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…
A fitting end to your car Sir,
Bought with help from the Colonel and donated to an army charity.
Very good story!
Our experiences run many parallels. My parent’s owned a ’95 Cougar in the same shade of red, also with the 3.8 liter V6. Upon graduating college at the end of ’95, I ordered a ’96 Thunderbird (black) with the “performance” option (or something like that) that was pretty much the Super Coupe suspension with 16″ wheels (very nearly identical to those on the Coupe), 4 wheel disc brakes, the 4.6 liter V8, and a blasted spoiler on the trunk lid.
Trading in an ’89 Mustang with a 2.3 liter and an automatic, this car was an epiphany. Hills didn’t phase it and if it downshifted – it gained speed back! Wow! I never experienced that in the Mustang. Curves didn’t really exist with the ‘Bird, although the suspension was stiff so on rough roads at low speeds it would nearly shake your kidneys loose.
You are correct on the 3.8’s acceleration. I remember a magazine at the time saying it gave “a lot of commotion without much locomotion.” The 4.6 liter was very well matched to this car.
I disposed of the ‘Bird in ’02 with the birth of a child. In its place was a Taurus. Oh, how I miss that Thunderbird.
Thanks Jason, we definitely had a common experience coming from our previous 4 cylinder cars. My Honda did it’s best work at high RPM, and was only a 3 speed auto. Going up a hill on the highway meant you started in 3rd, with the engine at a “reasonable” 4,000 RPMs at 70 MPH. Then it downshifted when it lost enough speed and held 2nd gear the rest of the way up. It wouldn’t gain speed back, but you’d listen to that CVCC Honda engine sing at 5,500 to 6,000 RPMs until the road leveled out. 🙂
Friends of mine had Turbo Coupes, Super Coupes and V8’s, so I pretty much got to drive almost all versions of the Fox and MN12 Thunderbird/Cougar. I found the standard suspension in the MN12 to be the best for daily use because it was so smooth. The Super Coupes were amazing rides, but the suspension was too harsh for my tastes. I didn’t get to drive the V8 with the sport suspension, but I can imagine it was similar.
Ha ha. That is a good way to describe the 3.8 in the Thundrrbird. It was a torque-y 6, but had no top end at all. The funny thing was that it got off the line about the same speed as the 4.6, but the show was over when shifted to 2nd. The 4.6 was probably the best engine for these due to their butter smooth operation and decent fuel economy. But I think the best engine to have might have been the 5.0 HO engine in the Thunderbird “Sport” (offered in 91-93 IIRC). I never drove one, but I would think that the torque of the Ford small block might be enough to take out a 4.6 on the 1/4 mile anyhow. The Super Coupe was an amazing setup, but a little too complex under the hood for my taste.
But I think the best engine to have might have been the 5.0 HO engine in the Thunderbird “Sport” (offered in 91-93 IIRC). I never drove one, but I would think that the torque of the Ford small block might be enough to take out a 4.6 on the 1/4 mile anyhow
Actually the 5.0s only really ever pulled 16s in the quarter mile tests, 4.6s were solidly in the mid 15 second range, just behind the SC. The Thunderbird 5.0s were badly hampered by the 2.73 gears, AOD and very restrictive exhaust(shared with the 3.8). Really the opposite effect from the Mustangs, which were disappointments among many with their switch to the modular engine.
You know, I had a feeling that was the case when I wrote that. I didn’t get into the gearing in the article, but most likely why I didn’t think that the 3.8 was that bad to 35 MPH is because of the wide ratio trans and the 3.27 gears it had in 95. I think that the earlier cars had the 3.08 gears and the AOD with the 3.8 I remember now that the 5.0 had the high gearing, which hurt it. I didn’t know about the exhaust issue.
Being a classic Mustang guy, I am a bit of a ford small block fan boy, so I was letting my prejudice show there. 🙂
Hey Carlo! Thanks for your story! I too have a 95 thunderbird. It was given to me by my ex and his father. I love driving it but I need to sell it. I didn’t know what to sell it for started on the Internet to do my homework & I ran across your story. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to list it for about $3000. I realize that may be too high but it’s a good start for me. Your opinion would greatly matter to me if you’d like to give it. My email address is Phebie3375@gmail.com and my name is Melanie. If I had the money and the resources I would definitely keep this car as I too love it the way you love yours.
Wow…a 1989 Mustang 2.3 with an automatic. My Mom had a 1990; she sold it to me when she retired in 1994, with something like 12,000 miles, and I could only stand it for two years.
That was quite possibly the slowest car I’ve ever owned; never understood why Ford only offered the wheezy 2.3 or the 5.0 in the Mustang in those years. Perhaps there wasn’t enough production capacity to offer the 3.8?
BuzzDog, that Mustang is the reason for my general phobia about four-cylinder cars. The 2.3 was gutsy and durable – and that’s about it. I put 80,000 miles on my 2.3 liter Mustang.
It got 24 mpg, that same as the Thunderbird. Twice the car, twice the engine, same fuel mileage. I joked it was twice as efficient.
No four-bangers for me since and I hope to keep it that way. Yes, I was born 40 years too late given my automotive tastes.
I rode in my buddy’s ragged out 2.3 automatic Mustang hatchback and was surprised how well it performed. It was the eight-spark-plug version of the 2.3 and could easily embarrass a number of V6 cars.
I bet a 2.3 5-speed car would be a fun DD.
The two-plug-per-cylinder version didn’t appear in the Mustang until 1991, and delivered slightly better power.
Great story, just oustanding. Everybody needs to own a car they enjoy so much at least once. But it sounds like the Thunderbird was a great car to drive to 75,000 and then sell, because of its engine foibles.
I had a ’90 T-bird that I bought used from a Ford dealer at 1 year old. It had the 3.8L V6 which made noise as much as power. I remember a plush ride and fairly good handling. The seats were soft but unsupportive and my back hurt after about a hour. The dashboard was mostly black plastic and looked like something from the cheapest Ford. It was the widest and longest car I have ever owned. This was before the LED taillights were added and it had a lot of red plastic but only single bulbs at each rear corner. It made very little wind and road noise.
I had taken a test drive with a different T-bird and the salesman told me to nail it before going over some railroad tracks to show what a great suspension the car had. I hit the gas and the whole bottom of the car in between the front and rear wheels scraped the railroad tracks. The salesman didn’t bat an eye or say a word as if nothing had happened. When we got back to the dealer I asked what other T-birds he had to show me………..
The black plastic on the dash, and the inevitable rattles behind it, were the worst part of the interior of these cars. But, was comparable to the domestic competition at the time.
Funny that you mention about the seats being soft and un-supportive. That must be how I like my seats. I have arthritis in my knees, and this is one of the few cars I have owned that didn’t bother my knees. Probably due to the lazy-boy like position that you drove it from. My current car, a 2012 Altima is the polar opposite. It’s seats are very supportive, but hard as a rock. It fit the leg room criteria, which is why I bought it, but still not as good on the knees due to the seats trying to improve my posture. It’s quite possible, that my dream car would be a Mustang with softer suspension and a pillow-top brougham seat with no support. 🙂
I had forgotten about the rattles behind the dash. Yours was the 2nd generation of these and had (I think) improved seats and dashboard. Your seats look to have some small side bolsters on the bottom cushion. Mine were a flat topped mound of foam. I prefer soft seats and a soft ride as well.
I think car seats are all too hard now. Perhaps if Ford brought back Lee Iacocca you could get the Mustang of your dreams. 🙂
The dash on the later version of these is odd, I like the more angular wrap around dash these had back in 1989 when they came out, the later dash is from that odd design period where organic shapes were starting to come into style but all the dash components are still square, it just looks odd.
