The Thunderbird has always been something special. And while some are more interesting, cool looking or collectible than others, they always were a cut above basic transportation. Not the usual Falcon, Torino, Fairmont or mini-me LTD.
When the aerodynamically styled 1983 Thunderbird appeared in Autumn ’82, it was a revelation. With rare exception, most 1982 domestic rolling stock were rectangular, with additional chrome edging along the 90 degree angles the higher the trim level you purchased.
This was certainly true for the 1980-82 T-Bird, which could almost have been the box the ’83 came in.
A turbocharged four-cylinder was likely the biggest surprise to traditional Thunderbird buyers. A four-cylinder engine in a Thunderbird? It was a shock to T-Bird customers used to wafting along in cool, air-conditioned V8 comfort and silence in their ’60s and ’70s Nimitz-class Flair Birds and Glamour Birds. But the Turbo Coupe was the new top of the line ‘Bird.
It got priority in both showroom brochures and magazine ads. And it was very, very different from the lazy torque and landau-roofed Birds of the recent past. It was smooth and purposeful, with a .037 coefficient of drag, next to no chrome and blackwall tires.
Turbo Coupes had a 2.3L four cylinder. When at full boost, 145 hp was available. While that doesn’t sound like any great shakes today, with 300-hp rental midsizers commonly seen, but in the early 1980s, that rating was higher than many then-contemporary V8 domestics. But of course a turbo four was a whole different animal than a small block V8.
Demonstrating the Turbo Coupe’s sporting intent, a five-speed manual transmission was fitted as standard equipment. Though as you would expect, an automatic was available as an option.
I can’t remember specifically seeing a Turbo Coupe back then. I’m sure I did, but I don’t specifically remember a Turbo Coupe vs. an élan vs. a standard coupe. Though I do remember seeing a ratty FILA edition in all its go-go white-on-white ’80s hipness, about 25 years ago.
In late September of 2014, I decided to go up to my folks’ cabin in northern IL, and attend the National LCOC (Lincoln and Continental Owners’ Club) meet in Rockford IL. There I was, enjoying a $5 giant margarita and a most excellent lunch at the riverside Candlelight Inn, in the small city of Clinton. Upon paying the tab and crossing the bridge across the Mississippi back into Illinois, I spotted a bunch of old cars behind a fence near the river, including a 1975-79 Seville. Which prompted a U-turn and crossing back into Iowa to investigate.
I didn’t find them. There were a lot of dead ends, and at one point I had to turn around at a Pepsi distribution plant, zipping out of the way just as a fully laden truck left the loading bay. Screw this! I gave up trying to find the car cache and headed back to the main drag, when I saw a flash of red off to the right. Now what the heck is that?
What it was, was a genuine Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. I hastily parked across the street, leaped out of the wagon, and started poring over it. What a find! I started snapping away with my camera, and then noticed there were folks in the yard of the house. Oops. Busted!
I waved and said “Nice car! OK to take pictures?” The guy, whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten, said sure, and came over to talk about the car, which was his brother’s. He said it was somewhere between an ’83 and ’85, but wasn’t positive of the year. His brother had rescued the car and now it was a well-loved toy. This is one of the things I love about my car-writing hobby Seeing a cool old car, and actually getting to hear about the car from its owner. I left my name and email address for the owner, hoping to hear even more about the car.
And I did. I returned from the lake on Sunday, and later that week received an email from the Turbo Coupe’s owner, Jeffrey. So here is this particular car’s story:
“It is a 1984 turbo coupe that I picked up in 2010. The car was brought up here from Arizona by the previous owner shortly before I acquired it. The heat of the southwest took its toll on the car. The previous owner told me that he blew both front tires on the way up here from Arizona because of dry rot and damaged one of the front wheels so I had to find one of them. The heat also cooked the dashboard and panel so badly that I had to find a new one. After literally 150 phone calls I finally found a dash in Osage, Iowa up near Mason City.”
“I pulled the dash out of this donor car in 100° heat along side some sheep that were running loose in the yard to keep the grass down. The original owner tried to do a few things to the car but think he was a bit overwhelmed and lacked knowledge. He could not get the car to start and basically called a local body shop to just come and get it because he was sick of messing with it.”
“The body shop owner was going to pull the engine out for a small sports car he was building and then scrap the car but my father in law whom was friends with him knew I liked T-Birds and told me about it since I already had many T-Birds. I have 4 total. I got a good deal on a rust free car with potential. The Arizona heat cooked the insulation off of the wires of the main harness going thru the firewall and the previous owner connected the wires back up with wire nuts instead of butt connectors like he should have. Well one of the wire nuts fell off, disconnected a starter wire and it would not start. Which is how I ended up with it.”
