Have you ever seen something like a corporate fun run, and there’s some speeches or something before it gets all started, and some executive pulls the fun run company t-shirt over their button-down shirt and tie? You know how awkward and stiff and uncomfortable that looks? That’s what the tenth-generation Ford Thunderbird was. Some mid-level executive with a fun run shirt pulled awkwardly over his shirt and tie.
The Thunderbird, as a line of cars, is interesting; it’s one of the few cars to have spawned its own entire segment, “Personal Luxury.” That essentially was a way of saying a “two-door car for people who were too soft for an actual sports car but still really wanted to get laid a lot.” The first Thunderbirds from 1955 were small, striking-looking cars, fun and distinctive.
They got larger—a hell of a lot larger—in subsequent generations, but Thunderbirds always had a very distinctive style and presence.
A Thunderbird was a statement. It was fast, sure, and filled a role in America a lot like what GT cars filled in Europe, but the most important trait about Thunderbirds was something intangible but absolutely present: character.
Then came the 1980s.
Thunderbirds, like so many of us, began to get heavy and shapeless and character started to steadily leak from the car, like any vital fluid in almost anything made by British Leyland in the ‘70s.
By 1989, the tenth generation Thunderbird arrived, and it had been effectively drained of all presence or character or charm or personality, leaving behind a soft, bloaty shell, built on Ford’s new MN12 mid-size geriatric-coddling platform.
This platform replaced the Fox-body platform of the previous generation, and was, comically, designed to compete with BMWs. While technically more advanced than what came before, the end result was a fairly anonymous-looking aerodynamic suppository that was only identifiable as a Thunderbird due to the little bit of avian jewelry it wore on its nose.
The first years only offered an anemic V6 that drooled out 140 horsepower, but a supercharged version making 210 hp was available, too. Later, Ford shoved V8s into the 10th T-Bird, first 5.0-liter ones making 200 hp and later 4.6-liter ones making 205 hp. Adequate for the time, sure, but nothing that would give your genitalia any reason to get involved.
Ford did celebrate the return of a V8 to the Thunderbird with a commercial that promised you could pass an 18-wheeler truck on an incline, the one passing maneuver I can actually pull off in any of the 50ish horsepower shitboxes I drive:
In addition to these daring, bold claims, Ford’s advertising chimps also leveraged exciting concepts like inflation, spending, and consumer confidence to really get your juices sluicing:
Ford’s Mexican advertising was at least a little more daring, involving sheets and mannequins:
The 1989-1997 Thunderbirds weren’t terrible, really, but there was just no thunder in that bird. They were acceptably comfortable and usable large coupes, but I don’t think these Thunderbirds had any chance in hell of making the sort of emotional impact as their predecessors, and it feels like Ford knew it to, since these were the last Thunderbirds made for a while.
When J Mays designed the all-new 2002 Thunderbird, it was a controversial and very retro design that pulled from the original 1955 Thunderbird, and, looking at it in context of the 1989-1997 T-Birds, that makes total sense.
Of course he had to go back to the beginning and start over. The Thunderbird well as of 2002 was bled dry, and the only way to even attempt at bringing it back was to start from the beginning.
The tenth-gen Thunderbird is the youth pastor flipping his chair backwards and using the word “crap” so you know he’s real, he’s down with the kids and knows what’s hip. It’s old and bloated and desperately trying to be cool, and, as a result, just sort of embarrassing.
Of course, having to live up to the Thunderbird name is a burden for a hard-working young car. But I think it’s safe to say this one never even came close.
Of all the Thunderbirds, am I going to get angry emails from people who like these sad blandmobiles best? Probably.