R.A-S.H: Thunderbird Week #4: The Tenth Generation


It’s part four of my / our Ford Funderbird Fantastic, and you’ll be immensely pleased to hear that it’s also the final instalment. If you have any strong feelings towards or against these multi-part features, or about R.A-S.H in general, don’t be afraid to comment, so I know whether to pat myself on the back or, alternatively, to go to the pub, order many pints of Adnams Ghost Ship and sob myself into a tragic, alcohol-fogged spiral of depression.

Yesterday we visited the ninth generation Thunderbird and, generally, things were looking up. The wild styling excesses of the past had been dismissed and a stylish, aerodynamic form had been introduced, along with the powerplants to back things up. But time passes, and stuff gets old, and the T’Bird had been wearing the same old undergarments for ages.

It’s ’89, Public Enemy are in the charts. Say hello to Thunderbird Ten.


MN12 was the code and what it meant was an all new T-Bird from the ground up. Though components might have been shared with other FoMoCo machines, the platform was only used by the Thunderbird (and Cougar sister), and by the Lincoln MKVIII in stretched format.

“Only a few automobiles today are as universally recognised that they require but one word of introduction. The name of the car itself.”

In this they were talking about rekindling the aura of the ’50s Thunderbird, not necessarily those models we’ve discussed thus far in this series. But, still, the moniker “Thunderbird” was still A Good Name. And here, genuinely, was A Good Thunderbird.

“The styling is pure Thunderbird, dynamic and graceful. An eloquent statement of Fords design leadership in this age of aerodynamic cars.”

Again; “Pure Thunderbird” is a bit meaningless, when you consider some of the stylistic atrocities that that nameplate had been attached to in the past, but we’ll let that point slip.

No doubt, for you guys in NA where MN12s are two a penny, familiarity has bred contempt. To my eyes, though, the Tenth Generation Thunderbird is right up there with the best looking products to ever have emerged from the Ford stable. The glasshouse recalls (perhaps a touch too readily)  the E24 BMW Six series, incidentally one of the cars Ford benchmarked for product development purposes. They actually declare this in the text:

“…we evaluated more than 350 Thunderbird features against the likes of the Mercedes 190E and BMW 6-Series”.

I’d like an itemised list, please.


The above explained what made this Thunderbird so different. In earlier years the American public might buy domestic on the simple bases of patriotism and, to some extent, blinkeredness. By now, though, imported cars were being so comprehensively covered by the press and media that the industry simply could not ignore them. Benchmarking your product against the competition was simply the only way forward. Where the Thunderbird could play its trump card, though, was in its ability to be made to go quite quickly without becoming as expensive as German imports.

Step forward the SC.

“Since 1955 the familiar Thunderbird emblem has evoked images of the greatest rewards driving has to offer. Today, its finest expression is Thunderbird Super Coupe.”

3.8 litres of Essex V6 under the hood, but augmented by a twin-scroll Eaton supercharger to vomit 210 horses out to the five-speed manual transmission. This was the first supercharged ‘Bird since the first gen, I believe, but I might be wrong on this. Somebody back me up, please. Anywho, this made the SC a pretty damn fast machine, with MotorWeek timing it at 7.2 seconds from launch to 60.

When first released the MN12 Thunderbird was a V6 only machine, with or without superchargers. Fours were dead and buried, but after a while it was realised that there was still a hardcore of folk for whom there really ain’t no substitute for cubes, forced-induction be damned. Enter stage left the Windsor V8 in High Output (200hp) flavour. This particular brochure (from ’93) marks the stage where the V8 was placed bang smack in the middle of the range, flanked by the natural or blown V6s.


Next year the venerable old Windsor would be dropped in favour of Ford’s new Modular 4.6 V8, which made the eight-pot Thunderbird a faster beast, but still in the shadow of the SC, which received a power and torque boost to compensate. But then again, they spoiled the styling at the same time. I may be a ridiculous limey halfwit, but I prefer the ’93 to the ’94, and a Windsor sounds better than a Modular to my ears.

“When you experience Thunderbird’s quiet comfort and solid feel over the road, what you’re experiencing is a result of our “Best-In-Class” approach to design.

“While for us it isn’t the easiest and least costly approach, for you it certainly is the best”.

It seems as if the product development team weren’t reading from quite the same script as Ford’s upper management, who shat on them from a great height for “Badly missing the Thunderbird and Cougar’s weight and cost targets”, which eventually led to Anthony Kuchta (MN12 development leader) voluntarily resigning just after the car was launched. Way to go, Ford. The extra cost per car was caused partly by Kuchta’s insistence on rear drive, and in the class-unique IRS setup which helped the ‘birds handling no end. Some people, it seems, just won’t be told.


