Today, we will be discussing Maximum Thunderbird. The extra value T-Bird, AKA the Thunderbrougham. Long, low and wide-and proud if it. Yes, that’s correct, the 1972-76 Thunderbird, which shared its ample figure with its FoMoCo sibling, the Continental Mark IV.
This was not the Thunderbird’s first drastic change, of course. Throughout the iconic premium Ford model’s life, it reinvented itself many times. The 1958 Thunderbird, nicknamed the Squarebird for obvious reasons, was totally redone. The trim two-seat luxury sportster was no more. The big news, of course, was the addition of a back seat. Although fans of the ‘Little Bird’ moaned and gnashed their teeth, sales improved drastically. And with its “cow belly” frame it was still substantially lower than contemporary Fairlanes. It ushered in a new type of car, a luxury Ford.
The Squarebird held sway from 1958-60. Only minor details differentiated the three years, consisting of revised grilles, taillights and upholstery.
The Bullet Bird replaced it in 1961, a very pleasing mode of suburban sport/lux transport for the Jet Age. Ford really had a knack for creating new market niches, and the T-Bird was one of their best ideas. Folks who would never have considered a Ford in the past, people who were doctors or lawyers and drove Lincoln Continentals, Buick Electra 225s and Oldsmobile Ninety Eights, were looking at, and buying, Ford’s personal luxury coupe. It was a whole new world.
My grandparents, Bob and Ruby Klockau, were such people. When my dad was growing up in the early 1960s, my grandfather, who was a lawyer, had a circa 1962 Buick Electra 225 four-door hardtop, while my grandmother had a metallic lilac 1960 Pontiac Catalina convertible with a white interior. Before that, she had a 1956 Pontiac station wagon.
That Pontiac was traded in on a navy blue ’65 Thunderbird convertible with a white leather interior, blue instrument panel, and blue carpet. She kept it all the way to 1977; she liked it that much. By 1964, the smooth, sporty looks of the 1961-63 ‘bullet bird’ gave way to a more squared off, formal look.
A bonus was one of the coolest interiors of the Sixties. The last of the Flair Birds came off the line in 1966.
Much was new for the 1967 Thunderbird, and interior coolness remained a high point. For the first time, there was no longer a Thunderbird convertible; a victim of changing tastes and declining sales. In its place, a new Landau four-door appeared, with center-opening doors a la Lincoln Continental. The sedan was prominently featured in showroom brochures and advertising, but of course the two-door hardtop and two-door Landau remained available.
In 1970 the two-door Thunderbird received a new, swoopier roofline, and all ‘Birds got a ‘Bunkie Beak”, named after soon-to-be-departed Ford CEO, Bunkie Knudsen, late of General Motors. During this time, sales were slowly but surely declined, from 77,956 in ’67 to only 36,055 in 1971. Part of that was that the 1970-71, despite the facelift, was still recognizable as the 1967 under the new sheetmetal, and all-new, more compelling choices appeared in 1971, particularly the Eldorado, Toronado and Riviera. A new direction was needed, and a heavy facelift was not going to do it this time.
And so it was that the 1972 Thunderbird was all new, fresh, and definitely upsized. More wheelbase, more front and rear overhang, more luxury gadgets. The 1972 Thunderbird was completely redesigned, and had quite a lot in common with the also new for ’72 Continental Mark IV.
The 1972 Thunderbird, and its Mark IV cousin, were approved by Ford President Bunkie Knudsen just before his departure from Dearborn. Total length was now 214″, with a 120.4″ wheelbase and 80″ width. The 1972 model came in a single Landau two door hardtop bodystyle and was priced at $5293. Four-doors were gone, never to return (so far). Sales rebounded smartly, to the tune of over 57,000 units.
The 429 CID V8 was standard equipment, with a 460 optional. Either way, you could have any transmission you wanted, as long as it was the 3-speed C6 automatic. As previously mentioned, the ’72 shared a lot of parts with the Mark. The windshield and side glass were identical between the two, and primary differences boiled down to exterior and interior styling.