These were always slow mover on the used car lot, signifying, I think, the end of Americas love affair with the big personal luxury coupe once and for all, they were nice comfy cars, but always a hard sell on the lot, I sold a champagne colored loaded V8 one with leather to a Tony Soprano type guy, he loved it, they were an acquired taste.
You hit the nail on the head with the end of the love affair with the personal luxury coupe. Ford let these cars die on the vine, knowing that the dream was over. They decided not to continue this car line, and instead focus on what was selling: SUVs. The Explorer Sport 2 door, was really what replaced it. These are now, quite possibly the most worthless car of the 90’s. The people that used to buy them, don’t buy these types of cars now, and the later generations hate them. Whenever a nice low mileage car shows up on the internet, it’s usually in Florida. Might have to go car shopping down your way… 🙂
The last couple years of the MN12, were parts bin specials where you’d find some weird combinations as Ford used up the parts supply and wound down production. You’d see Taurus instrument clusters replace the Thunderbird specific one, V8 sport models with the super coupe suspension parts and limited slip differentials, even the occasional V6 models with a 8.8 limited slip diff (most of the V6 cars, except the SC got the 7.5″ open diff).
Well you pretty much could tell when the demographic started to shift from around 45 to 55 average age. The younger people moved on from these cars into SUVs. By the end, most people buying them were aging Boomers and older men who still liked that kind of ride. Be nice Sean…
There are a lot of Cougars down here with fake gold and bad tops…..and thats just the owners…HEYOOOOO!
Really though, there was time down here in MIA where every MN12 Cougar had some sort of fake rag top “Caliente” package, gold stripe whitewalls and fake gold electroplate on all the trim.
You do find some low mile ones down here because they were bought by the last people that still liked this kind of car.
My sister-in-law still drives that exact car – 95, V-8, champagne. It hardly gets any use and she loves it!
Good story on a car I have a soft spot for. These came out in ’89 when I was at peak high school car-mag dorkitude. Ford offered a T-Bird, a Mustang and a SHO – three different motors making 220 hp, all with 5-speeds – wow! I’ve been in a 5.0 ‘Stang and a SHO, but still never ridden in a Super Coupe, or seen one in years.
If you think the Super Coupe is rare, and it is, try finding the Mercury Cougar XR7.
Super Coupes are fine except for the ABS. They used the same early style Teves Mark II ABS as many premium GM cars. Since OE replacements are $1000 or more I suspect a lot of cars were junked when they aged to the point that their owners did not want to invest in that kind of a repair, let alone finding a mechanic willing to work on it. I once bought an 89 Eldorado for $600 around 2000 simply because the same ABS system failed. The car was really worth about $3500 but a car with no brakes and no prospects of getting it fixed was virtually worthless. I was told about it by a mechanic friend from a dealer who knew I liked Eldorados and said he went and looked at the car at the lady’s house and diagnosed the problem. He said you could probably make them a low ball offer and buy it. I said sure and did just that, except as I mentioned in a comment a few months ago, when I went to pick it up they had relocated the car to the top of their steep driveway and I took out a mailbox getting it down to the road. Ended up fixing the ABS unit and doing a few other things to the car that it needed and sold it to another lady for $2500.
My 91 Mark VII still has the Teves ABS and it works fine. I’m going to replace the accumulator soon as preventative maintinance. If the thing goes out it’s getting a standard power brake conversion.
After maybe 1991 [?] Mercury dropped the Supercharged motor and XR7 name went back to top lux Cougar, and then all Cougars were XR7’s by 1994 [?] to the end of MN-12 line.
The 91 XR7 got the 5.0 standard in lieu of the supercharged 3.8, but everything else like the suspension, wheels, ride control, disc brakes, abs, interior details(sans boost/vac gauge obviously) and power lumbar/bolster seats were retained. 1993 was when the XR7 became standardized from base to V8 to sport(96/7)
I haven’t seen either on a road in years, drove both the SHO and Supercoupe loads of fun in their day, from and engine standpoint, never felt the interiors were up to par with what that engine was trying to accomplish. But fun cars in their days. I assume they have long since been made into coke cans. Any collector value in either?
It’s interesting that there was no V8 offered in the ’89 Cougars or Thunderbirds.
The chassis wasn’t even designed for it. The 5.0 had to be reduced in length and height in order to fit in the engine bay(shortened accessory drive and upper intake) and the 4.6 is shoe horned in. The valve covers practically touch the shock towers. And any 4.6 MN12 owner will yell you about how, um… interesting… it is to change the oil and filter from one!
Excellent point on the oil change foibles. It’s something I had put out of my mind; changing the oil in my ’96 ‘Bird with the 4.6 made me wish I had another joint between my wrist and elbow. There was no way to remove the filter without the contents running down my arm and dripping off my elbow.
When word gets out that you work in the car industry, all sorts of people come out of the woodwork and try to be your friend in exchange for “having a look at their car.” Once back around 1999, a neighbor had a 1996 that had seemingly a miss or skip in it when you hit the throttle at speed. The car was still under factory warranty and he had been back to the dealer frequently to try and remedy the problem. Eventually, they replaced the transmission among other things. So one day we were talking and he mentioned it to me. I took it out for a bit on a test drive to replicate the problem. It can see where the problem would lead a tech to think transmission, the problem occurred mostly at speeds above 35 and usually after the car got into third gear, it was logical to think that the lock up torque converter could be included in a larger pool of potential problems. Well, seeing that I was a service engineer trained to make servicing our cars as easy as possible by the dealers, my mindset was always too look for the lowest common denominator. Skips and misses like that are always ignition or mechanical. Seeing that transmissions are expensive, I started with ignition. For that car, Ford used a pair of 4 position coil blocks on either side of the engine to feed voltage to the spark plugs. They are often a source of complaint to diagnose because coil packs are a pack (duh!) and its hard to isolate one cylinder. So I wrapped each plug end with a piece of paper based tape and took a test drive again trying to really make the car act up. Sure enough when I returned and opened the hood, one of the pieces of tape was burnt indicating a spark arc had occurred. Upon removing the spark plug wire it was obvious there was a defect in the wire at the plug. A trip to Western Auto and $23 later got us a set of OE quality Autolite wires and the car never ran better. I don’t know if this story makes me look better or the dealer look worse but it is the most involved I have ever gotten with this generation T-Bird.
Older Boomers and Rat Pack generation loved the big P-Lux cars in the 70s and 80s, but younger buyers or latter born Boomers moved to 4 doors.
I am surprised at how well the replacement of the amber side markers with clear really improves the look of the vehicle. I assume the bulbs in these have amber painted glass, or are amber LEDs.
Yes, you did have to change the small side marker bulb to amber when you made the switch, if you didn’t want it to shine white light through the now-clear reflector. The lens is integral with the front turn signal also, which was clear with amber bulbs already in place from the factory. Technically speaking, this probably isn’t legal, as the reflector is clear, not yellow when lights are off. Nobody gave me trouble with it though as it still light up amber.
I still have one of the original side marker lights in my garage as well as other miscellaneous trim pieces.
That is surpirsing that Ford reimbursed you for the head gaskets that is not normal to do for a DIY repair. It was not a secret warranty though as Ford sent letters to everyone that owned one saying that they would repair or reimburse for repairs that had been done, provided you could produce documentation.
The split pin crank is a requirement for an even fire 90 degree V6. The oil pump in the timing cover was something that was done to allow more flexibility in oil pan configurations, ie avoid the double hump pan for crossmember and oil pump clearance as was required for the 302 in Fox and Panther configurations.
Ford used to be really good about extending warranties for problem areas. They don’t seem to do that anymore. But their quality and reliability overall has improved greatly.
