Market Spotlight

Wings clipped early, the 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird seeks to fly as a future classic

by Sajeev Mehta
14 September 2023 5 min read

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.



  • MrKnowItAll says:

    They’re nice from the cowl back… that front end, especially the headlights, gave it a “scared” countenance.
    Never on my list… far from it.

  • neilwoji says:

    Under powered…cramped cockpit…expensive replacement parts… way it will be on my list

  • Michael Williams says:

    Face it, it was just an ugly automobile.

  • hyperv6 says:

    They left a lot on the table.

    This should have been more a GT. More power, better handling and a bit more edge to the design.

    Ford just missed it on this car in all areas. But if you like an affordable convertible this is an option.

  • ExThunderbirdGirl says:

    It was a fun car to drive – but had multiple issues: (1) Ignition coil failures – Ford issued a TSB with a limited warranty extension but would only authorize repairs as they failed one-by-one. So you had to make 8 trips to the repair shop – if you were lucky enough to have them all fail before the warranty ended; and (2) Steering wheel controls not working – Dealer didn’t know what the problem was & said to replace the entire steering column! I finally had an independent mechanic diagnose the issue (clock spring) & easily fix it. This was also a known problem with the Lincoln Navigator. I would have solved the problem much earlier if I had known the term “clock spring”. But unfortunately I’m not a “gearhead”.

  • Jon Roe says:

    I have always been a TBird guy. My Dad had a 1964 and a 1970. I took the 1970 and also got myself a 1993 SC. I was looking forward to the revived bird but……the styling was really quite drab and, I’m sorry, the engine was an embarassment as well as the lack of a manual transmission option. If it had a decent engine and a stick, I probably would have overlooked the drab appearance.

  • Fred Brooks says:

    It seems that non-performance 2 seat American cars live very short lives. Buick Reatta, Cadillac Allante and XLR, Pontiac Fiero come to mind with this Thunderbird. The Corvette and later Dodge Viper longevity is maintained because the cars were real dual purpose, weekday drivers and weekend warrior. (Yes, most never see the warrior part, but like having a great outdoor deck you never use, it’s ready to use if you want to). Any “personal luxury” 2 seater is good looking and does that job well is going to be overlooked because of lack of room and no performance or racing capabilities without heavy mods. Ford did a nice job of capturing the image of the early ‘Birds. Front end needs help.

  • Glenn Hargrove says:

    I have never thought it was an ugly automobile. One of the things I think they should have done was to make a performance model with a slight rumble and different wheels and paint. But after reading this article, I realize there were too many corporate factors working against the car. Too bad.

  • Colsteve says:

    One item for the future as parts and internals wear out. The electrical foundations differ year to year the the PCMs don’t interchange. I’m recalling a HMN story of some three years ago. Not sure if Ford or any other after market supplier will address these needs. Same issues in wiring for the early Cougars vs. the Mustangs. Cougars wete Mercury’s attempt to garner sales that otherwise went b to the T-Bird back in the 60s. They did a good job of it as the T-Bird grew in size and costs.

  • Tim Kuehl says:

    Two things blew it for the 02-05 T-Bird. First, the ugly headlights stolen from the Plymouth/Dodge Neon. Second and not so obvious, it was a Jaguar underneath.

  • paul s murray says:

    Ugly no, but not good either. I think that Ford designers looked too much to the old bird and felt the need to retain all the original styling cues, not all of which translated well to a modern car. ( and I’ve never been a fan of porthole windows even though I understand that requirement ) I would however love to have one and a bucket full of cash and time. A ‘what they should have done’ project. If there was one car Ford should have reintroduced to the fold it’s the original Capri 1- 2. With as popular as it was in it’s day and fitting into the global car mentality I’m surprised they never gave that a shot. Instead we have the short lived retro bird. At least it’s in like company. The Prowler ,PT Cruiser , SSR and Beetle all fell short of the mark as well.

  • Glen says:

    I rather like the car, it drives well, looks good and gathers attention where ever I take it. Not much trouble with parts and prices have not been too bad, however I have less than 20,000 miles on it. Where else can you buy a comfortable convertible for warm evening cruises

    • JeffB says:

      I like the look of these, but think my 2005 Toyota Solara convertible, even with 116,000 miles is probably a lot more reliable.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    It was a good idea with so so execution. I liked the Lincoln and Ford Forty Nine concepts.

