Used Car Bargain Buy: The Exquisite 2002–2005 Ford Thunderbird

Ford Thunderbird 20 photos
Photo: Mecum
Ford ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord ThunderbirdFord Thunderbird
Though undeniably gorgeous, the eleventh-gen Thunderbird fell short of reaching its potential, and it made little sense to buy one when it was new. These days, however, a used example in great shape is affordable enough to convince you to ignore its shortcomings.
Introduced in the fall of 1954 as a 1955 model, the initial Thunderbird was the result of an ambitious project aimed at delivering a worthy rival for Chevy's Corvette.

A Euro GT-style luxury car that was 100% American, the T-Bird slowly went from a direct Corvette rival to the progenitor of a new market segment - the personal luxury car.

The first four generations were considered some of the most stylish cars of the 1950s and 1960s. However, that slowly started to change from the mid-1970s onwards, when the following six iterations became gradually duller.

By 1997, the tenth-gen Thunderbird had little but the name in common with its elegant ancestors, which resulted in poor sales and Ford's unsurprising decision to discontinue the iconic template.

After a two-year hiatus, the T-bird came back, and this time, it was much more impressive—at least in terms of exterior design.

A homerun-hitting reinterpretation of an automotive legend

Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Ford Motor Co.
At the 1999 North American International Auto Show, 45 years after the debut of the original, Ford unveiled the all-new Thunderbird.

Met with great enthusiasm by Ford fans and the motoring press, the latest iteration went into production in the summer of 2001 as a 2002 model.

Unlike the 1980s and 1990s T-Birds, the all-new, eleventh-generation, which earned the nickname "Retrobird," paid homage to the original 1955 model by bringing back the timeless design cues that made it iconic and giving it a modern twist.

The result of a long-running design project started by Ford styling chief Jack Telnack, then finalized by his successor, J Mays, the Retrobird reverted to the initial two-seat convertible configuration and almost flawlessly brought back the classiness of its original ancestor.

Nineteen years after production of the eleventh generation ended, the car is still exquisitely beautiful, and I dare say that, at least to some extent, the design is as timeless as the first generation's.

Cost-cutting at its worst

Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Mecum
Underneath the modern T-Bird bespoke body, which few can criticize, stands FoMoCo's mid-size DEW platform. Co-developed with Jaguar (owned by Ford at the time), the DEW also underpinned the Jaguar S-Type and the Lincoln LS.

The latter model also donated its dashboard and steering wheel designs to the Retrobird. While that was understandable to some extent, the outdated design (even by early 2000s standards) and abundance of cheap plastics were not befitting for a modern reinterpretation of the original personal luxury car.

The only two features remotely luxurious and unique to the new T-Brid were the perforated leather bucket seats and the door panels.

However, the seats, which looked and felt nice, had only power-adjustable bases, while the backrests were manually adjustable via a cheap plastic lever. Although perforated, they featured no ventilation and came with heating only in the more expensive Premium trim, which also added a removable hardtop and chromed wheels.

The Premium and the base Deluxe trims offered decent amenities that one can still appreciate today, like a power-adjustable steering column, dual-zone climate control, and an Audiophile sound system with dual amplifiers. However, the Thunderbird's cabin felt outdated and cheap back then and even more so today.

All these shortcomings make it evident that Ford aimed to keep production costs low, which would've been understandable with any other model but not a revived personal luxury car, especially not one that carried the Thunderbird nameplate.

On the bright side, the Retrobird's cabin is very comfortable, and the cheapness of the discord and center console, which, by the way, features two large cupholders, is somewhat minimized by the multitude of color options, particularly the bright ones contrasted by black leather.

Powered by a Jaguar engine

Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Mecum
Like the original, the eleventh and so far last Thunderbird received a V8 engine. However, although it was manufactured in the US, the AJ30/AJ35 V8 was not 100% American.

A 3.9-liter version of Jaguar's in-house designed AJ-8, the compact DOHC V8 was exclusive to the Lincoln LS and the Thunderbird.

The 2002 T-Bird used the AJ30 iteration rated at 252 hp, but from 2003 onwards, it was replaced by the AJ35, which received variable valve timing (VVT) and electronic throttle control (ETC) as well as a power bump to 280 hp.

Mated to a reliable Ford's 5R55N five-speed automatic transmission, the engine was often criticized for its low power output.

By current standards, it's even more criticizable, especially for a car that weighs nearly 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg), but then again, the Thunderbird was intended to be a luxurious cruiser, not a fast sports car.

The engine is reliable, sounds great, and feels more punchy than the output figures would lead you to believe, especially in AJ35 guise, mainly thanks to the healthy 286 lb-ft (388 Nm) of peak torque it delivers at 4,300 rpm.

Though not fuel-efficient by any means, it still gets about 18 mpg combined (13 liters per 100 km), which is not that bad.

Obscenely expensive back then, but affordable today

Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Ford Motor Co.
In 2002, the modern T-Bird started at around $35,000 and exceeded $40,000 for an optioned-out Premium trim. Coupled with its less-than-thrilling interior, lack of a backseat, and tiny trunk, the price was a major drawback for potential buyers.

In 2002, Ford capitalized on the initial hype, selling 31,368 units. Most were brought by older enthusiasts who had a soft spot for the original T-Brid.

However, younger buyers with deep pockets were less adamant about getting one, so sales sharply declined in 2003 (14,678 units), and by 2005, when the model was discontinued, only 22,052 additional Retrobirds were produced.

In 2024 money, the eleventh-gen T-Bird demanded between $61,000 and $70,000 when new. However, a used example is far cheaper today.

According to, the average value for a low-mileage example in great shape rarely exceeds $23,000, which is a good enough figure to ignore the model's shortcomings.

A definite used car bargain buy

Ford Thunderbird
Photo: Mecum
Often labeled a failure, the Retrobird retains the old-fashioned long and relaxed American cruiser spirit that's no longer present in modern cars.

Despite its shortcomings, the eleventh-gen still a one of the most beatuful Thunderbirds ever created, so it's guaranteed to turn heads on every corner.

Furthermore, the timeless retro-inspired design is more and more appreciated by enthusiasts, which is why the value for a used example has been on a steady rise in recent years.

The 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird delivers beauty, elegance, reliability, and a plushy ride for less than what you have to pay for a base Toyota Camry.

So, if you appreciate its design and can live with its shortcomings, the Retrobird is unquestionably a used car bargain.

For a detailed buyer's guide, we recommend the excellent YouTube video below by Retro Cars Forever.

If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram
About the author: Vlad Radu
Vlad Radu profile photo

Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories