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1991 Thunderbird Super Coupe

  • Like many 3.8 Mustang enthusiasts, I was drawn to the knowledge of the T-Bird Super Coupe through its use of a supercharged Ford 3.8. Obviously, power can be made on these engines. Now that I remember back, I remember my barber, Jean, saying that he had a supercharged Thunderbird, back in the 90's. Fast forward to the last couple of years, where i'd looked into the SC's specifics, coupled with the 3.8, and I wanted to know exactly what made this coupe so super. I found out it had these things straight from the factory:

    --210 hp and 315 ft/ lbs of torque (the torque peaking at 2600 rpms). Not extreme for today, but great for 1991
    --Eaton M90 supercharged 12 psi
    --intercooled
    --forged bottom end (crank, and reinforced pistons/ rods)
    --knock sensor in case you accidentally get bad gas and don't want the motor to blow
    --octane plug that can be pulled to pull timing to prevent motor damage when using 87 octane gas
    --oil cooler
    --Tokico adjustable shocks (firm and regular settings)
    --independent rear suspension
    --8.8 limited slip rear end with 3.27 gears
    --dual exhaust
    --4 wheel disc brakes
    --platinum tipped spark plugs from the factory

    .....and I had to have one. Lo and behold, a nice one had came up in the local ads. The only downside was that he was almost a two and a half hour drive outside of the city, literally, in the middle of nowhere. I called him up and after he gave the directions, I almost had second thoughts. It was essentially, "go past the first small village, then past the second small village, and then once you hit the gravel road, we're the first farm on the north side of the road". Forget GPS, this is almost like the year 1859--you'd need a keen eye and some luck to find this place. And what if the car didn't look like it did in the ads and was a piece of junk? What if I had wasted a few hours of my time and 30-40 dollars worth of gas? But sometimes you have to take a chance on some of these rural cars that maybe nobody else wants to go and check out, because some good deals can be had, or you can get vehicles that are harder to find.

    I got there and test drove it and it was great. He wanted $2000 and I tried to talk him down a bit, but he was firm on the price. I thought that it was fair, so I didn't mind paying that. A buddy and I had went down to pick it up a few days later.

    The dash didn't have any cracks in it, and although the car has been repainted (especially on the bumpers), you have to look hard to see it. There's a mild bit of bubbling on the rear fender, but it's not terminal (i've Fluid Filmed it and it hasn't spread). It's a 23 year old car, so of course it's not perfect.

    The previous owner had put a 1989 engine in it, as the original engine had blown. These engines are notorious for blowing head gaskets, but that's primarily from A) abuse B) neglect to maintain the cars. With proper coolant changes (weak and old coolant corrodes the head gaskets and also creates more heat in the engine and heads) and oil changes (keeping friction and heat to a minimum) these engines enjoy a long life.

    Though they aren't high revving engines and horsepower is harder to make than torque (most modifications and dyno sessions yield a similar gain in horsepower at the expense of the same amount of torque), the bright side is that these cars have a massive torque curve in the low end--twin stripe rubber burning and violent acceleration (especially when pinning it in a turn). You have to credit Ford for keeping the T-Bird a rear wheel drive car, when many cars had already moved to front wheel drive and most others were headed in the same direction.

    One thing that I noticed about the car is that it is an incredibly comfortable ride. You'll rarely ride in a more comfortable highway car. The second thing i'd noticed, was how many cool sporty touches that they had on the car---console shift, bucket seats, rear spoiler, leather wrapped shifter, fog lights, etc. On this particular car with the options that it had, there was a power sunroof/ moonroof, and a nice grey tweed/ leather interior that's classy. The MN12's (Ford's designation for this generation of T-Birds), visually fell somewhere between a Fox body Mustang and a Crown Victoria or a Grand Marquis.

    In hindsight, I kind of wonder if this wasn't the death knell of the T-Bird (especially the Super Coupe): luxury performance doesn't really sell all that well, usually you have one or the other. And fittingly enough, nearly nobody that I talk to knows what the SC is or how innovative it was. Not only that, but aerodynamics don't sell cars either, generally. Nowadays, it does in an inadvertent way, because cars are advertised in how many MPG's they get (notice they don't bore you with the drag coefficient numbers?), but back in the 80's and early 90's, people were still more hung up on how a car looked than how it drove. The SC had a drag coefficient of .31 (still competitive to this day), and had things like a front air dam that diverted air past the engine and down the firewall and under the car. They were a sharp looking car then (and still are, now), but aerodynamics didn't sell vehicles back then. Look at the raked front nose of the car which is pretty wedge-like.

