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How the Ford Thunderbird Works

1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 Ford Thunderbirds

The 1980 Ford Thunderbird Landau was the smallest Thunderbird of its time.

For 1977, the Ford Thunderbird marked a first in its history by being smaller than it was the year before. This "downsized" model was nothing more than a new derivative of Ford's existing mid-size platform as suggested by the 1974-76 Gran Torino Elite, which tested whether the public would accept a Thunderbird sized like Chevy's Monte Carlo. Though the Elite had sold quite well, this "new" T-Bird would put it in the shade.

Compared to the 1972-76 models, the '77 was lighter and more-economical, reflecting big reductions in almost every dimension: nearly 10 inches in overall length, 6.4 inches in wheelbase (to 114), three inches in width, and up to 900 pounds of "road-hugging weight." There were big reductions in price, too: some $2700 for the base model, which now started at just over $5000.


Of course, the old big-blocks were gone. Standard power was now a 130-bhp version of the trusty 302-cid V-8 -- except for California, where only a 135-bhp 351 was sold. Optional was a 400-cid V-8, rated at 173 bhp for '77 and 166 bhp the following year, after which it was canceled.

Downsizing the T-Bird this way was expedient given that Washington's new corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) would be in force for 1978. But it was that much lower price and the Thunderbird name that sent sales soaring; better fuel efficiency was merely incidental. T-Bird thus enjoyed 300,000-unit years for 1977 and '78, better than three times the previous model-year record set in distant 1960. And it easily outsold sibling LTD II despite fewer model choices.

Though the 1977 model was smaller and less-singular than previous T-Birds, it had many of the same style overtones and brash trim touches. Prices soon started climbing to where they had been. January 1977 brought a new top-line Town Landau with a near $8000 base price and numerous standard luxuries, plus a dubious brushed-aluminum "tiara" roof band echoing the old mid-'50s Crown Victoria.

There was little change for 1978, but a Diamond Jubilee edition was issued to commemorate Ford Motor Company's 75th anniversary. Tagged at close to $10,000, it was painted in Diamond Blue or Ember metallics and came with the owner's initials near the outside door handles and on a 22-carat-gold dashboard nameplate.

This package proved so popular that Ford retained it for 1979 as the Heritage, finished in either special maroon or light blue. There were few other changes that year except for volume, which was down again but hardly bad at about 284,000 units.

Thunderbird was further downsized, and in much the same manner, for 1980. Instead of an intermediate, its foundation this time was a compact, the practical "Fox" platform developed for the 1978 Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr.

But the size reductions for this eighth generation were just as dramatic as they'd been for the seventh: 16 inches in overall length, 4.5 inches in width, 5.6 inches in wheelbase (now 108.4). Next to the '76, the 1980 looked positively tiny: two feet shorter, eight inches narrower, a foot less between wheel centers, and nearly a ton lighter. Yet it was no less comfortable or luxurious than its immediate predecessors.

The adoption of the Fox platform returned Thunderbird from body-on-frame to unitized construction for the first time since 1966, which contributed to both weight efficiency and interior-space utilization. The interior blended opulence and convenience, and a split front-bench seat, buckets, and purpose-designed Recaro bucket seats were all available.

The 302 V-8, now rated at 131 bhp, shifted to the options column and its debored 255-cid relative moved in as standard with 115 bhp. At mid-model year, Ford made its 200-cid six available as a credit option, the first six in Thunderbird history.

Other 1980 developments included a new four-speed over-drive automatic transmission, providing the traditional economy benefit of OD without the hassle of shifting; rack-and-pinion steering, for precision unknown in previous T-Birds; and the all-coil suspension system so well-proven in the Fairmont/Zephyr.

A midyear offering expected in that 25th Thunderbird year was a Silver Anniversary special, again featuring a tiara roof appliqué plus a standard 302, the overdrive automatic, and gray-and-silver upholstery with complementing paintwork.

This more-efficient T-Bird should have sold well, but the market turned sour as another energy crisis began in late '79; then too, the boxy, overdecorated 1980 styling did not appeal to potential buyers. As a result, production slid below 157,000, then dropped by 50 percent a year for the 1981s and '82s.

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