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Two Fords Look Back at the Future

The T-Bird and Bullitt Mustang

by Denise McCluggage

2002 Ford Thunderbird“The cars we fell in love with and the cars we fell in love in.”

That’s how the Ford executive evoked the original Thunderbird and the Mustang in introducing to the assembled motoring journalists the new Thunderbird and the special edition Bullitt Mustang.

The music was period; the nostalgia was slathered on with a spatula, and the romantic appeal may well have resonated with many.

Not me.

I certainly never loved those cars back then. I was beyond that. Too smitten by “real” sports cars from abroad to do other than sneer at the pink and port-holed T-Bird or the crude brute that was the Mustang. (Anyway, my preference among Detroit iron then: the Barracuda.)

But, funny thing happened on the way to the future. It turns out what the Ford exec had wrong in my case was the tense, because in the following few days I fell wide-grin in love with both the new Thunderbird and the Bullitt Mustang. What a surprise! What a revelation! What fun!

And it is not that I’ve changed; the times and the cars have. The new millennium versions of these two Fords are more than mere symbols, more than an easy ploy to stir nostalgic applause: these are real cars. I can relate to that.

First, the Bullitt Mustang.

Ford Bullitt Mustang

The Ford Bullitt Mustang

It’s a special numbered edition of only 6500 to commemorate the 1968 fastback Mustang that memorably chased about the hills and environs of San Francisco in the Steve McQueen movie, “Bullitt.”

Ford could have merely painted it pretty, slapped on the “Bullitt” name, put a DVD of the flick in each glove box and waited for collectors to gather. The Ford folks did much more. They tweaked and fiddled and buttressed producing a singularly desirable machine. (And it can be had appropriately dark in green, blue or black.)

The Bullitt is not SVT hot like the Mustang Cobra, but it outperforms the Mustang GT. Digs out better with good low-end torque, responds quickly to the throttle at all speeds and handles appreciably better - thanks to Ford Racing. The car is stiffer and so are the springs and anti-roll bars, yet the ride is not harsh. The brakes (discs) are bigger and quite effective. ABS and traction control are also standard. (Lt. Frank Bullitt, McQueen’s character, would be speechless, but then he was always tight-lipped.)

The Cool Looks department also gets attention: side scoops, neat wheels, leather. But just maybe the best thing about the Bullitt is its exhaust note, somewhere between a rumble, a howl and a moan. Don’t be surprised to see a disproportionate number of Bullitts frequenting roads with tunnels or running beside steep escarpments. The windows will be down; drivers will be beaming.

The other grin-producing aspect of the Bullitt Mustang is the fine ride it gives on tight and curly roads. Taut, responsive with a turn-in like a barrel-racing pony. It does good work.

“Bullitt,” the movie, is supposed to be a guy thing and by extension the Bullitt Mustang, too. That’s what guys say. Gals know better and no few of them with $26,830 will be in line for this machine. (Do the blue; green is too obvious.) [Details on the Bullitt]

And now the Thunderbird.

They got it right, simple as that.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

The 2002 Ford Thunderbird

First off, don’t let that word “retro” escape your lips. Little besides the name (and the precious port holes in the hard top) harks back to the original Thunderbird. Oh yes, the subtle “reverse wedge” shape evident in the side view. (No using this car for a doorstop.) That higher-in-front silhouette, designers say, was to evoke the relaxed, touring-time feel of the first car.

To me the original T-Bird seemed a bit brittle and edgy. The 2002 T-Bird is more like a licked ice cream cone. And as smooth and sweet. In appearance alone it has more presence, more tactile sense than any T-Bird ever.

Maybe the wrap-up word is “charm.”

The T-Bird is indeed charming and that’s not by chance. It is evident that a lot of chin-in-hand contemplation went into this car - a lot of care not to make it too slick, too continental, too non-American, too past, too future. They danced at the edge of the light.

Again, they got it right.

Ford had the good sense not to even whisper the word “sports car” around the first T-Bird. It was a “personal” car. Two seats, automatic transmission, power steering, power seats and even power windows if you wanted them. (We sports car drivers had plastic side curtains and a canvas flap to stick a cold hand out of to pay the toll. Of course we sneered at those other guys and their comfort.)

