By on August 9, 2021

The special takes on the early 2000s Ford Thunderbird just keep on coming! Our first Thunderbird edit came from Ford, in the 007 Special Edition made in conjunction with the fairly terrible James Bond film Die Another Day. More recently, we took a look at a Chip Foose creation ordered up by Ford called the Speedbird.

In a similar vein, today’s Rare Ride comes from Ford customizer Saleen in conjunction with Californian wheel firm Bonspeed. Are you ready for retro?

Steve Saleen’s take on the new Thunderbird was announced on November 5th, 2002, during the first model year of the 11th generation T-Bird. Saleen was approached (like Foose the following year) to create a specialty Thunderbird for display at the Ford stand at SEMA in 2002. Saleen was happy to accept Ford’s money and create a design but brought in another party: Bonspeed. Bonspeed is a designer primarily of wheels but also creates other various aftermarket accessories and gauges. Bonspeed was contracted to provide styling input and the wheels on the Saleen Thunderbird.

Designers from both companies took the stock Thunderbird in a hot-rod direction. The front end received a three-inch nose extension and a new grille forged in aluminum. Saleen ditched the standard convertible setup and turned the Bonspeed into a speedster. The roofless design featured a weird split rear spoiler and rollover hoops behind the seats. A hard cover replaced the tonneau of the standard car. Other changes outside included a hidden exhaust, fender vents, and a steeper rake on the windshield. The prototype was painted in a unique silver paint that looked like any other silver.

Inside there were Saleen gauges, sports seats, custom headrests, contrasting grey stitching, and leather-covered surfaces on the center console, lower dash areas, and the panels behind the seats. The leather was higher quality than standard, a “brushed metal tone” style, and there were luxurious deep-pile carpets.

Unlike the previously featured Speedbird, Saleen’s modifications included changes to the engine, suspension, and brakes. The 3.9-liter Jaguar V8 had a Saleen Series IV supercharger attached. It was paired with a unique inlet, intake manifold, and intercooler. Saleen also replaced the fuel injection system and implemented a Saleen-branded engine management program. These changes took the 3.9 from the stock output of 280 horses to 365, and 390 lb-ft of torque. The five-speed automatic was standard Ford fare, but the Bonspeed would also offer a six-speed Saleen manual.

The “would” is there because Saleen and Bonspeed were most pleased with their work on the Thunderbird. At the car’s announcement the day SEMA began, Saleen announced the Bonspeed would enter production. Production versions were to have a full Saleen Racecraft suspension, and Brembo brakes as well.

Saleen planned to build the Bonspeed Edition immediately at its factory in California, given the tremendous interest shown in the car before its debut. The company was eager to show off a greater diversity in what it could design, and produce a car more attainable than its S7 supercar. Orders were taken, deposits collected, and deliveries planned in spring 2003. The asking price was in the $70,000 range.

But the Bonspeed never went to production, in what must’ve been the first-ever Saleen failure. News and details of the car quickly evaporated, and only the SEMA prototype was ever made. The silver car has accumulated 20,000 miles in the ensuing years and goes to auction in October at Mecum in Las Vegas.

[Images: Saleen, Bonspeed]

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31 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 2002 Saleen Thunderbird Bonspeed Edition, One of One...”


  • avatar
    Crosley

    Part of the reason the Thunderbird failed is it just didn’t have enough muscle. They should have put something in there with at least 300hp. Plenty of Ford options to choose from.

    It didn’t have to compete with the Corvette, but nobody wants a car like this that can get smoked by a Camry. Saleen model was step in right direction.

    • 0 avatar
      FerrariLaFerrariFace

      At 280hp, no one in its target market would have noticed or cared about an extra 20 ponies. Speed and power were never its goal. It was a retro design meant to be sold to blue-hairs who had nostalgia for the 1950’s T-Birds. It’s biggest flaw was that it was a butt-ugly, unnecessarily expensive.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    And I thought the Foose one was bad. The only good thing about the styling changes is the Sports Roadster style cover.

    I do find it interesting that you have featured a number of T-birds recently and yet you keep ignoring the suggestions of a T-bird for your impractical second car.

    Makes me wonder if they are what led you to think about a convertible and if that is your actual end game that you just aren’t letting on about yet.

    • 0 avatar

      I swear with my hand on whatever book you like that I’m not at all considering a Thunderbird. I never did like them, I don’t think they’re particularly reliable or good to drive, they’re overpriced, and very ugly.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Looks like no matter how hard they tried Ford just couldn’t create an image to move this turd. I guess it was Ford’s answer to the Prowler. A question nobody wanted answered

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    I never could get behind this generation ‘bird.

    I don’t hate it, was just ‘meh’ to me and answered a lot of questions no one was asking.

    At least the Thunderbird model got better treatment than the Cougar. Oy.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I’ll actually say that I liked this generation quite a bit when they were new (I was in the 10th grade in 2002). There was a certain glitz that the Thunderbird had that the SSR lacked. Thunderbird is also a very good name.

    I still don’t really have anything against them but there are other things I’d rather own.

    • 0 avatar

      I could perhaps get past the styling if the interior were not so bad.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        I mean the interior isn’t good but I don’t think I’d mind it unless it disintegrates on me.
        After the initial dealer markup time the T-bird was a sub $40K car and outside of Audi the early 2000s weren’t an era of many great interiors anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        It really was just Lincoln LS parts surrounded by hard, body colored plastic. There was nothing special except for T-bird specific seats. And the stereo wasn’t too bad for the time. The overall impression was that Ford spent it all on the interior and swept up the remains into the dustbin and made it work on a shoestring at the end.

