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 Heritage Moment: Thunderbird Captures Record-Breaking Fourth Motor Trend Car of the Year Honor

DATE: Will be calculated from "Release Start Date" field.

Editor's Note: Each Thursday, @Ford Online takes a look back at Ford heritage moments from the company's past. Click here for more heritage articles.​ ​

DEARBORN - On  Nov.  26, 2001, the 2002 Ford Thunderbird was named Motor Trend Car of the Year.

This award was the record fourth Car of the Year win for the Thunderbird nameplate.

Previous winners were the 1958 Thunderbird, the 1987 Thunderbird, and the 1989 Thunderbird SC.

Below is the Motor Trend Article from the January 2002 edition, highlighting the automotive honor.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
Winner Motor Trend 2002 Car of the Year
Ford revived more than an American icon when it boldly resurrected its unique Thunderbird sports/personal car for 2002. It also, as events would have it, reprised an historic Motor Trend Car of the Year win. Our forefathers here named the '58 T-Bird-the first of the larger, four-seat versions-as Car of the Year, hailing "the overall concept...that combines safety with performance and comfort with compactness." For 2002, we're happy to bestow that honor again, recognizing today's Thunderbird for how it combines heritage with modernity and pleasure with practicality.

We first got an inkling that Ford might be on to something big with this car six months before Car of the Year testing. We were driving and photographing a new 'Bird for the road test that would be our July cover story and noted a remarkable phenomenon: The car had public appeal that obliterated all demographic distinctions. Silver-haired gents and their wives came up to us wherever we parked and raved about the car. "Ah, that's the new Thunderbird. We heard Ford was gonna do that. We had a '56. Great car. How's this one drive? Will it really sell for under $40 grand?" And on and on. Clearly, Ford had a design that could tug at mature heartstrings.
 
But what surprised us was the kids. Tattooed, droopy-drawered teens would kick out of their skateboards to stop and rave. "Wow! Cool car. What is it?" With absolutely no historical context or nostalgic connection, these guys knew in their gut this was something special.
 
An automobile that gets a rise out of settled grandparents and rebellious grandkids must be on its way to stardom.
 
Most of us here at MT fall into that broad populace between silver hair and skateboards, but we were pretty taken by the new Thunderbird, as well. In that July test, we called it "The perfect top-down getaway toy for two-and still a top performer." And in a five-convertible road run to Lake Tahoe in our October issue, we observed "No question, the T-Bird was the star everywhere we went" and "Though the Thunderbird isn't billed as a true sports car, it works amazingly well when pushed."
 
So prior experience already had us impressed with what Ford managed to capture with its 21st-century Thunderbird revival. And though the T-Bird hardly strolled through our Car of the Year testing (the competition was too fierce for that), it did press its advantages in several key areas while showing us few real flaws. Our decathlon of tests revealed all about the 'Bird, and that turned out to be enough.
 
Obviously, the new 'Bird scores big in the Design category, with its immediately intriguing look. Notes J Mays, Ford's VP of design, "The 2002 Thunderbird was designed to point to the future while capturing some of the magic of the original." It starts at the face, where an egg-crate grille of recognizable classic-Thunderbird shape bends back into a rounded prow of up-to-date aero efficiency. And the whole car tapers from there into a subtle teardrop. Notice how the fender line falls gently from a high point over the front wheels-very unusual today. The steeply raked windshield has a deep curvature and heavy, chromed surround to impart a sense of safety and security. Lovely details abound, from the dropped hoodscoop to the tucked-in taillights (Mays' favorite part of the car). Forced to nitpick, we can wonder why the optional chrome wheel looks so flat and short on detailing. But this is a great-looking car, no question.
 
Hop inside and the interior treatment likely will also please you. It did us.
 
The basic instrument-panel and center-stack layout is lifted almost intact from the same Lincoln LS that provided the Thunderbird's chassis and powertrain foundation. But there's nothing wrong with that. It's a clean and functional design, with the genuine brushed-aluminum trim and available contrasting colors adding interest. And we can't complain about the ergonomics, though we can report that the seats didn't please some of our backsides. The tidy-looking buckets offer much less lateral support than their appearance promises and, in fact, feel almost convex, bulging in the middle in a way some staffers found annoying.
 
