The past steadfastly remains a foreign country.
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 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.
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, 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 – 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“.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 Apparently over 4.2 million T-Birds were built over its 44 year lifespan from 1955 to 1997. (Source: Car & Driver)
 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.
 In 2001, the base price was $35,495, before options.
 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.