Fun Stuff

Depreciation Appreciation: 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird

Welcome to Depreciation Appreciation! Every month, your pals at dig up an instance of how depreciation can make for an extraordinary used-car deal.

With summer on our brains, we figured we’d highlight a unique convertible option this month – and one that’s unique, relatively rare, and easily able to satisfy the demands of a second-hand shopper after a vehicle that turns heads on the relative cheap.

Enter the Ford Thunderbird. The latest 11th generation of this machine covered model years 2002–2005 inclusive, came with standard V8 power, and offered both coupe and convertible configurations.

The Sticky

If you remember 2002, you probably remember things like Michael Jackson dangling a baby off of a balcony, the breakup of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, and the introduction of the first camera-phone. You might also remember the re-launch of the Ford Thunderbird (or its big-screen co-star, Halle Berry, in the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day).

An original work of “retro-futuristic” styling, this latest Thunderbird carried on a long history of unique design, and the Jaguar-built 3.9-litre V8 put no less than 252 horsepower on offer. This two-seater offered up a colourful and lavish cabin with gorgeous instrumentation and thick, pillowy leather seats, and a touring-first suspension added to the comfort. If you’re after a comfortable convertible cruising experience, this generation of Thunderbird should fit the bill nicely. It may have handled like a heap of coleslaw, but most owners report a very laidback and relaxing drive.

Thunderbird was built in Michigan, and was based on a multi-application Ford platform that was shared with other models like the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type. All models got an automatic transmission.

Several limited-edition models are available for the discerning collector – including the James Bond 007 Edition, the Nieman Marcus edition, and the Pacific Coast Roadster edition. Despite an initial surge of sales, Thunderbird failed to meet sales targets after its first year in the market, and was cancelled after 2005.

Though resale values for a used Thunderbird of this generation are relatively strong, it’s the mileage and condition typical of used units that form an even stronger draw for the right shoppers: many used copies of this machine have very low mileage for their age, most have never seen winter, and many were used to intent during lengthy highway drives. Translation? A low-mileage, summer-only Thunderbird will command a used-car premium, though most others will have plenty of life left.

Approximate New Value

When it launched, the Thunderbird carried a Canadian MSRP of about $52,000 – a figure that increased when shoppers opted for any add-on options, or any of Thunderbird’s limited-edition models. For 2003, coinciding with an increase to power output, the price climbed even further higher. Several models pushed pricing well into the $60,000 range, depending on equipment levels.

Approximate Used Value

Today, and often with very low mileage, used Thunderbirds like this one (with less than 29,000 kilometres of use) give shoppers access to a rare and lightly used convertible from the mid-twenties. Here’s another example with less than 25,000 kilometres on the dial. This very low-mileage 2002 Thunderbird has less than 18,000 kilometres of use, includes every available accessory (including a hard-top), and can be had for under $28,000.

If you’re interested in a Thunderbird, the sweet-spot seems to be just under $30,000 – and for that money, you’ll have no issue finding a used copy with less than 30,000 kilometres on the odometer.

With higher mileage in the 60,000 to 80,000 kilometre range, used models like this see pricing at or below the $20,000 mark. Finally, if you’re not afraid of mileage, or if you’re able to handle a little maintenance and repair on your own, higher-mileage units like this and this can be had from the mid-teens, all day long.

And, despite relatively low sales volumes, selection seems fairly abundant too. The gist? You’ll have little issue finding a used Thunderbird that fits your needs and budget.

Test Drive Tips

Commit the following statement to memory: the way the used Thunderbird you’re considering was cared for by past owners is the single best indicator of its long-term reliability and current condition. Check all service records, confirm that any recall work has been carried out (if applicable), and ensure that no maintenance items – spark plug changes, fluid changes, filter changes, tune-up work, etc. – is past due. Taking steps to ensure you’re buying a used Thunderbird that’s been consistently and continually cared for throughout its life is a great way to fend off potential headaches down the line.

Next, inspect the convertible top in full. Open and close it several times, noting any signs of binding, straining, or an unintended reversal in direction. When opening and closing the roof, stop the roof half-way through its range of motion, to expose all weather seals. Inspect all of these. The rubber should be plump, springy, and intact. Rubber weather seals that are cracked, worn, ripped, or missing need to be replaced, to prevent water leaks into the cabin.

Shoppers are also advised to inspect the leather seating for signs of water damage, possibly caused by a convertible roof leak. This may be evidenced by leather panels that look dried out, crispy, shrunken away from their stitching, or that resemble beef jerky in texture. Finally, be sure to inspect all interior carpeting, the area where the roof stores away, and the area beneath the trunk carpeting, for signs of current (or past) water infiltration.

Assess the gearshift quality from the transmission at light, moderate, and full throttle, and take any roughness, harshness, or unwanted sounds as a sign to have the transmission inspected by a Ford technician, or to move to another unit.

A full pre-purchase inspection (PPI) at a Ford dealer should be considered mandatory as well. Note that a Check Engine Light (CEL) may illuminate for numerous reasons, and if one is apparent, likely culprits include bad ignition coil packs, or a bad throttle body.

Unwanted droning, buzzing, or vibrations through the Thunderbird’s body while cruising may be evidence of a problem with a driveshaft or half-shaft, which should be easy for a professional to diagnose and repair. Other checks should include the power windows, cooling system, and a professional inspection of the suspension, especially on higher-mileage units.

Finally, if you’ll keep your used Thunderbird for the long haul, consider professional cleaning and protection of the leather seating surfaces to prolong their life and appearance, as well as professional paint correction and sealing. Both of these can help your Thunderbird retain more of its resale value. Use of a trickle charger when your new-to-you T-Bird will be parked for more than a few days at a time is a great idea as well.

The Verdict

A well-maintained, low-mileage Thunderbird that passes a PPI with satisfactory results should provide affordable access to a one-of-a-kind cruiser that you (and maybe that special someone) will enjoy for years to come.