By 1989 I had been driving my first car (the ’75 Monte Carlo) for three years and was getting a little tired of its pre-fuel injection performance that had resulted in a couple near-misses in traffic when it stalled. Its enormous appetite for fuel was a problem, too: 15 mpg was about the best I could get out of it. Thanks to microprocessors, fuel economy regulations, and customer demand the cars of the late ‘80s had become much easier to get along with than my ‘70s carbureted barge and I wanted to take advantage of that. It was definitely time to move on.
As a college student living at home to save money my access to new car funds was a bit…limited. I did, however, have access to a supply of guilt to get my parents to help with my next car purchase. They were growing a bit tired of helping pay for gas for the Monte to get back and forth to school and, truth be known, my dad was well aware of the Monte’s performance challenges. Luckily for me, my dad came up with a great scheme: if I could achieve a perfect 4.0 GPA for the first year of mechanical engineering school he would make a major contribution to a new car for me. Because the first year of engineering school was specifically designed to “weed out” the students who weren’t fully committed or prepared for engineering, I strongly suspect that he never expected me to achieve that goal and he wouldn’t have to pay out. However, he very much underestimated the motivation of a new car to a car guy.
Now that I had the commitment for a new car and the over-confidence of youth in my ability to achieve the required GPA, I began my car shopping in earnest. I pored over brochures and new car buying guides and configured out all kinds of cars (remember, this was well before online internet configurators and inventory searches, so I had to depend on pencil and paper and Consumer Guide books). My dad had made the mistake of not telling me what budget I should use, but I picked a sub $20k price out of the air. This was about $5k more than the average new car transaction price at the time, or just shy of $40k in today’s money.
I had quite a list: I thought briefly about the Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis but my parents both quickly dismissed that as an “old man’s car” (translation: no way were they going to pay good money for a car neither of them would want to drive). As a Generation X college student, music was also very important to me so many of the cars I had on my list were the few 1989 cars that came with OEM CD players. This included such stellar examples of the breed as the J-car Pontiac Sunbird and cars with price tags way above my budget like the Lincoln Town Car.
Several cars quickly rose to the top of my list, though. The first-generation Acura Integra was a finalist for many months because of its reasonable price and availability of an accessory CD player. However, I had to eliminate this car as the only Acura dealer at the time was over 40 miles away in Cleveland. Repair and maintenance would be an all-day affair, difficult even for a college student to handle. The fact that the Integra was chiefly Civic-based and could be serviced at a Honda dealer never occurred to us, unfortunately.
The other cars were more in line with my family’s purchasing habits, both being Fords (a preferred brand at the time). Ford had introduced the Taurus several years ago and its cutting edge “jellybean” design had time to grow on my parents, and they were the owners of a jellybean-like Lincoln Mark VII at the time anyway. My focus was on the new-for-1989 Taurus SHO with its 220-hp Yamaha V6 and stealth styling (only the SHO name pressed into the body cladding really gave it away). My dad and I test drove one and he wasn’t impressed, although my memory is hazy on why. Perhaps just because it had four doors.
The MN12 Thunderbird, new for 1989, was the one that really caught my eye. The main failings of this car, cost and weight, are well-known and well-documented on the internet (Ford management had harshly criticized the MN12 program manager and team for missing the cost and weight targets, even though the added weight and cost allowed for features like independent rear suspension that differentiated the car from rivals.) I was totally unaware of that – I just thought the car looked great and wanted one. I went back and forth optioning up all three models (base, LX, and SC) and even test drove a base-model Cougar LS with the 3.8 liter V6 (which did nothing to make me want the car less or talk about it any less).
Come the end of freshman year and my hard work paid off with the required 4.0 GPA – a combination of hard work, good luck, and the optimism of youth. With a resigned sigh, my dad asked me what I’d decided on, and I was quick with the answer: a dark blue Thunderbird SC with the manual transmission and the high-end CD stereo. So off to the dealer we went. Needless to say, I was not the best companion for this shopping trip as I’d have sold a kidney to get this car.
The first dealer had the car I wanted but was not willing to deal (this was only a few months after the February ’89 on-sale date for the SC) so we walked away. Luckily the second dealer we visited had one very close to what I wanted: dark blue, manual transmission, option packages with keyless entry, automatic headlights, power seats, and sunroof. No CD player, though – but compromises have to be made and I had all my 80’s mixtapes from the Monte anyway. After extensive negotiations and much impatient pacing in the halls by me, the car came home with us.
Unfortunately, I’d not yet learned to drive stick, so my ability to drive my new car depended on education from others. The SC wasn’t the best car for someone to learn to drive a manual transmission: the clutch was hydraulic but was quite heavy, and the transmission was a Mazda-derived 5-speed that was originally designed, if memory serves, for pickup trucks. On the plus side, 315 foot-pounds of torque do hide a multitude of awkward clutch engagements. I was not the only one to note the clunky manual transmission: 1989 was the only year in which the manual outsold the automatic, and by the last year of production (1995) the ratio was 10:1 in favor of automatics.
My main memories of that Thunderbird involved how fast it was. It was not particularly quick right off the line because of its weight (3600+ pounds) but acceleration at mid-range speeds (30-80 mph) was epic for the time. The car was entirely capable of pegging its 120-mph speedometer but I’d never admit to finding that out personally, of course.
I did learn some valuable lessons about car control and how quickly things go south when you reach the car’s limits. The car inspired a lot of confidence in me with its adjustable two-way shocks, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, and powerful engine. One morning on the way to college the car gave me its warning that its limits weren’t infinite. It was pre-dawn, probably 6 am or so, and I was alone on a four-lane suburban road. At a light, I came across a current model Pontiac Trans Am and for some reason I decided to drop the hammer hard when the light turned. I was a bit surprised to see the Trans Am take me up on the implicit offer and he pulled away from the light at full throttle.
Things were going well in the SC until we reached a point where the road made a hard 90-degree left turn. I reached the bend at a velocity well north of the speed at which the car could take it, and the SC told me in no uncertain terms that we weren’t going to make it. The rear wheels went light and I learned quickly about oversteer. The car began a series of 360 degree spins across this four-lane road and continued to spin for several hundred feet despite my stomping the ABS every time the car was pointed in the direction I had been traveling. The car finally came to rest pointed the way I had been traveling but in the right-hand lane of the other side of the road. Once the large cloud of tire smoke swept past me, I got back onto the correct side of the road and went on my way, quite embarrassed at my error. On the plus side, I had the presence of mind to push in the clutch so I hadn’t stalled the car, so there’s that.
The SC was my main car when my college girlfriend (now wife) began dating. On my first informal date with her, I took the SC to her parents’ house at night to pick her up. As the house was out in the country a bit, it was very dark and the driveway was narrow. The SC’s torque kept me from getting stuck when I overshot the driveway into the yard, but the inadvertent turfing wasn’t appreciated. She stayed with me, though – guess she forgave me eventually.
Despite my love of this car and its ability to keep me out of trouble, when the opportunity arose for me to get another new vehicle I jumped at the chance (which we will talk about in the next COAL). Eventually my dad sold the SC to a co-worker who put another 120,000 miles on it – my abuse of the clutch while learning stick hadn’t done that much damage, apparently. The Thunderbird SC will make another appearance in my COAL history much later…