Most striking among the Thunderbird's Special Features is the obvious one-its convertible architecture. The power folding top motors down in 10 seconds, you can snap on the vinyl boot, then take off and enjoy the ride. Jack Keebler liked the execution: "The fully lined, tight-fitting top is a blue-chip feature." Clearly, Ford worked hard to control turbulence and wind noise with the top folded away, and the efforts paid off. Want to keep a hat on your head? Want to converse or listen to the radio on the freeway? Want to run all day with the top down and not feel brow-beaten? Do it. Of course, you may also opt for the porthole hardtop, which looks so gorgeous you won't mind having to call for backup to lift it on and off.
 
You may hear criticism of the T-Bird's Engineering, derived as the car is from that cut-down Lincoln LS platform. Don't worry about it. Platform-sharing is a fact of automotive life, and judged on its merits, the 'Bird holds up fine. In fact, maybe even better than it needs to. Ford hasn't positioned this as a sports-performance car, or as an enthusiasts-only product, yet we had boundless praise for the rigidity of its chassis, the tuning of its all-independent suspension, the response of its power rack-and-pinion steering, and the overall flexibility of its 3.9L DOHC V-8. "The line between relaxed and sporty is delicate," says Steve Akers, Thunderbird chassis and dynamics supervisor. We think his team walked that line brilliantly. As Matt Stone put it, "I love it. The T-Bird knows what it is and what it is not. Makes me feel like heading east on Route 66-tonight."
 
Stunning Performance is not the Thunderbird's main thing, though seven seconds flat 0-60 requires no apologies. The car stops and turns and sticks with a kind of mature, polished ease that we appreciated. We might prefer a little firmer damping and stiffer spring rates or some adjustability in the suspension, but we wouldn't want to sacrifice much refinement to sharper handling. We would, however, be happy to see a more sporting bias in the transmission. "Any aggressive driving makes the transmission confused and slow to react," said Chris Walton. While the ratios in the five-speed automatic accommodate the engine's torque delivery just fine, the shift quality left us cool. Upshifts were often too syrupy, downshifts could be late and then abrupt, and the detents in the selector were too vague to invite much manual operation. The SelectShift manumatic used in the Lincoln would be a huge improvement.
 
But those reservations don't appreciably detract from the Thunderbird's Fun Factor. "A way-cool cruiser," enthused Scott Mead. As a transportation device, any two-seat convertible has a natural air of goofing off about it, even when the rest of the car is this sophisticated. So don't think the smooth ride and draft-free cockpit are cheating somehow. This thing is a kick to run around in.
 
It's also pretty practical. For a highly expressive, personal car, the T-Bird has Daily Liveability that may surprise you. The trunk area, though shallow, is plenty wide and long, and the package shelf behind the seats also offers good stow space. Entry and exit are easy (especially with the top down, which it should be, mostly), and standard equipment includes all the usual power functions, along with that folding top. Realistically, the only practical downside to the car is the inherent constraint of two-place seating, if that matters to you.
 
Certainly, Safety matters, and that's an especially tricky issue in a convertible. There just isn't as much steel surrounding the occupants. Careful management of the structure aims to place rigidity and impact-absorption where they belong, and then Ford loads on the safety equipment. In addition to the front airbags, there are side bags that deploy from the outside seat bolsters. Seatbelts have pretensioners to take up slack in the early moments of an impact, plus energy-management retractors, which can then pay out a little slack to reduce the subsequent shock loading on the body. For security, an anti-theft system is standard, including an electronically coded ignition key. (The car will start only when it sees the correct key code out of 72 quadrillion possible codes-really.)
 
The same structural rigidity that contributes to crashworthiness and good handling imparts a strong sense of Quality. The car feels stiff and solid, remarkably so for a convertible. We rarely noticed any significant cowl shake or door flutter. Control feel is positive and reassuring, from the slack-free steering to the minor buttons and switches. There's nothing remarkable about the quality of materials inside, but also nothing disturbing. Overall assembly quality appears up to Ford's current laudable standard.
 