  • BG95PreludeSRV says:

    The 11th generation Thunderbird was doomed from the start with the very unfortunate choice of the Lincoln LS platform. Ford had no end of trouble with the Lincoln LS, a car that nearly every owner deeply regretted buying for its epic unreliability.

    For made some of its worst decisions back in those days, and this is one. Their other big mistakes included dropping the Taurus and launching an Americanized Focus which took all of the redeeming goodness of the European Focus and flushed it down the toilet with a car nobody could love.

    • David R Twyman says:

      To BG95PreludeSRV, not sure if you are speaking from experience, but i had a 2001, 2003 and 2006 Lincoln LS and never had a single issue with any of them. 2006 was the best and last .

  • L Harry Jackson says:

    I own a 2004 pacific coast misty green (#192) with 22,000 miles , if anyone wants to make me an offer I can’t refuse I will consider selling. My name is on the original title.

  • paul s murray says:

    x t-bird – I shall yield to expertise and assume your definition is correct. However an ‘opera window’ is generally thought of as what’s in the big 70’s birds and Lincolns. Besides the portho…round widow is the one to put a stuffed parrot behind for a giggle.

  • Frank T. says:

    I bought a nice shape 2002 T – Bird premium with 40,000 miles on the clock, ( orig. owner lamented lost a ton of money on the sale ) with the beautiful ” T – Bird blue ” one year only color. Cool car but nagged with expensive problems. Idiotic designed fan clutch behind radiator leaked badly. Fuel pump went out. 6 disc C.D. player stopped working, etc. Finally got rid of it at a hefty loss too.

  • Kyree Rollerson says:

    My best friend, at the ripe age of 23, bought a 2005 Thunderbird. At the time, the car was still under 10 years old, and quite expensive. I recall the car being rather problematic…everything from the window refusing to drop down out of the soft-top frame when the door handle was pulled, to the electronics going haywire, to the weird 3.9-liter variant of the Jaguar V8 acting up, to the car not being able to adequately warm itself in freezing weather. He loved it, though.

  • JJ says:

    I would have absolutely bought one as soon as they came out, but …. no manual transmission = NO SALE! So I got a BMW Z3 with 5 speed instead, which I still love at 158k miles. I now have a 2002 Retrobird but don’t really like it because I just hate automatic. 😧

  • Kevin O’Hara says:

    I’m a real fan. The car drives great. My 2002 has only had a fuel pump replaced and a power steering pump. The rest flawless. I bought the 007 model for my wife a year later. The white interior however was not her favorite. In 2004 I added the PCR version which is very elegant in Monterey mist. I later bought a Neiman Marcus model. They are great cars. I did not get a 2005 because the Ford GT came out and picked up one of those instead. They ended the production because of a change in corporate leadership really.
    It already is a classic. Not a high dollar one but still a classic because of the long Tbird heritage. If you don’t like them, that’s fine. There aren’t a large number of them out there so that all works out. Lastly, I do wish they had continued to some higher performance models but that fell victim with the corporate plan. Try one before you decide.

  • Ray Frechette says:

    I am the original owner of a trouble free 2003 Bird and have enjoyed it for 23,000 miles. It is comfortable and has ample power. The big problem with these cars is Ford over priced them, assembled them in short quantity and dealerss proceeded to add to the MSRP at first to the tune that they were not accepted by the general public. Should Ford have produced what the market wanted in quantity and not overpriced them, the ‘Bird would have been successful.

  • John the Road Again says:

    I loved the retro look, and the downsloping trunk in an age where everything else went up in the back. But the interior was uninspired. Unfortunately, it was largely a mediocre performing parts bin car with all of the disadvantages of such and none of the advantages.

  • Dave W says:

    I’ve owned a 2002 Thunderbird for 19 years and I’m still thrilled to own it. Reliability is no worse than any other 20-year-old car. I love the style and think the Lincoln LS/Jag S Type roots was a good decision. I don’t get all of the underpowered comments. It was never intended to be a performance car, that was the Musatng was for, I own one of them too (2022 GT).

  • Mark Monteiro says:

    I have two; yellow 2002 for me and blue 2005 for my lady. In 9 years, relatively trouble free, and pleasant drivers. They do get a lot of attention out in public. Scary, underpowered Jaguar engines and complicated LS platform, but parts are not an issue, and we have not had reliability problems. They have become comfortable old friends.

