By on March 25, 2021

We’ve been talking about Thunderbird often lately, whether it’s in a Buy/Drive/Burn, or a recent Rare Rides on the 007 Edition Thunderbird of 2003.

And earlier today the Internets served up a random ad for a teal 10th-generation T-bird in fantastic condition. Seems like a perfect opportunity to add it to our coverage of the long-lived personal luxury nameplate.

The ninth-generation Thunderbird, or “Aero Bird” as it was commonly called, was a relative revelation in the T-bird timeline. Coming from the downsized Fox-body version of 1980-1982, the new (still Fox-based) ’83 Thunderbird was larger, more modern, more powerful, and even spawned the exciting Turbo Coupe variant. Thunderbird was saved.

But by the late Eighties, the ninth-gen was looking a little aged, and Ford saw it was time to step away from the Fox platform with regards to personal luxury. An all-new 10th-generation debuted for the model year 1989, on the exciting new MN12 platform. Ford started development of the new platform in 1984, when it made an internal declaration that the next Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar be sophisticated enough to compete with European marques like BMW. To that end, the MN12 coupes (and later the FN Lincoln Mark VIII) were given an independent rear suspension amongst their other technical upgrades. They were the only domestic rear-drive cars with that feature outside the Corvette. Ford aimed high and wanted the edge in handling and performance over the front-drive offerings from GM.

For the new cars’ design, Ford relied once more on the VP of design at Ford from 1980 to 1997, Jack Telnack. He’d designed the ninth generation T-bird and Cougar as well. The new MN12 cars were sleeker and more rounded than the Aero Bird, and though they were shorter overall, had a nine-inch growth in wheelbase over the outgoing model. Less overhang, more performance.

Four different engines were on offer depending on the year, and at base was a 3.8-liter Essex V6 in naturally aspirated and supercharged variants (for the Super Coupe). Later, the 4.9-liter Windsor V8 was available (’91-’93), as well as the 4.6-liter Modular V8 (’94-’97). Transmissions were mostly automatic and included two versions of the four-speed AOD and a five-speed manual from Mazda. Shifting yourself was allowed only on the Super Coupe from 1989 to 1995.

The Super Coupe was popular at its debut and garnered a Motor Trend COTY award in 1989. The supercharged Essex engine had 12psi of boost at 5,600 RPM, which meant 210 horses and 315 lb-ft of torque. Aside from the engine, the Thunderbird “SC” featured different exterior cladding, fog lamps, electrically adjustable shocks, larger wheels, a limited-slip differential, and ABS brakes as standard that were discs at all wheels. Inside, there was an SC airbag cover, and leather-cloth mix sport bucket seats with serious adjustable side bolsters.

The Thunderbird was updated in 1994 and got a little longer at 200.3 inches overall. It also grew in width to 73.2 inches and got a bit heavier. Along with the visual updates for ’94, the Super Coupe had a number of engine changes which improved horsepower to 230. Ford management had already criticized the MN12 team at ’89 introduction for missing both weight and cost targets on the project and caused the project head to take early retirement.

Super Coupe went away after 1995, as the Thunderbird (and personal luxury coupes in general) were not long for the world. By 1996 Thunderbird was offered only as an LX trim. The last one rolled off the assembly line in September 1997 at the plant in Lorain, Ohio.

Today’s Rare Ride is a suitably teal Super Coupe from 1994. With its excellent condition, the 147,000 mileage figure comes as a surprise. Yours in Indiana for $6,500.

[Images: Ford]

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43 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1994 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe, Fast Personal Luxury...”


  • avatar
    SPPPP

    Wonderful cars, though they had their share of issues… largely caused by delivering BMW-like capability on a Ford budget. (Recovering owner, still have parts in the closet to prove it.)

    In my eyes, Ford made a bad decision to discontinue these cars in 1997, just a few years before the G35 hit the market with a big splash and proved that personal luxury wasn’t quite dead. And the Mustang eventually went IRS too. If Ford had a little more foresight, they could have re-developed the Thunderbird and the Mustang on related IRS platforms AND sold a RWD sports sedan. One joint platform could have taken them through the decade of the 2000s. And who knows after that? Lorain, Ohio assembly plant might even still be open. But … all that didn’t happen.

    Minor note – The width change from 1993 to 1994 was probably only a change to the rear view mirror housings. Likewise, the length change was only due to swoopier front and rear bumper covers. These changes had no effect on weight or interior room.

