display | more...

1969 Ford Thunderbird

The third year of the basic body shape introduced in 1967, 1969's model showed few major changes, but many incremental improvements. This wasn't enough for prospective buyers; sales declined for the second year in a row, to 49,272 (a drop of over 15,000), and for the first time the Buick Riviera outsold the Thunderbird. Worse, it wasn't even a new Riviera; the Riviera was in its fourth year of its cycle, even older than the Thunderbird's. Also that year, a new competitor reared its head; the Pontiac Grand Prix. While not quite an equal - the Pontiac was quite a bit cheaper and came with much less in the way of standard equipment - it was a car in the same grand manner, with both performance and style in ample measure. 112,486 of them were sold that year, and one needs only to look at the 1970 Ford Thunderbird to see the effect it had at Ford.

Some changes were made on the exterior, the biggest being at the rear, where the full-width taillights were replaced by two separate light clusters, either side of a chromed panel reminiscent of early '60s 'Birds. For my money, I'd rather the full-width lights, but that's not to say the '69 look was bad. Up front, the grille changed again, being a finer mesh separated into eight larger rectangular sections by thicker chromed bars. Reversing a retrograde step in '68, a large Thunderbird emblem returned to its rightful place in the grille center, and this time chrome accented with sapphire-colored jewels for the Bird's tail and wing feathers. The front side marker lamps became cornering lights, lit steadily while the turn signals were switched in that direction and illuminating the turn. The rear side quarter reflectors became the lights they should have been all along.

The Fordor Landau (4-door) model saw no real changes to its top, but the other two body styles changed. The Tudor Landau lost the rear quarter windows to a wider vinyl-clad C pillar in a style that would be very popular in the 1970s, while the Tudor Hardtop kept the rear quarter windows but replaced the Thunderbird emblems with small Thunderbird scripts.

Inside, very little changed, except for the mid-year federally mandated provision of head restraints as standard.

The most notable new option in '69 was a large power sunroof. Very rare, it's believed that only about 900 cars came with it. Other new additions that year were optional high level brake lights, which came in the form of lighted strips on either side of the rear window; a buzzer and warning lights to inform the driver that the headlights had been left on, and an electric rear window defrost.

Engine choice in 1969 was but one: the 360 horsepower Ford 429 ThunderJet, driving through the same Ford C6 automatic transmission. The suspension was reworked, riding lower and yet more comfortably and stably, and designed with the aid of computer simulation. A long-standing safety issue with the front headlight doors was resolved in 1969 by making them lift automatically in the event of vacuum system failure; unfortunately, this also meant that the doors would raise after a few days in the driveway or dealership, as tiny vacuum leaks took their toll. This has become much more of a problem in the modern day, as rubber vacuum lines age and perish., and many owners have replaced the sprung '69 vacuum motors with '67 or '68 versions.

Although it wasn't a hit with the public, and sold comparitively poorly, there are those who would rate the '69 as the best of the '67-'71 Thunderbirds. The bugs had been worked out of the car by 1969, and production quality and consistency was up. Suspension improvements meant the '69 rode even better than previous years, and styling-wise the grille-center Thunderbird emblem was correcting the mistake made in '68.

This would be the last year of the jet-engine front end; 1970's cars would sport a quite different look, even though they were largely the same car aft of the front window.