How the Ford Thunderbird Works

1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 Ford Thunderbirds

The 1972 Ford Thunderbird Landau went from 0-60mph in a sluggish 12 seconds.

In its first departure from a three-year design cycle, the Ford Thunderbird received a heavy facelift of its '67 shell for 1970, marked by a more-prominent thrust-forward snout. Radio antenna and windshield wipers were newly concealed (the latter via an extended hood) and two-door models had a "faster" roofline.

The customary three-model lineup returned for '71 with wheel covers, grille insert, and minor trim the only revisions. However, two-door Landaus were newly available sans the dummy S-bars (a T-Bird emblem substituted).

Big-block V-8s were the order of the day but very mildly tuned, the T-Bird no longer having a performance image to uphold. For 1968, the optional 428 gave way to Ford's new 429. Rated at 360 bhp, it was more easily adaptable to the new emissions standards that took effect that year. It would be standard T-Bird power from 1969 through 1973.

Following a '71 sales slide to some 36,000, Thunderbird was completely redesigned for 1972. Riding a new 120.4-inch wheelbase, it was larger and heavier than any T-Bird before -- or since.

The plain coupe and slow-selling sedans were dropped, leaving a single Landau hardtop to share basic structure with that year's new Continental Mark IV. Besides list prices starting around $5300, some $2500 below Lincoln, a big selling point for this bigger T-Bird was a plusher-riding, new all-coil suspension with four-bar-link location for the live rear axle.

Not surprisingly, greater size and weight conspired with more-restrictive emissions tuning to hurt both performance and economy. This explains why a second engine option returned: the big Lincoln 460-cid V-8, though it was scarcely more powerful than the still-standard 429: 224 bhp versus 212, both in newly proscribed SAE net measure. Either way, the '72 T-Bird needed 12 seconds for the 0-60 mph sprint and returned a dismal 11-12 mpg of increasingly more-expensive gas.

Yet buyers apparently didn't care. Perhaps because of its closer similarity with the prestigious Mark, the '72 posted a healthy 60-percent sales gain, followed by over 87,000 for '73 -- the T-Bird's third-best yearly total yet. Then came the Middle East oil embargo, which put a big dent in big-car sales.

Thunderbird was no exception, dropping below 59,000 for '74, then to just under 43,000 for '75. The last of this generation, the '76, managed a slight recovery -- to near 53,000 -- mainly because the economy had mostly recovered from the 1973-74 gas crisis. Yet if these figures were disheartening to Ford, the Thunderbird at least maintained a solid lead over its Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado rivals.

Relatively few changes attended the heavyweight sixth-generation T-Bird. Federal bumper standards took effect for 1973, which meant withstanding a five-mph frontal impact (and a five-mph rear shunt for '74s) without damage to safety-related components. The Thunderbird met this requirement with bigger bumpers that only aggravated its weight problem.

Styling changes involved headlights set in square chrome bezels, a gaudy eggcrate instead of horizontal bars for the grille, a stand-up hood ornament, and, instead of dummy landau irons, optional "opera" windows -- contrived little oblong panes in the still ultrawide rear-roof pillars.

The '74 had to be the least pleasant of all Thunderbirds to live with. The infamous, short-lived seatbelt interlock system, mandated by the feds, forced strapping in anything on the right front seat -- even a bag of groceries -- before the car could be started. Heftier rear bumpers added to overall length with no gain in interior space.

With weight up and emissions standards stricter, the whopping Lincoln 460-cid V-8 with 220 bhp became standard that year, along with vinyl roof, opera windows, solid-state ignition, AM radio, air conditioning, power windows, and tinted glass. There were eight variations of metalflake paint available, and a glass moonroof appeared as an optional alternative to the steel sunroof.

Aside from details, such as segmented taillights for 1974, this series saw few appearance changes after '73. Emissions tuning continued to strangle the big 460-cid V-8. Rated horsepower was 218/202 for 1975-76 -- ridiculously low for such a large engine, and this despite the adoption of the catalytic converter.

Ford went all-out to promote the '75 as "the best luxury car buy," trumpeting "new softness, new ease, with ample room for, lavish fabrics...24-oz. cut-pile carpeting...woodtone appliqués." More-practical options included four-wheel disc brakes (available since '72), "Sure-Track" antilock braking system (ditto), and a fuel-monitor warning light. The last was really needed, because these T-Birds were among the thirstiest cars ever seen from Dearborn.

Ford had long since become a master at keeping interest alive in an aging model via special editions, and the mid-'70s Thunderbird offered its share. An optional gold-tint moonroof was announced at mid-1974, along with Burgundy and White-and-Gold Luxury Groups color-keyed to a fare-thee-well inside and out.

Copper and Silver Luxury Groups replaced them for '75, each offering velour or leather upholstery; a Jade LG was added in April. All of these wore a padded vinyl rear half-roof with opera windows, the latter being deleted when a moonroof was specified. The '76 LGs were Creme-and-Gold, Bordeaux, and "Lipstick." The last was far less gaudy than its name implied.

For more on the amazing Ford Thunderbird, old and new, see:

  • Ford Thunderbird Prices and Reviews
  • Ford Thunderbird New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Ford Thunderbird Used Car Reviews and Prices