    The example for sale on Cars.com looks pretty decent (shady tires and bad window tint aside). But I much prefer the interior of the 1989-1993 myself.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    We bought a 97 with the V8 new. Green with gray leather interior. Had almost every option except the 16″ wheel package, ABS, and limited-slip differential.

    We later learned that it did come with the “traction-lock axle” even though we didn’t option it that way. It was a great car and perfect for when we moved to South Dakota. Tremendous highway cruiser and it was acceptable in the snow in the flat terrain.

    Miss that car.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    One of these with the stick was on my dream car list for SO long. But that 1994-97 interior has aged incredibly poorly.

  • avatar
    gasser

    I remember these well from rentals in the 90’s. Ford was heavily criticized in the auto magazines for having widely missed its weight target. Never drove a supercharged versions, but the V-8s were fine in pick up. Still too heavy to be really maneuverable and, too big in city driving for the middling size of the interior. All in all, a pass for me in buying a new one. This was the first car that made me realize that two doors and urban parking lots don’t mix. The door is too long to open wide enough for easy in/out.

    • 0 avatar
      DungBeetle62

      Ah the good old days: “3800lbs? Kinda on the heavy side.” Had we only known what was coming…

      I’m with you, it was a great rental, but I never really had the kind of lifestyle that required a car that big. As for door size, I had a 1978 Camaro. The T-bird’s doors were similarly sized but not THAT heavy.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    There is just all kinds of evil going on with this:

    3.8 Essex – Supercharged! (Let’s take crap and supercharge it).
    DOA transmission, er AOD-E (AOD 89-92?, AOD-E about MY92 or 93, possibly 4R70W in MY95).
    90s teal, ugh.
    That goofy half cloth half leather upholstery Ford tried then.
    Suspension control suggests Ford’s air ride everyone rips out of period Lincolns.
    Tape deck only on the “Super Coupe”? Really, Ford?

    Additional: I’d bet you a fine cigar that transmission doesn’t shift properly. The AOD-E added a sensor panel which likes to die, I think when its jacked up it can’t shift into overdrive or maybe 3rd gear can’t remember.

    $1,995 and in a year or so it ends up in one of Murilee’s junkyard articles (between the 3.8 Essex overdue for a head gasket and an AOD-E, its tough to decide which will do it in). $6,500? How much coke did you snort today, Mr. Used Car Manager?

    • 0 avatar
      C5 is Alive

      You’re spot-on with most of your critiques (though I love the teal) but cassette stereos still reigned among OEM offerings in even well-equipped cars throughout most of the Nineties.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      OK, you have some misconceptions:

      – The 89-93 models had the AOD. The 94-97 had the 4R70W. The Thunderbird never got the AOD-E. (Though all 3 transmissions are related.) If it’s in good condition, it will shift nicely.

      – Thunderbird Active Ride Control has nothing to do with air suspension. There are no compressor or pneumatic lines. Each shock has a hollow stem with an actuation rod running through it. An electric actuator on top of each shock turn the rod to open or close a valve inside the shock, changing the shock characteristics from soft to firm. The button inside the car has two settings – Firm and Auto (which firms up the shocks at high speed or when cornering hard). The system lasts a very long time with minimal maintenance. The shocks (made by Tokico) cost a little more than a standard shock.

      – You could get a CD player in the Thunderbird from 1989 on. And it sounded pretty decent. In this case, I am not sure if the car for sale is tape-only or if it has a CD changer in the trunk, which I think was also a factory option.

      • 0 avatar
        brn

        SPPPP, we should see more implementations like that today. I run away from modern active suspension due to potential repair costs.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        @SPPP

        1. You’re right, it was the Panther who used a succession of AOD, AOD-E, and 4R70W.

        2. Thanks, had no idea there was such a thing. If this system was successful, was it applied to other models?

        3. Yes that’s possible but Super Coupe Club of America actually has jpgs of the brochure for the MY94, and it seems the tape deck was standard with a CD/tape deck being a dealer installed option and CD changer a factory option. This example does not mention a CD in the listing nor show any trunk photos, so my guess is its just the tape deck hence my derision.

        I suppose Ford’s thinking was either you are ordering the likely more expensive changer from the factory or you’ll pay the dealer for the CD player. I feel for “Super Coupe” this cheapness needed to be discarded, either offer the changer standard or CD/tape standard with an optional changer.

