COAL: 1989 Ford Thunderbird LX – The Collection Grows

89 Ford Thunderbird LX Side View

In this episode of COAL, I learn two things: collector cars are like potato chips (you can’t have just one); and my wife’s eagerness to buy one collector car didn’t necessarily extend to buying a second. That’s not to say I didn’t work very hard to wear her down…

I’d had the Thunderbird SC for about seven or eight months by Halloween 2011, and had already had some fun driving the car around and taking it to car shows. That got me thinking and looking at the classic car classifieds and auction sites for another car, especially since the cars of the ‘80s that I liked were usually pretty inexpensive to buy and there were still quite a few nice examples out there.

To occupy a nice October day my wife and I attended the Fall Carlisle event, which unlike the brand-specific shows was entirely focused on selling cars, parts, and accessories. We wandered the fairgrounds for several hours before running across a car that was pretty common in our small Ohio town, the Oldsmobile Delta 88. The Delta 88 was as ubiquitous around where I grew up as the A-body Celebrity and Cutlass Ciera as there were only two dealers in town, one selling Fords and one selling Chevrolet/Oldsmobile vehicles. The 88 was a good honest compromise – a bit larger and more comfortable than the Ciera but not as expensive or flashy as the 98 or Toronado, so a lot of our neighbors bought them.

The one I found at the show was pretty rare (note I didn’t say valuable) as it represented one of the last gasps of the “full-size” two-door American barge. By 1986 GM was working on downsizing and moving its full-size cars to FWD platforms, and the Delta 88 was no different. At the time, GM figured that buyers would still want a two-door 88 just like they used to in the ‘70s, but sales figures proved otherwise, as very few were sold.

1986 Olds Delta 88 coupe

The car at the show had only 20,000 miles on it, and was the top-line Royale Brougham in blue with a blue velour interior. I loved it – because I have odd tastes in cars. This was certainly a blast from the past, with the wire wheel covers, button-tufted pillowy seats, blue embroidered Brougham logos on the seats, and an old-school horizontal speedometer. The car came with a two-inch thick stack of paperwork, too, dating back to its purchase in 1986. Because I figured the car would be expensive (low miles, lots of paperwork, very good original condition), I didn’t want to pursue it further as I’d probably end up disappointed that I couldn’t afford it. My wife, though, pushed me to go find the owner and talk to him about the car, so I did. As you might expect, it was a one-owner car from the stereotypical little old man who only drove to church on Sundays. He let me into the car and used the little magnet on the keychain to trip an old school theft deterrent system (a simple kill switch behind a dash panel that was activated by the magnet). The car was like new inside and ran really well (those 3.8 liter V-6 engines lasted a long time). The kicker was the price – I don’t remember the exact number he quoted, but it was well within my price range if I wanted to add to my collection (and significantly lower than I expected).

Here’s where things went a little sideways – my wife had pushed me to get information about the car but now that it appeared that we could afford it (and I certainly wanted to take it home) she suddenly decided she didn’t want to buy it. We had a fairly extensive discussion at the show but ultimately she won out and we went home without the car. (I’ve looked quite a few times in several places to try and find this car or one like it and have had no luck.)

It didn’t take long for me to find another car, though, and this one would prove to be more palatable. Ironically, it was in the inventory of a dealer in Ohio that was part of the same local chain that I’d gotten my original SC from, although this car was at their Chrysler store and not the Ford store across the street. This was an ’89 Thunderbird like I already had, but in the LX trim with the standard 145 hp 3.8 liter V-6 and automatic. It had 75,000 miles on the clock and came with a lot of the desirable equipment from the day (digital dash with trip computer, power seats, automatic headlights, uprated stereo, alloy wheels). Best of all, the price was right – it was less than $5k. It just so happened that my wife was going to visit her parents in early November that year, and she grudgingly agreed to go see the car when she was there. She came back with the news that the car was as nice as it looked in the dealer pictures and drove pretty well too. Phone negotiations followed and I ended up the proud new owner of a fraternal twin of my other Bird.

