Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford Thunderbird Elan – A Fox in a Bird’s Feathers

Success can be a double edged sword.  Everyone, regardless of their endeavors, is seeking it.  But what do you do upon achieving it?  Is it so easily repeatable?

Using the entertainment industry as an example, “The Godfather, Part II” was just as successful as the original.  Conversely, the follow-up to the original “The Exorcist” was a disappointment.

The paradox of success applies to the auto industry in an even harsher fashion.  A single failure can cause a ripple effect for years.  Ford had learned such things with the Edsel.  So Ford should have been cognizant of the need (expectation?) to equal their greatest hit of the 7th Generation Thunderbird.

The 7th Generation Thunderbird of 1977 to 1979 had been a phenomenal success selling 285,000 units in 1979, with a 1978 peak of 352,000 units.

While it was proof that with enough hutzpah one can make what appears to be a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (it was based on the Torino, after all), having a repeat performance simply was not meant to be for the new 8th Generation 1980 model.

Sales for recession ridden 1980 were down to 157,000 and would free-fall to 42,000 by 1982.  Standard equipment under the hood was a 200 cubic inch straight six – an engine that had powered umpteen thousands of Falcons and the first time a Thunderbird had ever been motivated by a lowly six-banger.  While 255 and 302 cubic inch V8’s were available, the general public reaction was comparable to that of the Lincoln Mark VI, also introduced in 1980, outlined in a fanciful fashion here.

So how does one rebound from a less than stellar performance?  One way would be to get creative, instead of trying to mimic what had been successful.  For 1983 Ford got creative.

The 8th Generation Thunderbird had used the new for 1978 Fox platform upon which the Fairmont and new ’79 Mustang were based.  Ford, knowing that a good platform can be used in a multitude of ways, opted to retain use of this platform for the 9th Generation Thunderbird.  Most similarities between the 8th and 9th Generation ceased at this point.

With the introduction of the 1983 Ford Thunderbird, Ford loudly announced their direction toward more aerodynamic cars.  With the continuing implementation of various CAFE standards throughout the 1980’s, going aerodynamic was a bold and risky move on the part of Ford.

As the decade progressed, this aerodynamic theme would be seen on the new for 1984 Tempo and the original 1986 Taurus.

Using a wheelbase of 104″, the ’83 Thunderbird had a wheelbase 4.4″ shorter than the one of the outgoing ’82 T-Bird, yet had a body with proportions much more aesthetically pleasing.  While it did still have a V6 as standard propulsion, it was a 3.8 liter that had never been used to power either Falcons or Mavericks.  Perhaps Ford’s little splash of originality in drive trains lessened the bitter taste for the traditionalists they needed to captivate.  But for those of an overly traditional mindset, the 302 cubic inch V8 was still on the option sheet.

1983 also saw the introduction of the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe.  Motivated by a 2.3 liter 4-banger (wasn’t that a Pinto engine?) married to a turbocharger, initial sales volume was around 10% of total T-Bird production.  The percentage jumped to over 10% starting with the face lifted 1987 model.  Give credit to Ford by using the TC to gain a wider audience by appealing to the non-traditionalists.

In keeping with various themes of the good old days, such as Heritage, Copper, and Creme-and-Gold, Ford had the Elan and Fila option packages for the 1983 to 1986 years.  Their never offering the Lipstick Luxury Group on this generation of ‘Bird shall forever be a scandalously missed opportunity.

While the only real nod to previous generations of Thunderbirds was the egg crate grille, sales of the 9th Generation Thunderbird helped negate the sins of the 8th Generation.  For 1983, sales jumped 250% to 121,999.  Sales would remain well above the 1983 level throughout this generation.  Given that base prices really didn’t change between 1982 and 1983 helps emphasize Ford must have had a better idea this time.

The car featured here is a 1986 Elan, one of almost 164,000 ‘Birds hatched that year.  So what exactly is an Elan?  I’m still asking the same thing.  From various on-line and hardback sources, the only thing determined is the seats were made more plush for the ’86 Elan.  So, folks, there you have it:  Deduction shows it was meant to pamper your keister.  That’s all I can derive.

Since taking these pictures, I have seen this Thunderbird around town a time or two.  Both times it was driven by a male in his early 20’s.  I hope he realizes and appreciates what he has.  Something tells me he does.