By on June 9, 2007

Buying my first new car was a lot like losing my virginity: it was unplanned, impulsive and quick. Even though it didn’t turn out exactly as I might have expected, I certainly don’t regret it; it was an inevitable rite of passage. There has to be a first time. At least the glow of satisfaction lasted longer (with the car).

Anyway, there I was, innocently tooling to work, driving past the Ford dealer in Santa Monica, when SHE winked at me: the first 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe in town. She was young and fresh, straight off the trailer. With her long sleek bod, she stood out from the crowded lot of boxy Fords like Keira Knightley at a Weight Watcher’s convention. I knew immediately: we were meant for each other.

The Thunderbird’s sheetmetal was the harbinger of a mega-tsunami of aero-design about to wash over the automotive industry. Compared to the angular, landau-roofed Detroit iron of the time, compared to equally sharp-edged Benzes and Bimmers, the T-Bird was literally a fresh of breath air.

“I want this car now,” I told the groggy salesman. “I’ll write you a check for it. I need to get to work– in this car.”

The salesman eyed me with suspicious satisfaction, nursing his morning Java. “Want some coffee? How about some rubber mats and protective sealer?”

“No. Just tell me how much it costs so I can get out of here.”

The Maharishi owed me. Since taking over his near-bankrupt LA TV station, I’d canceled the guru’s endless TM lectures and turned KSCI into a Tower of Babel− programming in no less than fifteen Asian and Middle-Eastern languages.I’d made the man some serious money (wired to off-shore accounts).

I called the station’s business manager and told him to bring the company check book.

Despite the salesman’s best efforts to add as many options as possible to my impulse purchase, I arrived at work late that morning, with a big grin on my face.

I soon discovered that the Turbo Coupe’s beauty wasn’t just skin deep. The interior was uncharacteristically clean and solid. The multi-adjustable leather seats had inflatable lumbar support, with squeeze-bulbs sourced from a blood-pressure cuff.

Raising most hoods back then was like confronting the convoluted entrails of a freshly-slit pork belly. You were lucky to catch a glimpse of the engine under miles of contorted hoses. The Thunderbird Coupe had bragging rights to the most advanced engine management electronics of its time (EEC-IV). The innovation made popping the Bird’s long beak a visual treat.

The little four-banger sat naked, adorned with some nice alloy. Its 145hp output may seem pathetic today, but what was the alternative? Even BMW was on an economy binge; the only 5-Series available had all of 128hp, and the 3-Series barely harnessed 100 horses (a pricey way to save fuel).

The T-Bird shared Ford’s Fox rear wheel-drive platform with the Mustang. The Bird was anorexic (3000lbs) yet solid. With the little four in the front, decent steering and Michelin TRX wheels/tires, she was light on her feet, a real dancer. Riding her gently yielded thirty mpg.

Just as well. The moment you cranked her above 4000rpm, the mill’s Pinto roots screamed back. (It’s hard to cover up bad family genes.)

The engine lacked palpable boost below 2500rpm; flooring her was an invitation to turbo-hole hell. The fun came in short, intense bursts. Four adults on board with the A/C on was an embarrassment, and had me thinking V8 engine swap.

Once at speed, all was forgiven. Four thousand rpm on the clock corresponded to an effortless 100 mph cruise. After my loathsome Buick Skylark company car, it was a revelation. On our first family trip to Mammoth in the ‘Bird, I set the cruise control at that happy speed. Shooting across the purple Mohave at sunset and up the Owens Valley under a starry sky was cargasmic.

I had to make regular business trips to San Bernardino. Instead of using I-10, I traversed the whole length of the San Gabriel Mountains via Angeles Crest highway, an all-time peak driving road. I crossed tire-marks with other kindred office escapees eager to work out pent-up competitive urges.

Our fling was short but sweet. Maharishi peddled bliss and tranquility, but working for him induced stress. So I jumped ship, in a long-shot move to buy a TV station. The ‘Bird stayed behind, to be abused by several TM space-cadets sent to replace me. They destroyed it within nine months.

