By on June 6, 2010

So where were we? Oh yes. After wandering the earth (and working in a call center) for the first few months of 1995, I ended up at a very small Ford dealership located in the heart of Columbus, Ohio. On my first day, I was paired with another fellow who was also starting out at the dealership. I’ll call him… Rodney. He was an outgoing, cheerful thirty-one-year-old man who looked remarkably like the Colt 45-commercial-era Billy Dee Williams. Rodney was very interested in the dealership’s demo program, because he didn’t own a car. Every day he walked from his apartment a mile or so away, and every night he walked back home. The general manager took pity on him and broke the thirty-days-of-service-before-a-demo rule to put him in a Ranger Club Cab.

I started slowly at the dealership but by the time the 1996 model year rolled around I was regularly one of the top two or three guys on the board every month. More importantly, I was the most effective advocate in the shop for the Red Carpet Lease 24-month program. One month I moved 16 units and leased 14 of ’em. At least three of those were people I’d had to dissuade from writing me a check for the whole car on the spot. That’s right, I converted cash buyers to lessors. Why? There was a fifty-dollar spiff.

I was eventually rewarded for my performance by being permitted to order my own demo, just like the 55-year-old Brylcreemers who had been serving at the store since before ‘Nam. I knew exactly what I wanted. Start with a 1996 Thunderbird LX, black with beige interior. Add just three options: Compact disc player. Power Moonroof. And, most importantly, a 4.6 “mod motor”. The order was accepted at the factory. I was four weeks away from my ‘Bird. But Rodney had some other plans involving Ford’s aging coupe…

I tried to find a decent photo of the ’94-97 T-Bird cockpit, without success. Take my word for it: it was pretty good when it was new. Ford kind of lost interest in the “American Six Series” after 1994. The supercharged, manual-transmission Super Coupe was taken out of the lineup, while both interior and exterior were modified to share more parts with the Mercury Cougar. The 4.6 V8 didn’t really impress in the Mustang, but in the ‘Bird Ford had found a happier marriage of motor and mission. Big, sleek, reasonably fast, and very comfy, the 1996 Thunderbird was a good car at a very fair price. My demo priced out at $21,750 or so, actually slightly cheaper than a Taurus LX with the same equipment would have cost.

Unfortunately, nobody wanted ’em. Young people wouldn’t be caught dead in an automatic-transmission American coupe, while older people hated the massive doors and the contortions required to lower one’s self into the seats. It was a shame, really, because dynamically this was a decent car. The transmission usually found the right gear and the steering was honest. You could drive these cars really quickly on the right road. Of the cars available to our little dealership, only the Contour SE was usefully faster when the road turned twisty. Remember, the MN12 platform had a very sophisticated rear suspension to hold up all that weight.

Of course, the T-Bird name still meant something to some people. And so it was that the phone rang late one Friday evening at Rodney’s desk. A recently-widowed woman in her early sixties was looking for a car, but she wasn’t comfortable driving at night. Could someone bring her a Thunderbird to examine?

The correct answer would be “No.” Every salesman worth his salt knows to never take a car to a “customer”. Real customers can take a moment out of their lives to make a $20,000 purchase. It’s true for Ferraris and it’s true for Fiestas. But Rodney was bored and he wanted to take the only Bird on our lot home for the night anyway. Why not? On the way out, the general manager said, “Don’t bring that car back unsold. If you do, you’ll pay the price for wasting miles and time.”

He drove twenty miles to the big house set a quarter-mile off the rural road and met the widow at her front door. She was lonely, and if Rodney was half her age and, ahem, somewhat different from her, perhaps the bottle of Chardonnay she’d already half-finished helped her to overcome those minor quibbles. Since TTAC is a family-oriented website, I won’t relate the details of how Rodney attempted to persuade her to buy the Thunderbird without having to look her in the face at the time. The adult reader can work out the details for himself. After an hour or so of these negotiations, the widow pronounced herself completely satisfied and asked Rodney to stay until the morning so she could evaluate the car in the daylight.

More negotiations followed in the morning, but alas, the ‘Bird didn’t catch her fancy quite like Rodney did. Unlike our rather pliant young sales-hero, the Ford provided some arthritis-related complications to entry and exit. She sent Rodney back to the dealership to fetch her a Taurus. Naturally, the boss wasn’t having it and Rodney was grounded from those sorts of missions from then on.