I used the don’t ask, don’t tell policy to get the reimbursement. All you needed to do was provide an invoice stating that the head gaskets were repaired with the total cost, and have a Ford dealer inspect it to make sure that the work was done correctly (if not done by a Ford dealer). Anyone can buy a pack of Auto repair shop invoices to satisfy the first requirement. As for the second requirement, I presented an invoice to the local Ford dealer. The service writer performed the inspection by looking out the window and said “Yup – that’s a Thunderbird” and signed the paperwork. Under the circumstances, I think that I cut Ford a pretty good deal at $600… I probably could have asked for 3 times that, but I didn’t want to give them reason to deny the claim. Nor do I feel that I should be penalized for doing the work myself and letting them completely off the hook.
As I recall, they ultimately agreed to extend the warranty to 95,000 miles on the head gaskets and told everyone about it. But I think it took a lot of pressure from unhappy owners to do so.
Your points about the oil pump and split rod pins are of course, probably correct. Hence, the reason why they kept those traits of the Buick… 😉
I did that one time with an insurance adjuster when my 86 Regal T Type was stolen. I had rebuilt the motor (myself of course). The car was wrecked (not my fault), in the 00s the Turbo Regal had not yet ascended into stupid money territory and many were still being driven regularly by their owners. Mine was nice but driver nice. The adjuster started with the normal insurance book value and adjusted the claim price based on an individual car’s condition, etc. If you could show proof of repairs and upgrades, like was discussed, they worked with you. I had a dummy invoice prepared for the occasion. The purpose was not to cheat the insurance company, but not to be undercompensated for what the car was truly worth. If I was going to give up the title to the car, I wanted paid for what I reasonably expected to get for it if I chose to sell it the day before the accident. All told, I ended up getting about $7500 for the car, at 15 years old considering the car only cost $15,000 new which was only a 50% depreciation! Had I kept the car to today and kept it in as good a condition as I had it I probably could have sold it for MSRP new!
I thought these were a nicer-proportioned car to their predecessors: they looked a little wider & stubbier. The only thing I did not like were the big trunk reflectors on the earlier models that did…..nothing. The LED addition to the trunklid was very nice & innovative: this had to be one of the first applications of exterior LED lighting that I had seen.
Ford must have built these cars just for me because to this day, I’ve never driven a more comfortable “well-balanced” vehicle in my life. The repo company I worked for had Ford Motor Credit as one of its clients so I got the opportunity to field-test a lot of these to the ADESA auction which was about 20 minutes away from the lot via interstate.
The 4.6 Thunderbird was my favorite vehicle to drive of all the vehicles we processed (including non-Fords) by far. Fuel cutoff on the examples I thrashed was around 112-113 mph and the cars handled great when I took the I20 exit ramp at high-speed.
The quiet and soft ride was impressive considering the rather extreme conditions I put those poor repos through. The cloth seats were very comfortable and the shifter location was perfect. The interior ergonomics were just right for me and all the controls and gauges were in easy reach and view. These cars had a relatively low beltline which made visibility pretty good too. This would be the perfect road-trip vehicle.
And the colors! Dark blue, maroon and even GREEN interior choices were available and were very tastefully executed..not to mention the exterior hues. Some of those weird chameleon colored cars would come in & I had heard that body shops could never do spot repairs on them — they had to repaint the whole car even if only part of the paint was damaged.
If I could have afforded one of these cars when they were new I’d have probably bought one then. The ‘real’ Cutlass Supremes, Regals, Monte Carlos, and Grand Prix were long gone and missed by me and these would have filled the void perfectly.
I’m glad you enjoyed your car as much as I would have enjoyed it!
You summed it up perfectly. The interior ergonomics were fantastic, to me at least. The console was high, but out of your way, and made a perfect arm rest. Your hand falls perfectly on the shifter from your reclined position. The door panel had another perfect arm rest on it for the left arm. Seats were soft. Everything was in reach.
I felt the same way about the Trans Am’s of the late 70’s, though not as soft as the Thunderbird. I also liked the long and low slung look, which somehow also reminded me of the 70’s Firebirds. This might is probably why you like it… 🙂
According to a Ford engineer that I used to correspond with, the speed was limited due to the drive shaft. It was a single section, but made from two pieces of steel crimped together. Ford was afraid that it would start to flex at speeds above 115, so they limited it. Lots of folks would replace them with custom aluminum drive shaft, then install a performance chip that disabled the limiter.
That kind of relaxed 4 seat cruiser is what Ford should have done with the Thunderbird when they tried to bring it back in the 2000’s, instead of the 2 seater, it should have been a 4 seat Thunderbird, with retro touches from the 64-66 T-Bird.
Great observation sir! My first car was a beloved ’78 Firebird Esprit — that car was also a joy to drive and it fit me like a glove! The console was at the perfect height for my arm and the shifter just happened to be in the perfect place for my hand to rest on.
On the left side, the wide upper door panel was just right for my spindly arm to lay on. I drove that car with either my left hand cupped around the door mirror or my right hand resting on the shifter.
Interesting info about the driveshaft — I guessed it may have been due to something like tire selection or something like that.
Tires were part of the equation which meant they didn’t need to make the driveshaft handle any higher speed. That was the case on Panthers as well to be able to let the P71 have a higher top speed they lengthened the tailshaft to shorten the driveshaft and raise it’s critical speed.
There is nothing worse than when a favorite and much loved car starts to bite you.
Very nice story. I remember when these came out, I was convinced that these would become something really special. The SuperCoupe, especially, looked like a re-birth of the Chrysler 300 – type of performance large coupe. It is a shame that the platform seemed to have some fatal flaws. I recall taking several pictures of that car when it was on the platform at the Indianapolis Auto Show in late ’88.
I still find these attractive. I still see one or two around here (rarely). Several months ago, I even spotted a Super Coupe on the road. I had no idea how rare they are, I suppose I should have followed the guy.
Ha ha. Yeah.
These can be good cars, but it helps to start with the V8 and keep an eye out for cracks in the 4.6L intake manifold. As for the transmissions issues, a Ford engineer posted step by step instructions on the http://www.sccoa.com and http://www.tccoa.com forums that tell you how to modify the 4R70W trans to handle gobs of power, increase reliability, and get rid of the slushbox feel.
The 3.8 up to 1995 had a fatal design issue with the rear coolant passages too close to the combustion chamber. The RWD 3.8 seemed to get better after a 1996 redesign, but for whatever reason, the FWD ones still had issues as Windstar owners learned all too well. My wife’s 2001 3.8 Mustang had no issues whatsoever.
The 94/5 4.6s don’t have the cracking intake issue as they were all aluminum. 96/7s were the ones that had that issue but I can’t imagine many are left on the road with the original all plastic intake, most I find at junkyards at this point have the aluminum crossover ones swapped in. 94/5 4.6s have defective valve seals though, same as the early aero-panthers, as well as the worst of the 4R70ws.
Uh-oh! 🙁 Our ’96 Mustang is still running the plastic intake and it’s got a lot of miles on it.
Does anyone know what aluminum intakes will interchange? Will one off any 4.6 Crown Vic work? I’m not interested in buying a new one since I can buy used ones for about $5.
The best bet is to get an intake with the aluminum crossover(the coolant crossover section is aluminum while the intake runners are still plastic). The all aluminum intakes used on the early 4.6s have a totally different layout for the throttle body, EGR, various vacuum components and sensors so all sorts of modifications would have to be made for it to work. Plus it isn’t as good of a performer as the later plastic intakes.
One popular and possibly more economical fix is to get a 01 or newer PI(power improved) intake manifold, with the aluminum crossover, and adapt it fixes the leak and adds some power. Those would be found on virtually any 2001 or newer Crown Vic
Does it have the all plastic intake or has it already been replaced with the one that has the aluminum crossover. If it has the all plastic intake just go to the junkyard and pickup one from one that has already been replaced. Make sure you grab the alternator to crossover bracket as they are different and came with the intake kit as did a few fasteners so grab all the mounting hardware too. You want to look in 96-97 Tbirds, 96-98 Mustangs or 96-2000 Panthers they all take the same manifold. The PI intakes on the 98 and up Mustangs and 00 and up Panthers are not a direct fit.
