1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe
1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

From the time it arrived on the scene as a 1955 model, the Ford Thunderbird was strongly associated with V8 engines. In fact, for the first 27 years of its life, until 1981, it had eight-cylinder engines exclusively. In 1982, fuel economy concerns brought a six to accompany the eight. Ford began covering all the bases for the next five years with sixes and eights, and for the first time ever in a T-Bird, a four, which is our subject.

A four-cylinder engine in the Thunderbird seemed like an aberration. The T-Bird had established its market niche as a good performing personal luxury car with lots of velour, vinyl-roofs and opera windows. Part of that image included the power and smoothness of a V8 engine. For T-Bird buyers, a four was obviously out of place under the hood.

But Ford was setting out to change the Thunderbird’s image, and with the 1983 model it replaced the baroque, squared-up look of earlier models with a completely restyled body. Its sleek, rather daring aero shape was almost European with its pert tapered nose, tightly drawn lines and steeply raked windshield. It was the harbinger of Ford’s aerodynamic future.

If the T-Bird was aspiring to look European, that was just the beginning. Ford had something even more Continental up its sleeve: a high revving, high tech, four-cylinder engine that it hoped would appeal to enthusiasts. It was an attempt to recapture some of the original 1955 – 1957 two-seater Thunderbird magic.

The four-cylinder Thunderbird Turbo Coupe arrived as a mid-year model in 1983 powered by a revised version of the 2.3-litre, single overhead cam, turbocharged engine that had been used in the Mustang, with which the new Bird also shared it platform. It was much improved with port fuel injection and the latest electronic engine management system controlling ignition timing and fuel flow. Long intake runners gave it better low speed torque, and turbo boost was increased from the Mustang’s six pounds per square inch to 10 psi. Horsepower was up from 130 to 145.

In an attempt to control the solid axle’s wheel-hop under hard acceleration, Ford engineers added two horizontal shock absorbers at the back, for a total of four. Modified MacPherson struts were used in front, and power went to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission and limited slip differential.

Performance was adequate, with the 2.3-litre four pushing the 1,424 kg (3,140 lb) coupe from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 9.1 seconds, and to a top speed of 198 km/h (123 mph), according to Car and Driver (7/83).

There were no major changes to the Turbo Coupe for 1984, 1985 and 1986, although there were improvements such as a better instrument panel and bigger tires. The Turbo Coupe captured about 10 percent of total T-Bird sales, or about 15,000 per year.

In order to pump some new excitement into the Turbo Coupe, for 1987 Ford gave it a restyling that featured a smooth, grille-less nose and flush fitting headlamps and windows. These contributed to improved aerodynamics. Underneath it got four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes, and shock absorbers that sensed spirited driving, and instantly and automatically switched their compliance from regular to firm.

Under the hood, the four got a hormone injection in the form of the turbo intercooler from the now dead Mustang SVO. There were also dual exhausts and other tuning tricks, resulting in a sizzling 190 horsepower when mated to the five-speed manual. Those opting for the four-speed automatic had to be satisfied with only 150 horsepower from a non-intercooled engine. The 190 horsepower improved the zero to 96 (60) time to 8.0 seconds with the manual, and the top speed to 221 km/h, or 137 mph (C and D 10/86).

The Thunderbird Turbo Coupe stayed around for one more year, when Ford decided to discontinue the four cylinder in favour of a supercharged V6, which was not only faster than the Turbo Coupe, but was almost as fuel efficient. The V8 also continued.

While the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe was a bold attempt by Ford to enter the exotic, high tech world, it was not a great sales success. Part of the reason was that buyers didn’t really relate to a four-cylinder engine in a Thunderbird. Also, the four was rough and noisy compared with the V8 and V6 and many imported fours. And since most T-Bird buyers weren’t too concerned about economy, the lower fuel consumption of the four wasn’t a big selling point.

The Thunderbird was discontinued in 1997 due to slow sales, but the nameplate had too much goodwill to languish for very long. Thus it returned for 2002, with a retro 1950s motif, and with – guess what? two seats, just the way it had started out almost 50 years earlier. And under the hood was a V8 engine. It stayed until 2005.

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