One fine Monday, my ‘Bird arrived on the transporter, just the way I ordered it. The not-so-fine Tuesday that followed, there was an all-hands meeting. The dealership principal’s son, known to all and sundry as “Droopy” for his remarkable resemblance to the cartoon canine of that name, was buying the dealership from his father. Ford Credit was floorplanning the transaction, and they didn’t much care for salespeople driving new-car demonstrators. The used-car manager went to the auction and bought six ex-rental ’94 Tauri to be used as “demos”. Mine was green, with a green interior, and it smelled like the bottom of an ashtray.

Every day the black Bird sat there in the showroom and taunted me. I roped in a fellow who wanted a Crown Vic. Sold him the Bird at invoice. Met him at dinner and handed him the $150 I’d earned as commission on the sale. Got into my crappy rental car and drove home. My wife met me at the door and said the boss had called. Had I seen Rodney? He’d left on a demo drive with a middle-aged woman. Mustang convertible. They were waiting to lock the doors, but Rodney hadn’t returned. Did I have any ideas?

“Nice to see,” I said, “that I’m not the only person around here getting f…”

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40 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1996 Ford Thunderbird and the Gigolo Skills...”

  • avatar

    I remember fondly those demo days. About every 60 days I would get a new ride loaded up with crazy stuff I would order myself. The nightmares I had with salespeople and demos is not unlike Rodney’s story and much worse, like crashed cars, abandoned cars at the airport, Las Vegas junkets and the like. Reasons why the demo program was discontinued, and why you my friend missed the privilege of one of the best benefits in the car business.

  • avatar

    Nice story, but so much better if ole Rodney had actually gotten the sale.

    I remember the 24 month “Red Carpet” lease. Wasn’t the goal to put people in revolving leases? Boom, every 24 months, a new car!

    • 0 avatar

      FWIW, Ford still offers the 24 months (as well as the 36 and the 39 month) Red Carpet Lease. On a few cars, like the Fusion, Escape, and Edge, the 24 month lease is actually a pretty good deal.

      But yes, the big point with any lease program is get captive business. Some people are going to trade out of their car every two or three years regardless, but if you set them up in a lease, you are guaranteed that they have to come back to see you at least end to turn it in, and you get the chance to try to sell them another one.

  • avatar

    I think most of us know what it’s like to get screwed by a car salesman.


    • 0 avatar

      With what’s going on in this country today, I would say car salesmen are the least of your worries, and would not even register on the bend me over scale.

  • avatar

    I’m waiting for the jokes about Cougars…

    Here’s a 1993 TBird Interior

    You sold a car at invoice and gave up your commission? Who pocketed all the holdback and factory incentives?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Ford had no factory incentives back then. We gave rebates to the customer. Holdback on the car would have been about $630, so the dealer’s take would have been $630 – ($150 + a tank of gas + floorplan expenses).

      So the dealer probably made about three hundred bucks on the car. On the positive side, it would have earned us a T-Bird allocation for 1997.

  • avatar

    I sure wish Ford still made cars with the kind of magic those T-birds and Cougars had. Some of the best cars I have ever driven.

    And that Pacific Green example in the pic is a looker…

  • avatar

    One of my favorite cars. I did a lot of business travel to Florida, and with the number of rentals I was doing a year, Hertz would have a V8 T-Bird ready at Tampa, Orlando or Miami. For a fairly large car they were fun to drive and had plenty of “boot and scoot.”

    I don’t travel as much for work any more (thankfully) but I still have 2dr coupe as my preference for Hertz Gold. Most of the time I am stuck with a boring Japanese or Korean something-or-other. The T-Bird was a lot more fun.

    I had hopes of buying one for myself, but I had a company car at the time (Taurus) and my kids were little so my (now ex) wife had a 4 door (Camry – the woman can only own Toyotas.)

    I do own a RWD V-8 car but maybe someday I’ll find a pristine V-8 T-Bird and relive my traveling days!

  • avatar

    So Jack, were you at a Ford dealership on North High St. or West Borad St.? Or was there another small Ford dealership in “the heart of Columbus, Ohio” that I can’t remember?

    I think the credit application for Red Carpet Leases in the 90’s was a mirror that the salesperson put under the nose of a client: if it fogged they were approved.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I said “small” dealer. Graham was well-known as “The Big One” :)

      North High Street. The building used by the new-car side is now Accor Reservations.

    • 0 avatar

      I was at one time pretty familiar with Ford Credit’s credit statistics and scoring models (I retired from there a few years back), and at the time (early to Mid 90’s) the stats indicated that pretty much any old warm body could be persuaded to pay out on a 2-year lease. Credit apps that would have curled your hair in connection with a four or five-year retail contract had reassuringly low default rates. The biggest task for credit analysts was to try to weed out the potential first-payment defaults (i.e., they never intended to pay in the first place).

