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Ford Thunderbird: Closest Thing Yet to a Time Machine
By: Michael Cooney

They say you can’t go home again. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret…. Just turn the key to bring this new Thunderbird’s sweet V-8 to life, ‘pop the top’ on a warm summer evening, add your favorite ‘50s CD, and drive off into the sunset. Then you, too, may be magically transported back to a distant time and place that will bring a nostalgia-filled smile to your face.

With styling cues front to rear, inside and out, paying homage to the original 1955-57 model, this retro-styled Thunderbird evoked positive emotions wherever it journeyed. Its rounded front fenders, hood scoop, grill, rear deck and tail lamps all signal this car’s relationship with bygone days. Inside, the theme continues with the seat stitching, tall, slender instrument numerals similar to those found on many 50s and 60s speedometers, and the steering wheel’s chrome Thunderbird logo with turquoise-colored insert. As a modern iteration of the original Thunderbird, this is a gorgeous car from every angle, especially in the metallic turquoise blue of my tester.

The advantage of modernizing a 47-year-old design goes well beyond its outer beauty, however. With four-wheel disc brakes including ABS and the 3.9L dual-overhead-cam V-8 borrowed from the Lincoln LS mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, its components meet today’s expectations. My test unit was a 2002 model with 252 horsepower, but the 2003 Thunderbird gets a nice 28 horsepower boost, up to 280.

The Thunderbird offers very few options, because it comes pretty well loaded. Power steering, seats, windows, mirrors, tilt/tele steering wheel and an easy-to-operate power top with glass rear window—all are standard. One option is a separate hard top complete with round porthole window, priced at $2000.

Now for the best part: driving it! It’s hard to think of a car that has caused more sensation just by cruising around town than this one. Strangers came over everywhere I parked to ask questions. Its appeal seemed universal—everyone loved it. Stopped at lights, people in neighboring cars would often point and smile.

If viewed as a “cruiser,” the Thunderbird hits the spot. Its suspension is rather soft, so the ride is comfortable. Whether holding a steady 80 on desert freeways or poking around town, the feeling was one of relaxed, friendly companionship. That said, when pushed harder on winding mountain roads, it handled with greater competence than I had anticipated. Though not a sports car, it should satisfy the road-hugging needs of most owners quite well.

With the soft top up, there are a few visibility concerns. As with most convertibles, there is a large blind spot behind your right shoulder. Fortunately, the rear window is as wide as possible to maximize the view. The rear glass could be a few inches taller, however, as the tops of most cars behind were cut off when looking into the rearview mirror.

Cowl shake was also a concern. All convertibles suffer from some degree of flexing when driving over uneven surfaces, due to reduced body rigidity resulting from the lack of a hard top. Mine was a pre-production unit, so I would expect regular production units to be better. Still, the degree of shimmy was significant and I hope Ford will fit additional bracing to minimize this condition. If your roads are largely smooth, though, you may not notice it.

This Thunderbird totaled $39,290, which included the hard top, interior accent package and destination fee. Not bad when you consider its long list of standard features and the no-cost-extra “fun factor.” It is EPA rated at 17-city, 23-highway mpg. My mix of freeway, city and mountain driving returned an average of 19.1 mpg.

But this car is not about numbers, really. If you’re of an age where you remember Ozzie and Harriett, soda fountains and sock hops, you may agree with me that the new Thunderbird isn’t merely an automobile—it’s an experience. And a most enjoyable one at that.