        Interior:
        http://www.sccoa.com/articles/images/94brochure13.jpg

        Options:
        http://www.sccoa.com/articles/images/94brochure19.jpg

        • 0 avatar
          SPPPP

          I consider the ARC system successful in that it worked pretty well. But I don’t think Ford put it on any other models besides the Thunderbird SC and Cougar XR7 (and the prior-generation 1987 Turbo Coupe, where it was called PRC – Programmed Ride Control).

          I also remember CD players as being pretty rare in cars until the late 1990s, so I don’t think tape in this car is all that bad. The Thunderbird had a low dash design which gave good visibility. With the amount of stuff in the dash, there wasn’t a lot of space. There were two single-DIN radio slots, and in the 1994, the VMM – Vehicle Maintenance Monitor – took up the lower one. I don’t think there was a CD and tape combo unit that fit single-DIN.

          (The earlier CD player was a single unit that fit in the lower DIN and connected to the main head unit by a cable. Remember, CDs were kind of new in the 1980s when the car was designed, and electronic components were not as small as they are now.)

          • 0 avatar
            APaGttH

            @SPPPP

            Did the Ford Probe system work the same way (not the same parts bin, but the same concept). The active suspension in the GT had 3 settings that adjusted how firm the shocks were. Sport would lower the car, as would going over a certain speed. It was not an air suspension. Switch was in the center console, to the left of the hand brake.

    • 0 avatar

      Essex was really old by that time, I’m wondering if this was its last application.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    They built the perfect drift car. The supercharged 5-speed I mean. Gobs of torque off idle, wide stance, skinny tires, limited slip and would roast em like it was tied to tree, all the way to 3rd.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    The 3.8 V6 was total crap. The only thing it was good for was blowing head gaskets and getting coolant in the oil and oil in the radiator. And terrible mileage. Pull off the heads, have them cut, new gaskets and bolt it all back together and hope for the best.
    Junk.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      It’s not even the same 3.8 of other Fords. This was Ford’s first supercharged engine so they overbuilt it.

      This one had enlarged block/head coolant passages, all forged internals, fully balanced crank, stronger alloy pistons, billet roller cam, high nickel content block, etc, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      The supercharged 3.8 typically did better than the N/A one, although it’s hard to believe they only managed to get 210/230 horsepower out of it. The last N/A Essex made 200 horsepower.

      • 0 avatar
        SPPPP

        The torque was massive – over 300 ft-lbs in all years. The C&D review in 1989 said it pulled something like a “nuclear locomotive”. But it wasn’t good at high RPMs, which limited the HP. The exhaust was pretty restrictive, and there were fueling limitations as well with the commonly available high-pressure injectors at the time.

      • 0 avatar
        bufguy

        The same with Buick with their V6…The L67 supercharged engine used in the Park Avenue Ultra only put out 225hp….I still believe the Buick 3800 was far superior to the Ford Essex 3.8

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        You want to shift your attention to the torque figure when it’s supercharged and or most of its output is down low.

        If it’s high strung, well actually you should always look at, compare both numbers, when they peak and the power curve/graph if available.

        I got to drive this one and was pleased how easily it would slide the back end around a turn, popping it into 3rd.

  • avatar
    C5 is Alive

    “Inside, there was an SC airbag cover…”

    Nope. The SC badge adorned the hornpad but the T-Bird made due with motorized shoulder belts and no airbags until the ’94 redo. While nicely styled, the rest of the interior was reeeaaalllly cheap, too, with flimsy plastics and cheap seat materials as part of Ford’s desperate attempt to stem the bleeding from the platform’s budget-busting development costs.

    I had the opportunity to pick up a hard-loaded ’94 LX V8 in 1997, but wound up passing over concerns about the AOD, which was already starting to slip despite having less than 40,000 miles. I also noticed the rear axle sat too-far forward in relation to the wheel wells; turns around all MN12s are like that.

  • avatar
    Chocolatedeath

    I loved this car. I never got to drive one and only rode in one once. I wanted once so bad in 90-91. Thought if I joined the Army in the middle of DS/DS that I could afford one. Boy was I wrong.

  • avatar

    I need to fix these weird photo captions, which should not be there.

  • avatar

    Interior reminds me the rental grade Ford Taurus and in not a good way.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    How did I not notice that awful wing my first time through? Gak.

