Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford Thunderbird — the True Utopian Turtletop?

  Fox Bird front

(first posted 6/11/2013)     Somehow, gazing on this mid-‘80s Thunderbird I spotted near San Antonio, the first thing that popped into my head was the name famously suggested by poet Marianne Moore when she was asked to help come up with a moniker for what eventually became the Edsel. Ok, maybe ‘Utopian’ is a bit strong, even if the 1983-88 Thunderbirds were major hits for Ford, but there’s certainly an, er, turtle-y aspect to it. This looks to be a base version; Apparently the high-mounted center brake light identifies it as an ’86.

1980 Thunderbird

Ford’s initial attempt at building a personal luxury car off the mid-sized Fox platform, sold from ’80 through ’82, missed the mark as far as the public was concerned, with sales pretty much going off a cliff. A drastic transformation from angular to aerodynamic styling for the ’83 model year, however, turned things around. Moreover, the rounded contours of this car are widely considered to have paved the way for the radical shape of the ’86 Taurus, which could fairly be said to have permanently transformed the public’s expectations for domestic styling.

38217770001_large cardomain

My own experience with one of these dates back to summer ’85, when I took advantage of a hefty promotional discount at Hertz and rolled out for a long weekend with a white (ugh) rental T-Bird, equipped with the base 3.8 liter Essex V6. At the time, I recall being less than impressed with the thing, but then it was probably unavoidable, based on what I was mentally comparing it to.


Firstly, my expectations were perhaps a bit distorted by fond memories of an earlier Fox-based vehicle. Around ’79 or so, my parents, not ordinarily known for driving factory hot rods, had somehow ended up with a brand-new Mercury Zephyr ES. Almost forgotten today, it was a bit of a sleeper; ours was equipped with a 302 V8 and a suspension package that made it one of the best-handling and best-balanced domestic cars I’d ever driven. I had a lot of wheel time in the Zephyr, and given that the T-Bird was heavier, with a weaker engine and traveling on the base suspension, it shouldn’t be surprising that it felt wallowy and slow by comparison.

Audi 4000 5_5

unknown, via Flickr

Then there was the fact that my daily driver at the time was an Audi 4000 5+5 (illustrated car is not the precise model but mine looked very much like it), another fairly sprightly performer, with fewer horsepower (100 vs 110) and one less cylinder than the V6 ‘Bird, but hauling around at least 600 fewer pounds. A more fair comparison might have involved a higher-spec T-Bird with the 302 V8, or better yet the boosted 2.3 liter four-pot of the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, but they were a bit thin on the ground at Hertz that day. Yeah, I know; different cars intended for different markets, and the T-bird was a thrashed rental, whaddaya expect?

1985 thunderbird_interior_10

Lastly, there was the interior, a festival of velour and plastics and a little too grandfatherly for my tastes. As I recall, my rental had the optional electronic gauges, but I could easily have done without. Bottom line: while a smooth and sedate ride, and coherently styled in a modern idiom, the Thunderbird came off as a little stolid and visually at least,  just didn’t evoke the magic of, say, the early ’60s ‘Bullet ‘Birds’.

Nearly thirty years later, I’m feeling considerably more charitable to this generation of T-Bird. The styling remains handsome and relatively clean of line, and the color of the featured car (looks like Medium Sand Beige), even though worn, is a bit more flattering than the dead white of the one I drove back in ‘85.

Fox Bird front 3_4

It seems bone stock, but look closer and there’s a bit of a mystery: check out the dog-dish wheel covers! Yes, cop ‘caps on a T-Bird. Review of period brochures indicates that full ‘luxury wheel covers’ were standard on this generation, so it’s not certain how these ended up on it. Obscure delete option? Liberated from someone’s junked Fairmont? I’ve no idea.

Fox Bird rear 3_4

In any event, although faded, this veteran is solid, rust-free and complete. Although I admit I didn’t appreciate it at the time, with a bit of age on it I think this car cuts a rakish figure, and I’m glad to see it still rolliing.