The 2002 Ford Thunderbird Neiman Marcus Edition generated buzz for a new style.

2000, 2001 Ford Thunderbirds

As it turned out, the Ford Thunderbird was only on vacation. Even while journalists were writing obituaries, Ford was finishing up an all-new T-Bird -- a two-seater in the mold of the classic originals.

To hold down costs, it was planned for a modified version of Ford's new rear-wheel-drive DEW98 corporate platform, set to premiere beneath Lincoln's 2000 LS sedan and a companion S-Type four-door from Ford-owned Jaguar. Leading new-T-Bird development were product planner Rich Kisler, engineer Don Werneke, and Ted Finney, chief designer for all of Dearborn's "large/luxury" rear-wheel-drive cars.

Styling, supervised by Dave Turner and Ford design VP Jack Telnack, rejected both a clean-sheet approach and a near-copy of 1955-57 for what Ford called a "modern heritage" look. Everyone else called it "retro," but it worked, reimagining the original two-seaters in a contemporary way.

The design came together quickly, and the new T-Bird was all but finished by the time Telnack retired in late 1997. But Telnack's successor, J Mays, a wunderkind recruited from Volkswagen/Audi, wasn't entirely happy with what he found, and allegedly did a little tweaking.

The end result broke cover in January 1999 as a "concept" at the Detroit Auto Show. Though Ford officials were coy about production, the shiny car on the turntable looked suspiciously showroom-ready, so few were surprised a little over a year later when Ford confirmed plans to put it on sale in 2001 as an early '02 model. Soon afterward, and with deposits in hand from many eager customers, Ford announced that its Wixom, Michigan, plant would turn out Job 1 at the end of July.

It was all part of a planned, protracted rollout intended to build buzz for the new T-Bird. So, too, was giving Neiman Marcus customers a shot at 200 advance copies. In an arrangement with the luxury-goods retailer, Ford presented a special black-and-silver NM Edition in August 2000, fittingly at the 50th annual staging of the tony Concours d'Elegance classic-car fest in Pebble Beach, California. Listed in the store's "Christmas Book" at $41,995, the NM special was offered for sale on September 23, 2000. All 200 were snapped up in a phone blitz lasting just a little over two hours.

Regular deliveries didn't begin until September 2001, delayed by unforeseen problems that had cropped up in preproduction. Cooling-system and other woes required replacing components that had been thought acceptable. This was another black eye for Dearborn's image, coming after the Explorer/Firestone tire debacle and a rash of recalls involving early examples of Ford's Focus subcompact. Fortunately, the T-Bird bugs were squashed with fair dispatch, and full production began in autumn 2001.

Essentially, the new T-Bird was a shortened Lincoln LS with a convertible body. Wheelbase was trimmed 7.3 inches to 107.2, though that was more than five inches longer than the 1955-57 dimension. The new two-seater also stretched 11 inches longer overall than the original and was about an inch wider but no taller.

It was much heavier, though, by a whopping 744 pounds, weighing nearly 3600 at the curb. But some of that reflected much stronger unibody construction (versus the old body-on-frame), plus built-in "crumple zones," airbags, and other modern safety musts unimaginable in the '50s.

Interestingly, all of the body panels, save the rear fenders, were made of sheet-molding-compound plastic. Any weight savings these panels provided was at least partly offset by steel underbody bracing, deemed necessary for rigidity.

There was only one powertrain, with a 3.9-liter/240-cid twincam V-8 sending 292 bhp through a five-speed automatic transmission. Both came from the LS, as did the basic all-independent coil-spring suspension with twin A-arms at each end, plus rear toe-control links. Brakes were four-wheel discs with antilock control nestled within 17-inch alloy wheels. The dashboard was another Lincoln lift, though customized for the T-Bird with turquoise gauge needles.

For full-on nostalgia, an extra $600-$800 put body-color accents on the seats, center console, door panels, lower dash, even the standard tilt/telescope steering wheel. Another "happy days" echo was the $2500 detachable hardtop, complete with rear-quarter porthole windows. It weighed 83 pounds and thus usually took two people to manage, but came with a tube-frame rack for safe above-floor storage. Per tradition, the cloth roof folded electrically beneath a lift-up cover behind the cockpit.

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