By on May 15, 2014

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An unsellable car comes in many forms.

The three-door minivan. The stickshift attached to a non-sporty wagon. The Daewoo. The conversion van with design graphics rooted in sexual fantasy.

Then there is this car. A car designed in the Reagan era with a cheap plastic grille, an even cheaper plasticized interior, and a luggage rack on the trunk that would do Lee Iacocca proud.

God I love this thing. What the hell is wrong with me?

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well that is true. But when you throw in a kindly old man with a love for old cars, it can get infectious.

This past weekend, I met this old fellow who wanted to get some witches brew to keep the transmission on his Cougar in shiftable shape.

“How many miles?”

“Oh, about 400,000 miles.”

“You’re kiddin’!”

“No, no, no… I take a lot of long trips. I like the seats and all I have to do is get it to 80 and let time take care of itself.”

Mark was about 80 years old and his life seemed to be the ultimate exercise in triumph in hardship. Five great kids, but not a lot of grandkids. A public pension, but not enough to handle the debts that came with esophageal cancer. A long marriage, and a recent death of a lifelong loved one. His Cougar had been the one enduring constant in his life for the last 17 years, and he wanted to keep it roadworthy for as long as possible.

“Hey, let me ask you?” He told me in a raspy voice that reminded me of the old boxing coach from Rocky, “Do any of these things work?”

A lot of you would assume that everything on the auto parts shelf related to improving a transmission is garbage, and over time, you’re right. There is no snake oil that can reverse the process of transmission wear.

But some of the solvents in these products (and many auto-trans and power steering additives) will soften and swell the seals to get the transmission’s internal seals to seal and hold proper pressure and shift properly.

At least for a while.

I told the guy, “Look, transmissions on these vehicles are as cheap to replace as a bad toupee. Here’s a site I use to find auto parts.”

I showed him the car-part.com site…. and it didn’t take. This guy was close to technology as we are to typewriters. So instead, I gave him three names and numbers to get a good used transmission. However, there was still a problem.

He didn’t have the money. Broke is broke, and at 80 years old, this guy simply didn’t have the means for those ends. I hate situations like this, but sometimes you just have to offer a temporary band-aid for a bleeding wound that will probably require further attention down the road.

“Let me buy this for you.” I pulled out some Trans-X. “If your mechanic tells you not to use it, then just return it.”

“No, no, no. I appreciate it. Really.” He gave me an aged smile and a pat just under my shoulder. “What you have already done is a mitzvah. Thank you…” and the rest of his words came out in a blur as I was too shocked to here a Yiddish word from an old man living in northwest Georgia.

I always like to kid about living somewhere between civilization and Deliverance. In truth, all my wife’s friends are smart. All my friends are experienced souls, and  my old life was one that I ran away from in much the same way as those with tough childhoods and troubled pasts move in the search for a better life.

Still I missed a lot. That line of thought is for another day, but sometimes the search for a perfect life can lead to imperfect consequences.

Later that evening, I saw that dealer queen at the auction.

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A  swan song 1997 Mercury Cougar that would likely be the biggest creme puff of an old man’s car that I would see in the forseeable future. Five pictures rarely tell you the whole story.

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After looking at the Carfax history (1 owner, no accidents, 12 service records) and the Autocheck (nothing weird with the title), I wrote the following on my Facebook page.

“Mr. Sajeev Mehta… I have just found the perfect car to compliment the Conti. 61,185 miles and yes, it is indeed an XR7.”

My timing was bad, and the car Sajeev bought was far, far worse. Thanks to a rare, almost incurable disorder known as, “The Lincoln Syndrome”, Sajeev had just decided to double his investment in one of the most heinous cars ever made in modern times. The 1994 Lincoln Continental. A car so bad that it needs two prestigious emblems to help you forget the fact that you got a gasket chewin’ 3.8 and a tranny slippin’ AXOD.

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Then again, at $900 to buy, and a $900 double-down to bring everything back to day “fun”  condition, it was too good of a buying experience for Sanjeev to pass up. Yes, his brother is a stakeholder as well in this hopeless pastime.

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“There’s only one MN-12 for me baby, and I already got it.”

So the next day, I look at the Cougar. It’s a showpiece. Whoever owned it beforehand had it detailed at least twice a year and rarely took it out of the garage.

Someone would buy it.

I went to the sale that morning, and there was just a ton of weird stuff. A 2014 Chevy Impala Limited, old style, with about 13k miles that ended up selling for $14,200 plus the seller fee. A 2010 Dodge Challenger SE in Blue with some substandard add-ons that went for $15,800. An 04 Viper SRT convertible with 22k that had arbitrated for a bad differential at the prior sale. That one went for $36,100.

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After the 8th Volkswagen and 13th minivan crossed the block, the Cougar was up for bid.

I made a fist and mouthed the word, “Fifteen” so that he would be in at $1500. I was betting that the other dealers would sit on their heels or try to lowball it at a thousand. Sometimes this tactic works. Other times, you’re in for a dogfight.

It didn’t work. Someone in the corner hit sixteen, a friend of mine went seventeen. I was hoping for the King’s Rule at this point where you look out for the other guy, and the other guy looks out for you. But with nearly a hundred dealers looking at one vehicle at a time, the market is too competitive and the King’s Rule doesn’t apply.

The auctioneer went back to me. A guy that I have known for 15 years and worked with back when I was on the auction staff at five different auctions. I was thinking about doing a big bump and flashing two fingers for a two thousand dollar bid. Then something happened.

In those few seconds, I was looking at a car that, to be frank, I truly didn’t want. I had already got rid of four unsellable cars the week before, and already had one brown minivan that I took on trade that wasn’t going to sell for a while. At $2k plus the $155 fee, I would be one major repair away from playing around with a car that had no profit in it. Ebay prices were already at play, and I would more than likely be stuck with what I call an “Almost” car. A car that everyone says they want on paper until they try to find the vehicle they truly love.

I didn’t bid. I walked. The surprise was that there were no more bidders, but even at $1855 ($1700 plus the seller fee), I was just out of love for a car that I never truly liked in the first place.

As I walked away, I realized something. Two guys had loved two Cougars. One had driven the car to it’s very limits of usefulness. While the other had kept it in a time warp and will hopefully pay it forward to another ‘keeper’ among the enthusiasts brethren.

The car world had a strange balance to it.

As for me, I now need to start shifting my own gears before I get stuck in my own version of a 17 year old Cougar. There is a squalidness that comes with shucking old and new metal. Somehow, I need to get away from buying one car at a time and applying myself towards developing a better mousetrap that will have a more enduring impact.

Author’s note: There are a lot of click friendly links to this article that will help you better understand a few of the terms. It’s all click friendly. Feel free to reach me at steve.lang@thetruthaboutcars.com .

 

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56 Comments on “Hammer Time : Saving An Old Cougar From Extinction...”


  • avatar
    -Nate

    Mr. Lang ;

    You have managed to land well , kudos .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    danio3834

    1994 Continental? Poison, pure poison. Every time I think they’re all gone, one pops up.

    I prefer not to think about the examples I saw for repairs over the years. My grandfather leased a 1991 example and after it spending as much time in the shop as on the road, he took a pull-ahead on a then new aero Grand Marquis.

    • 0 avatar
      Omnifan

      The Conti isn’t pure poison to an auto mechanic for hire, rather, it is pure profit and guarantee of future work. An acquaintance bought one with 150,000 miles. Supposedly garage kept but with two inches of bondo in the rear quarter. Zero engine compartment room to work on the 3.8, but LOTS of room to profit from repairs. Water pump, radiator, ignition tune up, front suspension leveler control, digital dash board, you name it and it broke. I felt like that car was an old friend due to the number of times it appeared in my driveway with a problem, so I named it ABE. As in Lincoln, as in five dollar bill.

      The owner tired of fixing it and sold it for $600 in tattoos to a tattoo artist.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Indeed. A service garage profit center all on their own in the 90′s these were.