Interior of 1989 Ford Thunderbird LX

Since we were going to visit family for Thanksgiving that year, I decided just to drive it home to Maryland after the holiday instead of shipping it. A shakedown run indicated that it was running well and had no odd smells or noises that would indicate any problems, but a quick check of the tires indicated that they were probably well over a decade old. A last minute visit to a tire store an hour before they closed on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the car was equipped with an acceptable (but cheap) set of tires. The car handled the trip well and gave me no trouble on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and we got home just fine.

Some research on this car’s history divulged the fact that the car had been sold to a dealer near Cleveland and had been built in the very same week at the same Lorain, Ohio plant as my current SC. (Because this was an LX, a model that had been on sale for several months, it was just a regular production car.) I’d looked at the LX back in 1989 but it was almost as costly as the SC without the benefit of the supercharged engine. This red one came with a copy of the window sticker that showed the MSRP at $19,892 in ’89, including almost $1100 for ABS and $450 for the uprated stereo. Even the clearcoat red paint was extra – $183.

Digital dash for 89 Thunderbird LX

I got a lot of interest in the car at car shows – unlike the SCs which were often purchased and babied so a large number have survived, the LX was rarely seen as they were just bought as everyday cars. Very few in this condition are still around, even though Ford made around 4-5 times more LXs than SCs – people just ran them into the ground. With its red-on-red finish the car seemed to draw attention, especially when it was next to the blue SC built in the same week (which always made a nice opening story at a show).

89 Thunderbird LX and SC

The car wasn’t without its troubles, as you’d expect from a 20+ year old car. Valve cover gaskets were getting tired and leaking small amounts of oil. I didn’t notice anything on the garage floor or driveway until enough oil leaked into the front crossmember to fill up the shallow cavity on its top – once that happened, we got some drips. Easily fixed, and less costly than the SC because there was a lot less induction plumbing in the way.

Another problem area with this car that has also cropped up on my SC is the power window motors. The motors are relatively powerful and move the window pretty quickly. The drive gears are nylon plastic, however, and have an interesting design – there is an outer gear that is driven by the motor that has a triangular depression in its center. The gear that drives the window mechanism is not mounted solidly to the outer gear, but rather is connected to the outer gear with a series of three cam buttons that fit into the triangles of the large gear and engage tabs on the smaller gear (presumably to introduce some shock absorbance into the mechanism to isolate the motor from the shock loading of the window hitting its stops). This is all good until the cam buttons get old (I don’t think the designers expected many of the cars to be on the road for 20+ years).

When the buttons age from exposure to years of temperature changes, they get brittle – the motor works fine until the buttons shatter and fail catastrophically (which of course they both do at essentially the same time), rendering the windows inoperable. Especially fun if the cams shatter when the window is all the way down, meaning that you have to disassemble the interior door panel to be able to push the window closed. Luckily, the problem is well-known and repair parts are cheap, requiring only the wrestling of the motor out of a small hole in the door. (This window failure is especially fun in the middle of summer here in Maryland when the A/C in the car decides to depart for parts unknown, which happened a couple of years ago in the SC).

89 Thunderbird LX at Carlisle

The biggest hassle was simply the fact that I now had twice as many cars as garage spaces, so this car had to sit outside. In fact, the car is actually visible in the driveway on Google Street View in the neighborhood where we lived at the time. I tried to use a fitted car cover to keep it from being out in the weather, but that was more trouble than it was worth. I chased that cover around the yard more than once in windy weather. This problem was only solved when I found an offsite classic car storage garage that would keep both cars accessible but safely protected in climate-controlled conditions. That garage has been the main enabler for me to continue with a collection of more than one old car.

I had fun with this car for a couple of years, but then decided I wanted to move on to another car in my bucket list. That car turned out to be the worst mistake I’ve made to date in collecting old cars, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks.