Boys of Summer

The past steadfastly remains a foreign country.

ford-thunderbird
Image: carsinvasion

Editor’s note: A version of this piece was originally published on DTW in May 2018.

Don Henley’s 1984 Grammy-winning hit single, Boys of Summer was a meditation on reminiscence and regret. It plays on the slick US West Coast values of the lyricist’s Eagles[1] heyday, deftly subverting its MOR rock sheen to underline more mature themes of ageing and loss. The track was not only a sizeable success in the US and elsewhere, but gained Henley a critical credibility he had perhaps hitherto lacked. After all, looking back to the past can be instructive, and in some cases, a virtual necessity. However, true folly lies with those who attempt to recreate it.

Having largely originated in Japan, the retro fashion in vehicle styling, had made it across the Pacific by the tail-end of the Nineties. In many ways however, this had been as much a home-grown US phenomenon, given that throughout the Eighties the music and fashions of past decades had been ruthlessly mined for entertainment and revenue generating purposes, so for it to later morph into product design wasn’t really all that much of a leap.

From a production perspective at least, the Ford Motor Company’s retro beginnings could perhaps be traced to the 1998 Jaguar X200 S-Type, a design which very much suggested a Dearborn Glass House vision of dear old Blighty. As cover versions of much-loved standards went therefore, it was neither Whitley, nor Michigan’s finest hour. Furthermore, it also heralded a rather muted critical reception to the first of Ford’s state of the art luxury car platforms.

In conjunction with their Coventry-based trophy wife, Ford engineers developed a rear-drive platform for their D/E segment, dubbed DEW98. Designed to underpin both S-Type and the following year’s Lincoln LS, both cars shared floorpans, suspensions and basic engine designs, although the Ford V6 and Jaguar-designed V8 engines fitted to the Lincoln are believed to have differed notably in detail. The LS was pitched as a sports saloon, aimed at German import rivals, but positioned as a slightly cheaper offering to Castle Bromwich’s much appreciated nostalgia-fest. But Ford had bigger plans for DEW98, intending it to form the basis for a whole slew of cars.

Ford Thunderbird. Image: youtube

In 1999, Jac Nasser was appointed as Ford CEO. The Australian had ambitious and transformative plans to make the blue oval a luxury car powerhouse, appointing former BMW Research and Development chief, Wolfgang Reitzle to lead what was termed the Premier Automotive Division. Seen as one of the brightest auto executives in the industry, Reitzle’s 1999 arrival underlined how much business Nasser meant. Also new to the blue oval was newly appointed Design VP, J Mays, replacing longstanding incumbent, Jack Telnack, bringing with him an enthusiasm for retro-futurist design.

Not that he was alone in this; prior to Talnack’s 1997 departure, he had instigated a design competition within the global Ford design centres for a retro-themed reimagining of the 1955 Thunderbird, with the successful proposal hailing from his Dearborn styling team.

Historically, the Thunderbird had been a hugely significant model line for Ford[2], spearheading the success of the lucrative personal luxury coupé sector throughout the late nineteen fifties until the early Seventies, when sales began tailing off. In its heyday, one of the blue oval’s biggest cash cows, but after ten distinct generations, the Thunderbird nameplate was retired in 1997, seemingly for good. It was perhaps ironic therefore that the model Ford chose to recreate would be the original two-seater[3] – less commercially successful than later versions, but one whose latterday position in marque iconography is sanctified.

Having previewed the concept at the NIAS auto show in 1999, and with the thunderbird enthusiastically received, both by senior management and the show-going public, Nasser and his board sanctioned a production version, which debuted in 2001. Employing a heavily modified version of the DEW98 platform, which involved a good deal of heavy-duty body bracing to mitigate the loss of bodily rigidity, the Thunderbird shared suspensions and powertrain with the Lincoln LS, albeit with softer springs and damper settings – (24% softer front coils, 8% softer in the rear) in keeping with its offer of “Relaxed Sportiness“.