        “The owner tired of fixing it and sold it for $600 in tattoos to a tattoo artist.”

        Classic.

  • avatar
    Truckducken

    There’s nothing wrong with you, Steve. It’s OK to love a proper RWD layout with decent handling for a highway cruiser. But as you keenly observed, Ford cheaped out all over the place on these, otherwise I would have bought one new in my younger days.

    Oh – and bring on the jokes about loving 17-year-old cougars, B&B. It’s all teed up for you!

  • avatar
    harshciygar

    This is one of the best pieces I have read on TTAC in awhile. You really brought it home there, and I have to agree, the automotive world does seem to have a strange way of balancing out.

    One might even call it…Carma.

    Seriously though, great story, and it’s amazing how an automobile can come to mean so much more to a person than simple transportation.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    A friend couldn’t give one of these away for free. Not as clean as this example, but OK shape. The owner was a Korean tourist who basically just abandoned the car in his driveway when he left. No title, but certainly one could be obtained eventually.

  • avatar
    mmdpg

    I thought the story was going to end with you buying the nice Cougar at the auction and finding the old guy and letting him drive it until he can’t drive any more then you take it back to sell. But that’s a lot to ask of someone with his own company who has to put food on his own table.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Waingrow

      My thoughts exactly. But it’s not the kind of thinking that’s conducive to making a living. Perhaps that’s why Steve mused about “the squalidness that comes with shucking old and new metal”.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Giving the new Cougar to the elderly gentlemen to use and then return is fraught with problems. These sort of arrangements tend not to end well, particularly if the children (heirs) aren’t in on the arrangement. Either give him the car free and clear, or don’t bother.

      It’s the same with lending money to relatives. As someone once told me, make sure you won’t need the cash, and then just give it to them. If you can’t do that, then keep the money and don’t bother with any repayment arrangements, which can cause hard feelings and awkward moments at family gatherings, particularly if certain family members “take sides.” Tell them a bank or a credit union is the best solution, and if they can’t get a loan through those sources, then that’s a very good reason for you not to make the loan, either.

  • avatar
    gtrslngr

    Both cars [ Lincoln and the Cougar ] I do not get . Perhaps because I’m old enough to know just how bad they were when new . Perhaps because the thought of an underpowered land barge has never had any personal appeal . Or perhaps because I’m old enough to of lived and driven [ family cars ] thru the Glory Years of both cars and can barely stand to look at what Lincoln/Mercury allowed them both to become .

    The story and the article though ? Two thumbs up !

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Wonderful story, wonderfully expressed. Bravo, sir.

  • avatar

    My mother had a Burgundy Cougar LS 1987 with V8. She was sideswiped and it was totaled (no injury).

    She got a 1993 Cougar V6 XR7. Always complained how much “less” the car felt in terms of acceleration and body heft in wind currents.

    I learned to drive in that car. Had one accident where I rear ended some foreigners in a Nissan Pathfinder – naturally they didn’t have insurance…

    I ended up totaling that car when a cab driver made an illegal uturn and hit me.

  • avatar

    Brown minivan??

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    Always look forward to your columns, Steve. You truly are a gifted writer.

    One Steven Lang piece > a dozen Jalopnik “ten worst” lists

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Steve, you should compile these and publish under the title “Zen and the art of automotive resale”. Like Rick Reilly, who recently came up with “Tiger, meet my Sister….”

  • avatar
    I've got a Jaaaaag

    You didn’t buy it, too bad I was looking forward to a follow up with the responses you received from Craigslist after listing a “Clean, Carefully Maintained Cougar”

  • avatar
    morbo

    My first car was this cars older brother, a ’96 Thunderbird. V8 and everything but the CD player. That car got me through some hard times in my early 20s (deaths, 12 hour work shifts, college, all at the same time). I still miss it. With my 300C and living in an urban area, I have no reason or ability to keep a second car, especially a second rear wheel drive V8. But I am sorely tempted to buy one while I can still find clean examples on the cheap.

    If you see a blue-green metallic one with leather, let me know how much to ship it to DC.

