Ford Thunderbird (tenth generation)

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Tenth generation
Ford Thunderbird
1989-1995 Ford Thunderbird.jpg
ProductionOctober 1988–September 1997
AssemblyLorain, Ohio
DesignerJack Telnack (1985)
Body and chassis
Body style2-door coupe
LayoutFR layout
PlatformFord MN12 platform
RelatedLincoln Mark VIII
Mercury Cougar
Engine3.8 L Essex V6 (1989–1997)
3.8 L Essex Supercharged V6 (1989–1995 Super Coupe only)
4.9 L (302 cu in) Windsor 5.0 V8 (1991–1993)
4.6 L Modular V8 (1994–1997)
TransmissionAOD 4-speed automatic transmission (1989–1993)
4R70W 4-speed automatic transmission (1994–1997)
M5R2 5-speed manual transmission (1989–1995 Super Coupe only)
Wheelbase113 in (2,870 mm)
Length1989–1993: 198.7 in (5,047 mm)
1994–97: 200.3 in (5,088 mm)
Width1989–1995: 72.7 in (1,847 mm)
1996–97: 73.2 in (1,859 mm)
Height1994–97: 52.5 in (1,334 mm)
1994–95 Super Coupe: 53.0 in (1,346 mm)
1989–1993: 52.7 in (1,339 mm)
1991–93 Upper End Model: 53.1 in (1,349 mm)
Curb weight3,536 lb (1,604 kg) (1989 V6 model)
3,725 lb (1,690 kg) (1995 V8 model)
PredecessorFord Thunderbird (ninth generation)
SuccessorFord Thunderbird (eleventh generation)

The tenth generation of the Ford Thunderbird is a personal luxury car that was produced by Ford for the 1989 to 1997 model years. On December 26, 1988 a completely redesigned Thunderbird was introduced as a 1989 model alongside its sister car, the Mercury Cougar.[1] Developed on Ford's new MN12 (Mid-Size North American Project 12) platform from the second quarter of 1984 (production approved in mid-1985)[2][3], the new Thunderbird featured a more aerodynamic body that was slightly shorter in overall length relative to the 1988 Thunderbird but had a nine-inch-longer wheelbase.


The car featured four-wheel independent suspension, with short-and-long arms (SLA) and a spring strut assembly in the front and multiple links in the rear, that offered excellent handling and ride quality. This setup was significant as it made the Thunderbird and the Cougar the only rear-wheel drive North American domestic cars other than the Chevrolet Corvette to offer a four-wheel independent suspension at the time. Engine options fell to only two for 1989 as Ford dropped the V8 option for the new Thunderbird. The base and LX models were powered by Ford's 3.8 L Essex OHV V6. Producing 140 horsepower (100 kW) at 3800 rpm and 215 lb⋅ft (292 N⋅m) of torque at 2400 rpm, many felt the engine was somewhat underpowered for a car that weighed over 3,500 pounds (1,600 kg) in base trim (heavier when equipped with available options).[4] This engine was mated to Ford's AOD 4-speed automatic transmission regardless of trim level from the 1989 to 1993 model years. Thanks in part to its low coefficient of drag, the Thunderbird was relatively fuel efficient considering its overall size and weight. The EPA gave 1989 Thunderbirds equipped with the standard V6 a fuel efficiency rating of 19 mpg‑US (12 L/100 km; 23 mpg‑imp) in city driving and 27 mpg‑US (8.7 L/100 km; 32 mpg‑imp) on the highway, though, like most cars built before 2008, this rating was retroactively reduced by the EPA to reflect newer, more realistic fuel efficiency measurements.[5] The fuel efficiency rating was noticeably better than that of Thunderbirds equipped with higher performance engines and gave the base V6-equipped Thunderbird a significant driving range with its 19 gallon fuel tank (later decreased to 18 gallons).

A more sophisticated, supercharged and intercooled version of the 3.8 L OHV V6 was used to power the high performance Thunderbird Super Coupe, also called Thunderbird SC for short. The Super Coupe could be had with a Mazda-derived, M5R2 5-speed manual transmission or an AOD 4-speed automatic transmission (or 4r70w for 1994/1995 models). The Thunderbird Super Coupe was Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1989, which Ford proudly advertised. When running at a maximum of 5600 rpm, the supercharger provided 12 psi of boost, producing 210 horsepower (160 kW)/230 horsepower (170 kW) for 94/95 at 4000 rpm and 315 lb⋅ft (427 N⋅m)/330 horsepower (250 kW) for 94/94 of torque at 2600 rpm under an 8.2:1 (8.6:1 for 94/95) compression ratio. Accompanying the more powerful engine, Super Coupes were equipped with a host of unique features underlining their higher performance demeanor relative to standard Thunderbirds. Among these were larger, 16 x 7.0 inch alloy wheels with high performance tires (standard Thunderbirds came with 15 x 6.0 inch steel wheels and 15 x 6.5 inch alloy wheels were optional), a Traction-Lok limited slip differential, standard anti-lock brakes, 4-wheel disc brakes (vented front and rear rotors), speed-sensitive variable assist steering, lower body side cladding, fog lights, and a stiffer suspension with adjustable shocks supplied by Tokico.[6]