Thanks to the 1973 federal bumper standards, the ’73 T-Bird got a new nose, with requisite chromed battering ram, new grille, headlights in separate pods, and new, larger parking lamps. Also new was an opera window in the C-pillar. It first appeared on the Continental Mark IV in 1972 as an option, was made standard in 1973, and then the T-Bird got its own version that same year. It was initially an option (like on the ’72 Mark), but was also made a standard feature soon after. Sales went up again, with over 87,000 Thunderbroughams sold for 1973.
Five mph bumpers were added to the back of all 1974 T-Birds to match the front one, with restyled taillights as well. One of the T-Bird’s defining features, bucket seats, were eliminated in 1974. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 1972-73 Thunderbird with buckets and console. I wonder what the take rate was?
Thanks to the new rear bumper, curb weight was up to 4800 lbs. The 429 was dropped and all Thunderbirds now had the 460 as standard, for a less than stellar 11 mpg. Of course, this was a premium car, and folks ponying up for a new T-Bird were not concerned with such things. As the man said, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it…
Between 1974 and 1976, the Thunderbird received very few updates, primarily new colors and wheel options. Ford kept interest up with lots of special decor models. Today’s featured car is a Burgundy Luxury Group Thunderbird, which was available in 1974 only. It included special burgundy metallic paint, color-keyed vinyl roof and premium bodyside moldings, and a burgundy interior in velour or optional leather. I remember seeing an ad for it when I was in grade school in the ’80s, leafing through our science teacher’s vintage cache of National Geographics.
Inside, the Thunderbird had its own unique door panels, upholstery, and instrument cluster, featuring round gauges set in a color-keyed panel, unlike the Mark IV’s rectangular gauges swathed in woodgrain trim. As much as I love the Mark IV, I kind of like the Thunderbird’s instrument panel treatment better. This particular survivor also has a CB radio, which was all the rage circa 1975-79. “Bandit, this is Velour Bird headed eastbound on I-55. Any Smokeys headed my way?”
While the Continental Mark IV was the cream of the crop in Ford’s personal luxury coupe lineup, an argument could be made for choosing the Thunderbird instead. Consider that the 1974 Thunderbird had a base price $7,330 while the Mark IV was a princely $10,194. For nearly three thousand dollars less – a not-inconsiderable sum in 1974 – you could get a very comparable car – assuming you could live without the chrome Parthenon grille, hidden headlights, spare tire hump and oval opera windows. The Mark had many features that were standard on it but optional on the T-Bird, but still, the Ford was probably a better deal even with that factored in.
Despite this, sales of 1974 Marks and T-Birds were neck and neck, with 57,316 and 58,443, respectively. But then, Frank Cannon drove a Mark IV on TV, not a Thunderbird. There was no mistaking the snob appeal of the Lincoln.
By 1976, the last year for the 1972 body shell, there were no less than three Luxury Groups: Creme and Gold, Bordeaux, and Lipstick.
But that was nothing compared to the Lincoln, which had Lipstick, Light Jade/Dark Jade, Blue Diamond, Jade/White Desert Sand, and Cream and Gold Luxury Groups, not to mention the uber-snob appeal Designer Series!
The Lipstick Luxury Group was the sharpest choice whether Mark or Thunderbird, in my personal opinion. Bright red paint, bodyside moldings and vinyl roof graced the exterior, while inside was white vinyl upholstery (or optional leather) with red-and-white door panels, and red carpeting, seat belts and instrument panel. It made for quite the flashy machine.
Back in April of 2012, my brother Andy told me about a cool ’70s Thunderbird he saw sitting parked in Moline. I tracked it down the very next day. This ’74 model was in great shape, with only a little rust around the cornering lamps making it less than pristine. If you believe the sign, it only has 19,125 miles on it.
After 1976, the T-Bird went on a diet, and lost its relationship with the Continental. In fact, it would be essentially an LTD II with hidden headlights and a special ‘basket handle’ roofline, but it would set records for T-Bird production that may still yet be unbroken.
