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Image: 1979 Ford Thunderbird Convertible

Above: 1979 Ford Thunderbird Convertible shown in Burnt Orange Glow

Come fly with me

1979 Ford Thunderbird

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The Only Way to Fly

Image: 1979 Thunderbird Heritage script1979 would be the third and final year for the mid-sized Thunderbird body style introduced in 1977. Sales would drop from their all-time high in 1978, but they were still in the top three for the line. The decision to take the Thunderbird down to a smaller size and a more affordable price was a good one, as this series had been the most popular ever, and after people had dreamed of owning one for years, this change finally made flying a Thunderbird a reality for many. Ford had advertised that when America needed a better idea, Ford would put it on wheels. In the case of the 1977-1979 Thunderbirds, it certainly did.

There were a few changes for 1979, really just enough to allow people to notice they were seeing the latest model. Up front, the grille became bolder, consisting a series of four large rectangles across and down. This was a distinct appearance change from the previous two years, and allowed the '79 cars to stand out. In back, the full-width Thunderbird trademark tail lamps were gone, replaced by two separate units that had the Thunderbird insignia in the center. Between the new tail lamps, a single back-up lamp appeared, bearing the THUNDERBIRD name in block lettering. This touch was reminiscent of the 1964 Thunderbirds, and continued the T-bird's styling heritage.

Speaking of heritage, a new 1979 Thunderbird Heritage Edition [links in this article open in a new window] was introduced as the top of the line model in the series. It featured the same level of standard equipment as the 1978 Diamond Jubilee Edition, with new monochromatic color combinations and a few other minor changes. The rear sail panel glass was covered by the vinyl roof which featured chrome Heritage scripts mounted near the opera window. Full details are provided on the linked page. It was a fine way to bid farewell to the seventies, with an eye toward becoming a future collectable. And fortunately, there are many very nice original examples still around today, which makes it easy to pop in your favorite disco 8-track tape and fly back to a time when polyester was the thing and platform shoes were all the rage.

Image: 1979 Ford Thunderbird in BlackNew options for 1979 were pretty much non-existent, but a couple of items were added to the list of standard equipment for the year. A new electronic voltage regulator made sure the electrical system operated at top efficiency under all conditions, and front and rear bumper guards were now standard. The carburetor used on the base 302 CID V-8 engine was modified for improved performance, and door and ignition locks were upgraded to provide better protection against theft.

Interior trims were shuffled around a bit, but were mostly carry over from the previous year. Two new interior colors were introduced, a Dark Red replaced last year's Russet, and Cordovan replaced Saddle. The biggest interior change was perhaps the new "comfort-contoured" flight bench front seat for the standard base interiors, which provided an attractive new block-design sew style in Rossano knit cloth. A fold-down center armrest was included on the base interiors for the first time since 1971, which was the last time a bench seat was standard on the Thunderbird (1972-1976 cars utilized a split bench seat with dual fold-down center arm rests). A light-grain all-vinyl upholstery was also available as an option.

Gas prices were creeping up during 1979, and more economical vehicles continued to be popular. For 1980, the Thunderbird would again undergo a major change, shedding 17 inches in length and about 700 pounds. Unitized body construction would return for the first time since 1966, and a special Silver Anniversary model would appear at mid-year to celebrate the Thunderbird's 25th Anniversary.

The last time the Thunderbird underwent such a major change, the public responded positively by snapping them up in record numbers, but this time the little T-bird would not be as fortunate. Fuel economy on the smaller car wasn't up to par with some of its competitors, and there were complaints of interior noise and slipping automatic overdrive transmissions. The 1980-1982 period would not be a pleasant one for the Bird, as sales would continue to drop due to slowing demand and a lack of public acceptance of the new styling. This would be a temporary situation, however, as another all-new design would be introduced for 1983, and it would prove to be very popular, introducing a new aerodynamic look to the field.

Automotive Mileposts leaves the Thunderbird at this point, as we aren't currently planning to cover the post-1979 models, other than the 2002-2005 cars, which briefly returned the Thunderbird to its original design philosophy of a two passenger convertible, and as with the original 1955-1957 Thunderbirds, were immediately being collected.

We've been told that the Thunderbirds of the seventies represent all of the excesses of that decade, and that the 1977-1979 T-birds, despite being smaller and more fuel efficient than their predecessors, were still too cumbersome and wasteful. We won't take the time to argue those points, other than to remind those folks that nearly one million people purchased a new Thunderbird during the three years this body style was offered. For a personal luxury car that's pretty good. And the seventies bring back fond memories for many, of a time when people dressed up to go to the disco, stayed at home to watch The Rockford Files, Laverne & Shirley, WKRP in Cincinnatti, Three's Company, and others. The seventies laid the path for the eighties, a decade of perhaps even larger excesses, and gave people time to transition from the violence and urban unrest of the sixties. So if the music had an addictive beat, if the clothes and shoes were a bit silly, and the automobiles too big and tacky, so be it. Most who grew up in this decade hold good memories of it, and those memories keep it alive today, as do the wonderful cars built at that time that are being cared for, restored, and driven today. It was a snapshot of time, a period of growth and forgiveness, and it led the way to what was hoped would be a better tomorrow for all.

1979 Thunderbird. It's the only way to fly.


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