Saturday, July 16, 2011

Vintage Thunderbird Club of Kansas City cook some pretty birds in the Thoroughbred Ford parking lot

People generally tend to visit Thoroughbred Ford in northern Kansas City to look at current model cars and trucks. But on Saturday, the attraction was a car that Ford doesn't even produce anymore--the iconic Thunderbird. The Vintage Thunderbirds of Kansas City (VTKC) club was on hand with a nice little display of examples from various points in the car's history. And while a '56 T-Bird has little in common with a '96, they still enjoy getting together and enjoying the legacy of one of Ford's most recognizable nameplates.

The Thunderbird first appeared in 1954 as a ’55 model as Ford’s answer to Chevrolet’s Corvette. But aside from having two seats, the T-Bird was quite a bit different from its cross-town rival.

Unlike the Corvette, the T-Bird didn’t try to be a purebred sports car. It was more of a personal luxury vehicle. It had the heavy, chrome-drenched feel of the full-sized ’55 Ford, and in fact shared many of the same components.

Ford’s strategy worked, as the Thunderbird consistently trounced the Corvette in sales in those early years. Yet, Ford was not satisfied with just beating the Corvette.

In 1958, Ford tried something completely different to increase sales even further. The second-generation, or “Square-Bird” style, featured more chrome, more glitz, and more room. The two-seat T-Bird was no more, as now the personal luxury vehicle was a little less personal with the addition of a backseat.

Ford continued to refine the T-Bird throughout the 1960s. In ’61, a new style, sometimes called the “Bullet Bird” debuted. These cars featured beautiful dashboards, premium materials, and plenty of optional features. Even today, it is obvious you are looking into something special when you peer inside a ’61 – ’66 Thunderbird. There is so much style in one of these cars, it is easy to think of it as a dream car or concept car that actually made it into production.

Things changed in 1967, however. The Thunderbird grew considerably in size. The convertible, which was the only style available from ’55 – ’57, was discontinued, and a four-door Thunderbird was made available. These cars completely lost their ways from the original concept. But they still sold well, and they helped seal the fate of the sports-minded Thunderbird.

Thunderbirds rolled with the times in the 1970s. The continued to grow; and they continued to sell. During this time, T-Birds competed with the likes of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. They were big, floaty, and plush. But they were also tough and reliable. Even today, it is not uncommon to see one of these big, old land barges living out their second or third lives on dirt tracks throughout the country.

In 1980, the T-Bird went on another diet. Pretty much all full-sized cars were being downsized to meet government fuel regulations, and the T-Bird was no different. The car was now built on Ford’s versatile Fox platform, which also underpinned cars like the Ford Fairmont and even the Mustang. Unfortunately, people wanted their T-Birds to be more than a warmed-over Fairmont, and sales took a nosedive.

Things got better in 1983, when Ford redesigned the T-Bird with an aerodynamic new shape. These “Bathtub T-Birds” proved to be very popular during their seven-year run. They were also strong, recognizable competitors on the NASCAR circuit with drivers like Bill Elliott behind the wheel.

The Thunderbird was again redesigned in 1989, with a more modern, less flamboyant appearance. These cars quietly sold in the background of the automotive landscape until 1997, when the Thunderbird looked to fade off into obscurity.

But as it turns out, that wasn’t the end of the Thunderbird story.

As we were leaving the 1990s, people started to crave retro-styled, historical vehicles. In 1999, Ford revealed a new two-seat T-Bird concept car at the North American International Auto Show that made it seem like they never added those back seats in 1958. It was as if the T-Bird continued on the same path as it had in 1955, ’56, and ’57, skipping every generation and iteration of T-Bird in between.

The new “Retro-Bird” went into production in 2002, built on a shortened Lincoln LS sedan platform. Like the original, the 2002 T-Bird was only available with two seats, only available as a convertible (removable hardtop was optional), and only available with a V8.

Objectively, these cars were very nice. They had beautiful leather interiors. They had great details and jewelry. They came in some of the best color combinations of anything built in the last 20+ years.

They weren’t cheap, though. And at this point, Corvettes had established themselves as world-class performance cars. There was competition from all over the world. And the Thunderbird, despite being beautiful and nice, had a hard time fitting in among the all these other choices.

The Thunderbird was quietly discontinued in 2005 for the last time. But that doesn’t mean that they still don’t hold a place in the hearts of the American people. The early cars are still bringing big money at auctions. The last cars are starting to turn up at the local car cruises. Every Thunderbird served a purpose in its day, and they all have special meaning to someone.

There aren’t any plans to revive the Thunderbird nameplate anytime soon. But in the future—who knows. It’s hard to kill an icon.

It was extraordinarily hot Saturday for this show, and it had to impact the number of nut-burgers willing to show up with their cars. The die-hards that were there huddled under a couple of tents to soak up that limited, precious shade. Glad they did, though, because there were some neat cars to check out.

Check out the slideshow below for more pictures of the beautiful cars that the VTKC had on display at Thoroughbred Ford. And if you own or love Thunderbirds, and want to get together with like-minded people, check out the Vintage Thunderbirds of Kansas City website.

1 comment:

  1. Love it, love it... vintage cars is priceless. I don't even think that the cars of today can match the uniqueness of old cars. Great post!