I believe our car still has the full plastic intake. It’s still running fine (does anything run smoother than a 4.6?) but I want to play it safe.
Thanks very much for the info, gentlemen.
Oops that should have been 99 up Mustang and 01 up Panther that has the PI heads and intake.
The split port 3.8 used in the 98 up Windstar, 99 up Mustangs and the 3.9 and 4.2 used the MLS gaskets and did not have problems.
Not to mention that the split port 3.8’s have 40 more Hp, at least, over the 3.8 found in my Thunderbird. Which was quite an increase in power and finally made the 3.8 respectable.
The 2001 Mustang 3.8 that my wife had was one of the most reliable cars we ever owned. I even used it to pull my little 5×8 trailer around, which it did well with it’s upgraded brakes, transmission and engine. Wasn’t bad on fuel either.
Nice story! These were the last gasp of the personal luxury coupe. the lincoln made it to 98 or 99, the riv held on until ’99, and the eldo lingered till 02. One of my friends has an ’89 bird with 70k. I rode in it once, it was a nice, comfy ride. I like the original blocky interior versus the swoopy interior of the later ones. My friend’s car also has the digital dash, which I love looking at. Classic 80s! Unfortunately, the tranny is starting to go on him, so it’s probably only a matter of time before he replaces it.
So many great memories in one article thanks Carlo. I remember those Autotrader ads too, the one above shows a loaded ’73 Mach I for $1,500, albeit with body damage.
Ford was on a roll in ’89. After the Taurus debut there was news of two supercars coming up next, the Taurus SHO and the MN12 Super Coupe. I thought wow 24 valves AND a supercharger model this is going to be great!
Ford wasn’t cutting any corners and pulled out all the stops but the MN12 came in famously over weight and I believe it was late. The chief engineer got into trouble for that but at least the MN12s were good cars. Over at GM 10 years earlier they would have cut back on the competitiveness to get the car out on time. It was rare to see a chief engineer with so much power and I’m sure after that it was more business as usual at Ford.
Looking at the pic of the rear subframe and suspension it’s no wonder the Tbird weighed as much as it did but what a fine cruiser it was. They also got the stance just right, no more short wheelbase / long overhangs / narrow looking tracks like so many American cars used to have. And finally whitewalls were banished from the spec list. If I’m not mistaken wheelcovers were also gone replaced by the heavy polycast wheels on lower trims.
I remember your red car from another article and always thought that was a nice color on the ‘Bird.
Most of what you alluded to had to do with external pressures rather than internal ones. The late 70s and early 80s were ones of radical change and we lived under the threats of everything I talked about in my piece. By the mid 80s when these cars were designed, things had settled down considerably probably offering substantially more opportunity to justify extended time for preproduction. However, I cannot believe that no one in Ford had any idea that big coupes and coupes in general were not on the decline. Even though the GM made a big mistake in introducing the W cars as only coupes for the first couple of years, it was widely believed big coupes (especially RWD ones) were on the decline as early as 1980. Perhaps Ford was banking on the goodwill of the T-Bird and Cougar names to overcome market tendencies.
But coupes at least mid-size and smaller ones to a lesser extent have made a bit of a comeback. Honda does pretty well with their Accord and Civic in coupe form and Toyota hasn’t done too bad with the Camry/Solara and Nissan moves a fair amount of Altimas.
I wish Ford would bring out a Fusion or at least MKZ coupe. I’d maybe consider a MKZ Coupe if there wasn’t a Fusion version. Otherwise it is hard to justify the premium.
Sorry to say, but the Solara died in 2010 or so, and Altima coupes are no longer sold for 2013. And Honda mostly sells 4 door Civics/Accords now.
I should have said did make a comeback, I was unaware that the Altima Coupe had been discontinued I see a fair number of them on the road as well as the Hondas.
Altima coupe was not discontinued but it was not updated with the all-new sedan in 2013. You can still get a 2014 Altima Coupe but it’s almost identical to the 07.
I wasn’t making a point about coupes being on the decline. Sure tastes were changing but, as always, it comes down to execution. A big coupe was more inappropriate in ’84 than ’90 but the Mark VII performed much better, as a share of its segment, than the Mark VIII. One was gorgeous the other a bloated eyesore. IRS and a 32-valve V8 could not save the Mark and it was never replaced. The Eldo certainly held its own.
It’s true folks who wanted something more emotional than a sedan were choosing SUVs over sporty cars and the segment was shrinking. If you miss in a shrinking segment its a fail and you don’t want to try again.
But coupes were far from dead. As Eric mentioned around the time of the MN12 Toyota brought out the Camry coupe followed by the Solara (I hated those). Accord coupes sold well as did the 3-series. Mercedes created a whole new line with the CLK. Later Infiniti would add the G35, a huge hit.
It’s not so much that people didn’t want coupes or big coupes they didn’t want much of anything from Detroit save the SUVs.
Yes although my point was more in terms of the pressure factor. Back then, people thought big cars (including coupes) were going out because of the gas situation. So everything was on the block. That coupled with natural changing tastes that is talked about in your guys’ responses. Coupes now are quite sporty compared to coupes from the past. The whole personal luxury thing was nearly dead by 1985.
I guess by the time that generation of RWD coupes were designed by the mid 80s, energy supply had stabilized, gas prices had fallen dramatically, CAFE requirements had stabilized and the general economy was doing a lot better. So the pressure to rush stuff to introduction was less. So much of what I attribute to many failures with the X cars involve the overwhelming and frenetic pace that was the atmosphere at the time trying to get ahead of the market.
I really did not mean that the coupe market died altogether, it just evolved (as does everything else usually). As far as the T-Bird specifically, it does surprise me the investment Ford did put into the cars given that good market research would have shown that that segment was shrinking. Given the ultimate level of sales that these cars produced, it would seem in hindsight that a more evolutionary approach might have given a better return on investment.
When the MN cars were started to be designed the T-bird had seen year over year growth for a while so no market research indicated that a new car was justified. The evolutionary approach which was brought out about the time that the MN project was under way showed that it was a dead end and only reinforced that they needed an all new car not another refresh.
Pressure was a factor but so was the way GM chose to manage itself. Power moved from styling and car guys to bean counters and manufacturing. Ford had pressure too but was smart by creating Team Taurus and putting an engineer in charge of the MN12.
Ford didn’t give product all the power but they kept good checks and balances, like GM had before with the divisions and guys like Mitchell. GM’s old system worked (they did that bang up job on the G1 Seville) but there were too many divisions.
The Tbird was a good car and sold OK but the Mark VIII and Cougar failed. There was no way to have an evolved MN12 Tbird continue without its sisters. I’m glad they didn’t try something off of the Mondeo platform considering how the dull the Contour came out.
The retro Bird off of the RWD LS was a decent effort but that’s a story for another day.
Oh the bean counters did apply their pressure at Ford. The Marauder is a perfect example, they did let an engineer loose (Steve Babcock) to develop it but then the bean counters stepped in and told him that he had to cut the unique springs, sway bars, exhaust pipe between the Cats and Mufflers, as well as the 4.10 gears.
The Tbird was a good car and sold OK but the Mark VIII and Cougar failed.
Until 1992 the Cougar sold respectably well in relation to the Tbird numbers. Both nose dived in 1992 and the Cougar never bounced back as healthy as the Tbird as it’s style had largely passed.
Well I will say this, in reviewing what has been presented in the comments with the addition of the sales figures, this generation doesn’t appear to the bomb that a lot of people make it out to be. I wouldn’t say that I believed that bandwagon of popular wisdom, but apparently the T-Bird did sell better than I had expected. I guess if we saw some data on Ford sales projections at the time of introduction we might no a little more of what they had anticipated.
