What is a Thunderbird? Well, it has always been, or at least attempted to be, something special. Not your usual LTD, or Custom 300, or Torino. No. Something with a bit of flair, or great comfort, or great performance. But the Ford Thunderbird, despite a great start, fell down the ’70s luxury car rabbit hole and became a slightly sportier Mark IV. But in 1983, oh man! Things were looking up.
You all know the T-Bird story, so I won’t bore you with the fine details, but let’s just say the predecessor to the 1983 model was…uh, less than convivial? But after the painful presence of the über-Fairmont 1980-82 model, the Thunderbird came back into relevance, with a certain flair, beauty–and power!
Yes indeed. A turbocharged four-cylinder? In a Thunderbird? Yes, it was true. And while maybe a little hard to digest for traditional T-Bird customers used to wafting along in cool, air-conditioned V8 comfort and silence in their Flair Birds and Glamour Birds, the Turbo Coupe was the new top of the line ‘Bird. And very, very different! It was smooth and purposeful, with a 037 coefficient of drag. The boxy, Brougham-cue-laden 1980-82 model was nowhere to be seen.
Turbo Coupes had a 2.3L four cylinder. When at full boost, 145-hp was provided for motivation. Sure, that doesn’t sound like any great shakes today, with 300-hp Impala rental cars, but in the early ’80s, that rating bested many then-contemporary V8 domestics. And with the boost, it would scoot in short order.
Demonstrating the Turbo Coupe’s sporting intent, a five-speed manual transmission was fitted as standard. Oh, sure, an automatic was available as an option, but I imagine the stick was the one to have (says the author, who has only driven his aunt’s five-speed A4 once, badly).
I actually cannot remember seeing a Turbo Coupe ever. I am sure I did, as at about the time the Aero Birds debuted, I was already noticing cars as a novice gearhead, but I don’t specifically remember a Turbo Coupe vs. an élan vs. a standard coupe–though I DO remember seeing a ratty FILA edition in all its go-go ’80s hipness, back in about 1994.
In late September, I decided to go up to my folks’ cabin in northern IL, and attend the National LCOC (Lincoln and Continental Owners’ Club) meet in Rockford IL. There I was, enjoying a $5 giant margarita and a huge plate of Chicken George and American fries in the small city of Clinton, where I’d stopped for sustenance on my way up. Upon paying the tab and crossing the bridge across the Mississippi back into Illinois, I spotted a bunch of old cars behind a fence near the river, including a 1975-79 Seville. So of course I had to re-cross back into town and seek them out.
I didn’t find them. There were a lot of dead ends, and at one point I had to turn around at a Pepsi distribution plant, zipping out of the way just as a laden tractor trailer left the loading bay. I gave up trying to find the car cache and headed back to the main drag, when I saw a flash of red off to the right. Could it be?
Yes it was, a genuine Turbo Coupe. Wow! I leaped out of the wagon, camera in hand, full of chicken, potatoes, Margarita and excitement. What a find! I started snapping away, and then noticed there were folks in the yard of the house.
I waved and said “Nice car! OK to take pictures?” The guy, whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten, said sure, and came over to talk about the car, which was his brother’s. He said it was somewhere between an ’83 and ’86, but wasn’t positive of the year. His brother had rescued the car and now it was a well-loved toy. This is one of the things I love about writing for CC: Seeing a cool old car, and actually getting to hear about the car from its owner. I left my name, email, and CC’s web address for the owner, hoping to hear even more.
And I did! I returned from the lake on Sunday, and a couple days later heard from the Turbo Coupe’s lucky owner, Jeffrey. So here is this car’s story:
“It is a 1984 turbo coupe that I picked up in 2010. The car was brought up here from Arizona by the previous owner shortly before I acquired it. The heat of the southwest took its toll on the car. The previous owner told me that he blew both front tires on the way up here from Arizona because of dry rot and damaged one of the front wheels so I had to find one of them. The heat also cooked the dashboard and panel so badly that I had to find a new one. After literally 150 phone calls I finally found a dash in Osage, Iowa up near Mason City. I pulled the dash out of this donor car in 100° heat along side some sheep that were running loose in the yard to keep the grass down. The original owner tried to do a few things to the car but think he was a bit overwhelmed and lacked knowledge. He could not get the car to start and basically called a local body shop to just come and get it because he was sick of messing with it. The body shop owner was going to pull the engine out for a small sports car he was building and then scrap the car but my father in law whom was friends with him knew I liked T-Birds and told me about it since I already had many T-Birds. I have 4 total. I got a good deal on a rust free car with potential. The Arizona heat cooked the insulation off of the wires of the main harness going thru the firewall and the previous owner connected the wires back up with wire nuts instead of butt connectors like he should have. Well one of the wire nuts fell off, disconnected a starter wire and it would not start. Which is how I ended up with it.”
“They started that body style in 1983. The engine is a 2.3L turbo charged inline 4 cylinder. It is fuel injected. They had used that turbo charged engine in pintos and mustangs for years but to my knowledge in 83 was first to be fuel injected. It has a fox chassis under it. It has a 5 speed manual transmission that works well but will have to put a throwout bearing in it eventually because I can hear it. It has the original paint. All of the air conditioning components have been pulled out of it. Will replace eventually. These cars have 2 fuel pumps and had to replace the low pressure pump in the tank. Put new brakes and tires around it. Would like to start upgrading engine next. Intercooler and boost valve for turbo. It has been in a few car shows and made a few long distance trips with it. Just a fun car. Thanks for your interest in it. I am proud of it. Got lots more planned for it too. Let me know if you have any other questions. I like talking about it.”
Well, I have to tell you, reading that made my day. So many times a cool old car is purchased with the best of intentions, then things go wrong, the car is left to sit, and eventually scrapped. I applaud Jeffrey for saving this car.
Unlike the Fox Mustangs, the Fox T-Birds, specifically Turbo Coupes, just don’t seem to be widely collected. I’ve never seen one at a show. Maybe one of these days I’ll see this lovely example at a show, but I don’t get up to Clinton all that often. Usually just when I get a hankering for Chicken George and have to run up to the Candlelight Inn for some!
I hope these cars, along with their Cougar and Mark VII sisters become more collectible someday. They are great cars, and still look fresh today. Ford really was on a roll during this time, with cars like the Aero Birds, Mark VII LSC, Taurus and Fox Mustang. Looks to me like Jeffrey’s got a real keeper!