This weekend’s 55th anniversary of the Thunderbird raises the inevitable question “what’s next?”. 2 years ago, a lowly salesman at a Ford dealer in Georgia started an unsubstantiated rumor by claiming to a potential customer that there would be a new Thunderbird produced for the 2012 model year. The rumor swept the Internet, but was quickly realized as bunk.
It’s obviously impossible for Ford to produce a new Thunderbird for 2012 – and it’s also undesirable at this point in time. Several things determine this, the first of which is the financial condition of Ford itself. Remember that while money is being made again, the debt of tens of billions of dollars remains to be paid. This prevents investment in a product that would inherently sell in low numbers. Or, does it?
The last Thunderbird was based on Ford’s DEW-98 platfrom, shared with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type. The Thunderbird was essentially a 2-door Lincoln LS, sharing everything including it’s V-8 engine and driveline, dashboard, and console. As little Billy Ford jealously chipped away at the plans of Jacques Nasser, cutting nearly all his product plans to pieces (including an all-new rear wheel drive chassis to compete against the BMW 3-series standard), the Thunderbird lost it’s planned V-6, supercharged V-8, 6-speed manual transmission, and handling suspension with Brembo brakes. All of these were discussed in Ford interviews, and the handling/brake package was even discussed in the Thunderbird launch article in Car & Driver magazine.
A new Mustang was also intended to use the same DEW-98 platform. However, after several years of cost/benefit and market studies failed to justify use of the platform (studies which somehow missed Nissan’s successful leverage of it’s global rear wheel drive FM platform across several cars and crossovers), the new Mustang became simply a very dumbed-down Lincoln LS. So dumbed-down that after the development process nothing was left except the middle of the floor pan and the fuel system architecture. The short/long-arm front suspension was left behind for cost reasons, as was the IRS. An entirely different and much less expensive IRS was planned and developed for the Mustang, but was dropped suddenly by senior management for political and cost reasons. It is still on the shelf waiting as an option; in late 2005 AutoWeek reported that it could be offered since the solid axle car had an inherently rough ride and jumped over any and all rough pavement.
At the moment, lots of different things are happening inside Ford for driving enthusiasts. Some of the more interesting questions revolve around the future of the Mustang. The Mustang has finally received a revised modular V-8 engine (almost 20 years after the original design was introduced) and a class-leading standard V-6 (after a 36 year string of mediocre 4 cylinders and an ancient V-6 engine that dated back to the early ’60s) but suffers from the limitations of the dime-store chassis and the shear size and weight of the car (granted, much less than the Camaro and Challenger, although a far lighter and smaller replacement for the Camaro is in the planning stages).
So the question today is, could a more sophisticated Mustang platform form the basis for a new Thunderbird? Note the Thunderbird is not a Mustang – it wouldn’t be a “dressed up” Mustang GT, it would be designed for a much higher and more mature demographic. According to Jim Farley, Ford’s group vice president of Global Marketing, “Each generation of the Thunderbird had a unique personality that ushered in a new generation of breakthroughs in design or technology.” Therefore, a new Thunderbird would optimally require a sophisticated chassis and engine, combining the two into a class-standard driving experience. That leaves out the current Mustang chassis, with it’s stone-age suspension. But with the IRS waiting in the wings, and perhaps some improvement to the front strut suspension, Ford would have half the equation.
The other half could be the Ecoboost V-6, with over 400 horsepower on tap (front-wheel drive versions are currently 355 or 365, but an uprated version exceeding 365 is in the pipeline for the Taurus cop car, and a rear wheel drive version is imminent for the F-150) . The EcoBoost engine would be the optional engine, witha direct-injected 3.7 V-6 as standard. Couple both to an off-the-shelf Getrag 8-speed automatic (already designed for OEM use) and you have the makings of a nicely sophisticated drivetrain. The styling and interior should be left to J Mays again, and this time with a budget for a unique dashboard (in the plans for the last Thunderbird, but cancelled at the last moment). We’ll admit that it is frankly hard to see how he could top the ’50s-based last car, and post-50s Thunderbirds would hardly be a good model for a new car.
Added benefit: cost-sharing with the Mustang. And, perhaps, if it isn’t too late, with a new-generation Australian Falcon. But it may be too late for that. Ideas about a global rear wheel drive platform (previewed in the Interceptor showcar) seem to be yielding to higher priorities inside Ford, and that likely means the Mustang will remain an “orphan” platform, doomed to a limited budget. Adding perhaps 40k Thunderbirds to that equation doesn’t help the cost equation very much, and increases the likelihood that the Mustang will remain on a slightly reworked variant of it’s current platform (which could stand to loose 300 pounds and gain a hatchback). There may be a missing element in this equation in the Lincoln MKR showcar, built on a hodgepodge of Interceptor and Mustang parts. But adding that, with sales even less than the Thunderbird, may still not be enough to pay the bills. So in the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait and watch Ford. If something is under development, it will inevitably be seen on the streets of Dearborn, or on the highways outside of Phoenix. We’ll probably see a Mustang first, and anything else based on it much later.