Straight ‘outta Lincoln. T-Bird cabin. Image: edmunds.com

The T-Bird’s cabin too was shared with the Lincoln; a rather drab looking affair unless one opted for the shamelessly retro $800 Interior Color (sic) package, which brought huge slabs of pastel red, yellow or turquoise to seats, door trims, steering and facia panel. Combining dramatic looks and what Car & Driver cited as a “shameless, wretched extravagance“, the 2001 Thunderbird was more an indulgent wafter than apex carver, and probably none the worse for it.

Launched with expectations as high as its initial sticker price[4], after a strong first year with over 30,000 sold, sales slumped dramatically before being axed in 2005 with around 68,000 made in total. Retrospectively of course, it is possible to view the post-Millennial Thunderbird as a bit of a novelty act, one which would by consequence only enjoy the briefest of moments in the sun.

We’re all geniuses in hindsight, but given the moves afoot at Wolfgang Reitzle’s PAG headquarters in London, not to mention at Gerry McGovern’s Lincoln studio in California, was Ford perhaps a little too hasty? Following his 1999 US appointment, McGovern oversaw a series of highly convincing Lincoln concepts which prefigured what would ultimately be seen as an impossible future. Making its show debut in 2004, but clearly based on 2001’s MK 9 concept, the MK X was an elegant two-seater grand turismo convertible proposal, very much in the classic idiom.

2004 Lincoln MK X concept. Image: bestcarmag

Incorporating styling themes from previous McGovern helmed designs, Marek Reichman’s glamourous lines, fine detailing and upmarket positioning suggested a potentially more lucrative domestic use of the DEW98 platform than the flash in the pan T-Bird. One with arguably greater relevance and potential longevity in the market. But equally, it is possible to look at Reichman and McGovern’s proposals as simply another form of revisionism, if better executed and more elegantly realised.

The DEW98 platform was allegedly deemed unfit for purpose by Wolfgang Reitzle, who had it expensively re-engineered for 2002. According to some reports, Reitzle had, prior to his departure, insisted upon development of a totally new bespoke platform for the PAG group, something Ford beancounters baulked at – the suggestion being that this decision formed part of the German’s decision to walk away[5].

However, given that DEW98 could be both stretched and shortened, it is difficult to understand why it could not have sufficed, especially following its extensive revamp. Furthermore, it would surely have been more expedient from a tooling amortisation perspective to have continued using it for Lincoln’s more upscale offerings, rather than gifting it entirely to Coventry.

In the eponymous song, Henley encounters a new Cadillac emblazoned with the Dead Head emblem of legendary Sixties rock band, The Grateful Dead, a metaphor for how the survivors of the counterculture grew up, sold out and got rich. Dreams become betrayed he seemed to suggest, and whether one views Ford’s PAG dream in that manner, or that it was simply hostage to the myriad of mis-steps that saw Jac Nasser ousted in 2001, it all ended in failure, regret and vast quantities of red ink.

Image: carsdirect

But as Mr. Henley eloquently pointed out, you can never look back, and certainly Messrs, McGovern, Reichman and Reitzle have left their PAG sojourn well behind them. After all, automotive history is littered with the corpses of the politically naïve, the foolish or the downright unlucky. We may never quite know the machinations that took place within the Ford Motor Company during the immediate post-millennial period, but what we can say with some certainty is that we have seen the last of the boys of summer.

[1] For younger readers, The Eagles were a Californian rock band, who achieved colossal commercial success during the 1970s with their blend of country-inflected MOR records. One of the biggest acts of the decade, they sold in excess of 200 million records during their career. 

[2] Apparently over 4.2 million T-Birds were built over its 44 year lifespan from 1955 to 1997. (Source: Car & Driver)

[3] While the first generation sold respectably, it was the second generation ‘Squarebird’ of 1958 which really saw Thunderbird sales take flight, and for most of the 1960s, the model line dominated the personal luxury segment.

[4] In 2001, the base price was $35,495, before options. 

