Ford's Thunderbird Gets Axed
Jerry Flint, 04.22.03
The news is out and official. Ford will kill the Thunderbird.
I've been down this road before. The original little T-bird, a two-seater, came out in 1954. It wasn't really a sports car, but it was great-looking. Sales were never much--15,000 to 18,000 a year. So the moneymen made it into a four-seater in 1958. Sales went up, all right. Ford built 87,000 in 1960, but the car never looked so good again. Eventually the Thunderbird evolved into a mediocre, bloated car that was put out its misery during the reign of Ford (nyse: F - news - people ) President Jacques Nasser.
A few years back, and with great hoopla, a new, sleek Thunderbird was unveiled on the auto show circuit. The car returned to its roots as a smaller, stylish, two-passenger convertible. The production vehicle came out late in 2001, and it turned heads wherever it went. But Ford expected sales of about 25,000 a year, and the car never met this goal.
For starters, the new Thunderbird came out a full year late. So much time had passed from the unveiling of the show car to the release of production models that the buying public had lost some its enthusiasm.
Quality was also a problem. The plastic top (for winter) scratched the body. And Ford dealers got an early reputation for ripping off customers by overcharging for the car. Although the car's exterior was beautiful, the interior was a bit of a letdown, especially for a car with a $40,000 price tag. And the T-Bird could have used a bit more pep.
Selling a $40,000 car through the Ford channel may have also hurt the Thunderbird, which was far more expensive than its high-volume predecessor. Ford dealers have been successful selling $35,000 to $45,000 trucks but have little experience selling automobiles in the near-luxury price range. If there was a marketing effort by Ford Motor, I wasn't aware of it. Naturally, sales didn't meet expectations.
Ford figured it could sell 25,000 Thunderbirds a year at $40,000 apiece, but last year it moved only 19,000 cars. In first-quarter 2003 only 4,000 were sold. The automotive press went on a deathwatch.
Automotive News, the industry's fine trade publication, just reported that Steve Lyons, head of the Ford Division, said the Thunderbird run would end after four or five years, in 2005 or 2006.
"While it may go away for a short period of time, it may reappear from time to time," Lyons told Automotive News. "When you really stand back and think about the volumes we're trying to sell that vehicle in, it is meant to be a collector's item. And it doesn't have to have a production run every year."
Collectors' item? No, you don't sell 19,000 collector's item cars in a year.
I don't doubt for a moment that someone will suggest adding two backseats to the Bird to improve sales. Heck, someone will probably suggest making it a four-door. That happened once before, too.
Instead of fixing the Bird, making it right, selling it as it should be sold, Ford will kill it.
That's just part of the story at Ford product development. General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) has a low-volume car, too. It's called the Corvette. From time to time people have tried to kill the 'Vette. But people at GM seemed to understand that to kill the 'Vette would kill the company's spirit.
Ford is killing the Taurus, too. It will let the present model run until the rent-a-car companies don't want it. The replacement will be a smaller sedan, built off a Japanese Mazda platform, to be called the "Futura."
I think that some high-powered egos are at work here. The present management at Ford didn't create the Thunderbird. And the present management didn't create the Taurus. Rather than fix the problems, they'll start fresh with cars for which today's managers can take credit. That is, if these cars succeed.
These new managers also think that the names of Ford vehicles should start with the letter F. That's why the Windstar minivan is being renamed Freestar. And a new crossover wagon will be called the Freestyle. This strategy is silly and means nothing to anyone who doesn't work on executive row at Ford headquarters.
I remember when they killed the first two-passenger Bird. I thought that the car was beautiful. A Ford executive back then said, "Beauty is a good 10-day sales report." The original Thunderbird reminded people that Ford could build a beautiful car. Ditto for the short-lived new Thunderbird.
The news about its demise is ugly indeed.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....