Ford has a thing for retro, er, heritage nameplates, as we’ve seen with the recent revival of both the Ranger and Bronco badges, and a new trademark filing indicates the automaker is giving at least some consideration to bringing back the once popular Thunderbird model.
It wouldn’t be the first time Thunderbird has risen, phoenix-like, from the automotive scrapheap. A decidedly retro-designed two-seat convertible was introduced for the 2002 model year but scrapped three years later due to lackluster sales.
Despite that weak performance, Thunderbird is considered one of the most iconic names in the portfolio and, said a Ford insider, a key reason why the company wanted to make sure to keep its trademark active. But could there be specific plans in the works?
The trademark application filed on Jan. 13, 2021 states that the Detroit automaker continues to reserve the registration for use on “Motor vehicles, namely, concept motor vehicles, four-wheeled motor vehicles.”
But why exactly did Ford file? According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, “If you own a trademark registration, you must file certain documents at regular intervals to maintain and renew your registration.”
“We renewed the trademark. It doesn’t mean anything is coming back,” Ford product spokesman Michael Levine told TheDetroitBureau.com, following up by e-mail with a prepared statement noting that this is not “necessarily an indication of new business or product plans.”
On the other hand, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that we might see another product bearing the Thunderbird badge at some point in future, teased another Ford insider asking not to be identified by name or title.
There’s no question that Ford would trigger a lot of interest if it did confirm plans to revive the nameplate. The new trademark renewal along has touched off plenty of buzz.
The Thunderbird has gone through a number of iterations throughout the years, so Ford could have plenty of opportunities, all the more so considering the way buyers seem to be accepting the idea of the Mustang nameplate now being shared with an all-electric crossover.
The original Thunderbird went into production in October 1954 as a 1955 model. While it has often been compared to another two-seat convertible of that era, the Chevrolet Corvette, the T-bird wasn’t pitched as a sports car but as more of a “personal luxury car.”
Three years later, the Thunderbird went through the first of many makeovers, growing longer and adding a second row. In true Detroit fashion, it kept getting longer and longer with each new iteration, though critics also lamented what they felt, by the late 1970s had become a bloated caricature of the original concept.
The breakthrough came with the ninth-generation model launched for the 1983 model year. A struggling Ford Motor Co. let design chief Jack Telnack execute a radically windswept look that was often referred to as the “Aero-bird,” a new design language that was carried over into the critical 1986 Ford Taurus sedan.
But, as the automaker was wont to do in that era, the 10th-generation T-bird, launched in 1989, grew larger, heavier and less distinctive. Despite the addition of a supercharged powertrain, it lacked real performance credibility and was pulled from production in 1997.
An all-new design, meant to harken back to the sporty look of the ’55 Thunderbird was announced at the turn of the new millennium. But it took longer than expected to get it into production, making it seem dated, especially after a series of concepts were shown at various auto shows. The final production model was faulted for a variety of other reasons, including a stodgy interior and mediocre performance. By the time it was pulled from production in July 2005, barely 10,000 had been sold.
So, should we expect to see Ford try again? Curiously, the automaker let its trademark lapse about a year ago. Whether that was an oversight is unclear. And, at least for now, it is difficult to be certain whether the belated renewal corrects that error or signals new plans.
Clearly, Ford has realized the risk of letting a valued trademark go. It effectively gave away its ownership of the GT40 badge first used for its wildly successful Le Mans race program. When it decided to launch a new supercar nearly two decades ago the new trademark holder demanded millions for the use of the name, forcing Ford to call the car simply the GT.
Even if there really are no current plans to build a new Thunderbird, the automaker clearly doesn’t want to risk making that mistake again.