“They started that body style in 1983. The engine is a 2.3L turbo charged inline 4 cylinder. It is fuel injected. They had used that turbo charged engine in pintos and mustangs for years but to my knowledge in 83 was first to be fuel injected. It has a fox chassis under it. It has a 5 speed manual transmission that works well but will have to put a throwout bearing in it eventually because I can hear it. It has the original paint. All of the air conditioning components have been pulled out of it. Will replace eventually. These cars have 2 fuel pumps and had to replace the low pressure pump in the tank. Put new brakes and tires around it. Would like to start upgrading engine next. Intercooler and boost valve for turbo. It has been in a few car shows and made a few long distance trips with it. Just a fun car. Thanks for your interest in it. I am proud of it. Got lots more planned for it too. Let me know if you have any other questions. I like talking about it.”
Reading that made my day. So many times a cool old car is purchased with the best of intentions, then things go wrong, the car is left to sit, and eventually scrapped. But in this car’s case, it all worked out.
Unlike the Fox Mustangs, the Fox T-Birds, specifically Turbo Coupes, just don’t seem to be widely collected-yet. I’ve never seen one at a show. It’s only in the past ten years I’ve started seeing 1977-79 T-Birds at car shows and cruise nights. Occasionally I’ll see a mammoth 1972-76 Thunderbird, but usually the years are between 1955-66, then skips ahead to the final, retro 2002-05 Birds. A shame.
Hopefully that will change in the near future. I am seeing more Mark VII LSCs at shows the last 4-6 years. These T-Birds, Marks and Cougars are great cars, and still look modern today. Ford really was on a roll during this time, with cars like the Aero Birds, Mark VII LSC, Taurus and Fox Mustang. Jeffrey definitely has a keeper.
One quick note: There was never a turbo Pinto. The 2.3L turbo ended up in a lot of Fox bodies, Fairmonts, Mustangs and the Thunderbird, but not the Pinto.
A buddy of mine had one of these when they were new. Like all of the 80’s turbos, they had a fair amount of lag, which made for some oddball driving antics. I can remember being on a farm road which was a bit hilly and twisty with several blind corners. We got stuck behind a farm truck and tried to pass. However, it was super difficult as the turbo took so long to spool up and build boost. Every time we got a break in oncoming traffic he couldn’t get enough revs to build enough boost to get past the truck. Had we been in my V8 Mercury Capri, it would have been a done deal 10 miles ago.
There was a turbo Cougar at the same time, too, but few people seem to remember it. I wanted one, but the prices were way more than a turbo (or V8) Capri, so no sale. The second gen of this car that came out in 1987 was nicer and more powerful. With the intercooler it built more power, but the turbo lag was still there. I think that was the reason why the next gen Thunderbird Super Coupe was given a supercharger, as you can keep the boost on.
Neat cars, good drivers and a bit more agile than the V6 or V8 motored versions. I’m glad this guy saved one, but I hope he doesn’t modify it too much. That would be kind of a shame.
Interestingly, at least to me, the Lima engine Pinto kept a 2 barrel carb till the end in 1980. When fox debuted, it’s NA Lima featured a more fuel sipping one barrel. Ford didn’t admit to any horsepower advantage for the Pinto, but there must have been one. Embarrassing that the Pinto had more power than the Mustang, which or course was also heavier.
Maybe it was just the cars my family owned, but I don’t ever recall seeing a 1bbl Lima motor. In my immediate family we had: 1979 Pinto ESS, 1978 Mercury Zephyr ES, 1980 Mercury Capri RS turbo, 1981 Ford Mustang Ghia and a 1978 Pinto all with the 2.3L 2bbl. Various other cousins, in-laws and friends all had some variant of the 2.3L, but I don’t recall ever seeing a 1 bbl carb on them.
Good Lord, now that I look at that list, I realize my family alone must have hoovered up some decent percentage of Lima’s output!
George, you weren’t just seeing things in your cars. On further research, the Carter 1 barrel didn’t come in till 83. My mistake above. Wasn’t the 79 ESS the wagon with the porthole window and the van style stripes?
John C.: The ESS was the European Sport Sedan or some silly sh!t like that; it came with the styled steel wheels, 4 speed manual, a special tape stripe appearance, the full glass hatchback and the neat-o gauge package in the middle of the dash like the older Bobcats had. I don’t recall right now, but I think the Pinto sedan was dropped long before 1979, so why the Sedan part of the name was involved is beyond me. I guess because the ESS package could be applied to other cars in the line that actually WERE sedans. I don’t believe the ESS package was applied to wagons; I’ve looked for years to see one in the flesh, but never have. Hell, I’ve only ever seen maybe four or five other ESS Pintos in 35+ years!