Despite all the fear and loathing of the 1977-79 “LTDBird” on certain sites, it was a handsome car, had a very appealing price, and sold far, far above the 1972-76 T-Birds. But this ’74 shows how the Thunderbird welcomed the Peak Brougham era-and beyond.
How the might had fallen. $2,500 OBO for a T-Bird with 19,000 miles and only a little surface rust? The pre-67 models never fell that far, but Ford really lost the T-Bird plot from 1967 to 1983 with the introduction of the Aero-Bird. They may have sold well during the brougham era, but they didn’t age well with their emission strangled fuel sucking motors, poorly integrated bumpers, bloated dimensions, and mediocre workmanship – not much of a nostalgia market for those characteristics.
I am glad that Ford made a last attempt at a high end Tbird in the 70s. The fact that sales were so high shows that it was correct despite all the vitriol that came at them from our coastal dwelling betters, who never tire of telling us how smart and sophisticated they are. They tell us that less is more, something that the car buying choices show.
By the seventies, Ford was left with just the heartland to sell into and there faced the trouble of the attitude of some in the mid west, that a deluxe car was not a sign of hard work leading to success, but rather someone becoming to big for his britches.
The sophisticates will note that it lacks band aided swing axles in the rear suspension and a live axle will react less well to bumps on curvy roads. That does not take into account that the higher weight means the car reacts to the bump less in the first place. You see that in the fat cars today where all the rack and pinion steerings and multilink suspensions still yield numbness. Notice also the Tbird’s fat 235/70 15 inch Michelin radials and compare to the 175SR 14s on the more expensive, sophisticated import cars. Wonder which will have that extra reserve of road holding safety when the swing axles turn turtle
I know what you are saying, but John these don’t even have rear disc brakes. Yes but the do have optional rear anti lock that is a sophistication that comes in handy in concert with the fat tires I already mentioned.
The argument about less is more. Maybe sometimes more is more. In 1974 my father had a long commute in the south in an un air conditioned Plymouth Scamp while wearing a 70s polyester suit. The bearded wonders as he called them around him surely sneared. Us children stressed him out at home and his coworkers at work stressed him out, being younger and more formally credentialed like the younger people were then. Maybe the quiet smoothness of the Tbird would have made the commute more of a respite in a stressful life. Maybe the quiet authority of the 460/C6 would have matched up well with his own quiet authority that those around him felt. Maybe that extra panache of the Tbird would have reminded him that he was successful and someone that should be looked up to, even if those around him forgot to sometimes. My father annoyed my mother splurging in the Scamp over the Valiant she had in mind for him. He could have easily afforded to pay cash for a Tbird of even a Mark IV, maybe he should have annoyed her just a little more.
My 74 auto guide mentions that Ford was preparing a 502 cubic inch V8 for future Lincoln Mark IVs. Obviously the plan was cancelled by the oil shock that year. Caddy kept the 500 V8 for itself, indeed just Eldo through 74. Toro and Riviera had to make do with 455s. I suspect Ford may have let a 502 V8 creep down to the Thunderbird. That would have really let the last of the big guy Tbirds go out in style.
Mmmm……a 1976 Ford 502……it probably could have made 200hp!
Concerning the 1977 Thunderbird with Lipstick Luxury Group car.
It takes a brave soul to drive the car all the way in until the tires hit.
That’s got be almost 3 feet.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a look-see underneath shows all kinds of scrapes and bumps.
These were the right cars for the time, but this is not how anybody wants to remember the Thunderbird. It will always be best known for its clean 50’s personal rocketship version, not so much the later ornate rocketships, the rebadged Lincolns, or the Fox body Mustang siblings, even if all of these have their charm.
My best buddy’s parents had one of these when I was growing up–looked just like the $2500 one shown here. My parents were all about practicality and rarely bought new–I was used to basic trim station wagons and Dad’s bland company cars, so 10YO me was fascinated by the posh, plush burgundy T-bird. Didn’t get to ride in it too many times, but…wow, this is really a random memory…did ride across town in it once for my first viewing of the original Star Wars film. I, of course, sat in the back and got to look out of that opera window. Can’t remember the last time I saw one of these in the wild.