      As residual losses became more of a concern, we found the lower credits created higher residual losses (cars more trashed out on turn-in, requiring more refurbishing at the auction), so standards were tightened later on, but at the time that was the reasoning behind the purchase policy for 24-month leases. The fact that it supported Ford’s marketing efforts was considered a favorable byproduct — the leases at the time were very profitable for Ford Credit on a standalone basis, even with a pretty loose purchase policy.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Has to have been Graham of blessed memory.

    It was on W Broad, right at the 315 exit.

  • avatar

    Great story. one question though, why did you give your commission to the man who bought the black T-Bird?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      In order to get him to take the car, I had to make it Dirt. Freaking. Cheap. He was one of those fiftysomething blue-collar guys who count every penny.

      And I wanted the car gone because I was sick of looking at it every day.

  • avatar

    I applied for a sales job at (IIRC) that dealership in early 96. I remember the sales manager asking me what I’d like to make in my first year. Coming from a management position at a retail record chain ( we didn’t make much, but it was a cool job when you’re in your 20’s ), I said $35K. He told me it was the wrong answer, and should have replied $100K. Lesson learned — management prefers aggressive salesmen!

    I figured I didn’t get the job, as they told me they’d be calling in the next couple of days and they didn’t. On a lark, I called them after nearly a month later, and the manager asked why I hadn’t called earlier, as they wanted to hire me then, but were fully staffed now.


  • avatar

    On the West Coast in the second half of 90s, Ford Anything was already an uncool thing to have for college kids and yuppies. Some drove a used Taurus or a Focus, but strictly due to economic circumstances. For those who had the money to afford a new car – Honda Prelude, Accord Coupe, and Integras were the thing to have. Things were different in other states. For example, in some cities in Texas you could seemingly find a Thunderbird at every big intersection in some cities.

  • avatar

    Fond memories of the Red Carpet lease. The real trick was to pay the whole 24 months up-front in cash, that brought the total payment down by a good percent. My Dad got a bunch of these all through my teen years. He got ’95 Taurus for two years for about three grand up-front.I beat the hell out of that thing and he just turned it back in, no questions asked. Then we got a V8 SHO which I thought was the coolest car in the world at 17 – since it would get to 140 on the freeway.

    • 0 avatar

      The advance payment lease was particularly popular in Florida among fans of the Panther-platform cars (that should give you a hint of the demographics). Florida dealers at the time had a great conversion rate of potential cash buyers into APP leases, and the Florida Ford Credit branches had higher APP penetration than probably anyplace else in the country.

  • avatar

    1996 Ford Thunderbird = the 1994 – 1997 Ef to EL Falcon/Fairmont/Fairmont Ghia’s of Ford Oz. The last of the E series cars and the prettiest. Still sought after with a 4.0l 6 or 5.8l V8. The dash was less pronounced than the American fords but the genetics are still there. A nice, quite comfortable car. Nice one Ford USA.

  • avatar

    Great article! Enjoyed reading it.

    I always liked the early MN12 Thunderbirds and especially the Cougars, but I don’t like the ’94 facelift of the Thunderbird. It doesn’t blend very well with the rest of the car. Grafting the soft, really rounded off mid Nineties look on to a car with slightly crisper 1989 styling just doesn’t work for me.

  • avatar
    thats one fast cat

    Jack – always a great read and brings me back to my time in the grinder at a Pontiac dealership in Memphis in the late 80’s. Unlike the Nam vets you worked with, all of my colleagues were ex-PATCO guys that Reagan fired. Truly the best job a newly minted college kid could have.

  • avatar

    That is a great picture. Still a gorgeous car from certain angles!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    The last of the last of the T-Birds are among the hardest vehicles to sell in the used car market.

    All the things you mentioned are part of the equation. Terrible fuel economy compared to most other coupes in the price range. The cheap plastic interior components. The V6 powertrain in the Tbirds also didn’t do Ford any favors over the long run.

    Two door, rear wheel drive highway cruiser generally only attract road warriors and unfortunately the seats in these models don’t age particularly well. Plus you have a multiple of Ford and Lincoln models that get the same job with far more room without any serious mpg penalty.

    On the flip side, you could get them for less than $1000 at the auctions up until about a year ago. You just couldn’t sell the damn things. I had one with only 70k or so that just sat for nearly seven months back in 2007. It was a very good looking car with no paint fade and a V8. Drove nice. Nobody cared.