As far as the Cougar and Mark VIII, I think they were victims of the fact that the decay of the coupe market started at the top and worked its way down. The T-Bird, being a Ford, was the bread and butter coupe, was cheapest and had the widest audience. The Mark VII did sell well because that design was very fresh and striking and revived a moribund model. Sort of what happened to the Seville when the 1992s came out. The market for the Mark VIII probably shrunk the most by 1993 and given the new (for one year prior) Eldorado, then with the introduction of the Riviera in 1995 (that initially did very well), it got squeezed. Plus people paying that kind of money had moved on to other status symbols. The Cougar, seeing as the 89-97 models were very conservative, I would not be surprised if its buyer demographic shot up in age considerably by the end. The only people I can think of that drove the last of the Cougars were very old men. Who knows, that might be why for decided to go with a sport compact design for 1999, knowing that the old Cougar market was all but dead.
As far as GM back in the day, at least in the late 70s as I felt, the dual pressure of CAFE (and the uncertainty of the energy situation in general) as well as GM being the dominant market player at the time, combined with corporate’s decision to go all into FWD, brought a sense of urgency to things that led to corners being cut on failure analysis and the fact that so much of the technology and design was so new, most people simply did not know what to expect. I don’t want to say that people used the cliché “Keep your fingers crossed and let’s hope for the best” but in a way it was to some degree. In some ways, I am surprised there were not more problems. Given the fact that the X cars went from product approval to delivery in 4 years seeing as virtually everything about them were brand new made from scratch the overwhelming nature of it all was breathtaking. When I started we all thought we would be building Cutlasses forever. Then in a few short years we were building small FWD cars and many believed that the Cutlass would be relegated to the dustbin of history (which is eventually was but not until 1999). The closest I can think of a revolution of the mindset is being in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. Especially being on the East German side.
Think of it this way, cars of course evolve over time naturally as they change to keep up with necessary regulatory changes and customer needs. But take the Honda Accord, for example. Aside from growing larger and more plush over time, it is more or less the same kind of car that it was in 1976 when it debuted. Same for the Civic and quite a few other cars. It also explains why a lot of old timers (like myself) sort through the wreckage of GM and the automotive industry that we thought we knew looking for scraps and reminders of lost memories.
“Both nose dived in 1992…”
But from your earlier post both started trending up in ’92, peaking in ’94 at 130,000 units?
Don’t get me wrong I love formal roof treatments and have always liked the Cougar but it wasn’t particularly successful as an LN, for a variety of reasons.
91-92 were recession years which skews the numbers. Just like 80-81 and 08-09.
My memories from reading several business journal articles back in the day was that the MN platform was a major dud for Ford, financially. The three reasons were:
1. Its development was grossly over budget and ludicrously expensive.
2. Its production costs ended up considerably higher than anticipated.
3. The average transaction prices ended up well below what was expected.
The result was heavy discounting through most of its life to prop up sales. I remember endless ads for low content LX coupes at $15 or $16k, well below what they were hoping to sell these. I think Ford somehow thought they could sell a BMW 6-Series competitor at a nice discount from what BMW was getting, but they ended up having to sell them at bargain basement prices to keep the lines running.
My understanding at the time was that the MN-12 was a major black eye for Ford; they knew that they had screwed up, and it was a bad reflection of the changes internally since the Petersen/gen1 Taurus era. Meanwhile, Chrysler was developing new platform for a fraction of the price, and selling them very profitable.
I think the MN12 was part of Ford walking away from cars to SUVs even more rapidly than might otherwise have been the case. It probably also explains why the MN platform wasn’t used for a Panther replacement. It was an expensive screw-up.
That is correct Paul. The MN12 was over-budget, over-weight AND late. This outcome is what can happen when a product champion, in this case the lead engineer, has too much power.
When the product guys don’t have enough you can end up with 80s GM. It’s a balancing act.
The Tbird was a good car and while technically interesting a bit old fashioned, not because it was a coupe or a Thunderbird or a Ford, but because of its sheer size.
Eclipses, Integras, SXs, Celicas were all over the place and you didn’t need a tape measurer to know the Tbird was too big for anyone under 60. To quote a good friend of mine, it was a car for fat people. That’s why they had to discount the price.
The poster children for this point are the 2004+ Mustang and Camaro. Both domestic brands, both old names that no young people are supposed to want because their parents liked them (?). And yet these affordable, four-seater coupes have sold very well in a shrinking segment.
To my earlier point about development, the 2004 Mustang benefitted from a very strong product champion.
The other problem caused by being massively over budget was the last-minute emergency cost cutting so evident in the interiors, which looked rental grade in the early cars. This surely had an effect on transaction prices as well.
I found this picture. Look at that dash – the entire upper half is a single cheap piece of black plastic. The interior sidewalls were largely hard plastic. Ford had been putting some very nice interiors into its cars from the mid 80s on, but these were simply awful, and nowhere near the quality that should have been at this price point. What the body and chassis largely delivered to the customer, the interior took away. Those interiors largely erased any desire I had for one of these.
This is why I love this site. You guys have answered questions that I had for years about Ford’s decision to end the MN12 platform. Some were readily apparent, others I didn’t know.
One more point to add to this discussion, is that I think Ford also saw that the Thunderbird with it’s low profit margin, was only stealing sales from the Explorer line, with it’s high profit margin.
There was a slightly refreshed 1998 version of the MN12 platform being planned at Ford that had the potential to be the best of that generation. It was IIRC to include an SVT developed version sporting a supercharged 4.6. Pictures of it were posted by a Ford insider on http://www.tccoa.com. The plug was pulled on this and the MN12 line altogether for the reasons discussed in these comments.
JPC, that dash picture you posted is probably the most flattering of the Gen 1 interiors. 93s like that one had the LEAST amount of universal black pieces. The 89s featured a black steering wheel, door switch pods, door handle cups, arm rest, and shifter plat. In fact the entire binnacle behind the black upper half you mentioned is black, but I think that was intentional. One look at the Lincoln by Vignale shows how the interior was intended to look without the oversight of beancounters…
I agree, the 80s Ford interiors, including the 85-88 Tbird/Cougar were better, in both look and quality. Oddly though, where it seems Ford cut so much cost in the 89-93, it’s odd the Cougar and Tbird got different binnacle arrangements in those years. The layout of components are basically the same but the binnacle is much more squared off on the Cougar, featuring bright trim in 89 and the fake wood/grid trim plates below it are different as well.
Oh regarding the ill fated “SVT” thunderbird(which is actually SVE as it never got further than engineering), it sporting a supercharged 32v for production is largely a myth. They were intended to use the Mustang naturally aspirated Cobra mill as well as a 5 speed manual transmission. After the program got axed the handful of SVE cars got crushed, except the red one which John Coletti kept around for a bit and fitted a prototype Roush supercharger to. Much of the pictures circulating of that car were taken around 98 or 99 well after both the program and the MN12 got axed.
I liked the Mark VIII’s look, they did cut corners on the interior in the earlier ones, which had no wood and the same cheaper switchgear from a Taurus.
Well big coupes WERE dying, Solaras, 3 series and Accord coupes are not Rivieras, Eldorado’s and Marks, even the Lexus coupe SC only had a one generation run before it was replaced by that retractable convertible SC thing, and it wasn’t that American coupes either, BMW’s 8 series faded away after much fanfare.
You’re confusing a coupe version of a sedan, with coupe only cars like the Thunderbird and et al.
Wasn’t the “Lincoln Allante” supposed to be on the MN-12? Also wasn’t the MN-12 going underpin the Panther replacements at some point too?
Never heard that the MN platform was as a basis of a Panther replacement. The Aussie Falcon platform had been planned, and I’ve heard the DEW was considered too.