  • avatar
    VolvoLover

    In 2004 I was with a friend test driving a Prius at the Toyota store. The salesman was a Puerto Rican guy in his mid 60′s. I asked him what kind of car he drove expecting him to say Camry or RAV4. A broad grin came over his face and he said, “The best car ever made.” We drove to the back of the dealership and he showed us. An emerald green 1993 Cougar with a tan vinyl roof and the full tilt gold trim package. It looked cleaner than any of the new Toyota’s around it.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Steve, those pics you posted were not of an ’94 Conti, but an ’88 or ’89 if my memory serves. MY94 had a completely different grille and front stance, more “sporty” and “90s”, the original batch had a more traditional upright grille and front clip. I believe its also different on MY90-93 where the Continental Star is actually part of the center grille, as opposed to 88-89 where its a screw on plaque, and 94 where it is also a screw on piece.

    While we are on the subject of the Taurus Conti, are there engine swaps available for these? I have never seen or heard of it being done but I’m curious. These things are pretty much gone in my neck of the woods, but if someone found a clean one I can’t imagine it would not go for much. Replacing that awful 3.8/AXOD with a real drivetrain might make for an interesting toy.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      Funny you say that, because I’ve been wondering if the 32V 4.6 from the later Continental could be converted to RWD orientation and installed in my Thunderbird.

      It would probably be easier to find one of those than a Mk VIII engine donor…there are Mk VIIIs at a local junkyard, but I dunno if their engines are salvageable. Kinda impossible to tell when the engine’s in the car and you don’t see anything wrong on the outside.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        I’m not an expert mechanic so I couldn’t tell you, but I do seem to recall something having to be replaced or modified for the transverse model (might have been something simple like headers). Perhaps some of the resident FoMoCo guys can weigh in?

        • 0 avatar
          NoGoYo

          I know that the Conti 32V makes 20 less horsepower than the base Mk VIII version of the engine, 260 vs 280.

          I’m guessing that’s a combination of more restrictive exhaust and some computer tweaks, maaaaaaaaybe a different intake.

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            By the end of the run of the Conti, I believe power was up to 275hp. Yes, different intakes, the FWD version’s intake is essentially on backwards with the TB above the transmission bellhousing.

          • 0 avatar
            NoGoYo

            I’d probably be better off just getting PI heads and intake and bolting them on to my existing 16V 4.6, but if I did decide to go 32V someday, it might be easier to find a FWD Continental 32V and just get a RWD manifold for it than trying to find a Mk VIII 32V.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            I wouldn’t get into the engine or swap it. Not before a rear gear swap. 4.10 would wake it up like you wouldn’t believe.

            If that’s not enough, an STS catback turbo. The sound alone…

            youtube.com/watch?v=UV8dN3wfgY4

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Ah haaa! I was thinking something didn’t look right. The 94 Conti has the thin razor lamps to more match the Mark.

      Just saw the final 97ish-02 Conti featured quite a lot on episode 1×05 of The Sopranos, last night.

  • avatar
    vvk

    I trully enjoyed this piece. Thank you, Steve!

  • avatar
    jhefner

    Great article, Steve; thank you very much.

    The Blue Goose shares the parking lot with a ’96 T-Bird. He bought it with something like 16,000 miles on it; it now has 197,000 miles on it. He had to have the water pump repaired just yesterday; he hopes to be able to hand it down to his son one day.

    An even more surprising survivor is the 1980s Camaro someone else drives, and is in surprisingly good condition.

  • avatar
    geeber

    A very nice story…I’ve always liked the MN-12 cars, particularly the Thunderbird.

    Both the Cougar and Thunderbird of this generation are two the better – and more interesting – vehicles to come out of Detroit during a lackluster time for passenger cars.

