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1967-1971 Ford Thunderbird

1970 Ford Thunderbird

According to Wagner, Ford's grand plan for the 1970 Ford Thunderbird included an all-new Fairlane/Torino with a self-supporting body and compliant frame similar to the full-size Ford's. Dearborn appears to have also considered a new Thunderbird based on this mid-size platform. That idea certainly would have appealed to Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, whom Henry Ford II hired as Ford Motor Company CEO in early 1968.

1970 Thunderbird
A lower, more rakish roofline and a prominent beak
were the dominant features of the 1970 Thunderbird.

Having served as general manager of Pontiac and then Chevrolet, Bunkie was easily lured away from General Motors when he felt his career there had stalled. At Ford, he questioned the contradiction that the Thunderbird had become: a large but sporty prestige car offered through the company's mass-market division.

He knew that Pontiac was moving the slow-selling Grand Prix to a mid-size platform for 1969, and thought the Thunderbird might benefit from a similar change. Although no designer himself, he kibitzed liberally in the studios, pushing for his trademark "bold nose" front ends (the designers called them "Bunkie Beaks") and massive rear quarters.

He twisted engineering arms to allow stationary sheet metal ahead of the engine hood -- an idea favored at General Motors for design flexibility but previously banned by Ford engineers, who saw only extra seams to go awry during assembly.

He clashed bitterly with Lee Iacocca, who no doubt believed that he deserved Knudsen's job. After one particularly acerbic conflict in September 1969, Henry Ford II dispatched Knudsen to the unemployment line. But by then, Bunkie had left his mark on the Thunderbird.

Work on numerous other projects (the Maverick and 1969 full-size cars, the 1970 body-on-frame Continental, and the 1971 Pinto and Mustang) delayed the new Torino until 1972. For 1970, the Thunderbird retained its full-size platform and 1967-1969 body shell, even the same external skin for its doors and rear quarters.

But the designers gave it an all-new front end, with the pointed grille and exposed headlights that Knudsen wanted for the all-new car. Two-door models rode even lower now -- 1.4 inches lower -- thanks to a cut-down windshield and a fluid, semi-fastback roofline that did sacrifice a bit of headroom. The suspension was retuned for standard Goodrich radial tires, improving both ride and handling.

The radio antenna was buried in the windshield, the wipers disappeared beneath the trailing edge of the hood, electrical and vacuum systems were simplified, and the Thunderbirds now shared a sound insulation package with Lincoln's Continental Mark III personal coupe. Inside, both front and rear seats were reportedly improved, and the optional buckets gained integrated head restraints.

1970 Ford Thunderbird Landau coupe
1970 Landau coupes lost their formal roof style --
and their landau bars -- but the name persisted
for vinyl-topped Thunderbirds.

In keeping with the Thunderbird's sleeker, sportier appearance, the three-window body style was again shelved. Ford sales literature still referred to a two-door Landau, but this was just a two-door hardtop with a vinyl roof; it didn't even have landau bars. (Some sources do list a separate body code for the 1970 Landau, which would suggest some unique sheet metal, but no such roof -- or correspondingly shorter deck lid -- is listed in the Master Parts Catalog.)

Along with the new design, Ford instituted new testing procedures at Wixom. The 12-mile road test was eliminated, replaced by mechanized test stations within the plant. It lacked romance, but Ford said it eliminated driver judgment and saved time by keeping the cars closer to the repair stations while checking for defects.

Right off the assembly line, a water test enclosure checked for leaks, then a Merrill Aligner dynamically measured camber, caster, and toe-in with the car running on rollers at a simulated 50 mph. Seven Clayton chassis dynos checked both torque at the rear wheels and braking performance. Exhaust emissions were also measured on the dynos, and the transmission checked for smoothness. Testers even ran the air conditioning.

From there the new Thunderbirds proceeded to eight wind-noise cells, where a fixture sealed the trunklid and the interior was pressurized. Operators with stethoscopes checked around windows and doors for leakage. Then lights were checked in a "subdued lighting station" and the cars driven over a pit for leak inspection. Operators still selected 20 cars each day for road testing, and five of those were given a "shake-rattle" audit.

To read about changes for the 1971 Ford Thunderbird, continue to the next page.

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