[5] The reasons for Reitzle’s departure from Ford are a good deal more complex than simple petulance on his part. Politics played a far greater role, naturally. 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Boys of Summer”

  1. It is not a coincidence that J Mays was head of design at FoMoCo and he oversaw the Concept 1. He was into retrofuturism – the Thunderbird is of a piece with that. In my view the S-Type drew more from plain nostalgia styling, inspires not so much by any high concept but more Rover’s apparent success with chrome and more chrome. Jaguar had been ploughing the “ye olde” furrow for a long time before the S-Type. Fashion caught up with Jaguar much as from time to time tweed gets back in vogue.

  2. The S Class looked wrong from day one. The hideous interior was even worse than the outside.

    The Thunderbird, on the other hand, looked good at the time, but has dated badly. Mind you, the New Beetle concept was also favourably received… customers and observers liked the references to fondly remembered cars of yesteryear, even if the appeal wore off.

    But Ford’s retro obsession also led – eventually – to the Mustang and GT40 remakes, both of which were much more successful.

    As for the DEW98 platform, it also saw service under the Jaguar XF, which righted most of the wrongs of the S class. This was a credible and reasonably successful product.

    Again, Ford got there eventually. Perhaps if their management had the conviction to see a long term plan through, Ford would be in a much healthier position today?

  3. Indeed the Thunderbird has dated badly, and it’s no surprise for me. The overly soft shapes were en vogue throughout the nineties, heralded (among others) by the 1991 Mazda 626. But people got tired of these eventually, and coming with such a design around 2000 was simply a decade too late. Cars needed some edge (again) at this time.

    1. The New Beetle on the other hand wasn’t such an amorphous blob, but had clearly defined edges and surfaces, probably it lasted longer because of that. The totally absurd proportions were there from the beginning, anyway.

  4. When many people actually saw the retro T-Bird, all they said was, eww. What a downer. The thing never looked right from the start, what with that down sloping to the rear end and too high front headlights. The ’55, ’58 and ’62 T-Birds weren’t burdened with such awful design – that was newly invented by the geniuses you mention. It was mainly really old people in places like Florida, California and Arizona who bought the Retro-Bird, sunny and no place to go. The extra weight of the underfloor bracing because all were convertibles added some 180 kg as well. The car just did not look happy in its skin.

    As a kid newly arrived in North America in 1959, the then current T-Bird took my breath away, the ’62 looked not bad but huge. The 2002 version missed the point entirely. It was a sales dud from the start. 30,000 isn’t much in a 15 million market.

    The New Beetle looked like a Beetle, not an “artiste’s” rendering. Enough said about that ungainly T-Bird revival fiasco. Nobody yearned after it around here, but the weather might be to blame. The Lincoln LS looked just fine. A fair few old money folks round here bought them, a decent car that didn’t advertise wealth. The Jag S-Type just looked weird but fooled the nouveaus for a while.
    Unfortunately, they were all pretty much duds mechanically.

    It must be a coincidence but TTAC also has an article on DEW98 cars today. Amazing.
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2018/05/buy-drive-burn-three-cars-one-platform-2002-dew-edition/

    1. Bill: if some people didn’t like the drooping tail and some found the opera windows chintzy and others condidered it all too heavy then that’s too many reasons to reject a car.
      Does anyone else wonder how many shared-platform cars are total flops because of the compromises needed?

    2. The Lincoln wasn´t a masterpiece of design but it was a quite decent looking car. As you say, understated. Perhaps the V6 with the MT wasn´t less fun to drive that a 530i E39. The S-Type lines, however, were a joke from day one.

  5. Don’t forget the shared-platform Thema, Alfa 164, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000. Did quite well, and kept Lancia in the public eye.

    1. Vic: agreed regarding the T4 cars. I would go further and say it did more than keep Lancia in the public eye. It gave them a very strong-selling car.