    The Continental? It actually was a hot commodity when it debuted for 1988. Then word of its mechanical maladies spread, and Cadillac came out with the much-improved Seville for 1992. I’ve always liked the styling of these Continentals, but they had a terrible reputation by the early 1990s.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    Very nice car. I own a 97 tbird v8 with 48k on it, same interior…the car is nice except for the interior and paint, which is dreadfully cheap! The dash plastics are the worst I have ever seen in any car and the seats are so tiny, a 100 lb woman would barely fit. The paint is dreadfully thin and falling off all over. The car drives like a dream though, so a dash cover and some Honda civic/accord coupe seats are in my future. Ford knew they were killing off the car so the later 90s models were cheapee out compared to the early 90s models. If ford would have made a 4 door version, I believe the car would be living on today.

    • 0 avatar
      dtremit

      The original MN-12 program came in way, way over budget, so it doesn’t shock me that the refreshed interior was a bargain special.

      The best examples of these are really the ’89-’93 models — either the Super Coupe or the later V8s in LX trim.

  • avatar
    Stumpaster

    Those Cougars are heinous! When in college back before no-limit-mileage rentals were not common, me and my friend found a dealer that rented a white Cougar without limit, so we picked it up at 7 pm and returned at 10 am. After a 440 mile trip to Atlantic City. It was obviously better than a Cavalier but I was not impressed still.

    But I still remember a 100k mile Cougar of a friend of ours, and it was just depressing to be in there.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I don’t see any V8 badges so I guess that Cougar is a V6. Shame.

    I love my V8 ’95 Thunderbird. The modifications done to it make it handle like a dream. All I could ask for is a bit more HP and a better transmission, because I can’t say I’m a fan of the 4 speed auto…I feel like a 5 speed auto would probably get an MPG or two more and keep the engine in a better power band.

    I’m sure the old 4R70W is fine in a truck or E-series van, but it just doesn’t feel right for a sporty RWD V8 car.

    • 0 avatar
      Ostrich67

      Your Thunderbird has essentially the same drivetrain as a Mustang GT, and of course you can get a 5-speed with that engine. One way to get more power is to swap a set of ’99-up PI heads which will bump up the compression on ’98 and earlier engines. They will flow better and come with more aggressive cams. You’ll need the matching intake.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I own a 95 T-Bird lx with the 4.6. Basically a gentleman’s Mustang GT. The larger trunk comes in handy but I could never figure out why Ford only offer the fold down rear seat on the SC. The only mod I have done is a K & N panel replacement filter. With normal maintenance it runs fine and the stock 205 HP had just enough grunt. My only complaint is the creaky plastic interior parts. If you go to the TCCoA site they recommend glue and foam strips as backing. I have 120k on it now but if I plan to keep it the PI conversion seems worth it.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        Mine has around 109,600 and the only real interior issue so far is that the driver’s door panel is falling off. The real issues are the exterior, because it needs fresh front fenders and rust repair behind the rear wheels, and on top of that, a complete new paint job.

        Also, while the car runs fine, it seems to have the oil consumption issue that some 4.6s get…I actually accidentally ran the thing down to a bare dipstick because I had no idea it was consuming that much oil, thank goodness it didn’t seize.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          I have the same issue with oil consumption about a quart every 750-1000 miles. There are no leaks or burning out of the exhaust and the PVC valve and hose is fine. I think it’s endemic that the 4.6 have weak valve guides.

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    Nice read.
    The 97 Cougar killer was the 3.8. Ford had the aluminum DOHC Duratec 3.0 and that would have made the car a seller. I presume Cougar was destined to die and tarnishing Ford didn’t make a difference. The AXOD is a good transmission. The last of the AXOD series is in our 05 Merc Sable LS. Excellent performance but short one gear for cruising. Car has the Duratec and it is a nice power plant. Our first Merc, 87 Sable LS had the 3L Vulcan and AXOD. A Ford series that changed Detroit.

  • avatar
    gator marco

    My elderly father-in-law has a 97 Cougar with the V8. Blue/Blue.
    A very pretty car, and it can really haul. He picked it up in about 2000, and it has a little over 100K. Garage kept, never goes out in bad weather.
    Certainly this is his last car; for all I know, his will may require that we bury him in it.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Thanks Steve. Brilliant piece. This really speaks to why and what I love about cars.