    That being said, the SC gets incredible gas mileage (about 17.5-18 mpg in mine) in a nearly 4000 lb car, and just absolutely glides on the highway with the aerodynamics and general lack of wind resistance.

    Despite the SC being Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" in 1989, The T-Bird was discontinued in 1997 (the Super Coupe being discontinued after 1995), and despite one last attempt at salvation in the 2000's, the Thunderbird--one of Ford's longest lasting marques--had died a slow and anonymous death in which it seemed few cared. These cars can be had for extreme bargains right now......totally shot/ trashed versions go for $500-$750 (paint/ interior/ rust/ motor/ transmission problems), but decent/ good/ very good examples go from $1500-$4000. You're best off holding out for a better example, where the car has been treated well, as the parts are still around, but do occasionally become a hassle. And these are complicated and sometimes frustrating cars to work on, due to all the technology and advanced engineering that they involve.

    One of the other issues with the SC's on why they're likely not that popular, is that there's nothing that really signify them as being fast. Perhaps that was Ford's mistake in that they never made any sort of GT or "rally" or muscled up looking Thunderbirds (at least some of the Turbo Coupes had things like a black exterior with a red stripe to signify something, almost like the Monte Carlo SS's of the 80's). To put it in perspective, GM sold their fleet of larger cars (Impala/ SS, Tempest/ GTO, Cutlass/ 442/ Hurst Olds) with sportier packages, and this worked well to identify them from the base models of those cars.

    Ford neglected to do this with the '89 SC, and as sales continually plummeted into the mid 90's, I feel that ultimately, both it and the Thunderbird line suffered a grave fate from which they never recovered. When the Mustang came around in 1964 1/2, Ford didn't want the Thunderbird to compete with it on a performance level, so you may notice that in the late 60's, the T-Birds focused mainly on luxury, sort of more like a Lincoln. The Cougar, when it was introduced, was an upscale Mustang, but in a few short years, it too would go the way of the T-Bird, and in the 70's, both the Cougar and T-Bird had shared the same sort of sales platform/ niche and were both plagued by the "huge car/ massive gas guzzling engine/ questionable styling", at least until the Thunderbird aero coupe (and similar Cougar body style) was introduced in 1983 and revitalized the T-Bird name.

    SC's are the quintessential "sleeper". Part of the problem with that (myself personally growing up with the "decal GT" cars of the late 70's and all of the 80's) is that it's just easier for car companies and car salesmen to sell a slow car that looks fast, rather than a fast car that looks slow. Think of the Delorean......it, itself, was a failure and is slow as molasses (minivan molasses, actually) but it's most redeeming feature after all these years is that it at least looks like a fast car.

    Some guys modify SC's to be absolute track cars, which is cool, but I think that it loses the spirit of the car: a stylish grand tourer that has good seat of the pants acceleration and instant power on demand. With some modifications (especially if you're gutsy enough to risk headgasket longevity by running a more extreme supercharger pulley swap), you can get it into the low 14's in the 1/4 mile or even the 13's, depending on how much boost you want to run. I've put a Ken Wagner double intercooler on my car, and I have a late model '94-'95 blower with a ported/ polished intake plenum, a 75mm throttle body and 76mm C&L MAF, as well as an intercooler fan waiting to be put on next year when I get it tuned and dialed in properly for the different air/ fuel ratio. There's a picture attached in the gallery here of the parts.

    The hood stripes i'd done myself, to give the car a slightly sportier look. I went along the raised hood creases that were already there.

    I have a good laugh at the huge ashtray that's in the center console ("fancy a cigarette?"), as well as the cassette holder tray that's in the middle console storage area. If that all doesn't say late 80's, I don't know what does. I dunno, with the ashtray and cigarette lighter in there, it makes me feel like i'm from a bygone era, in a vaguely less PC world. Cars should transport you to the era in which they were from. The SC still has a modern feel, but it's outdated just enough so that it feels like a bit of a timewarp.

    They're great cars, and very underrated. I'd say that they're up there with some of the most innovative American cars ever made. Now you know.
JeffSeb likes this.

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