Ford Thunderbird: the latest car to cruise down Memory Lane

One look at this car, and you may be convinced that the future is ... 1955.

Complete with portholes on the removable mushroom hardtop, long pontoon fenders, and gleaming chrome grille, the Thunderbird is back after a long hiatus. The official figure is four years. But to fans, the "real T-bird" hasn't been around for almost 30 years, during which time Ford just slapped the name on chrome renditions of homely Granadas.

The 2002 T-bird is the latest salute to automotive nostalgia. Like Volkswagen's Beetle and Chrysler's PT Cruiser, the T-Bird is a modern car with an old-fashioned flavor. But today's T-Bird is much better than the 1955 original. Inside the high-end T-Bird, brightly colored seat inserts with gently rolling folds of leather coordinate with jelly-bean exterior paint jobs for that put-together look. Behind the wheel, the driver has enough room to stretch out, a marked advance over the original.

I sampled a two-tone, canary-yellow-and-black T-bird around the twisty roads of an equally fashionable Boston neighborhood. Acceleration is swift, handling sure. But a sports car it's not, lacking the punch and reflexes its smart-looking body promises.

Still, this is a car for cruising. Its long hood, crystalline taillights, and burbling exhaust cry for attention at every corner. The V-8 engine, shared along with the platform of Lincoln's LS sedan, puts out 252 horsepower and comes standard with a five-speed automatic transmission.

The only options are the two-tone seats and the hard-top with those famous portholes - each upgrade costing $2,200.

Thunderbirds should hit showrooms this month, starting at $35,495. But don't expect to buy one for that. Ford plans to build only 25,000 this year, and almost all have buyers waiting. Expect dealers to add big markups to those that don't.

Ford has little incentive to boost production, hoping to milk T-bird's accolades for as long as possible. With polls showing public mistrust of the automaker because of SUV-tire-related deaths, the company desperately craves some positive press.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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