image source: Hartog’s photostream.
Buying my first new car was a lot like losing my virginity: it was unexpected, impulsive and quick. Even though it didn’t turn out exactly as I might have expected, I certainly don’t regret it; it was an inevitable rite of passage. There has to be a first time, for better or for worse. At least the glow of satisfaction lasted a bit longer (with the car).
Anyway, there I was, innocently tooling to work one morning in my 1980 Skylark company car, and as I rolled past the Ford dealer in Santa Monica, SHE winked at me: the first 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe in town. She was young, taut and fresh, straight off the trailer. With her long sleek bod, she stood out from the crowded lot of boxy Fords like Keira Knightley at a Walmart checkout line. I knew instantly: we were meant for each other.
And what about the preliminaries? A few mental masturbation sessions after seeing the new TC on the cover and in the pages of Car and Driver. My innate attraction to efficiency, heightened by the very recent energy crisis II, had me pretty obsessed with the idea of diesels as well as small turbo-charged gasoline engines that could perform like a V8 and sip gas like a four. But diesels were too just too slow, noisy and stinky to inspire an act of act of passion. So turbo love blossomed in my heart.
GM had pioneered turbos in 1962, with the Monza Spyder and Olds Jetfire, but within a few years, turbo-fever flamed out. Porsche’s 1976 930 Turbo reignited them, and Ford jumped in too. Instead of a modern fuel-injected design, Ford’s 1979 Mustang Turbo 2.3 was a primitive affair, where the boost was force-fed into the carburetor. The results were primitive too, with a modest 132hp rating. And not exactly the best running engine around. Sad to say,that 132 hp it was still substantially more powerful than the pathetic 255 inch V8 with its 118hp rating. Dark times. And at least Ford didn’t back down after their first attempt.
The Turbo four was completely re-engineered for the new 1983 TC. Now it was world-class state of the art: port fuel injection, and Ford’s new and very advanced EEC-IV electronic engine management system. It’s fair to say that this engine was one of the first truly “modern” engines, certainly so out of Detroit.
Raising most hoods on new cars back then was like confronting the convoluted entrails of a freshly-slit pork belly. You were lucky to catch a glimpse of the engine under miles of contorted vacuum hoses. Popping the Bird’s long beak a visual treat: The little four-banger sat so exposed, almost naked, adorned with some nice alloy pieces. In 1983, this was hot stuff, the kind of thing that quickly drew car freaks to its open hood.
The 145hp output may seem pathetic today, but what was the alternative? Even BMW was on an economy binge; the only 5-Series available (528e) had all of 128hp, and the 3-Series barely harnessed 100 horses. Yes, the Mustang GT finally found its oats again, with 175 hp. But the high-tech, high-efficiency allure of the TC was very different than that of the hot-rod four-barrel Mustang.
So much for the preliminaries. Like most young men, I lusted after a new set of wheels. But I never really considered acting on it, until I abruptly pulled into the dealer that morning. So there I was, in the showroom, looking over this gun-metal gray metallic TC. I took her for a brief spin; where can one properly test a new performance car in the city in 15 minutes? But the brief surges of power when the turbo kicked in were intoxicating, even at 9:15 AM. Never mind the seductive fawn-colored leather buckets.
“I want this car now,” I told the groggy salesman. “I’ll write you a check for it. I need to get to work– in this car.” The veteran salesman eyed me with suspicious satisfaction, nursing his morning Java. “Want some coffee? How about some rubber mats and protective sealer?”
“No. Just tell me how much, so I can get out of here…Whoa; that much?” I don’t remember the exact number, but with sales tax and registration, I seem to remember the total being right around $16,000 ($36k adjusted). Well, it was loaded; typical for a brand new model.
But Maharishi owed me one. Since taking over his near-bankrupt LA TV station, I’d turned KSCI into a Tower of Babel− programming in no less than fifteen Asian and Middle-Eastern languages. And those changes quickly made it very profitable; I’d made the little man some serious money (wired to obscure off-shore accounts).
So I picked up the phone, called the station’s business manager and told him to bring the company check book. Ballsy move. But I was quickly learning how things worked in the TM organization (behind the scenes). About an hour later I arrived at work that morning, with a big grin on my face.
I soon discovered that the Turbo Coupe’s first-glance beauty was a bit inconstant. The interior was a real mixed bag. The multi-adjustable leather seats had inflatable lumbar support, with squeeze-bulbs sourced from a blood-pressure cuff. Very comfortable.
But the dashboard made it clear just how little money Ford had to work with back then. It was essentially unchanged from the previous generation T-Bird, that (mostly) unloved boxy thing. And I always loathed that Ford steering wheel, even if it was leather covered. It looked really out of place here. Both of these issues would be fixed in a couple of years, but too late for me.
As everyone know, the T-Bird shared Ford’s Fox rear wheel-drive platform with the Mustang. With the little four up there, the TC was anorexic (just under 3000lbs) yet solid. That was the real attraction: the kind of almost perfect weight distribution that was so hard to find in an American car. With its accurate rack and pinion steering and the optional big Michelin TRX wheels/tires, the TC was light on its feet, a real dancer. Yes, a V8 might have been nicer some of the time, but the TC’s balance and handling would have suffered. And riding her gently yielded a genuine thirty mpg.
But there was a price to pay: The moment you cranked it above 4200-4500 rpm, the mill’s Pinto roots screamed back. A nasty concoction of noise, vibration and harshness. The NVH acronym was invented for this engine. If only Ford had bestowed it a pair of balance shafts. And since the engine lacked palpable boost below 2000rpm; flooring her was an invitation to turbo-hole hell. The fun came in short, intense bursts; about a 2500 rpm band of goodness. Good thing the five-speed was slick-shifting. It got lots of use.
It wasn’t so bad with just me aboard. But loaded with a few passengers with the A/C on in city driving, the TC became an utter embarrassment. It felt completely gutless, until the boost came on; not exactly conducive to relaxed and comfortable driving. One trip picking up some celebrities from the airport really had me thinking V8 engine swap.
Once at speed, all was forgiven. Four thousand rpm (just below the NHV barrier) corresponded to an effortless and quiet 100 mph cruise, thanks to its aerodynamics. After my Buick Skylark company car, this was a revelation. On our first (of many) family trips to Mammoth in the ‘Bird, I set the cruise control at 95. Shooting across the purple Mohave at sunset and scooting up the Owens Valley under a starry sky was cargasmic. Every car has its sweet spot, and the open road in the desert was it for the TC. Well, that and winding roads.
I had to make regular business trips to San Bernardino. Instead of using I-10, I traversed the whole length of the San Gabriel Mountains via Angeles Crest highway, a classic driving paradise. I wasn’t the only one out on a Wednesday morning: I often crossed tire-marks with other kindred office escapees eager to work out pent-up competitive urges. There were some memorable encounters. And woe to losing revs or boost.
Our fling was short but sweet. Maharishi peddled bliss and tranquility, but working for him induced stress. So I jumped ship, in a long-shot move with a partner to buy a TV station. The ‘Bird stayed behind, to be abused by several TM space-cadets sent to replace me. They managed to destroy it within nine months.
But during the two and a half years I had it, it ran like a top, and never needed anything untoward. For the most part, it really felt well screwed together. Ford’s claim about quality being Job One had some genuine credibility, at least with this one.
I still buy new cars impulsively; some things never change. And since I’ve reverted (sadly) to buying them with my own funds, I keep my cars longer now, eight to fifteen years, or even forever, like my old Ford truck. My impulsiveness seems to manifest mainly in certain areas of life and not others; as my wife of thirty-five years will tell you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.