The year was 1999. Eagle, Mercury, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac still existed. The 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit was at its peak, and so was the retro-futuristic movement, demonstrated by throwback concept cars like the Nissan 240Z, Pontiac GTO, Chevy Nomad, and Ford Thunderbird. Previously discontinued in 1997, the return of the T-Bird in concept form was a reboot recalling the 1955 two-seat convertible original. The press went nuts, and a production car was in the works.
And then, a long, slow ebb of enthusiasm. The production car didn’t come out until the middle of 2001 as a 2002 model, more than two years after the concept’s debut. It still took home Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award, and there was enough interest to sell 31,368 copies, on par with the Chevrolet Corvette. But 2003 sales were less than half that, at just 14,678.
Based on the same platform as the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type, the 2002–05 Thunderbird repeated some of the same mistakes as the first generation that inspired it. It was large, but only a two-seater. It was sporty, with a 252-horsepower V-8, but far being from a sports car, with a flexy body structure and mandatory automatic transmission. In 2005, Ford announced that the Thunderbird would once again fly off into the sunset, ending production a little more than four years after it began.
While many 11th-generation Thunderbirds were bought new in the interest of preservation, the market treated it as a used car. When new, these sold in the $40,000 range. Today, the median #3 (good) value is $17,250. Low-mile #1-condition cars saw a slight increase in 2016, but overall the Thunderbird’s values have been flat for the last seven years, suggesting that we’re at the floor.
Perhaps that stability is what’s driving the recent interest in the last of the Thunderbirds. While the Hagerty Vehicle Rating (a measure of how a car’s value and buyer interest is performing relative to the overall market) is only up two points, to 71, since our latest update, quoting activity has been steadily rising since 2017. In other words, people are looking to buy Thunderbirds, even if values are flat.
It’s no surprise that the Baby Boomer generation loves this car, making up 60 percent of quoting activity, with a disproportionate amount coming from Florida and Texas. The Thunderbird is less popular with younger buyers, with Gen-Xers making up 10 percent of quotes and Millennials a mere 2 percent, both far lower than the overall average for those age groups.
That suggests the Thunderbird isn’t a future money-maker, because long-term values depend on curiosity from younger owners to maintain interest over the years. With 1980s-era nostalgia in full swing and ’90s not far behind, is there hope for some double-nostalgia for the post-millennium retro era?
Whatever the future holds, right now the Thunderbird is an affordable, stylish cruiser with enough trunk space for a long road trip. And yes, I said stylish, despite my cynicism for the boomer-pandering bodywork at the time. (Maybe I’m getting soft in my 40s.) It’s not a Corvette, nor was it ever meant to be. Instead the 2002–05 model evokes the best qualities of American autos from the 1950s and ’60s: elegance, flair, and plenty of comfort behind the wheel. At the very least, there’s nothing else quite like it on the road today.