A “big” coupe to me is either a pricey one or one that seats four like the old Solara. A bloated coupe is something different. Bloated everything was dying… B-bodies, Panthers, LNs.
A more clear way to discuss would be to talk of luxury coupes. Done right they have continued nicely… 3-series (soon to be 4-series), CLK/E, G35 and now the CTS Coupe.
None of those share any sheetmetal with the sedan and some have unique dimensions. They could have just as easily been called something else and in many cases were (e.g. CLK and next the 4-series).
Shared names are easier on the ever shrinking ad budgets that’s why you see fewer CLKs and more E Coupes.
Purpose-built coupe platforms in mainstream segments have been gone a long time and have had no effect on the competitiveness or market demand for big, luxury, roomy or whatever you want to call them coupes. The Mark VII road on a Fairmont sedan platform but that didn’t make it any less successful than the Es.
The challengers to premium coupes today are the Panameras and CLSs of the world.
“I think it’s quite likely, that Ford copied Buick to create a large displacement V6 “
Well why wouldn’t they?
Ah, a car I can really sink my teeth into!
Back in 1991, I was all of sixteen, and there was a girl that I went to church with that was ten years older than me that befriended me. She had gotten a new Thunderbird that year. It was rather plain, as far as Thunderbirds went, but still a nice car. One day she asked me to hang out for the day. We took her car and she let me drive. That car left quite an impression on me to say the least! It was so smooth and composed. I knew the car was something special when we were heading to the beach near Crystal River, FL. The road out to the beach was a twisty two lane that went for nine miles to the beach proper. We were cruising along, the car was smooth as all get out. I looked down, and we were doing NINETY, and through the curves!
As the years went on, I tried several times to acquire either a Thunderbird or a Cougar. Usually either the price wasn’t right, or the car would be sold. I came close a couple of times. In 1996 when I worked for Mr. Sesi, a lovely 1993 Cougar XR-7 came in on trade. It was dark blue and had the MX Brougham landau top on it. My best friend had one just like it but in silver. I sooooo wanted that car, but it just didn’t work out.
In early 1999, I came thisclose to getting a one owner, 18000 mile 1994 Thunderbird, Champagne Beige with the 4.6. The price was right and I was hooked. What kept me from getting it? Well, it sold like an hour before I could get to the dealership. Looking back, maybe it was for the best as I ended up having to move to northern Michigan later that year, and the car would have not been good for the winters up here. I ended up with a 1997 Contour instead, which I ended up loving dearly, though it had more than it’s share of problems…
Great story today, it made my being home with a bad cold go a little bit better 🙂
My 94 LX with the 4.6 was an amazing trouble free car all the way to 190,000(except for the POS 4R70W tranny) when I traded it far a 1977 Ford Ranchero GT(351W) that was all original, garage find. It even had a new fuel tank and system already installed. All I had to do was have the carb rebuilt and round tires put on. Even the A/C worked, one can of nos R-12 brought it back to ice cold. Then gas went to over $4.00 a gallon. Sold it and bought a 1990 Buick Reatta, great trouble free car.
This makes me miss my ’91 Cougar XR7 that I had in college. While it was over quick, the MN12s were great with the old 5.0 V8’s under the hood; loud, torquey, and just a simple beast–reliable too. By far the best road trip car I ever owned. And I too hated parting with mine, but after 4 years of baking in the Florida sun in my (ever-so-patient) parent’s driveway after gradually being overrun with little gremlins, it was time to send it off to it’s next chapter in life so I could start my own. My wife’s Saturn Aura XR (interesting?), while fantastic, just doesn’t feel the same. I do love my old Volvo and BMW, but I wish GM/ Ford/ Chrysler still made the classic personal luxury recipe….they tasted great.
You might be the other only person to buy a Saturn Aura XR 🙂
I thought the new Saturn Lineup was fantastic before GM killed it. We also bought an Outlook, the next year. Both were terrific cars, but both are gone now. Economics changed and we couldn’t afford to have two car payments anymore. My brother in law bought and still has our Aura XR, and it’s been a good car for them, over all.
Great story about the T-Bird Carlo. Those were nice riding cars and every time I was in one I always felt they were comfy. I got to drive a 1996 T-Bird with a V8 for a week when I was house/car sitting a few years ago and I was impressed with the fact that it had next to no road noise coming into the cabin when driving and unlike my 1987 Olds Cutlass Supreme Brougham(last of the rear wheel drive midsize Olds sedans) the T-Bird did not wallow around like a drunken whale
That said, I just saw one of the 89-97 T-Birds at a stop light and they look kind of dated. By contrast I saw a 1987-1988 T-Bird(had those revised tail lights) at the local supermarket and it looked fresh.
I think that was one of the problems with the 93-98 Mark VIII and the 89-97 Couger/T-Bird was that it started looking dated only a few short years into production. I was in high school when the Mark VII ended production and the Mark VIII started production. The Mark VIII was forgettable and kinda bland looking. By contrast the last year of Mark VII production(1992) you could get an all black Mark VII LSC which looked mean. I saw one of those last year and the styling looked fresh even after 20 years.
I think the MN series suffered from both the ending of popularity of the personal coupe and the fact that could not top the 83-88 T-Bird/Cougar. Even now the 83-88 T-Bird looks good (especially the 87-88). If you stuck a 1987-1988 Ford T-Bird with fresh paint in a row of cars from 2010-2013, the T-Bird would look right at home and modern. The 83-88 Birds were futuristic during the time they were made and look modern today even though the newest one is 25 years old.
The same goes for the Lincoln Mark VII in which the newest ones are 21 years old(such as in this picture of the 92 Mark VII LSC)
I own both an 88 Thunderbird LX (5.0) and a 91 Mark VII LSC. I don’t think they look as modern as the MN-12s do, especially the Mark VII. The grill on the non Turbo Thunderbirds kind of dates them a bit.
While it was over quick, the MN12s were great with the old 5.0 V8’s under the hood; loud, torquey, and just a simple beast–reliable too. By far the best road trip car I ever owned. And I too hated parting with mine, but after 4 years of baking in the Florida sun in my (ever-so-patient) parent’s driveway, it was time to send it off to it’s next chapter in life so I could start my own. My wife’s Saturn Aura XR (interesting?), while fantastic, just doesn’t feel the same. I do love my old Volvo and BMW, but I wish GM/ Ford/ Chrysler still made the classic personal luxury recipe….they tasted great.
I’ve never been a big fan of the T-Bird (other than the ’55-’57 models) but I like these, and I rode in one once. My oldest sister and her ex-husband had one, and I rode to the ferry terminal in South Baymouth, Ontario with them back in the early Nineties. It was a nice late summer day and Deep Purple was blasting out of the speakers. A great ride. My trusty ’84 Cavalier was waiting on the other side, and while it also had a decent stereo, it was a depressing ride home after the T-Bird. When they split up the next year, he got the T-Bird and she got their crappy old Tempo…which she soon ditched for a much nicer Honda Accord coupe.
Nice article!! Wow, the MN12 Thunderbird, for me it represents both the culmination of my life long “Ford guy” status, as well as the end of it. It covered two “Birds and 15 years.
As noted, I was always a Ford guy. Could swear I had blue oval corpuscles coursing through my veins. That is a different story for another time. Anyway, I still remember seeing the quiet article in the Wall Street Journal in February of 1997 announcing that Ford had decided to cease production of the Thunderbird with the 1997 model year and there would be no more. I was a 33 year old accountant with two young children and a thrid on the way. About four years back I had finally given up on the youthful car and had traded in the 1988 Ford Escort GT for a 19,000 mile 1993 Ford Taurus LX wagon. My wife took that car. I had the 1993 Ford Tempo LX that she had been driving as the family car when we finally succumbed and traded in her Mustang.
