Capsule Review: 1996 Ford Thunderbird and the Gigolo Skills

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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…”

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Sportyaccordy Sportyaccordy on Jul 09, 2010

    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.

  • John W. Sweatt John W. Sweatt on Sep 04, 2011

    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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