I still buy new cars impulsively; SOME things never change. Fortunately for my bank balance, I keep my cars for eight to fifteen years, or even forever, like my old Ford truck. And I limit my impulsiveness to cars. As my wife of thirty years will tell you, that’s no bad thing.

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23 Comments on “Auto-Biography 20: Fun, Fun, Fun...”


  • avatar

    “I want this car now,” . “I’ll write you a check for it. I need to get to work– in this car.”

    Well thats a different technique

    but yeah that was an eye turner when it came out.

  • avatar
    shaker

    A friend had one metallic gray- lots of fun, he said, but you definitely had to flog it mercilessly to get the most out of it. Still, for its day, quite the “looker”.

  • avatar
    NickR

    Mr Niedermeyer, we are kindred souls. I have a 1985 30th Anniversary Edition T Bird with a 302. Anemic by today’s standards but potent for the day. 23mpg on the highway, but about 15mpg in town. I’ve contemplating selling it, but no one will give me what I think it’s worth. And, a remarkable coincidence, I saw an RV from the south cruising along this past week, with an 83 TurboCoupe on the trailer behind it. I also happen to know there is one just like mine tooling around in Luxemburg. Seems that the T Bird of that era captured more than few hearts. Ah, Ford, remember when you lead the pack?

  • avatar
    shaker

    Paul: You definitely have a “colorful” past, and your writing reflects that, to our benefit.
    “…convoluted entrails of a freshly-split pork belly” — the best description yet of the de-smogged engine bays of the day.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Another bit of my life well spent. Thanks Paul!

    On a side note, the T-Bird is actually one of the strongest efforts Ford had during this time. I still know a couple of wholesale buyers who have fond memories of this vehicle.

    The T-Bird and the Mark VII were probably the two best cars Ford made during the 80’s.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Paul, please consider this. After you finish your series, start again, but use a fictional first-person. And so forth. That way, this would never stop. And I’d always have my delightful Saturday-morning fix.

  • avatar

    Happy 30th, whenever it was.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Martin, I have lots of other stories about cars that weren’t mine. Let’s see what happens.

    David, Yes, it was right about this time. Thanks.

    Steven L., I agree; they were honest efforts. Some evidence of lack of polish/development money, but Ford was just crawling out of their near-death experience of 1981 (their stock price in ’81 was $1.00) Donald Peterson, Prez/CEO, was my favorite car boss in modern history. I plan to do a story on him.

  • avatar
    dean

    In 1983 my parents were shopping for a new car, and dragging my twin sister and I around with them. I remember seeing this ‘bird at a Ford dealer and thinking it was a pretty sweet car. I also remember the Mustang SVO and the Merkur Xr4ti, both of which looked really cool to a 12 year old used to riding around in a big honking Mercury Montcalm station wagon.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Mr Niedermeyer, we are kindred souls. I have a 1985 30th Anniversary Edition T Bird with a 302.

    NickR: My brother still has his, you’ve probably seen it on the internet. Its a 30,000 mile original with the full owners kit, including the Member’s Only Jacket (how cool is that?)

    The 30th was the only Tbird with a V8 and the Turbo Coupe suspension/wheels/tires. Not a bad ride at all.

    I was so enamored with that car my high school notebooks were littered with rear 3/4 renderings of the 83-86 Tbird. The front looks great except for the quad lights, but everything from the C-pillar back is magic.

    I could go on and on about the Lego-like interchangability of performance parts for the Foxbodies and their ability to stun people at dragstrips/road courses, but this car (its chassis, its tunable EEC electronics, aftermarket suspension bits) were the foundation that many people my age fell in love with. And that’s probably good enough.

    Glad to see Paul liked them too. :-)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Sajeev, I can see why why you’re still enamored with this versatile platform. I would have liked the TC with the Mustang GT’s FI 302. I just wasn’t a Mustang person (except maybe a clean 65-66 or 67-68 fastback).

