COAL: 1996 Ford Thunderbird – The Young & The Restless

The hankering had been growing for a while.  I knew what I wanted, had test driven two or three examples, and it was just a matter of acting upon it.  Having 2.3 liters of ecstasy erasing any desire for another Mustang, this new chapter of life called for something more sophisticated and mature.

Further, it was going to have seriously more motivational force.  Looking around in 1996, choices were present but the ideal candidate was obvious.  Too bad dealers didn’t keep the exact specimen on their lot.

I sought a Thunderbird, but not just any garden variety example as found on dealer lots and seen here.  Many of those had the standard 3.8 liter V6 with various other trinkets.  Most of the few V8 Thunderbirds to be found had a moonroof; I didn’t want a moonroof.

What I sought was a Thunderbird with the $210 Sport Option.  For such a relative pittance, one got the suspension, rear disc brakes, and 16″ wheels from the now discontinued Super Coupe along with the mandatory 4.6 liter V8.  This seemed like a screaming deal.

At one point during my search, a dealer inquiry found the closest black Thunderbird with the Sport Option to be in Louisville, Kentucky – two states away.  After a little more shopping, I found a dealer who was willing to order what I wanted – what really helped was it being a small dealer having no Thunderbirds in stock.

Naturally, during my shopping Ford upped the price of the Sport Option to $450, but tossed a “no charge” deck lid spoiler into the mix.  While I didn’t want it, I soon realized it worked well to visually balance the car in the rear, as I felt the standard Thunderbird looked a touch droopy in standard form.

So here is what I finally got, thanks to the efforts of those at the now defunct Courtesy Ford in Charleston, Missouri.  For about the price of a pedestrian Taurus, I netted a new Thunderbird.  In retrospect, I should have skipped the leather seats.  I ordered it in black, and while it was often a bear to keep clean, I would choose black again.

A few reviews about this era of Thunderbird claim no young person would touch these.  To the contrary; I was 23 years old when mine arrived.  It was the right car at the right time.

A few family members critiqued my decision for purchasing the car.  There was critiquing for not only getting a Thunderbird but one with a V8 and how eight cylinder engines are nothing but fuel-swilling mills nobody needs.

Why do some feel the need to inject themselves into other people’s business all while being judgmental?  Some things I’ll never know.

My response was how my fuel mileage equalled or exceeded what I realized with that “economical” Mustang and how it was my money, not their’s.  Interestingly, the critiques ceased.

Shortly before purchasing the Thunderbird, I sensed few would be the times in my life I would be purchasing a new car.  That was a large reason for why I purchased what I did when I did.  My inkling about the future was correct.

Remember the brunette I mentioned in my Mustang COAL?  Well, a lot had happened since then as we were quite the item; Marie and I still are as she is upstairs while I type this.  So back in 1996 and 1997 I traveled many evenings to her house in the small town of Linn, about twenty miles east of Jefferson City, where she had moved to teach middle-school science.

In December 1997 I asked Marie a certain life-altering question.  We set a date for mid-1998.

In the interim period, she and I traveled a lot in the Thunderbird for various wedding showers and such.  One trip was the five hour trip to my parent’s house in Alto Pass, Illinois, on New Year’s Eve in 1997.  On New Year’s morning, Marie realized she had left some item back at her place and needed a replacement.  As we were headed to town (said town, Carbondale, Illinois, being fifteen miles away), we came upon a Volkswagen Jetta parked in a business entrance in a desolate area, positioned parallel to the road.  A person was hanging out the driver’s window.

Marie asked if the person appeared to be in trouble.  I stated his troubles were over – he had quite obviously been shot in the head.  The Illinois State Police and their marked Dodge Grand Caravan were present on our return trip.

In March 1998, I was offered a different position in Sikeston, thirty-five miles south of Cape Girardeau.  My position in Jefferson City had been unsatisfying, so I happily made the move.  The only downside was having to move the three cars I had at my place in Jefferson City – this Thunderbird, my 1975 Thunderbird, and a soon-to-be-covered something else.  I have no memory of how they were all moved.


