Auto-Biography 20: Fun, Fun, Fun

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 23 comments
  • Ddavidv Ddavidv on Jun 13, 2007

    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.

  • Joe O Joe O on Jun 14, 2007

    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 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

  • Analoggrotto Colorado baby!
  • Rob Woytuck Weight is also a factor for ferries which for instance in British Columbia, Canada are part of the highway system.
  • Ajla I guess some people were big fans of Milli Vanilli and Real Dolls (don't Google that at work) but I have a very large problem with the fake engine sounds and fake transmissions. If you turn them off does it stay off forever or does it turn back on whenever you go into sport mode?
  • Probert That X frame was a killer. No nostalgia for these things to be honest. Yup - life of the party....
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh starting to see the concern about how many pro Hyundai blurbs and bits are popping up on the site. It is a very detailed review and well written ...