Rare Rides: The 2002 Saleen Thunderbird Bonspeed Edition, One of One

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides the 2002 saleen thunderbird bonspeed edition one of one

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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3 of 31 comments
  • Jeff S Jeff S on Aug 11, 2021

    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.

  • Nrd515 Nrd515 on Aug 11, 2021

    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.

    • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Aug 12, 2021

      "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.]