Marie and I were young and we were restless.  Such is seemingly part of that era of one’s life.

After briefly moving in with my parents sometime in early April (giving the Thunderbird a commute of roughly 75 miles each way), I bought a house in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in early June.

Downtown near the river, facing west. From Wikipedia

Goodness knows I have mentioned Cape Girardeau often enough, so let’s take a moment to discuss my birthplace…

The city is named after Jean Baptiste de Girardot who established a trading post in the vicinity in 1733.  The Cape part refers to a rock formation on the north end of town which was destroyed when the railroad went through.  The settlement of Cape Girardeau dates back to 1793 and, in more recent times, is known as the home of attorneys and political commentators by the name of Limbaugh.  Referring to the town simply as “Cape” is a little colloquialism I cannot escape.

In more recent times, Cape was the setting of Elmore Leonard’s 1989 novel Killshot, with parts of the movie being filmed there.  In 2014, the bulk of the movie Gone Girl was also filmed in Cape.

Technically, I grew up just southeast of Cape on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, but I was born in Cape Girardeau and “going to town” for my first eighteen years meant going to Cape.

Back to our featured program…

Marie and I then married in mid-1998, with my having parked the Thunderbird by the front door of the church.  I’ve jokingly told her it had a full tank of fuel and the keys were in my pocket in case I changed my mind.  During the reception some well-meaning individuals decorated the exterior (I had locked the interior).  While we avoided the dreaded condoms on the tailpipes, someone taped streamers to the car that had been connected with a straight pin.  That left some nice scratches.

A little something about our wedding reception.  It was held at the Knights of Columbus hall in the little town of Old Monroe, Missouri.  At one point, Marie walked downstairs and found the best man and maid of honor “up to no good.”  She has never said what but I have my suspicions.  My suspicions were later reinforced by my now late maternal grandfather, Alfred.

As he told me:  “Jason, you were too busy to know, but the shitter was backed up at your wedding reception.  I had to go, so I went outside to find a tree.  Finding one, I walked into those two playing tonsil hockey.  All I did was say ‘Sorry, I see this tree is taken’ and I found another one.  Nobody was doing anything behind that tree.”

Grandpa was correct; I was too distracted to know the toilets were all clogged.  But Marie knew and has since said it was a prophetic moment for entirely too many things we have encountered in life.

Settling in with young, married life, I was using the Thunderbird to commute the 30-odd miles to Sikeston.

For a long while prior to Marie and I getting married, I had been experiencing severe acid reflux.  It was so bad that during the several weeks I was in our house prior to our getting married, I had been sleeping propped up to keep stomach contents were they needed to stay.  It seems I had had such since childhood but the stressors of incarceration college had exacerbated it considerably.

Within the first few nights of our being in the house together, Marie realized my condition and said how such cannot be normal.  After some prompting I got a doctor’s appointment in St. Louis to have my condition investigated.  We took the Thunderbird.

To best investigate such things one needs to have an upper endoscopy.  It’s utterly painless but it does require an empty stomach and anesthesia.  I have no clue what truly happened after my inaugural endoscopy as reality has mixed with hallucination.  Marie has confirmed we went into a restaurant afterwards with her parents, I had the hiccups, the whole place knew it, and I was embarrassingly loud.  She said I gave all appearances of being heavily drunk.  On the return trip Marie said I kept repeatedly asking “what did the doctor say?” about every five minutes.  She said she flew that Thunderbird back to Cape as she was tired of hearing my same question.

Incidentally, the results of that endoscopy weren’t rosy.  My esophagus had distinct deterioration from its chronic exposure to stomach acid, putting me in a pre-cancerous classification.  The doctor said my gut looked like that of a 60-odd year old who had been a heavy drinker – and I was only 25.  That’s not good.

While at the risk of being too much information, this little subject will rear its head again in this series, thus the mention.