I really, really wanted a Thunderbird some time in my life. Had to have one. So I did the only logical thing one could do in that circumstance and in the middle of an accountant’s busiest season of the year – I spent countless hours plotting and planning how to make a Thunderbird a reality. I drove around every Ford lot in the Quad Cities area on my Sundays off and took note of every new Thunderbird in inventory, prices, features, etc., but they were just too far out of reach to be a realistic option. And then one day in March I stumbled upon a beautiful 29,000 mile 1993 Thunderbird LX on one of the local Lincoln-Mercury lots. This one WAS doable. A few short days later the Tempo, which had served us very well and did everything it was designed to do quite well in its bland, competent fashion, was gone. In its place was my dream car. A Ford Thunderbird. No, it was not a V-8 torque monster, but a nicely balanced 3.8 V-6 which others here have written about.
Ultimately, this would prove to be one of the most comfortable and enjoyable cars I have ever owned. It would gobble up miles with more comfort and composure than any car I have ever owned. And cruising at 70 mph would always net between 25 and 27 mpg. No wind noise. No road noise. The seats were relatively flat and did not provide much support as most of us are used to, but for whatever reason, I never tired in those seats. Never had any discomfort at all. And the rear seat was commodious, with a good size trunk. Weekend road trips with three kids and luggage on board? Not a problem on the rare occasion I was allowed to take the ‘Bird instead of the Taurus.
In 2003 I was itchy for an upgrade. I was prowling for what I thought would be the ultimate MN12, a 1996 Thunderbird with the 4.6 V-8. I found one outside Kansas City with only 18,000 miles from a private owner. I bought that car, tried to sell the ’93, but had no luck, though I was not overly aggressive since I did not want to let it go just yet. I drove the ’93 through that winter in the Twin Cities and then stored it away to wait for my oldest to learn how to drive.
I enjoyed the ’96, the buttery smooth power of the 4.6 was outstanding in comparison to the 3.8, but I could never get quite as comfortable in the seats. Too many contours. The dash and console, although presumably more modern, was just not quite as comfortable as the ‘93. And I thought the front end of the ’93 was far better looking than that of the ’96. Aggressive yet classy.
My oldest eventually learned how to drive on the ’93 Thunderbird, and when she had her license and the keys to the Thunderbird, she was in automotive nirvana. It had spent quite some time now in the Twin Cities and rust issues and other problems on the underside were starting to surface. I just couldn’t justify the potential of having to put money into it, so in late 2007 I traded it on a brand new Mazda6. My daughter then took the wheel of the ’96. She hated it from the first time she drove it. She is still mad at me for trading the ’93.
In the end, the 1996 turned out to be a steaming pile of crap. As others have mentioned, the cost cutters had taken over. I have never had more unusual parts fail on a car than on that one. In 2005 At 35,000 miles the intake manifold blew. Ford had an extended 7 year 100,000 mile warranty on that part, but I was outside the 7 years and they would not even provide a replacement part at no cost. I was thought Ford’s product lineup, in terms of competitiveness in the marketplace peaked in 1993. Every product in their line of cars was competitive in their class. After that, Ford abandoned cars. The Taurus and Thunderbird were left to die. The Escort was abandoned, etc. I have always said, I did not abandon Ford, they abandoned me. 2003 would be the last time I would ever buy a Ford product.
In addition to all manner of minor and major annoying breakdowns, the 1996 actually had lower ball joints break and shed the front wheel assembly on 4 occasions. Yes, my two oldest daughters did beat the crap out of that car, but it was just not up to the task. In the fall of 2012 I had finally had enough. The steaming pile of crap that was my 1996 Thunderbird was gone. In its place was a high mileage but thus far solidly reliable Mazda Tribute for the oldest to finish out her college years. The middle child is also at college and we also bought a solidly reliable Mazda Tribute for her to finish her last two years in college. My wife loves the 2006 Mazda Tribute we bought new. I have a Mazda RX-8 that I am now teaching daughter number 3.
I still miss the 1993. I hope to never have another car like the 1996.
The MN12. The culmination and the demise of at least one guy’s Ford years.
I agree with you that the front end of your ’93 and my ’90 looks better than the 2nd generation front. Quite often the original version of a car looks best.
I personally liked the 92-93 front end on the Super Coupe, but preferred the 94-95 front end on the LX. The 89-91 and 96-97 front ends look too generic for me.
I kind of agree with you on the Ford car line. With the exception of the Mustang, there just wasn’t anything appealing to me after the MN-12 was gone. I would drive my wife’s 2001 Mustang for a while. And I liked it. Was like a shrunken Thunderbird, but with less sound deadening and a harsher ride. I test drove the aero panthers trying to find an MN12 replacement also but they felt to me like the other extreme. Comfy ride and interior, but too big, and without the nimble suspension.
Even the retro Mustang from 2005 up doesn’t appeal to me as much. I own a 65 Mustang, and the retro stang just looks too bloated in comparison. I am interested to see what the next Mustang will be though.
” I have always said, I did not abandon Ford, they abandoned me. 2003 would be the last time I would ever buy a Ford product.”
But then you bought not 1 but 3 Ford Tributes?
I bought my 94 Super Coupe in 97, with 18,000 miles on it. It’s one of 722 94s with the Mazda truck 5 speed trans. It’s been a great car, and very reliable. But, it’s absolutely necessary to find an auto tech that is familiar with these cars, and willing to work on it. Unless you can work on it yourself.
Besides the supercharged and intercooled 3.8, these cars came with automatic ride control, with a “firm” switch, 16″ wheels & Z rated tires, 4 wheel disc brakes, adjustable sport seats, and a parking brake handle on the console; instead of a pedal. The manual trans car is not speed limited, and will easily peg the 140 mph speedometer.
Opening the exhaust, along with a few bolt on mods, really makes these cars come alive. They can be bought pretty cheaply too, so many have been run into the ground. The Super Coupe has a loyal following at sccoa.com.
Thanks all for your positive comments. Almost all of the pictures are from my photo albums. I have a few more CC’s from the albums, which I’ll share.
If I get a chance I am going to post a pic of my sister-in-law’s ’95 V-8!
I owned a twin of your car for 4 years: 95 Thunderbird LX in champagne with a 3.8. I bought it used in 2007 with 68K on the clock. It is probably one of the best highway cruisers I’ve ever owned. It was quiet and seemed to hug the road at 70-80 mph. I also owned (and still own) an 88 Thunderbird LX with a 5.0 at the same time. The MN-12 wasn’t bigger than the Fox length wise but was wider and had more interior room. The 95 felt like a much bigger car than the Fox did. Mine was fairly reliable, except for the front suspension. At 72K all the ball joints had to be replaced. I’ve never had a car that needed ball joints at that mileage. I did change the trans fluid and filter right after I bought it and discovered the original dipstick plug that kept dirt out of the trans in the pan when I dropped it. The fluid had not been changed in the 68K and 12 years it was in existence at that time. I put in new fluid and an auxiliary trans cooler and the trans was fine till I got rid of the car 4 years later. I liked the car and I probably would have liked it more with a V8. I traded it in on a new 2011 Focus in 2011. The Focus has been great but I still miss the comfort of that Thunderbird.
Less you think I’ve left the personal lux coupe behind I still have my 88 Thunderbird LX (which I’ve had for 11 years) and a 91 Lincoln Mark VII LSC. I’ve got a thing for big Fox-body coupes. While I know the MN-12 has better suspension, is more advanced, yada yada it doesn’t have the honesty of a Fox body, at least to me. The Foxes are just as quiet on the highway and have that same wonderful ride.