I know the package you’re thinking of, the Pinto Cruising Wagon. That was more of a tie-in with all of Ford’s promotion of their Cruising Vans back in the day. There was also a Pinto Rally which was kind of like the ESS package but with really bold graphics and similar equipment to mine. was like and there Cruising Wagon-style Rally Wagon with the porthole window, too.
George, the Pinto sedan lasted all the way to the end in 1980. I have an ’80 Pinto brochure. 🙂 http://oldcarbrochures.com/static/NA/Ford/1980_Ford/1980%20Ford%20Pinto%20Brochure/image11.html
Thanks for posting that Tom. Found myself mesmerized by all the different ways you could do the trim on the rear side window of the two door. Like all the different styles of Landau roofs on the 80-82 Tbird. You forget what a big deal those packages at Ford were then.
@Tom: I thought for sure they dropped them sometime after 1976. OTOH, I may just have jumbled memories from other cars that had a super low trim level that was dropped.
You’d have thought I would have remembered the Pinto Pony; not because of that particular model, but because later in the 80’s Ford would reboot the Pony name on a newer model… Escort Pony… It seemed so incongruous as “Pony” had nothing to do with the marketing of the Escort up until that time. Of after, for that matter. I guess they couldn’t call it the Escort El Cheapo…
From a brougham point of view, these birds are challenging. The smaller size, few V8s and switch to unit construction had left them much noisier inside. An owner of an older one, even the more basic 77-79 version, would have found the interior quite austere. All these downgrades did quite a number on tbird sales, way down from 77-79. The cars aero styling turns the head of Mustang people of the day, the fox Mustang looked old hat once the 82 Camaro was out, but it was a shame the car couldn’t continue on the more appropriate Panther platform in the 80s.
TIL that I’ve never seen a 1980-1982 Thunderbird. In the flesh, in print, in digital media…never never, ever ever.
These cars are nice! Poor man’s Mark VII. My friend’s working class dad bought one new in the early ‘80s, and was so proud of it. God rest his soul. It looked like a space-ship compared to the K-cars people were driving. When his son got his license in ‘92 we would take it on the highway and switch the digital dash to Km/Hr and try to convince non-car buffs we were doing 130 as it whistled and strained to 80 mph. Many believed us because 200+ hp was so rare in those days. Thanks for stoking the memories of Mr. Z.
John C is right, we bought a 14 month old ’84 base from Hertz and it was just basic transportation. Nothing special, rather noisy OK ride and handling, economy style interior and plastic wheel hubs!
Awesome Bill from Dawsonville built his reputation driving the NASCAR version – these Birds were a whole lot slicker than the formal look GM cars, and forced GM to create the bubbleback Monte and GP to keep up.
I remember those magazine articles from way back: “What Makes Bill Elliott So Damn Fast?”
The real irony of those statements was he never won a Winston Cup until he figured out how to take on the road courses and short tracks, which was after everyone else was killing it on the high speed ovals
If I recall correctly, the ’87 thru ’88 refreshed Thunderbird had the rear deck and fender profile raised by the Ford designers at the behest of NASCAR and its drivers to lend better aerodynamics on the large oval tracks. I always thought that this rather ruined the side view.
In 2000, a friend of mine who graduated college the same (previous) year as I had managed to impregnate another one of my friend’s ex-girlfriends. The soap opera unfolded into the stereotypical “shotgun” marriage, shortly after which my newly-married and soon-to-be-paternal friend’s Caprice Classic died. His father-in-law had a 1984 T-bird, 302-powered, in his garage with a scant 36,000 miles on it- a real creampuff. Through what I can only assume was a total loss of judgment, he gave it to his daughter & son-in-law so they’d have transportation.
A car seat was shoved into the tight confines of the back seat and my friend proceeded to hoon the everloving snot out of that car. The day I saw it with a galvanized ‘L’ bracket sheet-metal screwed to a newly-cracked side-view mirror, I knew the car’s fate was written.
I don’t know what finally did happen to that car, but the marriage dissolved a half-dozen years (and one more kid) later. I feel sorry for the 2 kids involved, but that car took a beating from my dumbass friend, too.
The Ford service rep used to join my family for dinner when he was in town. The year these hit the showroom his demo was a black Turbo Coupe. I was the beneficiary of a full throttle ride around the block. Seeing the 145 hp number in print makes me smile because that test ride seemed pretty wild to my car crazed eleven year old mind, blissfully unaware of grown up problems like turbo lag. This article also brings to mind one of the first television ad spots for the Fox body T-Birds. “This is . . . (car video on a twisty road) . . . the end . . . (car video on a twisty road) . . . of the . . . (car video on a twisty road) . . . square car.”