Our first winter saw some unusually nasty weather.  Cape is a touch further south than Richmond, Virginia (or a touch north of Las Vegas, if you prefer), so snow is not a regular occurrence.  However, sleet and freezing rain are typical for any winter precipitation.  One cold and gloomy Friday, a day when it was my turn to drive in the carpool, a nasty ice storm started about an hour before leaving work.  The trip north on I-55 grew steadily more tense as the ice on the pavement was getting more pronounced by the second.

Midway we saw a Jeep Cherokee in the median.  Somebody was pushing it, with the rear tires spinning away, and it was going nowhere.  These people’s inability to recognize their Jeep had “4×4” emblazoned down the side, and their not using it, provided some needed comic relief.  The trip to the commuter lot was successful.  However, the lot was on the southwest part of town and our house was on the northeast part of town – the most challenging portion of the trip was to come.  Even better, Cape Girardeau has some really nifty hills.

I have only a vague memory of that trip across town.  All I remember is a long hill several blocks from our house.  Getting two-thirds of the way up, the Thunderbird’s rear-drive bias made itself known as I started to slip downhill.  Sliding toward a Chevrolet square body pickup parked at the curb prompted some instant creativity.  With the Thunderbird in drive, I nailed the throttle, with the spinning tires able to correct my trajectory.  I was close enough to that Chevrolet I could smell the paint, but I missed him.

Backing up an entire city block (I was the only person foolish enough to be out), I got a better running start and just made it up the hill.  What was normally a forty minute drive had taken over two hours; it was a very long and tense trip home.

We took the Thunderbird on a major road trip in 2000.  Marie, who has always enjoyed decorating cakes, learned of a cake decorator’s convention at the Renaissance Center in Detroit.  I was all in, so we made the trip, with hotel reservations in Dearborn.

Two really bad hotel experiences, along with the various memorable sights to be seen along Michigan Avenue at that time (refer to New Year’s Day above and substitute “Jetta” with “Caprice taxi”), compelled us to cross the Ambassador Bridge and stay in Windsor, Ontario.  So the Thunderbird was now an international traveler – if going to Canada counts as international.  Does it count?  I haven’t a clue.

In early 2001, life offered up another opportunity.  Marie and I were torn, discussing it for several evenings, but we also knew that from the standpoint of my career, it had to be investigated.  So I applied for a job in St. Joseph, Missouri.  The day after the interview I was offered the position.

We were still young and we were ridiculously restless.  But, looking back, it was a very shrewd move for us.  I may have also jinxed us; in 1999, Marie and I had made a weekend trip to Kansas City and swung through St. Joe.  I vividly remember saying “I can see us living here”.

Thus we moved to St. Joseph in March 2001.  Talk about culture and climate adjustment.

Yes, St. Joseph is still within the State of Missouri.  It is 404 miles from Cape Girardeau to St. Joseph.  For perspective, and for illustrative purposes, it is 440 miles from Cape Girardeau to Atlanta, Georgia.  Differences would be expected if moving from Cape to Atlanta, so similar should be expected anytime one moves that far, regardless of whether it’s in the same state or not.

Were the differences horrible?  No, but they were there.  When I first went to St. Joe in February, the Easter Lillies were blooming at our house in Cape.  At the same time, St. Joseph looked like the pictures one might see of wintertime Siberia in National Geographic magazine.  I joked we had moved from the tropics to the tundra.

Second, there was the induction into a new set of colloquialisms.  The most obvious was the town itself.  Few called it “St. Joseph”; it was either “St. Joe” or “Joe Town”.  You can see I fell prey to one of these.

Additionally there were the differences in other colloquialisms, primarily with food and beverage.  The process of grilling meat over an open flame was called a “steak fry” regardless of whether it was beef, pork, or chicken; I only knew steak fries as being the potatoes served in some restaurants.  The key product of Coca-Cola and Pepsi was called “pop” – which was somewhat surprising, as I had not heard “pop” being used anywhere in this part of the country.

As an aside, and from sheer curiosity, why it is called pop in some locales?  I’ve never quite understood this term as it is made from soda water and does not pop.  Is it due to the bubbles?  Then why isn’t it called “bubbly”?  Colloquialisms are endlessly intriguing – and frequently confusing for the uninitiated.