If the new T-Bird is “personal” then personal is about a foot longer than 1955. (But 7 plus inches shorter than the Lincoln LS, to which the T-Bird is closely related.) And “personal” in 2002 means a whole lot closer to a sports car than it ever has before. (Ignore completely those over-inflated years of the bloated T-Birds.)

Yes, the T-Bird is melted-chocolate smooth on good road surfaces. Isn’t that expected? It even tames the roughness of scabby pavement. But then, still dressed for the club, it zips around a tightening bend and aims for a late apex. Almost apologetic to be so good at this. Was that a little float there, a bit of body roll, a tiny push? Never mind. Inconsequential. And the esses are taken true and well and the next turn and the next winding to clouds draped in the trees and pitching down again in a coil and the Michelins hang in there and car feels balanced and collected. (I wanted to say to my driving companion: “This isn’t supposed to do this so well,” but I am dancing with the T-Bird, mute at the still point, delighted in my surprise.)

2002 T-Bird

The 2002 T-bird with hard-top option

But isn’t it arrogant to be surprised? I have admired similar qualities in engine and handling in the Lincoln LS sedan, that close relative.

Flaws? Yes, I can find them. Not in the brakes, though, or the suspension. Maybe not enough low-end torque. Why not add a manual transmission to direct the 3.9 liter four-cam V-8? Easier to surf the torque curve that way. But then that’s not what the T-Bird is meant for. And the six-speed automatic is quite smooth at that.

The interior of the T-Bird is right enough. Which means right to this T-Bird at this time. The interior is not perfect but it is perfectly American and a perfect fit for the T-Bird. It could have been otherwise.

J Mays, boss design man at Ford, was quite recently at Audi, emperor of interiors. He knows about slick, shining, dotted-cleverness like the TT. Or elegant stylish exercises like the A6. But he didn’t let them do that to the T-Bird. He must have remembered the red earth of his native Oklahoma just in time and Uncle Sammed the T-Bird just the right amount. (The borrowed-looking dash and center console and the ubiquitous Ford switches feed that feeling as well as saving money.)

You gotta love it all.

The exterior starts out being pretty much of OK (despite the plastic grille that looks a little too plastic) and then grows on you. That elongated turquoise-touched bird emblem on the rounded hood is simply lovely. And lordy the tail lights! Maybe better than driving this car is following it around admiring the simple but glorious taillights. (Perhaps I have the beginning of a fetish here - I’m smitten by the taillights on the PT Cruiser, too.)

Oh yes, colors. A brush with memory is the oh-so-50’s turquoise (though less toothpaste-looking than the original T-Bird’s) and a reminiscent yellow. (Those are 2002 colors only.) Red, black, white. Looks good in all of them.

The Thunderbird has a smooth-operating power soft top. Up and down is a snap. Optional is a hard top (with required port holes) that needs two sturdy people to deal with. (When it’s left behind in the garage it rests on a frame that comes with it.)

That hardtop is a $2,500 option. The deluxe T-Bird (there’s no “basic”) lists for $35,495. The premium ‘Bird is $36,495. There’s a bunch of equipment that goes with that. A good value, this T-Bird.

2002 T-Bird Interior

The 2002 T-Bird interior
 (Neiman-Marcus Edition)

The cockpit is comfortable and roomy enough for two adults, but better they be penniless with no belongings. A small curved space behind the seats might hold a tote bag or light shopping. The trunk would be best used stuffed with assorted soft-sided bags. Don’t stay away long.

And don’t let a rain catch you because if the top has to go up, the stiffened tonneau cover has to come off...and where to put it if the trunk is full? The Ford design team had better go back to the CAD program and come up with a way to deal with the tonneau - maybe hinge it so it can sit like a dish in the trunk and hold the meager luggage. Otherwise design a top that looks complete when down without a cover.

Quibble, quibble. When you’re in love, it’s a foible -- not a fault. 

[Details on the T-Bird]