What late-model (less than 15 years old), V8-powered four-seater with an independent rear suspension can you often buy for less than $3,000? If you answered the 1991 to 1997 Ford Thunderbird, pat yourself on the back. You guessed right. And if you knew this, you probably bleed Ford Blue Oval Blue.
Thunderbird is an historic and important brand within the Ford Motor Company that seems to be filed away for the moment while the company re-invents itself in the face of growing economic uncertainty. Currently benefiting from the missteps of rivals Toyota, General Motors, and Chrysler, Ford is poised to become the largest selling car company in North America with new or refreshed models that seem to strike a chord with potential buyers. Unfortunately, a Thunderbird model is not among the mix–which I find rather sad, because it could have been a key player in a market where the car-buying public craves a domestically built full-sized two-door coupe or convertible… and an affordable alternative to such cars as the Audi A5, the BMW 6 Series, the Lexus SC, and the Infiniti G. The closest the Thunderbird ever came to rivaling the European competition was the tenth-generation coupe, built between 1989 and 1997. This was the longest run of a single generation of Thunderbirds ever, with many of its predecessors running as little as three model years. The size and shape mimicked the outgoing BMW E24 6 Series coupes, right down to the “Hoffmeister Kink” at the base of the rear window. This was a deliberate attempt to start moving the Thunderbird to a more up-market position (using the same tactic Acura did when they introduced the Legend Coupe almost two years before the new T-Bird was unveiled). Ford also broke with the past by offering a fully independent rear suspension, a feature found only in expensive sports cars or high-end luxury models. Only the T-Bird (as well as the companion Mercury Cougar) and Chevrolet’s Corvette offered a fully independent suspension available on a domestically produced rear-wheel-drive platform. Initially, the engine choices were modest, with only the 3.8-liter Essex V6 available for the first three years, along with a 3.8-liter supercharged version available only in the Super Coupe model (more on that later). The base V6 was rather lacking in power output, with only 140 horsepower available. Acceleration times were leisurely, and it was only available with Ford’s AOD four-speed automatic. If you didn’t want the Super Coupe variant but did want a little more power, you were out of luck until the 1991 model year, when Ford shoehorned the Windsor 5.0 V8. This engine produced 200 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque, which was a gain of 35 horsepower over the last Thunderbird equipped with a V8 (1988). The television program Motorweek tested the new V8 T-Bird and saw 0-60 runs of 9.2 seconds–almost two seconds faster than the V6, but still not as fast as the Super Coupe version. Once again, the only transmission available was the Ford AOD Automatic. A facelift marked the 1994 model year, with crisper fascias and a redesigned interior that replaced the motorized seatbelts with a modern dual-airbag setup. The V8 was also replaced with the more modern “Modular” SOHC (single overhead cam) V8 displacing 4.6 liters. The engine produced five more horsepower than the Windsor 5.0 liter but actually lacked the torque one would expect from a Detroit V8. It was smoother and, when coupled with the new 4R70W electronically controlled automatic, faster than the previous edition. The engine was more than 40 pounds lighter, fully dressed, and had a more direct throttle responsiveness, due to Fords EEC-V powertrain control module. With a best-in-class interior and updated styling, this should have been a record-setting year for the Thunderbird. It was not, as sales started to slide from their high point only a year earlier. The last refresh for this generation of Thunderbird came in 1996. The Super Coupe had been discontinued the year before, and only the base and an “LX” version were offered. Ford was ready to pull the plug on both the T-Bird and its corporate sibling, the Mercury Cougar. The V8 actually made five more horsepower as well as a major increase in torque, to 290 lb-ft. Styling was enhanced with a new grille–the first in this generation of T-Birds–and smooth body side cladding. Sales continued to tumble though, and Ford tried to keep costs to a minimum by using leftover wheels paired with special-option packages, minimizing ornamentation, and changing instrumentation to mimic the panel used in Taurus and Sable models. The final MN-12 Thunderbird was built in Lorain, Ohio on 4 September 1997. This plant was being converted to produce the new Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest minivans. Why would anyone be interested in acquiring the last of the four- to five-passenger V8-equipped T-Birds, a model that is all but forgotten in today’s market? Two reasons. They are often quite inexpensive to purchase on places like eBay or Craigslist, and they are equally inexpensive to maintain. Where else can you purchase a large coupe with average prices ranging from $1,500 for a 1990 V6 to $3,340 for a last-year 1997 V8 equipped LX coupe? These are suggested retail numbers from Kelly Blue Book, so dollar figures are a little on the high side and are based on condition and mileage (I used 50,000 miles for both). So, what do you get for the money? You get one of the last large two-door coupes offered by Ford, with a style reminiscent of the BMW 6 Series (not a bad comparison!). You get reliable Ford engines, whether the 5.0-liter Windsor or the 4.6-liter Modular–motors that are stout and easy to maintain. You also get a blank slate if you want to modify your purchase into a “stealth” performance car. Almost everything available for the Mustang will fit into these cars, from engine modifications to larger brakes. You can also swap the Super Coupe suspension components to the V8 LX and have the best of both worlds. Upgrade the suspension and brakes, add performance enhancements to the engine, swap out the standard seats for Mustang Recaros (a direct bolt-in), and, for less than 10 grand, you have a killer muscle car that’s not a Mustang or a Camaro! And that’s my Parting Shot. Read more of my Retrospective and Recently Deceased columns at Automotive Traveler.