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Ford Thunderbird (2002-2005) Buying guide, history and review

Words: Matthew Hayward

As a Bond fan, whenever I see the retro-styled Ford Thunderbird I’m reminded of its fleeting appearance in Die Another Day. Driven by Bond’s CIA counterpart Jinx (Halle Berry), it fits the larger-than- life character and joyfully OTT film down to that last T. Yet, out in the real world, there’s something slightly surreal about it – especially in the UK.

Although the 1950s and ’60s T-Birds are fondly remembered, the model lost its way somewhat through the 1980s and ’90s before the forgettable coupé version was killed off in 1997. The revival set out to make a return to the glory years, thanks to a heavy dose of retro styling and a revisiting of its convertible roots. The final design was completed in 1999 under the watchful eye of J Mays, and the first production models landed in 2001.

Under the skin, the Thunderbird was based on the Ford DEW platform that had underpinned the Lincoln LS and the equally retro-looking Jaguar S-type. As the Thunderbird was a prestige model, instead of sticking the Mustang’s V8 under the bonnet Ford built its own short-stroke, 252bhp, 3.9-litre version of Jaguar’s AJ30 V8 engine, mated to its own five-speed automatic transmission.

The Thunderbird was designed as a cruiser from the outset, with style, comfort and luxury to the fore. Buyers flocked to the dealers and Ford sold 31,368 Thunderbirds in the first full year. The reviews were mostly positive, too; Motor Trend magazine even crowned it as Car of the Year.

For the 2003 model year, Ford introduced an updated AJ35 engine with power bumped up to 280bhp thanks to variable camshaft timing. Otherwise there were no major changes, just minor updates to the interior such as a revised gauge cluster from 2003, plus a few more colours and a new wheel option. After that initial flurry of interest, though, sales and production pretty much fell off a cliff.

There were a few special edition versions over the years, which are worth keeping an eye out for. The 2002 Neiman Marcus Edition got an interesting two-tone black-and-silver paintjob and a nicely appointed interior, while the 2003 James Bond 007 Edition got the same Coral paint and white hardtop as Jinx’s film car. With neat numerical symmetry, Ford built 700 007s. All 2005 model-year Thunderbirds featured 50th anniversary plaques, and the Cashmere Special Edition featured a particularly nice grey interior trim.

Production finally came to an end in July of the Thunderbird breed’s 50th year. Just over 68,000 examples of this last incarnation had rolled off the production line over four years. It hadn’t quite been the success that Ford had hoped for, but it had found plenty of loving owners. Ford hasn’t reprised the Thunderbird idea since then despite the affection in which it is held, nor is it likely to any time soon.

There’s a small but loyal following for this final Thunderbird in the US, with a few decent specialists ensuring plenty of support for owners around the world. It’s an acquired taste, much like Die Another Day, but it’s one that seems good value right now, both here and in the US.

Ford Thunderbird common problems

Ford Thunderbird

• The Jaguar-based engine is a known quantity and generally very reliable. Any misfires are most likely to be caused by failing coil packs. Check for oil leaks around the valve covers, which is often the main reason.

• Ensure that the electric hood operates correctly, especially if it is fitted with a hard top. Repair kits for the fragile latches are available.

• Check the condition of the spare spacesaver tyre. They have been known to explode in the boot!

What to pay?

Although it wasn’t offered in right-hand drive, plenty of left- hand drive models have made it to the UK as grey imports. Prices have firmed up in the past two years in line with the market, but you can still find a well-maintained example from around £10,000, rising to £15k for a minter.

Although finding one in the UK is easy enough, the selection of cars in the US is far superior. Prices are broadly the same and there is no shortage of pampered cars around the $15,000-20,000 mark.

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