By Bruce Nelson
Would you not think, that as time travels on, that the auto industry would evolve? After all, who doesn’t look back at the ’55 thru ’57 Ford Thunderbirds and wonder, what the heck were these guys thinking, who in there right mind would change the styling of these cute, sporty 2-seater sports cars into a hardtop 4-seater about twice the size. The fact is, the bean counters at Ford decided that these cars weren’t selling at a high enough volume. They figured that by doubling the seating they would double the sales. They were wrong. The 1958 4-seater sold about 5 times as many cars as the year before.
Now zip forward about 45 years. After Ford dropped the Thunderbird in 1997 because of poor sales, it was resurrected in 2001 as a cute 2-seat convertible, with the famous “port hole” hardtop and styling that made it look like a modern adaptation of the ’56 T-bird. It was just announced recently that this new Thunderbird will be discontinued after 2004. The problem, slow sales of a 2-seater. This time, I don’t see a replacement larger version. Too bad, I thought this was a great example of retro styling.
This is not the only example of this, although it is the most well known. Another case of a great car gone bad was the famous 240-Z Datsun of the early ‘70s. It was released as a light, powerful, well designed sports car. It had very few options available and was unbelievably cheap. These cars are considered by collectors to be one of the only Japanese cars to ever be collectable. After 5 years it grew in weight and size, was available as a 4-seater, and because of the changing EPA regulations much less powerful. This direction continued until the early ‘90s when the final 300-ZX came out. It was still a little too late. Even though the last series 300-ZX was a very well designed and powerful car, it didn’t sell well and was discontinued. Again zip forward to the present day. Nissan, (what Datsuns really were) has recently released the 350-Z. Much like the Thunderbird, it is a very well executed, somewhat retro, 2-seat, all out sports car. Also like the 240-Z you might have to wait a long time to actually get your hands on one.
Basically, the same thing happened to the Mazda RX-7. It came out as a small, 2-seat, fast sports car. The second generation was a larger 4-seat car with ho-hum styling. Like the Nissan, in the early ‘90s it was replaced with one of the best looking and fastest sports cars to ever come out of Japan. Also like the Nissan, it sold so poorly that it only lasted a few years on the American market. This year Mazda released the RX-8. Like the RX cars of the past, it has a rotary engine and is sold as a sports car. The real difference is that it is a 4-seat, 4-door. It will be interesting to me to see which of these sells the best over the next few years. Maybe the bean counters have more clout at Mazda than do the engineers. After all, Mazda brought us the Miata, the return of the true sports car. Nobody has caught them yet, as hard as they may try.
So after all this, are you as confused as I am about 2-seat cars? I guess the market is so small for these that some work and some don’t. The Corvette always sells quite well, so does the above-mentioned Miata. Everyone seems to think that a sports car is a great idea, but few people actually find them practical. The Miata works because of the price and the Corvette sells because of the heritage, But why doesn’t the T-Bird sell well enough for Ford to continue with it, or is the number of units of a certain model just set so high a car like that just won’t make it in the market today. Anyway, I hope to be able to drive all these in the next short time, Maybe that will clear things up. Maybe I’ll just have a lot of fun. Bruce.
By Bruce Nelson
Last Update: 12/13/03