    The SVO Mustang also had a certain draw (it came later); it seems to be the chassis high-water mark for the Fox. But the corseness of the four really wore on me.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Paul, you would like my 88 Cougar XR-7 (same suspension as your TC) after upgrading the stock 5.0 to the 225hp “high output” version seen in Mustang. All the performance of the Mustang but in a more upscale body with leather, EQ, moonroof, etc.

    A little known fact: the Mustang SVO was probably the high watermark, but its brakes and most of the suspension came from the 1982 Lincoln Continental. Both cars did their respective jobs well considering they shared the same chassis.

    Ford really knew how to polish a (Fox’s) turd back then.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Blast you Niedermeyer! Right when I wanted to get things done around the house, you delay me, inspire me, to write words!

    My Turdblow Coupe story is the same, yet different. In contrast to your experience, even in my youth, I was the methodical, informed, deliberate, consumer. I researched. I waited. I thought about it. I asked questions. I bought ‘barely’ used, because it was a better deal. I read all the magazine articles. Since I worked in auto accessories at the time, I even had random opportunities to closely inspect the interior, take it apart, and even steal a few short ‘test drives’ on other people’s cars. And as per usual, I waited for them to work the bugs out on the first model year.

    Well, after all that Boy Scout, genius-think, if I decided that this car was for me, would make my purchase—which immediately followed with breaking all traffic laws, and scaring small children.

    Living in Lansing, Michigan, at the time, one could take a two hour drive to Detroit and easily save 20% on used cars. This was because of the increased dealership competition, and the turnover of nearly-new used cars from the Big-3 ‘free company car perk.’ I located a 1984 black Turbo Coupe, with 20k miles, for $10,000, in Saint Clair Shores, and I enlisted a friend to give me a ride down there to get it.

    Despite all my methodical nonsense for a car purchase, I recall I did two things wrong that evening: (1) I didn’t up-and-leave the swine-salesman’s desk when he took umbrage for my asking less then advertised price on the car, and (2), I bought the car.

    Deal done and driving home in my ‘new car,’ it was in about 20 miles of scrappy Detroit scenery that I realized that I made a terrible mistake. This “upscale” Ford felt like crap compared to my econobox Subaru, now destined to sell at the end of my driveway. It was at this very moment—where all the sensory car-experience of my car-life came together—and I realized some cars just have a certain, subjective, “something” that makes them an enjoyable partner in life, and not an adversary.

    This Turd had numb steering, a wandering chassis, and OH GOD ALMIGHTY: HUGE DRIVELINE SLACK/SLOP in the manual transmission! I hated every shift. My job was not to drive the car, but to herd it, tapping it’s nose with a stick. It was like some inbred oxen, and I was eternally trying to avoid vectors toward the cement bridges, guard rails, and curbs. (I can hear the Ford fans shout now, like the Corvette fans do: “You must have been driving it wrong, maaann!!!”).

    In other words, the Turdblow drove like most Big-3 cars of the time (and how 50% of them still drive today). In the darkness, with huge nose of the Turd pointed west toward home, I wasn’t happy with myself. I mentally searched for a silver lining in this black cloud.

    Having been a FWD man for most of my life (Michigan winters), if it wasn’t for sudden-power-oversteer, I would have had nothing to peak my interest about this chesty, fat girl wearing a tube-top. In my early days of Turdblow Poop ownership, I found myself questioning my driving skill, when the Bird would luridly slide sideways much further then I intended in tight corners. I came to learn that delayed turbo-boost was the factor that I wasn’t compensating for. Upon getting this education, boy did I have fun with that tube-top. (A friend of mine actually bought a 1987 Turdblow from my demonstrations, to join in on this fun.)