The Thunderbird story doesn’t quite end there though, as you know. An eleventh generation Thunderbird came and went between 2003 and 2005, and I’m not going to grace it with its own instalment in this series. Based on the same platform as the Lincoln LS and S-Type. It was probably a pleasant enough car, but with its styling that was a pastiche on the ’55 original together with a woeful identikit interior, it did nothing to further the Thunderbird name. That and I don’t have a proper brochure for it, anyway.


So that’s it. Thunderbird covered from ’78 through 2005, in four easy sessions. There have been highs, there have been lows. Maybe Ford will reignite the Thunderbirds fire again some day, and maybe they’ll do the job properly. But if they don’t? Well, At Least I Own (most of ) The Brochure(s).

<Disclaimer:- All photos were taken by the author, (a guy called Chris Haining) and are of genuine original manufacturer publicity material, resting on the bonnet of a 1998 Audi A4.  All copyright rights remain in the possession of the manufacturer. Ford: Bring back the Thunderbird. And make it good.>

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32 responses to “R.A-S.H: Thunderbird Week #4: The Tenth Generation”

  1. marcus Avatar

    I like these features, even as much as they highlight the deterioration of the various models and marques presented.

  2. M44Power Avatar

    350 features? Sure. Wheels? Yeah, we got those. Questionable rustproofing? Check. Questionable accounting, much like Ford Tempo's engine computer monitored 7 functions, five of which were determining if the engine was on fire (the other two monitored if those sensors were themselves on fire).

    1. P161911 Avatar

      The oil pressure "gauge" on the MN12 T-birds was really an idiot light in disguise. It was either in the middle or in the red.

      1. M44Power Avatar

        Jeeps (XJ/ZJ) went to that style after a while. Owners couldn't figure out what it meant.

      2. ReneM Avatar

        I guess Ford must've switched to the idiot gauge for the oil gauge in the 90's because the SN95 mustangs also have the same type of gauge.

      3. Plecostomus Avatar

        There -is- a way to make it functional by installing a resistor.

  3. P161911 Avatar

    These are my favorite T-Birds. I owned a 1992 T-Bird S/C with the 5-speed manual cira 1997-1998. It should be worth noting that although it had "only 210hp", it had 315 ft. lbs of torque at 2600 rpm! My college roommate had a MN12 Cougar XR-7 5.0L. After he drove my S/C he went out and got a S/C automatic. The MN12 was never designed for a V-8. the 5.0L got a squished intake and exhaust resulting in decreased HP and torque numbers vs. other FoMoCo cars. Something with the gearing of these made the S/C one of the faster cars on the road from about 45-90mph.
    Later my father got a MkVIII LSC, really fun with the DOHC 4.6L.

    1. ReneM Avatar

      It was primarily the exhaust system that caused a horsepower decrease.
      I actually have a magazine somewhere that did testing of various 5.0 intakes including the standard 5.0 intake and the Thunderbird intake and the horsepower difference between the two was negligible.

  4. Alcology Avatar

    The shape of these is growing on me. Apparently this type of supercharger can be grafted onto a subaru.

  5. Number_Six Avatar

    I think this was a genuinely great-looking car. However, it was a total disaster in terms of what Ford was trying to achieve. My uncle was an engineer on the project and he told me that the teams who worked on this were ashamed of the end result, so overweight and over-complex and off-target it was.

  6. SVT2888 Avatar

    I've owned a 93 SC with a few mods, a 96 LX V8 with a P.I. intake swap and now have a 97 with the P.I. engine out of an '03 Explorer, a couple of goodies on the engine, built tranny, built rear end and some suspension work. It's got close to 300k miles on the chassis looks like poop and a lot of the features don't work anymore but it still moves and sounds pretty good 😉

    1. njhoon Avatar

      Hey, I have a set of Cobra R rims for an MN12 with the correct offset and fitments. I think I even have the center caps. They are still in the box, never even had tires mounted. I was going to change the rims I had but the engine was giving out so the rims never made it on. Interested? Make me an offer.

      1. SVT2888 Avatar

        What size are they?
        Are they the graphite ones?

        1. njhoon Avatar

          I am 90% sure they are 17 inches (I'll check this weekend, they are at my mothers garage). Yes, they are the non polished type like the 'real' ones.

          1. chrystlubitshi Avatar

            should be 17"… I had a set on my '96 MN-12 (unpolished)

        2. njhoon Avatar

          I take a picture of them when I go over there.

  7. njhoon Avatar

    I had a 94 LX, owned it for 12 years but the 4.6 was pretty gutless. However, by the time I got rid of it, it was chipped with loads of suspension work done. When it was new it was a very nice ride and absolutely great on the highway. Before I got rid of it was a beast, handled like it was glued to the road and was quick off the line but very good from 40 mph up. One of the best cars I have ever owned over all.

