1971 Ford Thunderbird

1971 was a year too far for Ford's Thunderbird. In 1970, Ford got lucky; its car was, despite a makeover, in its fourth year of manufacture, but everyone else's was old, too. In 1971, almost all the Thunderbird's competitors were new. 1971 saw a new Buick Riviera, with its striking 'boat tail' styling; the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado (which shared a platform) were also new. Even Lincoln had it better, since the Thunderbird-derived Lincoln Continental Mark III was only in its third year of production and still selling strong, considering its higher cost.

It was, in fact, that Lincoln that was the problem. Bringing out the Continental Mark on the Thunderbird's platform in 1969 meant that the Continental Mark III would last at least three years - through 1971 - and economics dictated that the Thunderbird must, therefore, not get a makeover until 1972 either.

The sales figures tell the story all by themselves; only 36,055 Thunderbirds sold that year, 20,356 of them being Two Door Landau models, 9,146 Two-Door Hardtops and only 6,553 Four-Door Landaus. In 1971, the Two-Door Landau reverted to 1969 style blind rear quarters and a squared-off, broad vinyl-clad C pillar. The Hardtop continued as before, but for the first time, the Hardtop could be ordered with a vinyl top, shrinking the difference between it and the Landau. The Four-Door Landau, again, was unchanged from 1967. 1971 would be the last year of both Landau models, and the last year of four-door Thunderbirds. 1972 would feature just one model, the Two-Door Hardtop, which could be ordered with a vinyl roof.

Mechanically, not much changed in 1971; engine and transmission choices were none, you got the 429 ThunderJet and C6 three-speed automatic. The equipment and options were also more-or-less unchanged, betraying Ford's knowledge that the 1971 was a lame-duck year, just filler before the 1972 models. A locking steering column was the only interior addition. In exterior appearance, the only change was that the grille now had more prominent horizontal slats, and that's the only consistent recognition feature for the 1971 model.

1971 also saw the first year of the Ford Thunderbird Mark T. A dealer-installed option kit, not a factory option, this gave the Thunderbird some of the styling features of the Lincoln Continental Mark III. At least in '71, this was rare; only one is known to still survive, a triple-black (paint, vinyl, and interior) car now owned by Mike Besoyan.

Despite their unpopularity and lack of change from '70, they're pretty good cars. Everyone loves the first year of a new-bodied car and hates the final year of an old one, but the fact is that those final-year cars are the best-built and most reliable. They reap the benefit of several years of bug-fixing and refinement. No matter how much a manufacturer tests a new model, the fact is that the early ones almost always have problems that are later corrected.

Ford's killing off the four-door model after 1971 is just as controversial as its introduction. It sold well in 1967 but every year after that was somewhat disappointing; on the other hand, Ford gave it no styling changes, no revisions, and car buyers are relentlessly neophilic, always preferring new styling to old. Maybe those in the market for four-door cars were looking at full size cars in those years, rather than the somewhat smaller T-Bird, and maybe those suicide doors were getting a bad rap at the time. A short few years later, though, and the market for smaller-than-fullsize luxury four-doors really took off when Cadillac introduced the Seville to compete with the increasingly more popular European luxury cars like those of Mercedes-Benz. A four-door Thunderbird would, one suspects, have been well in the running for that market.

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