The cars we loved.
There was a time not long ago when the Big Three would tout cars as “European Inspired ” as if anything truly American was undesirable. That was probably the case in a lot of buyer’s minds as market share continued to erode from the late 70’s through the 80’s. Detroit’s collective inferiority complex usually manifested itself in the form of blackout trim, stripes and badges. All of this came with the promise of performance, the Big Three’s perception of the European way – whatever that meant. After a while it was no more distinctive a label as any other except for a few exceptions during the 80s.
One of the most notable examples of true European Inspired performance was seen in the redesigned Ford Thunderbird of 1983. Ford’s new sleek aerodynamic “ jellybean styling” was already taking Europe by storm. The Tempo started the trend in the States, but the 83 T-Bird made it sexy and marked Ford’s arrival with a personal performance coupe that could hold its own with nearly any thing in its class from across the pond.
The top performing Thunderbird, called the Turbo Coupe featured a 4 cylinder engine, much like the SVO Mustang with a rear wheel drive layout. It was a completely different and un-American like take on performance at that time. It even offered a manual transmission for the dwindling numbers who used it or a four speed automatic. The ninth generation Thunderbird would slowly evolve until a major reskinning in 1987 . The new look and improved performance better enabled the Thunderbird to fill its role as a European inspired performance coupe.
The Turbo Coupe’s 2.4 l was now bolstered with a new intercooler from the Mustang SVO, bringing power to 190hp, up from 155 in the 1986 model. In continuing the trend from the 83-86, cars equipped with a 5 speed manual transmission were more powerful. The automatic had 150 hp, the same as the V8 in the LX. The most noticeable change was a new aerodynamic front end with a pointed almost steam engine like wedge that made the Thunderbird look aggressive and futuristic. The low wide nose would be todays pedestrian crash standard official’s worst nightmare. The back continued with the two vertical lenses that revealed rounded tail lights, a nod to T-Birds of the 60’s. The changes inside were nearly as dramatic. Small improvements to the already well designed dash and its center console improved ergonomics. The control layout was similar to another Ford, the European imported Merkur XR3i. The Thunderbird line was revamped across the board and included V6 and 8 engines, but they were best suited for the luxury coupe mission Ford had set out for the less sporty cars. While a V8 powered LX with could provide some of the torque usually associated with a luxury car, true performance came with the four cylinder turbo.
Performance was what made the 87 and 88 Turbo Coupes stand out. Ford had been working on the all new 8th generation car even as the refinements were made for the 87, but because of such strong sales, Ford decided to extend production and use some of the concepts that would be employed in the next Thunderbird. The SC was loaded with technology, including ABS disc brakes, driver and passenger airbags and multi-point electronic fuel injection.
225/60 VR 16 tires along with a limited-slip differential aided roadholding, giving the Thunderbird a very sports car-like skidpad rating of .g. Compared with the lazy V8 in the LX model, the turbo was a rev happy performer, best experienced with the manual transmission. Car and Driver recorded a 7.5 second run to 60 mph and a top speed of 144 mph. The press in general was so impressed with the Thunderbird, that it won many awards including Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1987.
After a good run with buyers and the motoring press, the 88 T-Bird gave way to an all new car, styled more in the mode of BMW’s 6 Series coupe. It would carry on the SC label, but now with a supercharged V6. Although more powerful with smoother power delivery, the T-Bird had become more a big heavy luxury GT car as opposed to the scrappy performer of 1987 and 88. The term Euro inspired was still part of the new Thunderbird’s vernacular, but the success of the last car reminded us that Ford could equal or better the competition when it was truly inspired.