In spite of the new Thunderbird's merits, it was considered a failure by Ford's top management. On January 17, 1989, Ford President Harold A. Poling, with Ford CEO Donald Petersen and Ford Executive Vice President Phil Benton looking on, harshly criticized the MN12 program's staff in a meeting for badly missing the Thunderbird and Cougars' weight and cost targets (250 lb (110 kg) heavier and $900 US$ more per car than planned). This criticism came as a surprise to the program staff who expected to be praised for the Thunderbird and Cougars' technical achievements and positive reception. Anthony "Tony" S. Kuchta, manager of the MN12 program, was angered by Poling, not for his points about weight and cost overruns but rather that he directed his criticism at the program staff instead of at Kuchta who was responsible for all of the important decisions that determined the program's direction. Many of the decisions that Kuchta made regarding the MN12's development that resulted in the weight and cost overruns criticized by Poling were caused by the very things that set the MN12 cars apart from other cars in their class (such as rear-wheel drive and an independent rear suspension). Falling out of favor with Ford management after the Thunderbird and Cougars' launch, Kuchta voluntarily retired early from Ford in May 1989.[7]

For the 1991 model year, Ford reintroduced a V8 option with the Windsor 5.0 V8. The engine was used through the 1993 model year and produced 200 horsepower (150 kW) at 4000 rpm and 275 lb⋅ft (373 N⋅m) of torque at 3000 rpm; gains of 45 horsepower (34 kW) and 10 lb⋅ft (14 N⋅m) of torque respectively over the 1988 Thunderbird, the previous Thunderbird to use this engine. Like the standard 3.8 L V6, the V8 was only mated to the AOD 4-speed automatic transmission. On the television program MotorWeek in a review of the 1991 Thunderbird and similar Mercury Cougar, a road test of a V8-equipped Thunderbird revealed that the car could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds; approximately two seconds faster than a standard V6 Thunderbird but about two seconds slower than a Super Coupe.[8]

For 1992, The Thunderbird received its first styling update with a reshaped decklid featuring new LED illuminated taillamp units. A V8 Sport model was offered for this year only featuring the Super Coupe front fascia with fog lamps and lower body accent stripes. For 1993, all Thunderbirds used the Super Coupe front fascia.


1994 Ford Thunderbird LX (with aftermarket clear marker lamps)

The Thunderbird received an extensive mid-cycle refresh for 1994, with revisions to powertrain, exterior appearance, addition of safety features, and a total redesign of its interior.

The front fascia saw substantial styling changes with larger air intakes in the bumper cover, new headlamps, and a new, slightly more curvaceous hood. The Thunderbird emblem was moved from the front edge of the hood to the upper air intake slot in the bumper cover. The interior was completely redesigned to accommodate dual front airbags and to optimize driver comfort and convenience. It featured wrap-around cockpit style instrumentation with a new steering wheel, radio and climate controls, and sweeping curves on the door panels and dashboard surfaces. LX models featured revised seat designs with a choice of new fabric or leather seating surfaces.

Arguably the most dramatic change for 1994, however, was the new 4.6 L Modular SOHC V8 which replaced the "5.0" Windsor engine. The 4.6 L V8 produced 205 horsepower (153 kW) at 4500 rpm and 265 lb⋅ft (359 N⋅m) of torque at 3200 rpm and brought with it an updated powertrain control module, the EEC-V (base V6 Thunderbirds and Super Coupes continued to use the older EEC-IV). An electronically controlled 4R70W 4-speed automatic transmission replaced the AOD automatic transmission in all instances where it was previously used in the Thunderbird. Car and Driver reviewed the 4.6 L V8 and it managed a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of 8.1 seconds and a quarter-mile being completed in 16.3 seconds at 87 mph.[9]