How does all this square with the asking price to make the all-important Value assessment? Most of our staff felt this is one of the new Thunderbird's strongest suits. "A great value statement," noted Chuck Schifsky. "Under $40 grand as tested, with a V-8 engine and classic style. It's a winner." Indeed. You can look at this two ways. Compare the T-Bird's mid-to-high-$30,000 tag to the prices of other drop-tops, such as Corvette (low-to-high $40s), Audi TT (low-to-high-$30s), and Mercedes SLK ($40,000 to mid-$50s). Even a Prowler is a mid-$40,000 investment. On that basis, the Thunderbird seems at least competitive with the alternatives.
 
Or you can honestly say there are no real alternatives-certainly none that offers the Thunderbird's balance of modern qualities with a resonance of history-and figure it's worth whatever it costs. We suspect most of the car's 25,000 buyers this year will opt for that rationale.
 
Certainly, we'll understand their motivation. Though no single entrant dominated all aspects of our 2002 Car of the Year testing, the Thunderbird crept toward the top persistently enough that we were ultimately won over. Ford can be proud of its modern-day reprise of a powerful American tradition. Not only is the Thunderbird handsome to look at, pleasing to drive, and fun to just think about, it's also a milestone development on the automotive landscape. We think it is, in fact, the most significant new car for 2002 and earns its place as Motor Trend's Car of the Year.
 
In Retrospect: Recalling MT's First Test of the Original Two-Seat T-Bird
In early 1953, we began chasing down leads indicating that Ford was preparing its answer to Chevy's Corvette. Within a year, we were standing next to a clay mockup of a new two-seater to be called Thunderbird. Shortly thereafter, we had our first look at an engineering prototype. Not driveable, we were told; and so began our campaign to get behind the wheel.
 
We reluctantly returned to our typewriters, but Ma Bell got lots of business over the next few months as we harangued Ford brass and PR folk to let a car loose. It took heaps of persuasion, since Motor Trend was hardly a household name: We'd just ended our fifth year, and we-along with our 450,000 readers-were labeled "car nuts." Strictly not part of the mainstream motoring public Detroit catered to.
 
In fall 1954, I'd been camped out in Detroit for most of a month, driving other cars for our November and December issues. At last, the call came, and we trekked out to Ford's Dearborn Proving Ground for our first go at this exciting new machine.
 
After a brief indoctrination by a facility engineer, we had the car to ourselves for most of a spottily sunny afternoon: on the handling course, on the straightaway, and briefly playing "dodge 'em" with various test mules on the oval. Compared to the '55 Ford sedan I'd driven earlier, I could corner the 'Bird 10-15 mph faster. 0-60 times were in the 11-sec range, equaling both the Corvette and my Austin Healey. Top down, it felt more like a sports car than a "personal car," as the Ford marketing types would prefer we call it-and as it really was.
 
Ford sold 16,000 new 'Birds that year, dwarfing the Corvette's fewer than 700 cars sold. That lead was never relinquished. Was the T-Bird that great? Perhaps not. Even though the '55-'57 T-Birds have become cult cars-oft-labeled "America's most loved classic"-they were cramped, had poor vision with the top up, and their Y-block V-8 was nowhere near as good as Chevy's high-revving new small block.
 
After that first year, the T-Bird became better looking (particularly the '56) and boasted more horses. But at its peak of popularity and sales success, the two-place body style was scrapped in favor of the '58 "Squarebird." Disappointed at first, but then seeing the logic of a midsize four-place luxury coupe, we gave it MT's Car of the Year award-an accolade the original never received.
 
First-generation Thunderbirds weren't entirely overlooked, however: The '55 placed second (behind Chrysler's 300) as Best-Looking car, back when we voted on such a thing. And the '56 shared in MT's award to all Ford cars for their safety features, along with being chosen tops in styling among sports-type cars. We called the 'Bird "a neo-classic, blending a modern feeling with the crisp, sharp-edged look reminiscent of the '30s."
 
Those near misses have now been avenged-after more than 45 years-with a two-seat Thunderbird finally, and rightfully, being dubbed Motor Trend's 2002 Car of the Year.
 
Walter A. Woron served as Motor Trend's Editor from 1949 to 1960.

  

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11/29/2012 6:05 AM