    A lot of the coupes that were around during the T-Bird’s release bit the dust within a generation or were kept long in the tooth. In fact, I can’t think of a single one outside of a Mercedes SL or BMW 3-Series that didn’t just languish due to a lack of sales.

    I’m thinking that SUV’s will be to this decade what luxury coupes became during the last two decades…. a dying breed.

  • avatar

    Your experience with this car is a little different than mine. I bought a 94 Cougar new, loved the idea of the 4.6 (the 302’s had not done will in these cars) and the wraparound cockpit. Unfortunately, mine was not screwed together well at all – tons of squeaks, rattles, and groans, and other issues that had me at the dealer too many times. In my opinion, the tranny was not too well matched with the motor, I thought it left some power on the table too often.

    • 0 avatar

      The 88 Birds with the 302 and the AOD tranny were tight, and ran well.

      They were chipped to top out at 143mph. Only turned about 1650 rpm at around 80mph.

      The 302 may not have done well later on, but at that time it was a sweet machine, I know, I owned one.

      The later successor to the AOD was an all electronic transmission, and may not have been dialed in as well. But the AOD was a nice match with the 302, in those great looking 88 Birds.

  • avatar

    Moving and storage firm.

    Hire a young man and a truck for a hundred bucks an hour.

    Move household goods locally or put stuff into storage or just have him move your furniture around inside your house.

    Or hire a crew of 100 with several semi-trucks and have your Silicon Valley high-tech firm moved into a new building.

    We were professionals and preferred the BIG moves, the BIG firms located in BIG buildings with loading docks and freight elevators.

    One of the crew had a once-per-week regular assignment.

    Blackhawk, a high-end residential development in the east San Francisco Bay area.

    Ample wealth. Guarded entrances. Riff-raff kept out.

    That Madden dude of football announcing fame lives there along with other folks of, to me, immense amounts of wealth.

    Our intrepid young moving man, lithe, limber, muscular and quite young compared to the older lady who hired him, whose hubby was a higher-up corporate executive who traveled extensively while performing his duties, sure must have enjoyed having the furniture moved from place-to-place inside her mini-mansion.

    And he was thrilled with the tips he received.

    He smiled a lot, also.

    A lot.

  • avatar

    My first new car was a ’96 T-bird with the 4.6 V8 and SVT treatment (from what I could tell, that meant special wheels). Forrest green with gray cloth interior. Got a heck of a deal because it had been sitting on the lot for 300+ days, so it was about $17K when the equivilent ’97 was about $21K, but included a ridiculus looking spoiler.

    That was a fast, comfy cruiser, but a bear to navigate around tight city confines. Finding the nose relative to curb distance was all too frequently a lesson of driving by braille. My biggest dissapointment with that car was realizing it was electronically limited to 100-105 (hard to tell with the hills) and getting my doors blown off by my buddies freakin’ Expedition going down the interstate one night.

  • avatar

    Great article Jack. Keep up the good work!

  • avatar

    I so miss the personal luxury coupes like this T-Bird and GM’s G-body cars of the 80’s. I don’t know what it was with those cars but everytime I got in one to drive I was as axcited as a kid handed a new lego set, especially if there was a V8 underhood and a bucket seat floor shifter interior. Thanks goodness we still have the Stang and now the Camaro and Challenger to bring back that feeling.

  • avatar

    My wife at the time and I had a 1997 Ford T-Bird LX 4.6L with every available option except traction control back in the day.

    My wife babied that car. Agree with the above poster, back in the day, this was a very nice car; and we looked at A LOT of cars from every make and model. The V8 and tranny and power/weight ratio was very nice. It got reasonably good MPG. The cockpit was very well laid out (and the provided picture doesn’t really allow you to appreciate). The back seat was very comfortable with good headroom, albeit the ingress and egress wasn’t the easiest.

    The leather wasn’t the greatest quality on the inside and 225 HP under the right foot coming from 8 cylinders is by even 1997 standards weak.

    It proved to be very reliable and a fabulous highway cruiser and suburban runner. The car was stunningly good in the snow much to our surprise, handled well, with firm steering with good on center feel and reasonably good brakes. The cabin was whisper quiet, with a nice V8 grown when you stepped on the happy pedal and the ride was outstanding.

    It is really a shame a lot of people turned their nose up to the T-Bird, admittedly the styling was getting stale by 1994. We concluded bang for the buck it was a tough car to beat – and have no disappointment in our choice to put one in the driveway.

  • avatar

    Great article, Jack. Brings back memories of working at a Ford dealer in Houston during the summers as a pre-med student.