    This car would be worth going through all the trouble to get right if it were a 5-speed, but it’s not.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I owned a 1995 Thunderbird LX for 12 years until selling it last year with 140k. When I bought it I considered an SC but some of the mechanical end electrical issues with them swayed me away. Plus I was coming off of a very reliable 87 Thunderbird with the 3.8 that finally blew its head gaskets at 187k and just wanted the V8.
    It had the 4.6 2V Modular and most options except the rear discs and ABS. It served me well with normal maintenance and few issues such as replacing the suspension bushings, links and control arms. The plastic intake was replaced with an aluminum one as per the TSB by the previous owner. The only upgrade was a Kenwood stereo and replacing the stock speakers behind the factory grills with JBL’s.
    The wrap around dash is very ergonomic and the gauge cluster has what you need. The Jacque Nassar era cost cutting interior plastics can get creaky but if you go the TBSC forum they recommend taking apart the trim and putting them back together with double sided tape as a buffer. I did it on the the console on mine and it worked fine.
    These are somewhat undervalued cars which is sad because the MN-12 platform is quite advanced with its independent rear suspension, tad more interior room and spacious trunk giving it a “Gentleman’s Mustang” feel but I happen to think in the future the value will appreciate. Its too bad that Ford never got more out of the platform say for a full sized sedan as a Panther replacement.

  • avatar
    teddyc73

    Not just teal but “suitably” teal.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    The third picture (at the cars.com link, not in the article) is a great example of the biggest mistake people make when photographing vehicles.

    Grab your smartphone and take a head-and-shoulders picture of your favorite person, without changing any of the settings on your phone – just walk closer until their head and shoulders fill the screen. Notice how their cute little nose has grown into a giant schnoz, and their entire face is distorted. See how close you are standing to them? Now think about portrait studios and how the camera is always well back from the subject. *Back up* maybe 6-8 feet (or more) and use the Zoom function on your smartphone to frame their head and shoulders. Take another picture and compare. Their cuteness is restored, plus you see less of whatever messy background you posed them in front of. [Plus less depth of field which is also helpful, but that’s not important right now.]

    The same idea applies to vehicles. When photographing a vehicle, *back up* (farther than for a person – think of 15-20 feet for starters) and zoom in. This is what the professionals do. [Otherwise you horribly throw off the proportions.]

    Since you still don’t believe me, grab your phone and take a picture of the front of your car, without zooming, with the car filling the frame. Now set the zoom to 3.0 and take another picture of the front of your car, with the car filling the frame (you will have to back up). Now compare the two shots. Which one shows the proportions of the vehicle better? Which one has less background clutter? Exactly. (I wouldn’t lie to you.)

    [Now in real life if you were actually taking photographs of vehicles professionally (say for an automotive blog), you would almost never take a head-on shot of the front of a vehicle – but we will save this for a future lecture.]

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Personally believed that these might have become collectable if Ford had not sullied the T-Bird name.

    I had 3 T-Birds, one of the last of the ‘big birds’, a ’78 T-Bird (you see one in Goodfellas behind Robert Deniro when he pushes over the telephone booth) and the very rare Aerobird FILA edition, which was the most expensive T-Bird of that era.

    All equipped with the ‘biggest’ available engine.

    The first T-Bird was almost a rebadged Lincoln Mark. Same 460 c.i.d. engine. My personal favourite of the 3.
    The ’78 T-Bird I owned was cursed. But it was considered an ‘attractive and stylish’ vehicle when released.

    But both of them had ‘prestige’ and ‘curb appeal’.

    The FILA was perhaps the best ‘car’ of the 3. But by then the T-Bird panache and prestige had been erased and European cars had displaced them with those wanting a vehicle that fit their image as an ‘up and comer/doer and shaker’.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Always like this generation of T-Birds and probably at the time I would have bought a V-6 but in retrospect the V-8 would have been much better for longevity.

  • avatar
    jimmyy

    With the exception of one of my favorite vehicles, the F150, I hate everything Ford. However, these TBirds … they were so cool.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    The price has since been reduced to $6000.

  • avatar
    Michael S6

    In 1991 my wife had an eye on the Thunderbird. I was concerned about rear wheel drive in Michigan and Ford’s less than stellar reliability, and convinced her to buy a Honda Accord LX. We never regretted that decision.
    later that year, I leased a 1991 Ford Taurus SHO and my wife’s reliable Honda was used on multiple occasions to jump start the SHO.

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