During the life of the Ford Thunderbird, it dived in many varied directions and often with staggeringly different results. Through it all, it did manage to present itself as the aspirational vehicle in the Ford lineup.
This isn’t to say that the aspiration was more pronounced at some points than at others. Arguably, the low point for Thunderbird aspirations happened for the eighth generation introduced in 1980 when many design elements of the previous generation were dumped onto the smaller Fox platform. Looking like the victim of a botched liposuction, it simply didn’t work and sales reflected it.
1983 would see a continuation of the Fox platform beneath the Thunderbird, but in a way to exponentially increase the desirability factor. Not only was the Thunderbird redesigned with aerodynamic clothes free of tacky accoutrement, the top-tier Turbo Coupe injected some exotica (for the time) into the Thunderbird. Powered by a 2.3 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, it was both the first four-cylinder Thunderbird ever as well as the first turbo-charged one. Essentially the same engine used in the Mustang SVO, it was not the most refined engine for its first few years but it was able to fully demonstrate one didn’t need a mega-cube engine to solicit performance.
The Turbo Coupe continued until 1988. Seeing new nose and tail treatments for 1987, the Turbo Coupe had performance quite remarkable for the time. For the direction Ford was wanting to take the Thunderbird in the eleventh generation, the Fox platform was limiting. It was time for a new platform.
For 1989, Ford introduced the Super Coupe on the new MN-12 platform. Standing for Mid-sized, North America Project 12, the Thunderbird (and Mercury Cougar sibling) arrived on the scene in 1989. As a point of clarification, the later Lincoln Mark VIII was similar but based on the FN-10 platform (Full-sized, North America Project 10).
With a wheelbase stretched 8.8″ to 113″ while still being shorter in length by 3.5″, its appearance was likened to that of the BMW 6-series but the new Thunderbird was obviously related to its predecessor as well as the original Taurus. Power for 1989 was ones choice of 3.8 liter V6 – either supercharged as seen in our featured Super Coupe or naturally aspirated in other models.
Naturally all the media attention was on the Super Coupe. At the time of the MN-12 introduction, the Chevrolet Corvette was the only other car manufactured in the United States to share the Thunderbird’s attributes of rear-wheel drive combined with independent rear suspension. It was also the first Thunderbird to pack a supercharger since the 1957 Ford Thunderbird. In a sense, it was a tasty combination of freshly blazed trail sprinkled with Thunderbird heritage.
In 1986, Ford Motor Company placed Anthony S. Kuchta in charge of the MN-12 program. Kuchta had enjoyed a high degree of career ascendancy throughout his time at Ford. In his mid-50s at the time of his appointment to MN-12 project manager, he was tasked to make a “BMW Fighter” of the Thunderbird. Kuchta was given full rein over styling and engineering.
In an interview during the December 1988 introduction of the MN-12 cars, Kuchta was quite candid in his thoughts about recently introduced GM-10 coupes (Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal, Olds Cutlass), calling them “nothing cars”, deriding their 2.8 liter engines as being underpowered for the platform, and accusing GM of not giving the customer the size and performance they truly wanted in a coupe. Whether this was being boastful or condescending, Kuchta was showing his confidence about, and how much skin he had invested in, the MN-12 platform and the new Thunderbird.
The MN-12 Thunderbird would ultimately win both Motor Trend “Car of the Year” and Popular Mechanics “Best of the Best” Awards for 1989. With a new product receiving copious press accolades, it would seem as if everything would be milk and honey for Kuchta and the entire MN-12 team. As they would soon learn, it wasn’t.
On January 17, 1989, a gathering was held at an upscale restaurant for members of the MN-12 team. In addition to the MN-12 team, Ford CEO Donald Peterson and Ford President Harold “Red” Poling (shown) were in attendance. After a warm introduction by Kuchta, Poling quickly and heartily chastised the group for missing critical targets. Depending upon equipment level, the ’89 was 300 to 500 pounds heavier than a comparable ’88; the team had missed their target curb weight by approximately 250 pounds. This, said Poling, was adversely affecting Ford’s CAFE numbers as recently elected President George H.W. Bush was increasing the fuel economy standard. Also, each new Thunderbird was costing $900 more than planned to build, which was eating into Ford’s per unit profit margin by up to 30%.