The Super Coupe continued on for 1994 with the same supercharged 3.8 L V6 as before, but now with 230 horsepower (170 kW) at 4400 rpm and 330 lb⋅ft (447 N⋅m) of torque at 2500 rpm. This was made possible due to a number of changes. The Eaton M90 roots-type supercharger was given a larger, square style inlet, a larger attaching inlet plenum, and Teflon coated rotors. The engine received larger fuel injectors and an increase in compression to 8.6:1. In their March 1996 issue, Motor Trend magazine conducted a comparison test of a 1995 Thunderbird Super Coupe against the front-wheel drive Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34 and a Buick Regal Gran Sport. The Super Coupe delivered the best overall performance, including a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of 7.0 seconds and a completion of a quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 88.1 mph. In summarizing the overall performance of each car relative to each other, the author of the article, Don Sherman, wrote, "The Buick Regal is a competent, comfortable car at an attractive price, but it's too androgynous to be called a Gran Sport. Nothing about it is grand, and there isn't a sporting bone in its body. All the Monte Carlo needs to succeed is a V-8 engine and a year of refinement to eradicate its quality bugs. That leaves the Thunderbird SC as this test's big winner. It's a far more sophisticated solution to the four-place-coupe equation, but is priced accordingly."[10] In spite of positive critiques like this, the increases in output and performance over earlier Super Coupes would be short-lived, as the Thunderbird Super Coupe was discontinued after the 1995 model year due to slowing sales.

For 1996, the Thunderbird was offered only as an LX model. The hood, headlamps and bumper fascias were once again redesigned. The front fascia received a honeycomb mesh grille, with a revised Thunderbird emblem placed in the center. The headlamps were changed to crystal clear lenses with fluted inner reflector housings. New body colored door handles replaced the former textured black ones and wide body colored cladding was added along the lower bodysides. The rear fascia's lower trim changed from black to red reflectors (as with former SC models) creating a uniform taillamp appearance, with the "Thunderbird LX" badge relocated to the upper-left of the decklid fascia in a new script font.

Toward the end of the MN12 Thunderbird's production run, Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) division explored the idea of a new high performance Thunderbird, producing four prototypes. Stylistically the SVE Thunderbirds blended elements from the 1994–1995 and 1996–1997 Thunderbirds along with elements unique to themselves. The SVE Thunderbird used the headlights, door handles, and rear bumper cover from the 1994–1995 Thunderbird and front fascia and body side cladding from the 1996–1997 Thunderbird. Unique to the SVE Thunderbird relative to other Thunderbirds were 17-inch, five spoke Cobra R wheels, larger dual exhaust tips, a different lower section of the front fascia with fog lights, a unique spoiler, and a prominent cowl hood. The most significant difference that set the SVE Thunderbird apart from other Thunderbirds was its supercharged 4.6 L DOHC V8 engine, similar to that later found in the SVT Mustang Cobra. Power was delivered to the wheels via a Tremec T-45 5-speed manual transmission. Stopping the SVE Thunderbird were larger brakes taken from the Mustang Cobra (going along with its Cobra R wheels).[11]

In spite of its potential, this high performance Thunderbird was not meant to be as Ford not only pulled the plug on this project, but on the entire Thunderbird and Cougar line, with the 1997 model year being its last. On September 4, 1997, the final MN12 Thunderbird was built at Ford's assembly plant in Lorain, Ohio. As it rolled down the assembly line, a sign saying "That's All Folks" adorned the decklid.[12]

Production totals[edit]

Year Production[13]
1989 122,909
1990 114,040
1991 84,719
1992 74,149
1993 130,750
1994 121,082
1995 115,397
1996 112,302
1997 36,582
Total 961,624


  1. ^ Cool Cats. "1989 Cougar." Cool Cats. November 17, 2007. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 17, 2008. Retrieved December 29, 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^
  3. ^ Holloway, Charles A.; Bowen, Professor H. Kent; Clark, Kim B.; Wheelwright, Steven C. (1994). The Perpetual Enterprise Machine: Seven Keys to Corporate Renewal Through Successful Product and Process Development. ISBN 9780195080520.
  4. ^ "1990–1997 Ford Thunderbird Full Review." Consumer Guide. November 23, 2008.
  5. ^ United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Compare Old and New mpg Estimates: 1989 Ford Thunderbird. Sep. 19, 2008.
  6. ^ "Thunderbird Super Coupe," Road and Track, 1988.
  7. ^ Ingrassia, Paul; White, Joseph B. (1995), Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, Simon & Schuster, pp. 212–216, ISBN 978-0684804378
  8. ^ "MotorWeek 1991". Host John H. Davis. Maryland Public Television. 1991.
  9. ^ "Car And Driver". "1994 New Cars" 1994. pg 83
  10. ^ Sherman, Don. "Battle of the All-Americans." Motor Trend Mar. 1996:62–68.
  11. ^ "A T-bird That Nearly Was." TCCoA.
  12. ^ Wingard, Michelle. "Lorain Assembly Plant Model History." December 19, 2005. Blue Oval News.
  13. ^ Tast, Alan H; Newhardt, David (October 15, 2004). Thunderbird Fifty Years. Motorbooks. ISBN 9780760319765.

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