How the Ford Thunderbird Works

1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 Ford Thunderbirds

The 1989 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe was one of the sportiest Thunderbird.

The '87 Ford Thunderbirds had mechanical and equipment improvements aplenty. The Turbo Coupe acquired the intercooled four of the recently departed Mustang SVO, here rated at 190 bhp. Even more laudable were its newly standard four-wheel disc brakes with electronic antilock control (developed with the German Alfred Teves company), plus a new variable-rate shock-absorber system (called Automatic Ride Control) and standard 225/60VR16 unidirectional performance tires.

Air conditioning and tinted glass were standard across the board, and the overdrive automatic took over entirely for the less-efficient three-speeder. Yet for all this, volume dipped, sinking to near 128,000.

The same lineup -- V-6 base and LX, V-8 Sport and four-cylinder Turbo Coupe -- sold somewhat better for '88: over 147,000. The V-6 was heavily revised, gaining 20 horsepower via multi-point injection, plus a "balancer" shaft mounted in the vee between cylinder banks to help quell secondary vibrations. Turbo Coupe appointments were slightly upgraded, and the Sport changed from digital/graphic to analog gauges as standard.

A striking new 10th-generation T-Bird was Ford's big attraction for 1989. And new it was: smoother, slightly wider and lower, and nearly 3.5 inches shorter on a wheelbase stretched to 113 inches -- longer than that of even the overblown early-'70s cars. Overall appearance reminded some of BMW's classic 6-Series coupe, but it nevertheless managed to be distinctively Ford -- proving, perhaps, that the '83 T-Bird and the equally striking '86 Taurus sedan weren't flukes after all.

Surprisingly, both the V-8 and turbo-four were gone, replaced by a brace of reworked 232 V-6s. The familiar 140-bhp unit with sequential-port injection continued in the base Thunderbird and luxury LX, offered only with automatic. But all eyes were on the hot new Super Coupe with a supercharged and intercooled 210-bhp V-6, teamed with standard five-speed manual (automatic was optional).

The engine-driven supercharger was a '30s idea which enjoyed a revival at several European and Japanese automakers. With the Super Coupe, Ford joined them in offering its well-known advantages over the exhaust-driven turbo­charger -- mainly smoother, more-progressive power delivery at a slight sacrifice in noise and efficiency.

Chassis engineering was equally new. Though the front suspension retained MacPherson-style coil-over-shock units, geometry now involved an A-arm atop each strut and a transverse arm at the base connected by a long, sickle-shaped member integrated with the hub carrier. Rear suspension was fully independent -- a first for Thunderbird -- and quite compact with variable-rate coil springs sandwiched between an upper lateral link and a wide H-shaped lower member.

Vertical shocks rode ahead of the hub carriers. Steering remained power rack-and-pinion, but with new speed-sensitive variable assist as standard. Though base and LX carried front-disc/rear-drum power brakes, they offered the Super Coupe's all-disc ABS system as a first-time option. The Super Coupe itself came with a more-sophisticated version of the Turbo Coupe's electronic variable-damping system.

Inside the '89s was a logically ordered, very "Euro-looking" instrument panel with digital/graphic or analog instruments (the latter standard on Super Coupe). Maintaining tradition was a functional center console on all models.

But no car is perfect, and the '89 T-Birds ended up much too heavy in the opinion of many critics: a minimum of 3500 pounds. As a result, an unblown LX took a sluggish 10.4 seconds in Consumer Guide®'s 0-60 test. The magazine's five-speed Super Coupe was far livelier at just 7.8, but would have been faster still without so many extra pounds. The '89 also ended up way over budget, prompting Ford to fire some development engineers.

More disturbing for an all-new model, production dropped again. The '89 total was below 115,000, and the little-changed 1990 models were 1000 units under that. Higher prices undoubtedly played a part: some $15,000 for the base 1990 model, over $20,000 for the Super Coupe. The deep new national recession that began in 1990 didn't help. Still, those production numbers were respectable given a worsening economy and a far more crowded luxury-performance field.

T-Bird volume became even less respectable for '91, then sank to just under 78,000 for model-year '92 before turning up again along with the economy. Only one notable change occurred: the return of V-8 power as a 1991 option for base and LX models. It was the familiar pushrod 5.0-liter last offered for 1988, but it now made 200 bhp, 45 more than before.

On the other hand, that was 25 less than the same engine in a '91 Mustang or Lincoln Mark VII, the result of a more-restrictive exhaust system. Still, the V-8 was welcome, being slower, but less-thirsty, than the supercharged V-6, and it quickly accounted for the bulk of T-Bird sales. Two minor '91 improvements involved automatic climate control as a new linewide option and availability of the Super Coupe's analog gauges for base and LX.

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