        The 3.9L/transmission combo didn’t want to be rushed, but if you kept it on a flat, smooth highway with the sun low in the sky on a nice evening, you just found its intended mission. Anything quicker or harder than that made it very, very unhappy.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          There were Lincoln Mark 9 and Mark X concepts based on the DEW platform. The Mark X had a retractable hardtop.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_MK9

          https://www.autoweek.com/car-life/classic-cars/a1907496/retro-styled-lincoln-mark-x-concept-car-heads-auction/

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The 2002-06 Thunderbird was more of a retro boulevard cruiser than a sports car. As a life long fan of them I was never here nor there on them. When they were introduced there were some “go fast” aftermarket items available like the Borla exhaust. I do like what Saleen did with this one. For some reason no one did a performance version of the Reatta (T-type) or Allante.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    That was then. Today it’s an interesting, if not amusing collectible. OK, collectible is a strong word, but bonus points for RWD, V8, easily found in mint condition and will wake up into a tire shredding monster with a gear swapping of say 4.10:1, plus increased engine braking.

    It sounds like a better good time than most any other irrational buy. I like that peach color they did though.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      These have been collectable for a while now, but I’m not sure how much of a tire shredder it is in stock configuration.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      “and will wake up into a tire shredding monster with a gear swapping of say 4.10:1”

      While theoretically possible, Google tells me this is *considerably* more involved than doing a “gear swap” on a Mustang or a truck or an older T-Bird. Like custom fabrication would be needed. So you’ll either need some skills or deep pockets.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        It’s just a different number of teeth. The pumpkin shouldn’t know the difference. Now it does radically change the car’s dynamics so axle-hop would likely be an issue.

        I put 4.10s in a stock 140 HP 302 V8 ’79 Mustang and absolutely it became an instant tire shredder (w/limited slip), so much that I had to put a block behind the gas pedal, or full throttle it would just spin them wild. Whole other animal.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          It appears nonfactory gear ratios for the carrier used in the S-Type/LS/Thunderbird don’t exist so that complicates matters considerably.

          lincolnvscadillac.com/forum/threads/lincoln-
          ls-limited-slip-differential-bolt-in.39863/

          lincolnsofdistinction.org/xenforo
          /index.php?threads/8-8-swap-with-4-10-
          gears.25296/

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            Thanks, good work! It still sounds like plenty of bang for your buck, with mostly junkyard parts.

            The engine remains stock/original, smog checks normally, and may increase collector value, depending on buyer.

  • avatar
    wolfwagen

    Is it me or does the second picture on that brochure make it look like a large MINI from the front of the car to the top of the windshield?

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Call me strange but I always liked these retro Birds which are a nod to the original 1955 T-Bird. These cars are more of a boulevard cruise and not meant to be raced. Ford priced these a little too aggressive and many dealers got greedy with their additional markups. At least the T-Bird had some styling which is lacking on most of today’s vehicles with the exception of the Bronco and a handful of other vehicles. Most of today’s vehicles are either huge bricks or blogs with mostly black or gray interiors. I wouldn’t kick one of these Birds out of my garage.

    Not every vehicle made has have tire shredding performance. A smooth cruiser with adequate acceleration is enough for most.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    My mom had three Thunderbirds; a ’57 while she was in college, a 76 that looked good at the country club, and a Rangoon Red 65 ragtop when her kids started driving. She sat in the retro T-bird and said to the salesman, “this isn’t a Thunderbird”. Now if Ford could stretch the Mustang platform and put an electric motor on each wheel, there would be Thunder from the Bird. Cue Ford ad of the lightning-filled sky.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    That might be a good idea is rerelease this Bird as an EV on a Mustang platform with a more upscale interior. I doubt it will would a volume seller but it would be a halo car offering those who want a sports car with quick acceleration and a smooth boulevard cruiser. I doubt Ford would do it since 2 seaters and cars are not what is selling in large volumes but with a retro styling it would draw customers into the showrooms and sell other Fords.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Ugly in factory form, still ugly in this form, not enough seats.

    The last desirable Thunderbird was the ’95 SC, tractor engine and all.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I always liked the 55 thru 57 T-Birds and the retro Bird was not that bad. I also didn’t mind the 4 seater T-Birds.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    Nothing anyone can do to make this turd of a car look good. Retro at it’s absolute worst. I would love to ask the execs who gave it the green light what drugs they were on.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      “what drugs they were on”

      Bob Lutz was at Chrysler from 1986 to 1998. Chrysler’s revamped vehicle development process was the cat’s pajamas according to the vehicle press. Chrysler was doing More With Less and brought vehicles to market like the Dodge Viper (‘modern Cobra’ – auto show concept in 1989, actual production vehicle by late 1991 [this is extraordinarily quick]).

      Then the Plymouth Prowler (1993 concept, 1997 production vehicle). More press. More comments from neighbors, if you were a Ford executive. Some uncomfortable questions from Board members, who all read Fortune magazine. Other uncomfortable questions from members of the Ford family who didn’t work at Ford but relied on you as a Ford executive to protect their wealth (and support their lifestyle).

      Then the Pronto Cruizer concept (1999) and PT [‘Plymouth Truck’] Cruiser (2000).

      Meanwhile the VW Concept One (1994) and New Beetle (1998), along with the Mini Cooper (talked about from 1995). Retro. Retro.

      Drip, drip, drip. Why can they do it and you can’t. Yada Yada.

      Historically, when Chrysler jumps off a bridge, Ford follows, and then GM – in that order. (GM almost never introduced customer-focused innovations first.) [PCV valve yes, catalytic converter yes – gotta keep the regulators at bay.]

      10th-gen Thunderbird ended production in 1997. Premier Automotive Group was formed in 1999. We have a DEW platform (Lincoln, Jaguar) we can use, and why not make it retro? That will show everyone. [It didn’t – sales peaked in first model year, cancelled after 4 model years.]

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