DETROIT — Ford Motor Co.'s new dream machine comes in plastic.
As the carmaker geared up for production of its new Thunderbird, designers and engineers realized the best way to make the sleek lines and eye-catching curves of the vehicle was to turn to composites.
So as the 2002 Thunderbird hits showrooms later this year, it will be with a sheet molded compound hood, fenders, rear deck and optional 82-pound SMC hard top.
"Part of why we chose the materials we did is that we wanted the reaction we did to the  concept car," Nancy Gioia, chief program engineer for Thunderbird, said during its Jan. 8 unveiling at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Ford had halted production of the Thunderbird with the 1997 model year, but premiered a proposed new Thunderbird two years ago as a concept vehicle. Last year, it pledged to bring that concept to the market.
The reborn car should hit the road by the middle of this year, Gioia said.
SMC was the best material for the niche vehicle, with the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker aiming to sell fewer than 25,000 annually, she said.
"We want to keep it unique," she said.
The Thunderbird will sell for between $35,000 and $40,000, depending on options. Ford is not releasing details on suppliers for the vehicle.
The automaker is not alone in using composites on new high-end vehicles heading into the marketplace.
General Motors Corp. will use structural reaction injection molding in its Cadillac Escalade EXT, an upgraded version of the Chevrolet Avalanche hybrid vehicle, set to go into production in 2002 and sell for nearly $50,000.
Like the Avalanche, it has a RIM truck bed and midgate, allowing drivers to have a second row of seats or expand the 5-foot-3-inch truck bed to 8 feet, 1 inch.
The vehicle uses thermoplastic polyolefin in the standard tonneau cover and some exterior trim, said Terry Woychowski, chief engineer for GM's full-size trucks.
The Detroit-based automaker also has partnered with ASC Inc. of Southgate, Mich., to help bring its 2000 concept truck, the Chevrolet SSR, to the market with production slated to begin in 2002.
The company has not committed to a specific material for the roadster pickup with its retractable hardtop, but some kind of composite technology is in consideration.
Composites also are at work in the far upper end of the dream car scenario, with carbon fiber featured on Cunningham Motor Co.'s new $250,000 sports car, which debuted Jan. 10 at the auto show.
The company is calling the vehicle the first "grand touring automobile" since Cunningham C-3 sports car production ended nearly 50 years ago. Once production begins in 2004, it will compete with European brands from Ferrari SpA and Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd.
Aluminum goes into the main body panels, but carbon fiber is set for the front and rear fascias, using LDM Technologies Inc.'s controlled energy management program to allow for both a long sweep around the front of the vehicle and the impact protection required in bumpers, said John C. McCormack, Cunningham chief executive officer and president.
"The entire front of the car, nearly around to the [front] pillars, is in composite," McCormack said. "We wanted to take advantage of the weight [savings] and also LDM's capabilities allows us to keep the design we wanted. We couldn't do it with aluminum."