The first verse in Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” David Gilmour sings: “Into the distance a ribbon of black, stretched to the point of no turning back.” This is the music that comes to mind when I think of my Thunderbird. For me, it describes a carefree time, when I’d look for that long road heading off into the horizon, and drive it just to see where it goes. It wasn’t my first car, but it was the first car that really begged me to drive long distances, just for the sake of seeing new places. I was in school, and on my own for the first time. It was a time that I remember fondly.
The first time I saw my ’95 Thunderbird was in a little black and white picture in the local Auto Trader magazine. The internet was still in it’s infancy at that point; one didn’t shop for cars online in 1997. If you wanted to find a used car there was really two methods: You drove to a dealership and walked the lots, or you bought yourself a copy of the Auto Trader.
My then-girlfriend (now wife) Janet, and I were looking through the ads, trying to find my new car. It was 1997, and I was a student at Penn State’s Harrisburg Campus. Days before, I had determined that my ever-loyal 82 Civic was in need of a carburetor rebuild as well as that as a student living on loans and nothing more than weekend job, I was out of money. So, I picked up the phone and called my dad, The Colonel, recently back in the country from a tour of duty in Hungary (part of the Bosnia conflict). I was hoping that the extra pay provided by his oversees service would come to the rescue, again.
While he agreed to help, he threw me a curve-ball after seeing the condition of my Honda. He told me that we will not be putting any more money into that rusty old Civic, and suggested that we find a newer car for me and offered to assist with the payments until I graduated. My Honda was my first car, (and my only driver up to that point). I certainly got plenty of use out of it (-first-car-of-a-lifetime-1982-honda-civic-long-gone-but-unforgettable), and knew that I’d be sad to see my old friend go. Its replacement would have to be a special car.
It was a period of my life where I was doing more highway driving then I had been, mainly because I was going to school 100 or so miles from home, working back home on Saturdays, and visiting Janet who lived and went to school another 80 or so miles away from home or my school. After years of listening to the Honda’s 1.5L engine wound up to 4,000 RPMs on the highway, I was determined to buy a different kind of car. I wanted something with more amenities, and a bit more sound deadening. We circled a few candidates in the Auto Trader and set off to see them in person. My Thunderbird was not in that short list, as it was well over my budget.
Since I was hoping to score a mid-size domestic, I was keen to see a mid 1992 Pontiac Grand Prix that we spotted in the Auto Trader. It was for sale in the used car lot of All-Star Chrysler-Plymouth, a dealer that was located just outside of Harrisburg near where the Bass Pro Shop is today. All-Star was going out of business, and needed to get rid of inventory. The Grand Prix looked like a winner in the ad, but in person I was put off by the paint which was already starting to flake off in places on the hood. But of course, I couldn’t get out of there before the salesman pounced, and insisted that we stay and look at some other cars on the lot.
(Picture from Don Heney’s Actual Miles Greatest Hits album)
“No reasonable offer will be refused” said the salesman, so Janet and I looked around for something else which might be in our range. It was then that Janet spotted the ’95 Thunderbird sitting there, the same car we saw earlier in the Auto Trader for $12,999, and which now had $11,999 written on the windshield. “That one is nice” she said. I agreed. It was nice. It was also still quite a bit above the $7,000 limit that my Dad and I agreed upon. It was a 1995 Thunderbird LX, in Electric Red with the base 3.8L V6, but handsomely equipped, and with just 26,000 miles on the odometer.
At the salesman’s insistence, I agreed to take a test drive. Of course, stepping out of an ’82 Civic with a quarter of a million miles on it, and into this low mile Thunderbird was like night and day. I loved this car the second I drove it. But figuring I’d never get it, I finally left. By the time I got home, there was a message on my answering machine saying that the price was now $10,999; clearly they wanted to make a deal. At this point, I had to engage The Colonel. Dad went to work on the phone the next day, and I vividly remember his tone, when he said “$9,250 and not a penny more” followed by him whispering to me, “we got it”. And with that, I began the next chapter in my automotive history, the greatest highway cruiser that I have ever owned.
Like all 1995 Thunderbirds save for the Super Coupe, mine was an LX model with power windows, locks, mirrors, a cassette deck, semi-automatic digital climate control, cruise control and full instrumentation with a tachometer. Built at the Lorraine Ohio Assembly, all of these MN-12 chassis Thunderbirds were rear wheel drive, with all-independent suspension. Ford used a setup similar to that of the later Cobra Mustangs with a rear suspension system using control arms and coil springs, a differential mounted to a sub-frame and CV joint half-shafts driving the rear wheels.
Ford’s intention with the MN-12 Thunderbird and Cougar was to make a personal luxury coupe with handling on par with a BMW 5 series. While they fell significantly short of that goal (mainly do to excessive weight of the unibody and extensive subframe assembly needed to support the independent rear suspension), they did succeed in making a car that handled remarkably well for it’s weight and size.
