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Is "Retrofuturism" a thing of the past?
By Mickey Kaus
Posted Wednesday, April 23, 2003, at 12:18 AM PT
Ford kills the T-Bird -- and not on a Friday: Ford announced today it would cease production of its much-hyped Thunderbird in the "2005 or 2006 model year," according to an AP report on MSNBC. This should be a humiliating announcement for Ford. The Thunderbird got a huge wave of press when it was introduced in 2001, but then took forever to actually hit the streets, thanks in part to the discovery of cooling-system problems. Cynically, Ford expected buyers to pay $39,000 for a car that recycled the dreary, budget interior from the Lincoln LS, on which the T-Bird was based. The car handles flabbily, according to the car mags. I thought the chrome wheels looked cheap, too.
More important is the failure of the concept behind the T-Bird. I have in my hand a fancy $35 coffee table book called RETROFUTURISM, produced for an exhibit at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. It's a pretentious tribute to J Mays, Ford's celebrity design chief (who also sketched the far more successful, retro-comical VW New Beetle). The future of Ford, the book says, is a "melding of the iconic past with a vision of the future." The uncritical text continues:
The new Thunderbird is a good example of retrofuturism in car design. While it evokes the classic Thunderbird, it also possesses a very contemporary and individual identity. "It's not retro," insists Mays. "While the Thunderbird concept is loaded with heritage cues, it is a decidedly modern machine." Mays' incorporation of retrofuturism into his creative process has enabled him to draw from the past and design for the future, while remaining firmly grounded in the present.
The book charts out the course for Ford's future "Living Legends" cars. There is upcoming Ford GT40, based on the 1965 race car, and the Ford Forty-Nine, based loosely on the late-'40s model that revived the company. At this year's auto shows Ford has displayed its apparently soon-to-be produced Mustang GT concept--a giant four-wheeled "heritage cue," being basically an updated '60s Mustang.
The obvious question: If the first "living legend"--the T-Bird--has now flopped, what does it say about Ford's grand strategy of building its brand with a succession of similarly nostalgic Boomer Retro-Cartoons? Instead of producing a parade of warmed-over updates of new car ideas people fondly remember from 40 years ago, why not come up with some new car ideas people will fondly remember 40 years from now?
Keep in mind that Ford only began producing the Thunderbird in June 2001, but (thanks to those production glitches) it really wasn't available in large numbers until much later that year. So it's being effectively euthanized after not all that much more than a year on the market. Ford predicted sales of 25,000 annually, but only about 19,000 were sold in 2002 and about 4,000 through March of this year. "The demand is nonexistent right now," a Georgia Ford dealer told the Detroit News.
That 2005-2006 phase-out date is suspicious, though. The car will now apparently spend more time dying than it did living. Combined with the failure of Ford to announce the T-Bird's demise on a Friday during the Iraq war--which is the day you'd choose if you wished to bury bad news--it suggests Ford actually wanted the world to know the T-Bird was doomed. Why? One explanation: It's a pathetic attempt to promote a wave of buying by collectors who now know the production run is limited--but who have a couple of years to spend thousands on one of the "last" Thunderbirds.
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