Ford Motor Co. has gone back to the drawing board with a fix designed to prevent paint damage caused by the removable hardtop of its beleaguered Thunderbird, Ward's learns.

The car is subject to paint scuffing where decklid meets hardtop.

Molding developed to prevent scuffing and scratches by insulating the doomed car's decklid from its removable hardtop is being reworked, a Ford spokesman confirms, adding there is no date in sight for a resolution.

The redesign focuses on a clip system used to attach the molding, Ford says.

A source says Decoma International Inc. is on the hook for $1 million in tooling.

The root of the problem? “It relates to the stiffness of the body and the stiffness of the top,” the Ford spokesman says. In other words, the removable roof just doesn't sit well on the stylish 2-seater.

This turn of events leaves dealers with less than a sporting chance of satisfying Thunderbird owners who've been clamoring for the fix since Ward's publicized the troubles — and triumph — of Mark Scanlon.

The Cortland, IL, customer paid $11,000 over sticker for his T-Bird, which he planned to keep as a showpiece. Then he experienced paint scuffing caused by the bulb seal at the base of the removable hardtop.

After being snubbed by Ford, Scanlon told his story to Ward's. Only then did the auto maker ride to his rescue, making him the first recipient of a molding developed by Decoma.

Scanlon was satisfied, but frustration greeted dealers and customers who sought the same remedy. Ford and Decoma now admit the molding Scanlon received was a prototype. “It was a one-off,” says a Decoma spokesman.

Ford had said it would offer the molding as a retrofit on '02 and '03 Thunderbirds, while integrating it into production for subsequent models. But the molding never officially was entered in Ford's parts catalogue, causing rifts between owners who'd heard Scanlon's story and dealers who were unaware of the fix.

Internet forums reflect the gulf between them. On Thunderbird, someone dubbed “Oakmo” says: “ I just spoke to the Ford Customer Relationship Center in Dearborn. They know nothing of this scuff fix. If they don't know, how does a local dealer know? My dealer had no idea of what I was talking about.”

Responds “Dana”: “You need to contact Mark Lankford at Sycamore Auto Center. They are the ONLY dealership in the nation that completed an install.”

Lankford arranged Scanlon's installation, which saw a Decoma representative visit his Sycamore, IL, dealership for the occasion. Since then, Lankford tells Ward's he's received more than 300 inquiries.

The removable roof ruckus casts a pall over Thunderbird's final months. The auto maker, which revived the nameplate in 2001 after a 3-year hiatus, says the redesigned car has run its course.

Second quarter sales were down just 2% last month compared with second quarter 2002, the Ford spokesman notes. “It basically outsold everything with two seats except Corvette,” he says, citing Audi TT, Mercedes CLK and BMW Z4.

Year-to-date, Thunderbird sales reflect the downward spiral that played a role in its demise. Through June, Thunderbird deliveries totaled 9,877 — 11.4% less than the 11,145 units sold during the first six months of 2002.

No phase-out date has been confirmed, but Thunderbird is not expected to be around past the '05 model year.