      Counter examples: the last generation Astra and Zafira shared a platform. The Astra became too heavy.
      The first Mondeo and Contour shared a whole body and the Contour was too small for America.
      The last Opel Insignia and last Saab 9-5 shared a platform and the Saab was too big.
      The new-generation Saab 900 and Opel Vectra shared a platform and the Saab wasn´t Saaby enough.
      The Jaguar X-type and synchronous Ford Mondeo shared a platform and the Jaguar became “much-loved”.
      The Ford Ka Mk2 and the Fiat 500 shared a platform and the Ka Mk2 has no discernable personality at all.

      I see GM and Ford feature heavily in this list. Toyota seems to get away with this.

    2. Agree on some of that, but I have an irrational tendency to like all Saabs I ever see.

      The Thema is still a better-handling car than any later Lancia — just don’t get the 8.32: when it goes wrong you’ll be stuck for engine parts. Lovely direct steering. Even the auto’s tolerable.

      Exactly why Ford killed its distinctive little Ka I don’t understand.

      Fiat 500 now below £8k in UK: but are they making profits on them? That was a problem for the original 500 (hence the 600?), but in part that was a political project. The Communists emerged from the war very popular: could their supporters be bought off? Yes, to an extent capitalism could be shown to come up with the goods.

    3. Conventional wisdom would have expected the mk2 Ford Ka to utilize a shortened version of the mk5 Fiesta platform with downsized 1.0 3-cylinder Duratec/Ecoboost petrols and 1.4 Duratorq diesel engines, instead of being a rebodied Fiat 500 followed by a belated half-baked B-Segment sized successor that was more plain-looking 5-door only mk5 Fiesta than a true City Car successor to the Ka.

    4. I liked the retro Thunderbird from the first moment – yes yes, I have funny taste – but it was never offered here in Germoney, so I was lucky never faced with the question if I could have afforded it.

      (Bob: The Ka died because everyone thought every car must have 4 doors. And no, not every car has to have 4 doors. The Ka is the proof.)

    5. You’re not alone, Fred. I like these too. They were never officially sold here, but I do see them every now and then.

    1. My apologies. To Wolfgang (if you’re reading) and anyone else who was affected by this. For some reason I appear to have some form of mental block when it comes to this particular name… Fixed above.

  6. Since the original ‘S’ Type was a bit of a mongrel – a Mk X rear-end on a slightly tweaked Mk 2 – I thought the re-use of the name very apt. I thought the new car looked OK – from a distance.

  7. I’ve not seen the retro ‘T’ bird in the metal, but I had the chance to examine the original a few days ago – though not to touch or sit in it. I had realized from TV car shows that interior space was an issue and it is obvious that not only is the seat too close to the steering wheel, but the floor is very high. Once you make the body deeper, to suit a 21st century driver, you lose the elegant profile. As for tweaking the nose and tail, when Auto Union did the 1000SP and Rootes did the Sunbeam Alpine, they knew enough to leave the details alone.

  8. Ford could have certainly gotten more out of the DEW platform and utilized it more widely then it did, what would have been the likely outcome had the 2005 Ford Mustang’s D2C platform been more closely based on the DEW platform? Would it in essence have resembled an early incarnation of the Ford S550 platform used in the 2015 Mustang?

    Surely better styling schemes were investigated for the T-Bird in place of the bloated mess it became? Jaguar got more out of the DEW platform despite the divisive front of the S-Type and being unable to justify using a smaller version for the X-Type.

    Heard claims the Jaguar XJ (X350) was essentially a LWB version of the S-Type, as even though the XJ is bigger the usage of aluminium and weight reduction allowed Jaguar to share components between the two as the BIW weight was very similar. Initially there were plans for the LWB DEW to underpin a non-alloy XJ-sized Lincoln below the LS as part of a larger plan though financial considerations led to the LWB Lincoln and other models being dropped.

    No idea where the 2004 Ford Fairlane and 2004 Lincoln D310 that were planned to use DEW fit in, will say the Lincoln LS looks pretty decent if plain and with Ford’s New Edge styling language would have made for a nice successor to the Scorpio (even though Ford were reputedly thinking of a FWD successor IIRC before ditching the idea).

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