    What else? Engine vibration over 4000 RPM? Yep, I remember that. It sucked. I also remember Ford found out that it was due to the engine accessory mountings not being stiff enough. (Of course, it would have cost ten cents per car to fix, so they let it go.)

    On one trip 60 miles from home, the POS tried to strand me beside the road because a 3” long clutch cable/link broke after 25k miles of use. (I ended up driving it without a clutch all the way home, running red lights and stop signs the whole way to avoid stopping.)

    The squeeze-bulb, lumbar-pumpers would not hold air too long, giving me a twice-weekly reminder not to buy Ford again. My fuel economy was lame, no matter how I drove it.

    I recall one trip at 80MPH to the beach at Lake Michigan which gave me a wopping 18MPG (ten less then a later Jetta GLI would get).

    The car also had a persistent misfire after heavy rains that I didn’t even try to get fixed because of the crappy Ford dealerships I encountered.

    More meaningful memories of the car include that it was the first car that made me feel ‘more adult’ then the other rat-racers I owned. My mom threw up in it after a few rare drinks at a wedding one time. I took my dad for what would be my last ride with him, after he entered the nursing home. And then later, I drove the car to my dad’s graveside-service with my bother and mom in the car.

    I would crash the car once too, into a person running a red light. “Was my problem solved?” I though, as I eagerly got out of the car hoping for huge damage. I asked the body-shop estimator to total it for me, if he could, because I wanted it out of my life, but, the insurance company decided to fix it for $6000 in repairs.

    The day I picked it up from the body shop, lots of people were staring a the TV in the customer waiting area: the first space shuttle blew up a few hours ago.

    I couldn’t take it anymore. After 10 months of ownership (aka: belated Ford vehicle development) I sold this freakin’ Ford Pig. It took a decade before I was willing to try another Big-3 vehicle after that.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    The T-Bird turbo coupe and the super coupe that followed it were good ideas in the sense that it brought the T-Bird back to what it was: a sports car. Never mind the platform didn’t support serious road racing, or the power plants were problematic, it was better than selling it as a luxury car.

    The 302 variant has been used as a sleeper platform before. Transplanting a 351 V-8 was relatively easy and the car became a serious drag machine with a nicer interior.

    The supercoupe featured an Eaton supercharger, a groundbreaking attempt by Ford. Interesting enough the T-bird v-6 was the same engine used in the Taurus/Sable with the intake manifold turned around backwards. Alas, they also suffered from the same head gasket problems as the Taurus did.

    The last generation of T-bird was a disappointment if only because of the price. You could get more performance for the same money elsewhere.

  • avatar
    Steve-O

    I always loved the Ford products of the 1980’s: The T-Bird Turbo Coupe, Lincoln Mk VII, Taurus SHO, and my personal favorite to which I am still a proud owner: my 1984 Mustang SVO. And you know, these designs still look great today.

    Paul: You are correct, these were honest efforts which could have used a bit more development money, and these cars are definitely a product of Don Peterson. In the 1980’s -the era of Iacocca- Peterson was grossly underrated as a CEO. If there was an internet back then, there would have been plenty of early 1981 Death Watch articles posted about Ford. But Peterson truly SAVED Ford with great product which set Ford apart from the rest of the industry, and put them back on the map.

    I hope Mulally can do the same…

  • avatar
    geeber

    Great article…thanks for the memories.

    I still remember the shock of seeing the 1983 Thunderbird on the cover of Car & Driver (no internet with spy photos in those days!). It was such a breath of fresh air, especially considering that the Olds Cutlass Supreme coupe still set the style for domestic cars.

    The Carlisle Ford dealer held a Thunderbird show in conjunction with the Carlisle All-Ford Nationals in early June. Interestingly, there were lots of 1987-88 Thunderbirds, but only one or two 1983-86 models. Both generations of those cars still look good today.