I bought my first and only thunder chicken on valentines day of 2012.
at first i hated it with a passion until i broke it in.
i bought it at an auction for 800$ nobody wanted to buy it since it started
out at 2,000$ i was the only person who bidded on the chevy killer
so i’m guessing it sat about a couple months before they sold it because
of the sluggish takeoff and all.
i had it 4 1/2 months then the piston rings collapsed so i took a
2001 police interceptor and dropped it in best decision i ever made
now im racing 2012-13 SS anything
all stock except shift kit inside transmission
nos, supercharger or anything of the sort
and i got a mean ass 4.6 v8 she scratch at 60 mph and its automatic
i can’t won’t and shall not get rid of it for anything i’ve been offered 3,500$ and won’t even think twice
I still drive a 95 V8 bird, it is a great car, very reliable even past 220K but because of bad frame rust near where the subframe attaches. it will have to go soon :(.
I maintained this car myself very well and the only engine work it needed was valve seals. Took a weekened to do. I did some front end work on it too (ball joints, etc) but it took alot of abuse from the roads here.
The trans is still original and very good. It needs shudder fixx with every fluid change to work flawlessly. I have the mod that converts the dummy oil gauge into a real one.
I am in the salt belt. I also noticed some rot where the shocks are too in the trunk. It also needed brake lines a few years ago. I wanted to get a new car over the years but unless I was getting into the 50K range(which I don’t want to spend) I felt the bird was better. The drivers position, wraparound dash, visibility, driving feel, etc aren’t easily duplicated. Not the most powerful think on the road but pretty respectable and awesome handling due to the setup. The rear isn’t that different from a new BMW in the showroom today.
I would definitely get another one (probably 96 or 97) though if I could find one in good shape. I have a 98 panther for now. Not bad but nothing like a T-bird.
Awesome write-up! Nearly 5 years after the fact, I still daily a ’95 V6 T-Bird here in SoCal. Granted, a few grand in back-maintenance was involved, but at the end of the day it’s all about your threshold of maintenance to these vehicles. Any vehicle’s sustenance is limited only by the maintenance of its prior owner. Cars CAN live forever!
Great piece of writing. I am 53 and in 2014, my Dad passed away and I wound up with the Cougar. That car leaked so bad that if there was no puddle, it was time to get more fluids. All fluids: ATF, Motor OIL, PS fluid, brake juice and gasoline, even the diff dripped and the shocks seeped. The self-preserving aspect of the leaks are probably the reason the car is intact today…the sheer quantity of petroleum overwhelmed the weather here in NH for 25 years. Just this week, I finally got all the leaks under control. It is now a Father-Son Project car my boy (18YO) and I work on together. For his Senior Project, he and I R+R’d the heater core in February and got the car roadworthy and legally inspected and registered. The Car was on extended display, and he got some great feedback on his accomplishment. The project has grown and we are planning Land Speed racing excursions in the East and drag racing for fun next summer I am not a Ford Guy, I have never owned one before and never cared to. For the first four years of owning this one, I felt the same. It ‘s ugly, it smokes, it smells, it blows in the snow, is underpowered and a gas hog as well as an environmental hazard.
Last February my boy and I suffered through removing everything in front of the driver passenger seats but the brake and accelerator pedal. Everything. We even split the heater box and extracted the evaporator, then RTV’d it back in one piece but super cleaned. It was well below freezing, and kerosene for the salamander added up, but still it was a brutal test of patience, persistence and integrity. It was a hard job to do, and every single maintenance or repair or modification is much harder than any other car I have worked on in the past…there is no room and it is not typical. we sweated and froze, swore and shivered, but we got it done together without huge incidents, and it works great,
Every modification and repair I have done to this car has been dramatically rewarded by the car operating better and better. We are nearly finished with our safety and technical tasks for track operations. Brakes, Rack and Pinion, inners, outers, uppers, lowers shocks, suspension, tires, wheels, battery, safety mods. Finishing the drivetrain this Spring, with a newly rebuilt 8.8 IRS LSD carrier, 3.73:1 final drive, one piece aluminum 3.5″ driveshaft, rebuilt 4R70W with trans brake and a rebuilt Marauder hi stall converter.
Just fixing the vacuum leaks changed the car so much it was shocking. This old girl, having already served 25 years has, with our attention, has come alive. And now we are at a point where I am not changing the speed limiter until we have at least a hoop and harness bar. My brand new 2011 Altima 3,5SR was 275HP, under 6 seconds to 60, a 13 second car, about 65 watts per pound. Our old 2 valve Cougar is 205hp, almost 8 seconds to 60 and a full 16 second 1/4 mile. Power to weight is about 41 watts per pound. And we really have not done any power or performance increase mods, only reduced hysteresis, increased efficiency and made the car safe and reliable. There is no way we could be putting down more than 200RWHP. Just not possible. Yesterday I ran up north into the mountains and back, 198 miles round trip. I like to drive, I have a commercial pilot license, endorsed for high performance multi engine operation. I enjoy feeling the machine working, and I am not in the least bit gentle with it. The 1-2 shift is usually 2/3 throttle, about 35mph, and hits hard enough to bark both rear 275 X 18 inch tires. Hold the throttle down and 2-3 happens at almost 6k, about 84 mph, and we hit the speed limiter around 4200rpm in 3rd gear, leaving another half of third and all of fourth unapproached. If this car is really only putting out 200HP, I am really attendant about what will happen at say 300HP, 400HP, 500HPb power levels. Our original blue sky goal was to make 75 watts per pound, a little snappier than the Altima. About 400HP to the crank, 300,000 watts, like 500CC per minute per injector, or about 4 Gallons of 89 octane gasoline per minute at Wide Open Throttle.
I have had a 70, 383 magnum Barracuda, a 70 Charger 500 I put a built 440 magnum in, a Chevelle with 283 and two speed, a Malibu 260cid v8, a couple strut FWD Impalas, many different pickups, boats and fast as hell bikes. I love to go fast and I love machines that go fast. I will say this in all truth as I know it.
Our project 1995 Cougar is already fast as hell. It is an extensively detuned race car in disguise and if you do not believe me, take the time to look beneath the sheetmetal. Full K Member Engine Cradle, fully subframed monocoque body, IRS, 4 wheel discs, very good steering components, very good hub designs, outstanding transmission and a untapped propulsion unit. Ford totally detuned (retarded spark, limited the FA ratio, installed tiny 19 pph injectors. The intake was a very restrictive design limiting airflow deliberately and the exhaust is worse, with the 3 lambda cats, 2 of which are attached directly to the manifold preventing flow, and only 2″ diameter. Ford put a lame 1900 rpm 12″ weak walled and flimsy converter, and crippled the xmission with lame shift points and low pressure at the line. They installed the worst and most wimpy driveshaft I ever laid eyes upon and gave the car one wheel peel with low speed traction assist to really slow it down. That was not nearly enough, these MN12s and FN10s are really quick. So, FoMoCo also limited the speed electronically at 107mph, about 4100rpm in 3rd. Still not happy, Ford specified the designed in 118mph T speed rated tires, and sold the cars with 6 inch wide 15 inch diameter 215 AS tires. Shy of tossing out an anchor, I dont believe they could have done more to slow the cars down.
I love this car, and after we finish toying with 2 valve, 3 valve and 32 valve 4.6 engines naturally aspirated and not I have other plans I have pondered over for years. My background is in electric power transmission and motion control and traction is a familiar application so I have some ideas to prove out as am an electric vehicle.
When the car does retire as a test and prove fixture, one of the gentlemen from Ford Racing had a stellar suggestion. Let the old girl retire with a crate EcoBoost turbocharged 215HP four cylinder. 50% more power than OEM, less than half the weight, and twice the fuel mileage. What a fantastic engine swap that will be.
These MN12s are truly great and timeless design machines and sadly their time has come and gone, all cars within normal financial reach are Macphereson Strut FWD front engine drive vanilla to me. All FWD cars push, understeer and will not go fast like a RWD, IRS, K member, V8 car. I can do things with that Mercury nobody can do in any FWD car, and make it look graceful and easy.