Ford even a made a prototype with all wheel drive co-developed with Porsche. I found this picture of a rusty survivor with it’s one-off AWD drivetrain at www.tccoa.com:
Another interesting part of this car was it’s engine: the Ford Essex 3.8L, a somewhat controversial engine for the Ford enthusiast. Putting aside its penchant for blowing head gaskets on regular intervals, it has also been debated, and I think it’s quite likely, that Ford copied Buick to create a large displacement V6 that would fit under the low hood lines of the 1980 and 90’s Thunderbird, Cougar and Mustang.
While Ford put their own spin on it, such as using connecting rods similar to those found in the 351W, a roller lifter cam setup similar to the 5.0, and aluminum heads, there are also many features that are similar to the Buick. For one, this was the only Ford engine to that point to use an oil pump integral to the timing cover, and split rod pins on the crankshaft, both just like the Buick 3.8 did.
Power in the 1994 and up MN-12 Thunderbird LX came from either the above mentioned 3.8, making a meager 140 HP, and 212 ft-lbs of torque, or the 4.6L modular V8 which made 205 Hp and 265 ft-lbs of torque. Neither of these cars were particularly quick, but the 3.8L had enough torque to move the 3,500+ lbs car to 35 MPH quickly enough.
The V8 was required to maintain the acceleration past second gear. 1995 was also the last year of the Super Coupe, which sported a strengthened version of the 3.8 V6 with an Eaton supercharger sitting on top. The supercharger and the accompanying plumbers nightmare connected to the intercooler, were good for 230 Hp, and 330 lb-lbs of torque and were available with a 5 speed manual.
Regardless of the realities of the 1995 MN-12 platform, it drove like a dream in the opinion of a college student that just crawled out of an ’82 Civic. Janet and I would tour much of Pennsylvania and plenty of the east coast in this car, as it just begged to cruise on the highway all day long. It is to this day the only car that I owned that I could stand to drive continuously for 6 to 8 hours. And it did so perfectly until about 95,000 miles, when the shortcomings of it’s design started to catch up with it. Still, this car would see me through graduation from college, and the first couple years of commuting to my first Engineering job in New Jersey as a daily driver.
Just before 100,000 miles, the head gaskets started to bleed compression into the water jacket, causing the thermostat to get air bound and the occasional need to bleed off the air, and refill the radiator to prevent overheating. I replaced the head gaskets myself, had the heads resurfaced and did a mild porting job on them while they were off to help the 3.8 breath a little better. Thanks to Ford’s silent extended warranty campaign for the 3.8 head gaskets, the Ford Motor Company paid me for my efforts with a check for $600 (based on my estimate of parts and labor).
The money would come in handy, as immediately after this incident, I lost overdrive, and had to have the 4R70W transmission rebuilt. It was around this time that I started using other cars for my long commute, and the Tbird became my weekend cruiser. This car was just sooo good at road trips, that I just couldn’t let it go. I tried GM’s B bodies, A bodies, Ford’s Panthers and even more modern Hondas and Nissans, but none delivered the same mix of comfort and handling like my Thunderbird did.
Just like with my ’82 Honda and my classic Mustangs, I would scour the junkyards and aftermarket for parts to keep my car looking and performing like new. I replaced the yellowing headlights with new ones, and replaced the amber side markers with clear aftermarket units to clean up the look. I would also pick up replacement sets of the LED taillight panels so that I could swap them out as the LEDs would burn out.
I would go on to rebuild the transmission once more, then replace it with a rebuilt unit later as the miles approached 150,000. Somewhere around 165,000 miles, the head gaskets blew for the second time. At this point, I sourced a replacement 3.8 engine from a wrecked 96 Mustang, and was in the process of swapping over parts from one to another when life got in the way, and I never finished the project.
By this point it was 2007, and my Thunderbird now spent most of it’s time sitting under a cover in my driveway. The engine still ran, but with a dead miss from low compression. I was driving my wife’s old 2001 V6 Mustang at the time, and we had just bought her a new Saturn Aura XR, with a 3.6L V6 that could put the 3.8 in the Mustang or the Thunderbird to shame. After seeing the peeling clear-coat on the roof, the mice living in the trunk, and the newer technology in the driveway, I decided that I didn’t want to see my Thunderbird deteriorate any longer. I picked up the phone and donated it to Purple Heart Cars. These pictures below are from the day they picked it up, to take it to auction.
I missed it the moment it left the driveway, and still find myself searching eBay and Craigslist for another. Common sense has thus far prevailed and kept me from buying a replacement. But if a clean Super Coupe presents itself, I’m not sure that I have the will power to resist…