door luxo coupe (72-76), back to merely large two-door semi-luxo coupe (77-79), midsize boxy Fox coupe (80-82), same Fox platform but with way cool aero styling (83-88), Euro-influenced luxo coupe (89-97), and finally back to smallish two-seat convertible (02-05).

    How much Fox was in the 89-97 platform? I know they had four-wheel independent suspension and the car mags loved the SC, but that’s all I know.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      “How much Fox was in the 89-97 platform?”

      Probably not enough. My understanding is that developing the MN12 cost Ford a fortune more than expected and it caused the program director to retire.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Weimer

        They never leveraged that platform beyond 2-door luxo-coupes.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        I owned a 95 LX with the 4.6 modular. The MN-12 shares a number of chassis parts with the Fox and SN-95 Mustang. Many of the suspension pieces like bushings are the same except the independent rear which eventually made it to the Mustang Cobra. When I replaced the rear shocks I bought a nice pair of KYB’s that were the same as the Mustang GT’s. Ford did lose a bundle on these. I always thought they should have stretched the platform for a Panther replacement.

  • avatar
    Whatnext

    That was brilliant piece of sheetmetal marketing. Tighten up the styling making it look(undeservedly) more efficient but keep bits like the Elite’s dashboard and the cheap-ass Ford corporate steering wheel.

  • avatar
    randy in rocklin

    I owned a 96 SC. I loved it. It had heft, good handling and V8 power (4.6L). I hated the plastic intake manifolds. I had to replace them twice. They contributed to overheating engines.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      When I bought my 95 LX 4.6 it already had the plastic composite manifold replaced with the aluminum one. The real pain was replacing the EGR which was buried in back of the motor between the firewall. I said nope and brought it to a shop to have it replaced.

  • avatar
    redgolf

    Ahh, the T-Bird only brings back my memories of my older brother letting me take his 1964 Wimbleton white/black vinyl top to the prom, I worked all day cleaning it up, what a fond memory driving it to downtown Detroit to the Gaslight Room for dinner, my girlfriend ( now my wife of 52 ) and our double dates, I was 18, I still can’t believe he trusted me with it but I did respect it!

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    These were somewhat retro even when new, but people ate them up. The next year Fox-Bird tried to move it to an even smaller (but more modern) platform, and has all the cues, and they didn’t look bad per se, but it was much less than the sum of it’s parts. The Aerobird took it in a different direction, and that was right for the day and market. People ate them up.

    • 0 avatar

      I know an attorney who was up and coming in the early Eighties, and he bought his first new car ever in ’83, and selected the new Thunderbird.

      “Great car,” said he.

      Lexus driver now.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      The ‘square’ T-Bird which followed this model was a ‘bust’.

      It helped to devalue the T-Bird name at the time.

      The Aerobird was a much better vehicle. However by then the prestige and cachet that went with the T-Bird name had lost much of its status/lustre.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Ugh, a Thunderturd. When I was growing up, these were one of multitude of ratty, nasty ’70s crapmobiles. 30 years later, they’re still nasty crap.

    Here’a a rarity on any continent:
    https://washingtondc.craigslist.org/doc/cto/d/laurel-1995-mazda-lantis-v6-type-jdm/7230553271.html

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Wow, they couldn’t have cheapened the T-Bird brand more with this, except maybe that thing that came after. But, in a rare turnaround, the Aero-Bird era of cars gained back some credibility. The Retro-Bird was an anticlimactic way to go out. Maybe a new Electro-Bird off that Mach-E platform is a way to revive a classic name?

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Was Ford the only one that rocked that navy-over-camel color scheme? I remember passing by one of the previous-gen Birds every day on the way to school, it was huge, and that color combo gave it a kind of weird gravitas.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    When I was a child in the early ’80s, my dad had a ’78 LTD II with a 351. Silver exterior with a whore house red interior. I remember that steering wheel well.

    He called it the Grey Ghost, and then one day the transmission went out. I vividly remember early on a Sunday morning, driving it backwards for several miles to a transmission shop because he couldn’t afford the tow. He was laid off in the ’81 recession and worked a succession of crap jobs until finding something good in ’84 that lasted most of the remainder of his working life.

    Now? He drives only Hondas.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I had a 1978 T-Bird, acquired new, with every option except the T-roof. Considered a very sharp looking car at the time. And the T-Bird name still had considerable prestige then.

    Which are the 2 reasons why it sold so well.

    Mine was silver/grey, but I preferred the colour scheme of this vehicle. In Goodfellas when Jimmy and Henry find out that Tommy has been ‘whacked’ you can see one of these parked just behind them.