  • Daniel Plotkin says:

    I believe the last T-Bird failure was similar to the first (55-57 model).
    The first and last T-Birds were neither fish nor foul. No powerful engine, low weight or smaller size meant it wasn’t a good sports car. No back seat meant it wasn’t a good family car. So the audience was rather small, and included the post-middle aged affluent male seated in a showroomed T-Bird captioned “a Mink Coat for Father” seen in national advertising at the time.

    For 1958 Ford added a back seat and the T-Bird took off selling 38,000, 67,000 in 1959 and 92,000 for 1960. (As opposed to 1955 – 16,000, 1956 – 15,000 and 1957 – 27,000).

    Its clearer than daylight what the problem was and what would solve it. The Hagerty article analysis and the comments that follow miss the point entirely. Unlike Corvette, Thunderbird was never a sports car and never a high performance car. It was always a stylish fad with beautiful interiors and performance commensurate with targeted buyer expectations. It never was a sports car or muscle car.

    This idea that the Jaguar DNA in Ford’s pretty good DEW98 platform stifled sales is ridiculous. Unlike a Corvette buyer a T-Bird customer didn’t know what a car platform was and didn’t care. Every T-bird from 58 through 76 shared a body, chassis and running gear with a Lincoln.

    All the Thunderbird ever needed was a back seat.

    Danny Plotkin

  • Mike E V says:

    Comments on this car run the gamut. A test drive is not the way to judge a vehicle. How many here actually owned one and spent some time with one? In 2006 we purchased a pre-owned 04′ T-Bird from a former employee. It was red with camel interior, camel soft top and a red hardtop with carrier and showing 13K on the odo. The original wheels had been replaced with 17″ custom units and it was hand pinstriped . The 04′ & 05′ models had increased horsepower requiring premium fuel but it beat out our friends 2007 Mustang GT by a couple of car lengths up to 100 mph. Not bad. Cramped? Definitely not. For a two seater, once inside (the doors are HUGE!) it was quite comfortable. Much more than our 2014 Mercedes 350 Cabriolet, especially on long trips. We loved that car. Easy to service, literally had zero repairs in the 8 years of ownership. The wife loved how she could put the top down at the touch of a button and the boot was quite easy to install. We upgraded to 20″ wheels from out Jaguar XF and the car had a terrific stance then. We did trade it in on the Mercedes and got more than we paid for it. I wouldn’t mind owning another but don’t break a tail light lens. $$$$ if you can find one.

  • Verdigris says:

    I hated these when they came out, but they have grown on me – minus the horrid chrome wheels. I would consider one of these when I get too rickety to get in and out of my Boxster, except a Mercedes SL is about the same price where I live, so three pointed star it would be. Now, if I found a special edition ‘bird 5.0 Coyote swapped with a manual, different story.

  • paul s murray says:

    Plotkin , I do believe you’re forgetting the Paxton supercharged 312 ( F bird ) engine. Rated @ 300 hp which is quite respectable for the time. More than the Corvette offered that year and certainly better than the fire breathing 150 hp “blue flame ” powerglide combination. Some cars aren’t meant to just sell units they’re intended to get people inside the dealership.

  • John Quinn says:

    I own a 2004, and consider it a beautiful car that’s smooth riding and turns heads everywhere I go. I like the chrome wheels on this car. They flicker when you drive by like jewelry. I believe that whoever designed this car was in love with it. It’s not perfect, but has plenty of power to get out of its way and I thoroughly enjoy driving it. I’ve had Mustangs, Corvettes, Camaros, other T-birds, etc. and this is a special car amongst all of them. It’s just not for everyone.

  • paul s murray says:

    Plotkin- According to my information 196 ( not including another 15 “competition models” brought by Ford to Daytona in 57 that set a new record at…138 plus? ) The E bird ( optional dual quad 270 horse version ) numbers are, needless to say, higher.

  • gord cunningham says:

    have a 2002 bought it with 130000 miles on it a lot of suspension work done, all coils, cooling system plastic houseings , after market 17 wheels , goes good rides good , hard to get in and out roof head room not good, comfortable rides like a Lincoln deck broken but radio works the car…

  • Dandi says:

    I own a 2004 that I purchased off the Dealer showroom when new. It has been a wonderful car except for the battery blowing up! Thank God it was in the trunk! This is the only Ford product I have ever owned. It is a lot easier to get in and out of than the Corvettes I have owned. It has been problem free for almost 20 years except for the Ford battery that blew up. It is stored in a garage and still has the original tan canvass top. It is a pleasure to drive.

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