  8. ptschett Avatar

    I wonder how much better/worse this car would have been if the project team had met their targets?
    Because my '96 LX V8 has been a good car through its life with me, from 5,800 through 190,000-ish miles. The one thing keeping me from calling it great is the transmission which had to be rebuilt twice. I never had any issues with the 4.6L's power delivery like njhoon had, but the '96 had 15 more lbf-ft of torque and IIRC the rear axle ratio was numerically higher than the '94-'95.
    Here's a random photo of my car wearing '95 Lincoln Mark VIII wheels.
    <img src="http://i847.photobucket.com/albums/ab40/ptschett/Thunderbird/100_0933.jpg&quot; width="500"/>

  9. Ol'Shel' Avatar

    What was the deal with the SC's IRC? Any good for handling? Adjustable? Heavy? LSD availability?
    I'd like to do a road race Fairmont or something similar and would be raiding the Fox-body parts bin.

    1. Tomsk Avatar

      The MN12 was its own separate platform. If you want an IRS setup for a Fox-body vehicle, look at the 1999-2004 Mustang Cobra (IIRC it bolts right in on some non-Mustang Foxes).

      1. LTDScott Avatar

        Correct. Sadly the MN12 stuff won't fit a Fox.

  10. chrystlubitshi Avatar

    I loved my '96 (4.6L). It had quite a bit of work done to it when I purchased it… but I did a little more. I had the thing running high 11s and low 12s for 1/4 mile drags… yet it'd still return me a hefty 28 mpg out on the interstate. I loved that black and tan colour combo too.

  11. salguod Avatar

    Interesting MN12 tidbit. In my first job at an auto supplier in Detroit, we were working with Ford on a new type of door mirror that involved prisms. (it was a pretty silly idea that went nowhere ultimately) We had a pair of doors form a T'bird, I think off an old company car, that we were using for a styling buck with the mirrors. The prism mirror lived both inside and outside the car, and we wanted to have better inside styling on the inside. The Mark VIII had that swoopy dash and therefore nice, thick door panels, so we got a pair of those for the Tbird doors. They popped right on, no drilling holes or special fab of any kind.
    ON another note, I've got a pair of 1960 T'bird brochures that I'll try to photograph (on the hood of one of my cars, natch') this weekend and either send you or write up on my own blog.

  12. sporty88au Avatar

    Interesting that they benchmarked against the Mercedes 190E, which was then the bargain-basement Benz, and the BMW 6-series, whose design was then 13 years old and being phased out in the same year the MN12 was released. I wonder if there is anyone out there who has driven all three and can comment on this.

  13. GUEST Avatar


    1. krazykarguy Avatar

      ^^^ FRED from Barn Finds?

  14. clunkerlove Avatar

    This is one of those American cars that I have secretly loved since they first appeared despite my Japanophile tendencies. I remember the brouhaha at Ford about weight and cost – and my impression was if it looked that right, plus IRS then the excess can be forgiven. Even today the SC version is likely to turn up in my driveway if I find one cherry enough. The other domestic I still marvel at for looking like a clean sheet design is the '98 – '02 Ford Cougar. They've aged amazingly well but have somehow been utterly ignored.
    <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/84/Ford_Cougar.jpg/320px-Ford_Cougar.jpg"&gt;

  15. Mr. Smee Avatar
    Mr. Smee

    These were everywhere at one time, and I liked seeing them. I wanted to buy a used one, but they seemed to deteriorate remarkably quickly. Each one I test drove had serious chassis issues, or was rusted out. The interiors seemed to hold up well though. Maybe Ford's next halo car could be a super-thunderbird, akin to the GT.

  16. Plecostomus Avatar

    I miss my 1990 Supercoupe. Mine was built wrong, so I had both 13psi of boost and standard compression ratio, thanks to an incompetent rebuilder (this would lead to the engine's demise, an unseen evil), it had the NA crank, pistons- the whole NA bottom end instead of the beefed up ones meant for the Supercharged engine.
    It was overcomplex, but god, with a 5-speed, that car was fun to drive. It also embarrassed a particularly cocky C4 Vette owner in a drag-race, after which my white t-bird disappeared into the distance whilst the Sheriff zeroed right in on his red Vette, lol…
    The car was swift and with the 5-speed got great mileage despite the weight. I ended up having SEVEN MN12 Thunderbirds with every engine except the 5.0L go through my possession at some point. We're down to the last one, which my brother is still driving. It was a cream puff when we bought the thing eight years ago with 35k on the odo, but the odo broke at 56k and despite my best efforts the headliner is falling down in the back and the door panel carpet is peeling. It's suffered catastrophic front ball joint failure yet it just keeps on chugging along, despite my brother's neglect and complete disregard for maintenance.

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