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Come back, Ford Thunderbird!

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Bob Greene: Ford Thunderbird once defined driving -- and America -- for a post-war nation
  • It was enormously popular in the '50's, redesigned in the '60s, ultimately dropped in 2005
  • He has an idea: Put old square chassis design on top of the modern mechanics, reissue
  • Greene: Ford's historian says brand might still sell. Why not try?

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- There went July, for those of you keeping score at home.

And as another summer in the only life you'll ever lead makes its turn into the backstretch, perhaps we might pause for just a moment to reflect upon a glorious part of the American summer landscape that is no longer with us:


Ford Thunderbirds.

It's not just that they don't make 'em like that anymore.

They don't make 'em. Period.

Born in 1955, the Thunderbird was instantly such a sensation that it seemed as if it would roll down America's highways forever. The first generation of Thunderbirds -- the ones manufactured in 1955, 1956 and 1957, and referred to as "Little Birds" by those who are devoted to T-Bird legend and history -- was a sharp, low-slung two-seater that was freedom and wanderlust incarnate. It was no wonder that in the movie "American Graffiti," the elusive blonde who represented summer dreams that always seem somehow just beyond reach drove one of the earliest Thunderbirds. Any other car would have seemed wrong.

The next generation of Thunderbirds -- the ones built in 1958, 1959 and 1960, and known as "Square Birds" -- are, to many of us, not just the most beautiful T-Birds ever, but the most beautiful cars. The very name -- Thunderbird -- felt ideal for the nation's post-World War II self-image: confident and powerful and a little cocky, unworried about what was around the next bend, strong enough to roll over any obstacles that might arise. There were songs written about the allure of T-Birds -- the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" is the most famous -- but the T-Bird song that is most evocative in its poignancy was an album track by Bob Seger.

Called "Makin' Thunderbirds," the song celebrates the feeling of working on an industrial assembly line that is producing something special. In his lyrics, Seger paints a portrait of an America clear-eyed and optimistic and trusting in its ability to find its own way; he was singing about working on the line, but he was singing about the country, too: "We were young and proud, we were makin' Thunderbirds."

Somehow, it got away. Ford decided to try to improve on the Square Bird; the cars got longer and heavier and more luxurious, and for a while they were still recognizably T-Birds. But then, by the early 1980s, Ford did the seemingly impossible: It made the Thunderbird ordinary. The car that looked like no other became the car that looked like every other.

"That was awful," Elizabeth Werth told me the other morning. She and her husband Bill live in northern Illinois, and are members of Thunderbird clubs both locally and nationally. (Elizabeth is a past regional director of the Classic Thunderbird Club International.)

When the Thunderbirds became little more than family sedans, she said, "You couldn't even tell, when you were driving down the road, if that car that was coming toward you was a Thunderbird. Our neighbor across the street had one. I looked at it and thought, 'What? That's a Thunderbird? Why?' "

Bill Werth owns a restored '55 Little Bird, painted in the original Thunderbird Blue. "When I drive it, people pull up next to it and start taking pictures with their cell phones," he said. Elizabeth confirmed this: "People see it, and it's thumbs up, smiles, waves, cameras being pulled out, people hanging out the window of their cars to get a better look."

Ford fooled around with the design of Thunderbird for a while, then, in 1997, shut down the brand. It came back early in this century for a few years, but then was dropped again in 2005. There are currently no Thunderbirds being made.

Which seems a shame in a cookie-cutter universe of mundane cars that look like so many rounded-off shoeboxes. Car designers are always looking for the next great style concept, but Ford had it a long time ago -- that gorgeous Square Bird from 1958, 1959 and 1960 -- and threw it away in the name of progress.

I've had a theory that I have been trying out on people for years. What if Ford were to take the chassis underpinnings and engine used in today's autos, complete with all the now-necessary fuel-efficiency and safety standards, and drop the old Square Bird body on top of it? A Square Bird body constructed of modern materials, brand-new and ready to hit the highway? Why couldn't that be done? In a world of bland and dull transportation options, people might snap it up. It would make them happy just to look at it as they climbed behind the wheel every morning.

The idea is nuts, I have often been told. Couldn't be done. Unrealistic.

But then, last week, I spoke with someone who said that it could, in fact, be accomplished -- and might be a fine idea.

And he was speaking from inside the headquarters of the Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Michigan.

"It's not nuts at all," said Bob Kreipke, Ford's official corporate historian. "The engineers and designers could come up with a way to make it work. I'd probably buy one myself, because it would be different from everything else that is out there on the road."

Kreipke said that in his opinion, the Thunderbird may be dormant, but not buried: "That is such a great brand. As far as I'm concerned, that brand is far from meeting its death. That's a real powerful nameplate."

In "Fun, Fun, Fun," of course, the Beach Boys sang that "Daddy took the T-Bird away." In real life, it was Ford that took the T-Bird away.

But what Ford taketh away, Ford can giveth.

Just the way it was: perfect.

Summer and Thunderbirds.

Sounds like a song.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.