There were other differences, and while nothing extreme, you hopefully get the idea.

There were just enough small differences, primarily climate, that Marie joked she was surprised we were still using the same currency and driving on the same side of the road.

We spent a lot of time looking for a suitable house.  The only true shock in our move was real estate prices.  My analogy was we could take our house in Cape, move it to St. Joe, beat the hell out of it, and the value would increase 40% – with there being absolutely nothing in St. Joseph to justify the price differential.  The Thunderbird was driven many miles looking for the right place to buy.  Even our real estate agent (a truly awesome lady) was not happy with the housing inventory at that point in time.

A twin building in the same development

The house hunt was agonizingly slow, with our having to briefly rent an apartment.  I greatly respect those who live in apartments as Marie and I learned entirely too much our neighbors while doing so.  We were in a six unit building, having three levels of two apartments.  Directly above us was a young couple who reminded us at least once nightly their headboard was entirely too close to the wall.  He was also very vocal.

It seems one weekend Mr. Vocal was away and on Saturday night, his lady friend was practicing what I’ve heard called, in yet another colloquialism, “sharecropping”.  Through the night hours she had four visitors, each spaced two hours apart.  Each time, we were reminded the headboard was still too close to the wall.  Interestingly, her company was quite vocal also.  We were never so ready to move as we were then.  After that weekend, you could have easily called us The Aging & The Unrested.

In late April we finally found a place.  Rather, a palace.  It was the best house we’ve ever lived in, a house being sold by a lady in her 90s who was going to assisted living.  It was below market value and we were the first people to look at it.  It was on the market less than eight hours.  It was the seventy-fifth house our agent had showed us.

For both moves, the Thunderbird had been a champ.  With the upgraded suspension it would shake your kidneys loose on rough city streets but open highways and curvy roads are where that car absolutely sparkled. During my time in Jefferson City, I drove the Thunderbird on many of the same roads I had driven the Mustang.  The driving experience between the two was so vast it was almost incomparable – losing speed in the Mustang relegated you to agony in trying to regain lost momentum.  In the Thunderbird, it was a mere flick of the foot to regain, and compensate for, any lost velocity.  Body lean was non-existent and there was little need to slow down in sharp curves.

Most shockingly, when the Thunderbird downshifted, it would gain speed back, not lose it at a faster rate.  It always responded positively when the accelerator was pressed – which is what a car is supposed to do.  That 4.6, while not the most powerful V8 ever, was profoundly smooth and amazingly well matched to the Thunderbird.  I have owned four vehicles having a 4.6 and the best match of vehicle and powertrain was with the Thunderbird.

The only downside with the Thunderbird was something I never would have discovered had I not changed my own oil.  To remove the oil filter one really needed a joint between their elbow and wrist.  Not having been bestowed with one, removal of the oil filter usually meant the filter would drain on the way out and the contents would run off my elbow.  I eventually got an extra drip pan for this.  Otherwise the car was nearly flawless in the 75,000 miles I put on it.

From Zillow

We took possession of our new house in late May of 2001.  As life would have it, Marie immediately became pregnant.  Eileen was born in March of 2002 and the Thunderbird continued in yeoman duty for us.  In addition to the Thunderbird, Marie had her two-door 1996 Ford Escort.  Two-door cars and baby seats are not a harmonious relationship.

After much discussion and evaluation, we decided to part ways with the Thunderbird for a more baby-friendly vehicle.  After 75,000 miles, the Thunderbird went away; oddly a guy within eyeshot of our house bought it.  In retrospect, I so wish I would have kept this car.  It was an awesome car in which my time with it was simply too short.

In preparing this, I stumbled upon a twin to my Thunderbird and it was for sale.  However, its condition was not great, making me realize some things are best left in one’s memory.

What came after the Thunderbird was less than stellar.  But, due to my casual buying and selling of cars in the late 1990s, we have a few more diversions before we get to the steaming pile of what came next…

(Note:  The Young & The Restless is still broadcast daily on CBS.  It premiered March 26, 1973.)