    One minor quibble:

    “Ford kind of lost interest in the “American Six Series” after 1994. The supercharged, manual-transmission Super Coupe was taken out of the lineup”

    Actually, there were still blown Birds in production for 1995, and a very small handful of them were still equipped with the Mazda sourced 5-speed. 1996 was the year the Bird sank to true mediocrity.

  • avatar

    Kinda strange but they still have the same sales issues (I’m biased, I like the things). I work at a used car lot for my second job. We’ll get one of these, or Lincoln’s Mark VII version in once in a while. They will sit and sit and sit before being sent to the auction or (maybe) purchased.

  • avatar

    My wife bought a new 94 Tbird back when we were dating. It had pretty much every option except sunroof and leather. It had the 4.6 engine.
    She drove it for about 8 yrs, with 171k on it when she traded it on a new durango. The engine ran flawlessly, and was super reliable. One problem she had with the car almost since new, though, was that it would not hold a front end alignment. She would get it lined up and it would drive fine for about 10-15 k, then it would start pulling to the left and we would have to take it back to get aligned again, no matter how gently she drove it over bumps and around curves.
    And it ate front tires like crazy. I would rotate them about every 5k, that helped, but not by a whole lot. Expensive tires would not last much longer than cheap ones, so we would put cheap ones on.
    Other than that it was one great car, just like most of the posters stated. Smooth and quiet, great ride and good handling for it’s size.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I own a 95 LX with the 4.6 and most options including the sunroof though I do wish it did have the optional rear discs and traction control. I’ve always been a sport/lux coupe fan and have owned several over the years such as 74 Mercury Cougar, 80 Toronado, 81 Monte Carlo as well as the 87 T-Bird I owned for 14 years before I bought this one 3 years ago. I also owned a 70 Mustang back in the late 70’s-80’s so I have some pony car cred as well. Yes,one 1st gen 81 Honda Prelude as a get around vehicle so I have some Asian Import cred as well.

    What I like about the MN-12 is it is basically a Mustang GT for adults with nice sized trunk. Just longer with Cobra like IRS and Ford’s styling and engineering nod to the 6 series BMW. Maybe the best part is they are reliable and you are not saddled with the high Mustang GT or BMW insurance premium. Reliability is generally fine and repairs are easy though I have just over 106,000 the usual things such as the electronic engine controls ECM, IAV, EGR and front suspension have been easly taken care of at a reasonible cost.

    There are plenty of these out there on E-Bay and CL at really reasonable prices that are not clapped out like some Mustangs or Camaros. Highly recommended if you want luxury with a bit of muscle that set you apart from the pony car pack.

  • avatar

    When I was hired out of college and had my first salary job, I badly wanted one of these. I went back and forth between the T-bird and Cougar. At least once a week, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, dealer to dealer, T-Bird vs Cougar. It was practically my hobby. I thought for sure I’d end up buying one or the other. But ultimately, I couldn’t stomach the purchase price and the impact the monthly payments would have on my budget. So I settled for the new Sunfire GT, stick with a moonroof, roll-up windows, CD player. Mystic teal was the only color they had. I ended up really liking that car.

    But the T-Bird and Cougar was just so cool, at least to my Midwest sense of style. I later satisfied my coupe urge when I picked up an Eldorado ETC with the Northstar. But as others pointed out, after 80K miles of freeway smiles, smooth V-8 growl, and HUGE doors…the lack of practicality outweighed the style and comfort. I replaced the Eldo with an SUV.

    Thanks for filling us in on the T-Bird story!

  • avatar

    Man, It just sucks that 1996 is in a time capsule…seems like onlt yesterday…well kinda.You know what I mean.

  • avatar

    Great stories

    The T-Bird seems to be what is missing these days… a big, comfy, relatively sporty, CHEAP “personal coupe”. I suppose now we have cars like the Altima and Accord V6 coupes, which cost about the same after inflation and are overall much better cars, but still I imagine them not having that RWD magic. Not that that might mean anything with the T-Bird’s suspension tuning. I don’t know where I am going with this post.

  • avatar
    John W. Sweatt

    If I had known that the interior of my 1996 LX V8 Thunderbird would one day appear in a TTAC review, I would have washed it first. :)

    And I agree with everything Jack said about the car. I drove it from Sacramento, CA to Las Vegas and back for the 2009 SEMA show and it performed flawlessly – well, apart from a right front blowout at 80mph on Highway 99, but that wasn’t the car’s fault. I wish I still had it.

    I can’t wait til next summer when I get to drive my mom’s summer toy – a 1990 Thunderbird SC with the 5 speed manual. Should be fun.

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