Improvements and refinements followed for the 1968-1969 Ford Thunderbird. Ford's heavier-duty 429-cubic-inch V-8 replaced the 428 as the top-performance option; by the first of the year, the 390 was gone, too.
Federally mandated side marker lights, a new grille,
and a smaller bumper identified 1968 Thunderbirds.
A preheated carburetor air system and some ignition modifications cleansed the exhaust to government standards. The standard front disc brakes now featured floating calipers, the windshield wipers swept parallel to each other, and Ford replumbed the vacuum headlight system so that a failure would leave the doors open, rather than closed. Squeeze-type inside door handles added safety and convenience.
For the first time, buyers could choose a bench seat in a Thunderbird. Again Ford was following General Motors's lead, as Riviera had offered standard three-across seating since 1966 and the Toronado just added bucket seats as an option in 1967. Fifty-seven percent of two-door Thunderbird buyers still preferred buckets, although 79 percent of four-door customers opted for the bench.
Otherwise, little had changed that the world could see, the most obvious exterior difference being the federally mandated side-marker lights. To keep the side of the car as clean as possible, the designers integrated the identifying "Thunderbird" script into the rear marker-light bezel and assigned the front light double duty as an optional cornering beacon.
A slimmer lower-body molding no longer ran the full length of the car. Finer-ribbed wheel covers tended to look as if they were spinning, even when they weren't.
The grille got considerably fussier, however, divided now into 32 box-like segments, with a little bird-in-a-box logo centered over each headlight door. At the rear, the bright panel across the taillights was turned black, and a wide bird-shaped badge replaced the Thunderbird lettering. Landaus sported pretend alligator skin on the roof. A four-door "town sedan" with a painted top was supposed to have appeared in January, but didn't.
Full-width taillights gave way to a pair of nearly
rectangular lamps on the 1969 Ford Thunderbird.
The blind-quartered Thunderbird Landau coupe returned for 1969. Hardtop models retained their 1967-1968 roofline with small quarter windows. An electric sunroof, still a novelty on an American car, joined the options list. For the first time, bench seats outsold buckets on all three body styles.
The big bird emblem returned, too, to a cleaned-up grille, now divided into only eight segments. In the rear, individual taillights, separated by a single large backup light, fit into the nacelles formed by contour of the trunk lid (shades of 1964). The rear side-marker light shrank down to relative inconspicuousness and the rocker molding grew ribs.
Somewhere around this time, suspension revisions pulled all Thunderbirds closer to the ground, while two-door models only garnered stiffer springs, larger-diameter shocks, and a fatter anti-roll bar. (Both Car Life and Motor Trend reported these changes for 1969, although the Ford Master Parts Catalog for 1965-1972 shows the new part numbers arriving in 1968.)
Car Life tested a T-Bird in February, and found its handling still dominated by understeer -- although its braking performance from 80 mph was better "than all but a handful of cars sold in the U.S."
That same month, Motor Trend pitted a two-door Landau against a Mercury Marauder X-100, Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado, and Pontiac Grand Prix. Motor Trend judged the Thunderbird's handling "vastly improved" if not quite up to the standard of the Toronado and Grand Prix.
Yet, even with its stiffer underpinnings, the Thunderbird still beat all of its GM competitors for smooth ride and interior quiet. It out-braked them all (and the Marauder, too), offered the most complete instrumentation, and finished mid-pack in acceleration. "In our opinion," the editors concluded, "the best all-around car is the Thunderbird."
To learn about the 1970 Ford Thunderbird, continue to the next page.
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