    Also interesting is how much mileage Ford got out of the Fox platform. I always thought that the original Fairmont was underrated, as it was overshadowed by the GM X-cars and Chrysler K-cars. The front-wheel-drive layout was all the rage at that time. In retrospect, most buyers would have been better off with a Fairmont.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    Oddly, while you contrast that with the Mercedes of the time, it looks – to my eye – a lot like a downmarket 126-body (ie, its S-class contemporary coupe, new out in 81), though I’m sure there’s plenty of non-Kraut design DNA in there.

    See here for an example.

    Of course, I prefer the S-class, if only because that funky rear-end on the Fords never did it for me.

    (On the other hand, without doing the research, I bet you could buy two T-birds for the price of a 300SEC…)

  • avatar
    pb35

    Ah, my first car was a 1987 Mustang GT. 225HP never felt so good. Too bad my monthly insurance payment was more than the 48 mo. note.

    I should have bought a house instead.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Sigivald:

    You’re right, the W126 was also a standard bearer for the coming aero look. I would have loved one, but it was out of my price range. I was thinking more of the chunky W123 mid-size models. But the W124, that’s another story…next week’s.

  • avatar
    pb35

    That should have read my first NEW car was a Mustang GT; my first car was a ’68 Belvedere (complete with slant-6). I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t work for it because I did.

  • avatar

    The concept of a new car is alien to me, but I do have a Turbo Coupe story.

    My good friend was in need of a car, and I worked at a Saab dealership parts department. This enabled me to keep an eye on the wholesale row where I could buy cars for $100 over cost. One day, a black, slightly wrecked TC showed up. I got it for my friend, and we spent a very cold, sub-zero, snowy day in a U-Pull-It getting pieces to put it back together. With the new parts in black primer, my friend drove this car mercilessly. We were amazed at how fast it was…I mean, really fast. Only after a few weeks did we discover the wastegate was disabled. Fixing that brought the car back to reality, assured it’s future lifespan and killed our enjoyment of it.

    Ultimately, it got passed on for a tidy profit, but such a good experience it was for my friend he bought a truly mint 2nd gen Turbo Coupe for regular use. Quite the car when it came out, in spite of it’s shortcomings. It showed a lot of originality, something none of the current Ford product line possesses.

  • avatar
    Joe O

    I bought a 1988 thunderbird turbo coupe in 2002 for $200 at an auction in delaware. It was my first car, a maroon red exterior AND interior 5-spd model. I barely even knew what a car was…my friend had to drive it home because I didn’t know how to drive stick then.

    I drove that thing like a bat out of hell for 2 years and poured some money into it, mostly of my own ignorance. But I’ll tell one small story.

    One night I was an hour’s drive away from my girlfriend (future wife) and she called concerned that a drunk guy was going to attempt sexual things with her. Well, me freaking out led to me driving the most insanely I have ever considered.

    I made that 1 hour drive in 30 minutes. Now, this isn’t one of those “I hit every light stories”. No, I drove that thunderbird at 120+ mph for 30 minutes straight. Now, the speedometer only went up to 85 and then had dashes leading up to 95. But when you are doing 5000 rpms in 5th gear in that car, you can add up the speed you are going.

    Anyway, I drove it insanely between 3500-5000 rpms for 30 minutes straight anywhere between 85-135 mph…mostly on the top end. It never once complained, never gave me any hassle.

    In fact, I’ve been known to remark to this day that the car rode the best it ever had. I felt like the air pressure of all that speed made the car squat down on it’s suspension and seal up.

    Things were literally falling apart on that car when I got done with it. But man oh man do I miss it. It was a great car.

    190 HP and 240 torque in a 2.3 liter turbocharged engine from 1988. A K&N cone filter popped onto the end of the air-flow tubing, and a $50 boost valve allowed 17 PSI of boost to come on at 3000 rpms instead of 5000….the HP from those two modifications was estimated at 210-215 and a significant boost of torque.

    Awesome car; wish I kept it. I sold it foolishly, as I have done with a few cars since. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s to keep cars with true character.

    Joe


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