Remember the good old days of the late 1990s? That’s the decade that reintroduced cars from the even better old days! Be it the introduction of the VW New Beetle (1998), or cars with throwback influences (Plymouth Prowler, PT Cruiser, Audi TT, and Chevrolet SSR, to name a few in a long list), automakers quickly figured out that going retro meant raking in the cash. The market was primed for Ford to do the same, and that’s what they did. Eventually. And, at least in the case of the Thunderbird, half-heartedly.
The new, retro styled T-bird was introduced at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Its retrofuturist design pulled at all the right heartstrings and utilized Ford’s upscale DEW98 chassis, which also underpinned the aspirational upstart Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type. The detuned Jaguar V-8 ensured it would rumble, and an impressive palette of eggshell-inspired colors completed the look. The stage was set for a rapid progression from concept to production.
But this period in Ford history was marred by a transition away from their core competencies, and CEO Jac Nasser suggested that “Ford can’t build the company if it holds on to a mind-set that doesn’t respond swiftly to consumers’ needs.”
Unfortunately, rushing the 1999 Thunderbird to production wasn’t one of those consumer needs—the final product arrived roughly two years later for the 2002 model year. Despite not striking when the iron was hot, the first year of production still netted 31,368 customers—solid numbers for a niche vehicle. That number halved in 2003, a disappointing figure considering the extra 28 horsepower and fatter torque curve offered by that year’s revised V-8 engine. Sales continued to drop until the final year in 2005, but the story doesn’t end there.
While the Thunderbird’s initial success was a flash in the pan, opinions across the Internet suggesting that it was a failure don’t add up. The car, built on the prevailing popular design of the moment and one of the strongest American nameplates around, was unequivocally not the problem here. There was a market for a retro Thunderbird roadster, on par with that of the loyalty present in Chevrolet’s low-volume Corvette. But no car is made in a vacuum, and corporate interests of a struggling company swirled above the T-Bird like hurricane-force headwinds holding back its progress.
The platform beneath the retro looks and the factory that created the Thunderbird were ultimately deemed more of a liability than an asset at Ford. To a company in transition, the T-Bird and the Lincoln LS sistership would never sell in numbers that justified their unique parts and their space at a factory of questionable utility. But that didn’t stop forces from trying to alter the fate of the DEW98 platform—there could have been a happier ending.
The history of Thunderbirds and Lincolns have been intertwined since the 1960s, so the notion of Lincoln making their own version of this Thunderbird is not without merit. Called the Mark X, the concept sported unique sheetmetal and a unique dashboard in place of the one shared by the Thunderbird and the Lincoln LS. The same applies to the stunning Ford Forty-Nine, which used the same DEW98 underpinnings but with one of the most dramatic examples of Ford’s retrofuturist aspirations. It’s a shame that FoMoCo rejected both concepts, but it comes as no surprise: the factory in Wixom, Mich., was on the chopping block (RIP 2007), and Ford realized platform interchangeability with Jaguar, a profit-sucking brand they no longer wished to own, was not a good long-term move.
With Jac Nasser’s retirement and Bill Ford’s ascension, perhaps the Thunderbird could have transferred over to the Ford Mustang’s platform and factory, as that model shared parts with Ford products at lower price points. (Hindsight, especially looking back at the success of the Fox chassis the two shared from the late ’70s into the ’90s, suggests that should have always been the case.) But Ford’s new direction, The Way Forward, wanted none of this expensive tomfoolery: the company was hemorrhaging cash, putting up the crown jewels as collateral on 23.6 billion dollars in loans, and fighting for its survival a mere three years before their GM and Chrysler counterparts declared bankruptcy.
This is absolutely, unequivocally not the time to build a brand around a luxury sports roadster, no matter its name and legacy. With added context, the notion that the 2002-2005 Thunderbird was a failure falls away, revealing a tragic tale with multiple villains. More to the point, the machine itself was a solid effort with a loyal following, and though buyer demographics might look like you’d expect at a glance, there’s more to these numbers than what’s on the surface.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the eleventh-generation Thunderbird's vintage style appeals to Boomers more than anyone else (65%), but their share is also rising. Also heading upward is interest among Millennials, which has nearly tripled since the beginning of 2020. Their share is a modest 3%, but the growth rate is significant. Though the PreBoomer market share as a whole is decreasing, '02-'05 Thunderbirds are a popular choice among this segment and outstrip buyers of the original 1955-1957 Thunderbird (18% vs. 16%). Special editions of this Thunderbird get the most attention across all demographics.
Speaking of special iterations, in 2002, Ford made 200 units of black and silver Neiman Marcus edition. The next year brought the James Bond-themed, orange and coral colored 007 Edition (700 units made), and a Pacific Coast Roadster edition in debuted in 2004 (1000 units). The final year of production coincided with the Thunderbird's 50th Anniversary, so a unique Cashmere Edition (1500 units) was introduced. Unlike previous celebrations, the Cashmere Thunderbird shared its anniversary fender emblems with all 2005 models, leading many to believe all models are a commemorative edition. That confusion might undermine the market for the Thunderbird's legitimate special editions, but their impressive design and unique trimmings are indeed attracting buyers, and the Anniversary cars are trending up in value.
Much like the 1977-79 Continental Mark V decades before, Thunderbird special editions command a modest premium over a regular Thunderbird (which was available either in a Deluxe or a more upscale Premium trim). The Neiman Marcus edition commanded a significant price premium in late 2022, and though it has gone through a slight pandemic bubble, limited supply should keep them at the top of the T-Bird market in similar fashion to the Diamond Jubilee versions of the aforementioned Mark Series.
For all derivations of the eleventh-generation Thunderbird, the Hagerty Price Guide values hit their lowest point in mid-2020, and aside from the Neiman Marcus cars, prices have rebounded since settling in 2022. Coupled with the slightly growing younger demographics (and the die-hard older fanbase), the slight upward trend in this cooler market is a healthy sign and a positive indicator for the future.
As they age, Thunderbirds transition from a vehicle for a certain generation to becoming an icon for all ages. It's only a matter of time before younger folks embrace the eleventh-generation Thunderbird as more of the same good vibes, but with the added benefit of modern performance, safety, and efficiency.
Ford once said this last Thunderbird "epitomizes the American Spirit" and "recalls a simpler, more down-to-earth era." In that regard, they nailed it. But underneath the veneer of good times and great memories lay a company struggling to find itself, years before a global financial crisis forever altered the automotive industry. Now, that symbolism of optimistic determination could very well be the best thing about the 2002-05 Ford Thunderbird.