The parade had not been rained on; it had been in a monsoon. This was the first time Kuchta was aware of displeasure from upper management; why Peterson and Poling chose this venue, without any prior conversation with Kuchta, is unknown.
Seeing the writing on the wall, as well as results of an internal audit, Kuchta subsequently retired in May 1989. His retirement party was held within a mile of Ford world headquarters; while the attendance was quite remarkably high – including numerous people having traveled from the Thunderbird factory in Lorain, Ohio – not a single member of Ford’s upper management made an appearance.
Ironically, the MN-12 platform would last through 1997, serving as the longest running generation of the Ford Thunderbird.
1990 marked the Thunderbird’s 35th anniversary and Ford was aiming to make the most of it.
The 35th Anniversary edition cars were all identical to this one. The package was based upon a black Super Coupe with silver body cladding. Wheels were also colored black and had blue Thunderbird inserts in the hubcaps that matched the blue stripe adorning the flanks of the car.
Seats were suede and leather. The transmission was the same Mazda M5R2 five-speed seen in other Super Coupes, although this particular example packs the optional Ford AOD transmission. Buyers also received a host of anniversary edition paraphernalia such as as floor mats, ink pens, and key blanks to accompany their letter of congratulations. Ford would build 3,371 specially prepared Thunderbirds to mark its 35th anniversary.
After 1990, production of the Super Coupe began a steady decline with an uptick in final year 1995. While coupes in general were seeing a steady erosion of popularity during this time, there was another event that likely spurned the downturn of the Super Coupe.
After a two year absence, in 1991 Ford made their 302 cubic inch (5 liter) V8 an option in the Thunderbird. At 200 horsepower, the 302 was not an alternative to the 210 horsepower supercharged V6; performance tests of the time reflected it to effectively bridge the gap in 0-60 acceleration found between the supercharged and naturally aspirated 3.8 liter engines. Cylinders sell, and the 5.0 was the next best alternative in terms of acceleration for a more modest premium over the base 3.8 liter engine. Referred to as the Sport Coupe in 1991, it complimented the Super Coupe – maybe the base model could have been called the Standard Coupe.
Ford kept the 302 in the Thunderbird until 1994 when it was replaced with the 4.6 liter overhead cam V8 to accompany a refined beak. Rated at 205 horsepower, this engine was a smooth operator and was attached to Ford’s 4R70W automatic transmission. The 4.6 was closing the numbers gap with the supercharged 3.8 having only five fewer horsepower and 35 fewer lbs-ft of torque.
With the demise of the Super Coupe after 1995, Ford continued to offer the suspension components of the former Super Coupe. Referred to as the Sport Option, it was motivated only by the 4.6 liter engine and even had 16″ wheels quite similar to those of the Super Coupe. Ford also gave the ’96 another revamped beak.
Initially offered for 1996 as a $210 option, it was appealing to those seeking something unique from the ordinary Thunderbird. However, as your author discovered when ordering one, the Sport Option experienced one of Ford’s running changes; at some point in the model year, the price of the Sport Option increased to $450 but it suddenly included a no charge spoiler. Your author will attest this suspension was infinitely better handling and had a firmer ride than experienced in the base suspension of the MN-12, such as found in the 1995 Mercury Cougar his parents owned concurrently.
After declining sales and compression of models wherein everything was in LX trim, the Thunderbird was laid to rest at the end of the 1997 model year – or so it seemed at the time.
While the sun set long ago on Thunderbird production, Ford made over 960,000 of them on the MN-12 platform, a platform that ultimately carried 1.5 million cars when including the Mercury variants. Seeing an example such as this Super Coupe definitely serves as a reminder of a simpler time that doesn’t seem all that long ago.
(Photos of the 1990 Super Coupe were taken by Tom Klockau.)