FORD THUNDERBIRD CONCEPT
Evening black with bright red leather trimmed interior
The Thunderbird name has a rich automotive heritage but originates from Arizona and New Mexico. According to legend, Thunderbird ruled the sky and was a divine helper of man. The great wings - invisible to mortal man - created the winds and thunder and provided rains in the arid desert, where fate had brought the Native Americans.
The 1999 Ford Thunderbird prototype really needs no introduction or description, but it is such a great story it is worth repeating.
Twice in Ford history the two-seat Ford Thunderbird has been created outside usual channels. Despite checks and balances, meetings and budgets, reports and reviews, a group of enthusiastic and creative people who believed in the company they worked for and who were convinced a two-seater would generate new and profitable business created the Ford Thunderbird and converted the corporation to their view. Not once, but twice, almost fifty years apart.
In 1952 the subterfuge was led by Franklin Hershey, the head of the Ford design studio, who assigned a small team of Bill Boyer, Damon Woods, Dick Samsen and Allan Kornmiller to an off-limits section of the studio to begin design of the Ford Sports Car. Hershey didn't have authorization for the work so it was conducted in secret and continued until late 1952. By then there was a full-size clay model and work had begun on a working prototype for the mechanical layout but work was stopped. Introduction of Chevrolet's Corvette in January 1953 changed that. The call went out for a Ford sports car, Hershey reassembled his team and on February 9, 1953 received authorization for the project. On the record the first two-seat Ford Thunderbird was completed in the astounding time of only six months from approval of the project to approval of the final design, because Hershey and his team already had the concept nailed down before formal approval for it was given.
Fast forward to 1997. The five-seat Thunderbird went out of production with no namesake to carry on forty-three years of Thunderbird heritage. Rich Kisler, Don Warneke and Ted Finney, a multi-disciplined team of planner, engineer and designer, were convinced the Thunderbird heritage should continue. Their enthusiasm quickly spread and others began to contribute ideas, concepts and hours until the Thunderbird project snowballed into a movement that was so well presented and supported it convinced Jack Telnack, vice president, Design, to give it formal project status.
Evolution of the Thunderbird began slowly but one of the first things the designers noticed was that the stance of the classic Thunderbird vehicles (they had both a '55 and a '57 in the studio) was distinctively different from late '90s designs. The classic T-Bird long hood is higher than its rear deck and tail fins, the reverse of today's wedge profile. That simple distinction proved ultimately to be the defining characteristic of the T-Bird shape. (Try draping a '55-'57 T-Bird with cloth. It will be instantly recognizable as a T-Bird by its reverse wedge profile.) Other important details followed. Round tail lights. Front fender chevrons. Eggcrate grille. Hood scoop. Raked windshield with a wraparound effect. Subtle "Thunderbird" script identification.
Several of Ford's design studios made proposals for the Thunderbird including California, Germany and the Ghia studio in Italy. Nancy Gioia moved from heavy trucks to lead the selection of the chassis and in June 1997 the project settled on the new front engine, rear wheel drive, V-8 powered Lincoln LS as the basis for the T-Bird. The initial prototypes were created on the computer, doing major redesign to move the door hinge pillars back to keep the classic Thunderbird long hood look and to build into the chassis structure the rigidity required by the Thunderbird convertible body style.
The new Thunderbird is a modern, complex, reliable, environmentally conscious automobile loaded with comfort and convenience options. Yet its designers were careful to credit its heritage in the interior to complement all the work that went into creating a modern exterior that is instantly recognizable as a Thunderbird. The Design Manager, Mark Conforzi, chose to retain the original Thunderbird seat insert stitching pattern and pick out the dashboard's details with bright accents balanced by body color.
Next came the concept models. Three were built. One was converted into a new concept called the Thunderbird Sports Roadster. Ford is keeping one. The 3rd model is the 1999 Ford Thunderbird concept offered here.
This Thunderbird concept is unique. In the course of finalizing the Thunderbird design and layout, this example was built on a 1 inch longer wheelbase than the production Thunderbirds. Its hardtop is lower, although only by 10mm (0.4 inches). It is the only Thunderbird built in evening black with a bright red interior, a color combination that is not offered on the production Thunderbird.
It comes with its hardtop only. The faux 17" chromed alloy wheels (actually these are chrome plated plastic wheel covers) have show tires with custom-cut tread patterns. Bodywork on this concept is constructed from fiberglass, there are no windows, the instruments are mock ups and the plexiglass windshield is more steeply raked than on the later production cars. It is in show quality condition, with only some wear to the driver's seat back bolster to show for its career on the car show circuit. The paint and chrome are brilliant.
Following the highly acclaimed debut of the new Thunderbird at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford quickly put into action plans to put the new model into production. There was also an unveiling at the 1999 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. By late 2001 the new 2002 Thunderbird was available for the eager public to buy. In November 2001, a huge accolade was bestowed upon the new model when it was awarded the highly prestigious 2002 Car of theYear award from Motor Trend magazine.
This 1999 Thunderbird concept is a unique opportunity to acquire one of the most anticipated show models in years and also to preserve an example that is unique in wheelbase, hardtop height and color combination. Early model production 1955 Thunderbird vehicles are valuable and highly prized centerpieces for serious collectors. This unique pre-production concept of the 2002 Thunderbird will be as well.