    As a car, even with the 400 it was something of a ‘dog’. Mine had continual problems with the starter, alternator and electrical system. Stranding me in some terrible areas/weather conditions. My friends were convinced it was trying to kill me.

    Also the pop-up headlight covers worked on a vacuum system. You would come out after a few hours and they would be open/up. Leaving me concerned each time that the battery was again dead/something had shorted and I would again be left stranded.

    The previous generation ‘large’ T-Bird competed with the Toronado and Riviera and was much higher up the price/prestige ladder than Regals/Grand Prix/ Monte Carlos.

    The Cordoba was initially considered higher prestige than Regal/Grand Prix/ Monte Carlo as it wore a Chrysler name plate.

    In memory my Grand Torino Elite with the 460 cid v8 outperformed my ’78 T-Bird with the 400.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      The Cleveland 400 wasn’t the problem. It came with a 2.50:1 final-drive axle, standard.

      A more normal (except this era) 3.50 would’ve made it a kick to drive. A 2.75 or 3.00 were optional.

      Despite its 166 HP, its 319 Tq and came on right off idle. Very diesel-like.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Mine had an ‘ugpraded’ drivetrain, but I cannot remember which option other than the engine were included.

        The engine always ran rough. And when accelerating you could often hear the ‘tappets’.

        Perhaps I just got one of those made on Monday morning or Friday afternoon models? It had gremlins from day one and the dealer was worse than useless.

        Which was a shame because it was considered a ‘good looking’ vehicle according to the standards of that era and just ‘ate up’ highway miles, with zero road noise, and a soft compliant ride.

  • avatar
    probert

    This such a cynical exercises in sh*tdome, the type ford seems to specialize in. Enough overhang? Maybe shouldn’t have built it on a pinto frame or some such sh*t. More than 20 seconds of thought before they reskinned the effing Fairmont. Take a bow ….

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I enjoyed my 77 Monte Carlo with rally wheels and swivel buckets but the cars are much better today. The personal luxury car or coupe was a popular car at the time and was affordable for most. I don’t regret having my Monte Carlo and this 79 Thunderbird is a survivor that should be appreciated for its historical significance and the fact that it is in such excellent shape– for 5k it is a bargain. The overhang doesn’t bother me, this car was from a different era. Easy to be an armchair critic and criticize anything from the past and in 40 years there will be those who will criticize the crossovers, suvs, and large crew cab pickups of today. Need to take this vehicle and any older vehicle in the context of its time and not judge it by today’s standards.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @JeffS: Thanks for a thoughtful posting.

      As probably the only person on this site who owned one of these when they were new, I can confirm that they were indeed considered a desirable, near luxury vehicle.

      The custom floor mats with the embossed T-Bird symbol that came with the vehicle were a very nice touch by Ford.

      The split/bench (60/40) seating is in my estimation still better than anything offered today in regards to comfort and versatility.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    It was way more swashbuckling than the nearest competitor. Most automakers didn’t even bother trying, bowed to its greatness.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Arthur Dailey–Thank you. We both are one of the few on this site that bought any of these personal luxury cars new. My first new car was a buckskin 77 Monte Carlo with the swivel buckets, power windows and locks, rally wheel, rear window defroster, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, and a tan interior with a tan landau top with a chrome band (for 77 my Monte Carlo was loaded). I was really proud of that car and took excellent care of it–I liked it so much I kept it for 18 years. Arthur if you want to see some neat old American cars watch Curious Cars with Bill from Naples,FL. Bill reviews and drives some neat survivor cars such as Lincolns, Buicks, Cadillacs, Crown Vics, and a few others that are in like new condition.
    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUuycjuk32uF7nKsaYDBt2EQ

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      The swivel bucket chairs were a rather unique option. First offered I believe in the Cutlass.

      Most readers/posters here do not remember or realize that features like electric rear window defog systems, and tilt steering were expensive options. Cruise control was not even an option on manual transmission vehicles for many years. And A/C at least in Canada was considered a ‘luxury’ upgrade up until the late 1980’s.

      Our expectations and our ‘wants’ were much different then.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Yes today those items are standard on even the most base model including a stereo FM radio which my Monte had too. My Monte even came with front and rear GM floor mats which today are standard on most vehicles. The 73 Monte Carlo was the first Monte Carlo with swivel buckets. It also had dual outside mirrors which were adjustable inside.

  • avatar
    boxermojo

    The fact that these embarrassing leaden puffbarges were marketed as sporty is why I have happily enjoyed cars from everywhere else in the world but the US for my entire adult life.

    I have this dreadfully un-American fixation with cars that can turn.

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