  • avatar
    ellomdian

    I had an acquaintance in college 5-6 years ago who picked up a 98 Viper at auction (without a roof) and used it as his DD around town in Denver for many, many months. I can still see it parked in front of student housing, with a tarp or car cover over it in a feeble attempt to protect it from the elements until he could save enough $$$ to get the roof fixed.

    Pretty sure it sold when he got engaged, sans roof still.

    And now you tell me that a newer, lower-mileage one costs about the same because it has a “major” mechanical defect (a bad M44-4, so $1000 maybe?)

    Time to save the pennies. That would be a hellofa nice weekender car :)

    • 0 avatar
      theBadger

      I did a quick check on Autotrader and 2004 SRT Vipers are going for mid 40s-low 50s. If I was a dealer I’d look into replacing that diff, as long as it’s not more than a couple grand I’d drive it for a few months and then sell it for a decent profit.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    Love the writing, but loving the car too.

    Had a 95 Cougar XR-7 with the V8 in pearl white with grey interior. Also had that stupid luggage rack and those cross-lace wheels in the picture here, which Ford got a lot of use out of. Great highway car, not much else. I still miss it, it was my last two door “personal coupe” in the tradition of my 81 Regal and 84 Eldorado. I always wanted a Mark VII LSC or Mark VIII, this might have been as close as I get.

  • avatar
    JohnnyFirebird

    I haven’t really seen cars like this up here, where the salt destroys them. Large sedans haven’t really been a Quebec staple since the Carter era. I have dealt with one 2004 low-mileage Continental (loaded with then-nifty accessories like rear reverse sensors!) and the salesmen at the VW dealership I worked at bought a scrap-worthy Crown Vic for $200 bucks and now use it primarily for smokey burnouts. I do have a weird love for the front wheel drive Cougar though. Looks like a space ship!

  • avatar
    davew833

    I’ve been buying cars at auctions for over 20 years, mostly for my own use or for friends or relatives, and this piece really brought to mind the “tunnel vision” that sometimes sets in on me in the heat of the moment in an auction setting where a car that’s realistically just a marginal purchase becomes an “I’ve gotta have it” car.

    Fortunately for Steve, he regained his perspective and composure before raising his hand for that final $2k bid. All too often, I’ve only come to my senses after the hammer drops and I’m the high bidder. Reality sets in rather quickly and I think, “What the he** am I going to do with this car now?”

  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    Bought a 94 brand new, v8, leather, etc. Was still in my coupe phase and loved the idea of the interior layout and the new 4.6 v8 (I was coming off a 91 z34, “twin dual cam”) Unfortunately the car was full of squeaks rattles and groans, and it did leave my garage on a flatbed once or twice if I recall correctly. Closing in on 36k I was eager to sell, but no one wanted it. I finally sold it a what was probably a wholesale price to a used car dealer. But I stepped up to a 95 Impala SS, that was real nice.

  • avatar
    71charger_fan

    I used to carpool with a guy who had a Cougar just like that. It always amazed me how such a large car could have so little interior room.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I remember test driving a green 1995 T-bird with the 4.6 and also a same year Cutlass Supreme coupe with the twin cam 3.4. I went in with my mind made up that I wanted the T-bird but the salesman insisted I drive the Olds too. Well the T-bird felt heavy slow and ponderous and it’s seats were narrow and tight. The interior was also a let down with light tan that was already showing a worn leather steering wheel, misaligned dash pieces and wind noise on both doors. I then drove the Cutlass and was shocked at the difference. The Olds felt like a bank vault with a super clean interior with zero wear despite having the same mileage as the Ford, there was not a rattle anywhere, it handled and rode far better and just felt much more spry. That 3.4 also sung a sweet tune and revved like crazy. The trouble was the Olds was rather frumpy looking and I heard that earlier examples were having problems with the rear disk brakes. I ended up buying the Olds anyway and it turned out to be a very reliable car way past 100K even after it’s timing belt was changed.

  • avatar
    Nick

    Hi Steven…do you want my 1985 30th Anniversary Edition Thunderbird?


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