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How the Ford Thunderbird Works

1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 Ford Thunderbirds

The 1983 Ford Thunderbird featured Ford's clean, no-frills "aero look" styling.

Help was on the way for the Ford Thunderbird for '83 in the form of a stunning new ninth-generation T-Bird that announced a new direction for Dearborn styling: the clean, no-frills "aero look." Though still built on the faithful Fox platform, the '83 employed a new 104-inch-wheelbase "S-shell" whose rounded "organic" shape cheated the wind with a rakish 60-degree windshield angle and a three-inch reduction in overall width, reducing the drag coefficient to a slick 0.35. The only vestige of recent Thunderbirds was a modest eggcrate grille curved snugly on the nose.

The startlingly different and handsome 1983 T-Bird arrived in base and upmarket Heritage models with a choice of Ford's aluminum-head 232-cid "Essex" V-6 or an equally new 140-bhp, 302-cid V-8 with single-point fuel injection. But the real surprise came at mid-model year with the Turbo Coupe, the sportiest Thunderbird in 20 years.


As the name implied, it carried a reengineered 142-bhp version of Mustang's 2.3-liter turbo-four from recent Mustangs, now with port fuel injection among numerous improvements. Initially, it linked exclusively to a five-speed overdrive manual gearbox. A standard handling package, optional for other '83s, brought high-rate springs and shocks; a second pair of rear shocks, horizontally mounted to resist axle patter (Ford termed this "Quadra-Trac"); "Traction-Lok" limited-slip differential; and beefy performance radials on handsome aluminum wheels. Completing this enthusiasts' Thunderbird were black exterior moldings, fog lamps, and a well-furnished interior with shapely multiadjustable front bucket seats featuring variable thigh and lumbar supports.

Roundly applauded by "buff books" and even Consumer Guide®, the Turbo Coupe was a bit crude mechanically, but the most-roadable T-Bird anyone could remember. It was quick, too: 0-60 mph took 9.6 seconds. Yet it could return an honest 23 mpg in city/suburban driving -- impressive for a 3000-pound luxury midsize. Workmanship was also better than anyone could recall (or dared to). All the '83s were tight and solid, thoroughly detailed, and beautifully finished.

Buyers were quick to recognize the excellence of what Ford had wrought, snapping up nearly 122,000 of the 1983 T-Birds -- a sensational 250 percent gain over depressed 1982-model sales. The Turbo Coupe made up only about 10 percent of Thunderbird sales but, as T-Birds always have, lured many people into showrooms who left in one of the tamer versions or another Ford model.

Indeed, the market was fast pulling out of its early decade slump, and T-Bird shared in the renewed prosperity with some 170,500 sales for 1984. Changes that year were modest but useful. The V-6 discarded its carburetor for throttle-body injection that gave a slight power increase, and both it and the 302 V-8 took on Ford's EEC-IV electronic control system, as already used on the Turbo Coupe engine.

The Turbo Coupe itself was unchanged save newly available three-speed automatic transmission. Heritage was renamed Elan, and a new Fila "designer" model was added with special colors and trim inspired by the Italian sportswear maker.

More refinements followed for '85: altered grille texture, full-width wraparound taillamps, counterbalanced hood (thus banishing a cheap, awkward prop-rod), restyled dash with new fully electronic instrumentation (one of the more-informative and legible such setups) and wider standard tires (meaty 225/60VR-15s on Turbo Coupe, 205/70-14s elsewhere). Model-year volume remained healthy at close to 152,000.

The '86 figure was even better, reflecting the fact that it was one of Detroit's strongest sales years of the decade. The Fila model was dropped, but sequential-port injection and friction-reducing internal changes lifted the 302 V-8 to 150 bhp. A power moonroof was newly optional.

Gas was again cheap, so the V-8 was ordered in the bulk of that year's nearly 164,000 Thunderbirds in spite of its so-so 20-mpg thirst. Judicious use of the options sheet made it possible to order the V-8 with most Turbo Coupe features. Many buyers did just that, enjoying more-relaxed performance and far greater refinement. Even in the late '80s, there was still no substitute for cubic inches.

Recognizing this trend, Ford issued a rearranged group of '87 Thunderbirds with all-new sheetmetal. The reskin didn't much change silhouette, but did make a slick car look even slicker. Glass areas were larger (though not the actual window openings) and both headlamps and side glass were fully flush-mounted to further reduce air drag.

The Turbo Coupe wore twin functional hood scoops behind a unique grilleless nose. Other models displayed a rather gaudy chrome eggcrate between the headlamps. Replacing Elan were two new offerings: luxury LX and the Sport.

The latter combined the V-8 with a Turbo Coupe-style chassis, interior and exterior, but was otherwise equipped like the base T-Bird. At just over $15,000, it cost some $1800 less than a Turbo Coupe, which made it a terrific performance buy -- second only perhaps to the Mustang GT.

For more on the amazing Ford Thunderbird, old and new, see:

  • Ford Thunderbird Prices and Reviews
  • Ford Thunderbird New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Ford Thunderbird Used Car Reviews and Prices