COAL: 1989 Ford Thunderbird SC Part 2 – This Time for Keeps

1989 Ford Thunderbird SC

We have reached a bit of a milestone with this week’s entry – this is the first car in my COAL series that I still own today. The car itself is one that I’ve now owned twice in my lifetime, and I plan on keeping this Thunderbird for a long time to come. This was my first real entry into the “collector” car market with a car purchased solely for shows and occasional driving. Let’s get into it…

After selling my first ’89 Thunderbird SC way back in 1991, I had kept my eye open for SCs for sale, first in the used car ads and then (as time went on) in the old car classifieds. It wasn’t until I sold the 2006 Subaru I described a couple of weeks ago that I decided to look for Super Coupes more seriously. Although the production numbers were relatively low (about 12,000 made in ’89, for instance), they weren’t that hard to find on eBay or the old car classifieds, probably because the cars attracted a pretty serious fan base who were dedicated to keeping these cars on the road.

It didn’t take long for me to locate a very interesting candidate to buy through an online collector car website. This particular SC was a 1989 model like the one I had, and was dark blue with a blue interior like my first one, and looked and ran like new based on the photos and YouTube video posted in the ad. This one was equipped very much like my first one, with some slight differences. This one had the OEM JBL stereo with CD (mine just had the premium cassette system), a 4-speed automatic (my old one had a manual), and no sunroof (my first one had the power moonroof). Best of all, it only had 55,000 miles on it (verifiable by the 6 digit odometer).

The interesting part was that the car was being offered for sale by a dealership very close to where I grew up in Ohio (and where my mother and brother still lived). This made it easy for me to send a trusted car guy (my brother) to take a look at the car in person and hear it run. The reports came back good – the car was in excellent shape overall and did run very well. The car was a consignment to the dealer by the second owner who’d had the car since 1990. Even after getting confirmation that it was as nice as it seemed, I still was unsure if I should blow the money on what would essentially be a toy. My wife then told me, “You’ve been looking for another SC for years and this one is just like your old one – you really should buy it!” All the encouragement I needed…

Rear view of 89 Thunderbird

Even though the car was less than 400 miles away and essentially in my hometown, I paid for the car to be shipped to me. Like a kid at Christmas, I took the day off to sit at home and wait for the truck driver to tell me he was on his way. Once it rolled off the trailer and into my driveway, I got behind the wheel of a Thunderbird almost exactly 20 years after I’d sold the first one. It was a comfortable place to be and all of the controls fell readily to hand as if I’d just traded in the first one the day before. Interesting how those things stick in your mind and just take the right inputs to bring them back out.

A quick shakedown run let me know that there were a few problems as one might expect from a 20+ year old car. The OEM stereo didn’t work and neither did the clock in that radio. The tires were rock-hard and, based on the fairly complete service records I got with the car, were about a decade old. The driver’s power seat could only be moved back and forth if you weren’t sitting in the seat. The car pulled hard under aggressive throttle, but the idle speed was a bit uneven. The automatic day/night mirror didn’t work (it was a simple system that used a motor to tilt the mirror back and forth). And it needed a good detailing. But overall, it was probably the nicest one I’d seen and I was very happy with it. And fixing these things was all part of the fun, right?

1989 Tbird Super Coupe interior

Over the next six months or so I tackled each of its problems. I found a fellow MN12 T-bird enthusiast online who rebuilt the OEM stereos – apparently, the manufacturer of the cassette head units (Alpine, if memory serves) used capacitors on the circuit boards that contained liquid electrolytes. Over time, the capacitors began to leak and would not only cease to function themselves but the liquid would damage other components on the circuit board. A small fee and some patience yielded a working cassette head unit and CD player that were better than new (since the CD player could now play CDs burned in a computer, which were unheard of when the car was new). A new set of tires took care of the sketchy old ones. The power seat was a nuisance that I haven’t fixed yet since I didn’t have to move the seat much – I do have a new power seat mechanism though. The uneven idle was traced to the need for new spark plugs and wires, and replacing those highlighted why Ford made a big deal out of their use of 60,000 mile platinum plugs in the OEM brochure. Replacing the plugs was not exactly simple, and required disassembling much of the supercharger induction system to access the plugs. At least the shop was able to replace leaking valve cover gaskets since they had the engine partly disassembled. I haven’t figured out yet why the day-night mirror doesn’t work despite buying several replacements on eBay.

Here’s where things get interesting. Not that long after I bought the car, I learned that Marti Auto Works was now offering their Marti Reports for cars newer than the mid-1970s. These reports give production figures, equipment lists, original sale dates, and a lot of other information on a given car based on the cross-reference between the VIN and the databases the company accesses. So I eagerly placed my order and waited for the package to arrive in the mail. When it did, I learned a couple of very interesting facts about my car. First, the car was originally ordered in October 1988. It didn’t get assigned a serial number until January 1989 and was then supposed to be built at the beginning of February 1989.  It was actually built (in Ohio) on February 23, 1989. The second interesting fact was that the car was originally ordered by Ford Motor Company itself under the order type “test vehicle.”

89 Thunderbird SC Front View

Why are these things interesting? Well, first of all the MN12 Thunderbird wasn’t introduced to the public until the day after Christmas, 1988 (two months after my car was originally ordered). Second, a book I own called the “Standard Catalog of Thunderbird” states that the introduction for the Super Coupe was delayed by more than a month due to quality control issues with a new cast iron alloy originally slated to be used in the supercharged engine. According to the book, a revised forged crankshaft was hastily pressed into service, and the Essex (Ontario) engine plant started production on January 30, 1989 with plans to ship the first 600 engines by the end of February. Finally, the Marti Report provides a “dealer” address that, when mapped, shows as a residential street in Dearborn along the perimeter of the Ford campus. The closest buildings on the map to the address (according to Google) are the Product Development Center and the Powertrain and Fuel Subsystems Laboratory.

So, what does this all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to me that Ford may have ordered the car itself as an early-production tester (remember the Thunderbird was all-new for ’89), putting in the order in October ’88. The delay in the engine production meant that the car didn’t get produced until the end of February 1989 and delivered to somewhere on the Ford campus near some interesting departments at Ford. From there, the next data point I have is that the second owner purchased the car roughly a year after it was made and owned it until I bought it. Since I bought it on consignment, I was never able to talk to the owner so I don’t have his take on the car’s history, unfortunately. Does this mean the car is one of the first production Super Coupes? Possibly, although I can’t tell for sure – I’d love to know, though.

89 Thunderbird at Carlisle display

At this point I’ve owned the car for just about seven years. In that time I’ve taken it to numerous Ford shows at the Carlisle fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, had the car selected for a special 110+ years of Ford display at the Carlisle Ford show a couple years back (that’s where the photo above was taken), and had a number of people ask me if I’m willing to sell it. One person saw the car and wondered when Ford had reintroduced the Thunderbird – he was quite surprised to learn that the car was almost a quarter century old, and not brand new. Is it perfect? Not really – the original paint has some chips and scratches, there are a couple of small dents I have been meaning to remove, and there’s always something to be fixed. Am I having fun with it? Absolutely – the car is as much fun to drive as I remember it being back in the day, and I’ve met a lot of cool people who want to talk about the car at shows. Is it as interesting or valuable as a Boss 429 Mustang or tri-five Chevy? Not to most people, but the car has meaning to me from a time when I was fairly young and a lot stupid (and had fewer responsibilities than I do now) and it puts a smile on my face every time I get behind the wheel. Will I ever sell it? Not unless I absolutely have to…