Ford’s Thunderbird Turbo Coupe is soaring once again
The early 1980s were beyond tumultuous for the automobile industry, especially in the increasingly competitive, reduced-emissions climate of the United States. At the same time, an emerging demographic began demanding increased performance with European-style driving dynamics, along with the understated design associated with European brands. This was the climate that gave the BMW 3 Series (E21), the Saab 900 Turbo, and turbocharged Volvos a foothold in the U.S. market. Thanks to the popularity and modularity of the Fox chassis, Ford had the opportunity to turn the sedate Thunderbird personal luxury coupe into a serious competitor for this genre.
What it created was a reimagined icon that was staggeringly close in size and weight to the original 1955 roadster, with a revolutionary step in vehicle aerodynamics and computer-managed engine controls. Rarely do pieces of the puzzle fit together so effortlessly, but what’s truly surprising isn’t that Ford created the 1983 Thunderbird, but that it made the car a competitive package against the imports.
Enter the higher-performance Turbo Coupe model. While Thunderbirds like the top-spec Heritage model had an available Michelin TRX handling package and a 5.0-liter V-8, only the Turbo Coupe courted buyers interested in manual transmissions and Euro-centric performance. Any automotive student of the 1980s can spot the telltale sign of Detroit Euro Syndrome (as it were), as the Big Three made a habit of removing chrome trim and adding alloy wheels, fog lights, and charcoal ribbed cladding in hopes of appealing to a new type of customer. By contrast, the Turbo Coupe was a more pure early implementation; they weren’t cynical trimmings lacking purpose.
That’s because the Turbo Coupe came with Ford’s impressive fourth-generation, multi-port fuel-injection system (EEC-IV) controlling a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mill. Added to that was a BorgWarner T-5 transmission, a limited-slip differential, and a performance suspension with standard 14-inch “Pepper Pot” aluminum wheels. Completing the Turbo Coupe’s look was blackout trim, fog lights, bucket seats, and a tachometer. Reviews of the era were generally complimentary, with Road & Track claiming “the Turbo Coupe’s handling and responsiveness are right up there with the best of its class.”
The Turbo Coupe ushered in a new world of post–Malaise Era potential, becoming a bellwether for the industry’s upward trajectory in performance and efficiency. That slippery nose became even sleeker with composite headlights, those alloy wheels progressively grew in size, the dashboard got a much needed ergonomic boost, and the turbocharging became intercooled. Technology like antilock brakes, dual-mode dampers, and even a single-piece rear window moulding found their way into the Turbo Coupe before production ended in 1988. But rarely do we get to witness the heroic rise of an entire industry through the changes of a single vehicle, and rarely is it this much of a joy to drive.
Sure, its Fox Mustang counterpart also improved as the platform aged, and it was cheaper to boot. But the Turbo Coupe’s extra wheelbase, and its later suspension and braking enhancements, made it a finesse player worthy of consideration against products from distant lands. Speaking of brakes, the 1987–88 model donated its rear disc brake assembly to the 1993 Mustang Cobra, which inadvertently proves the benefit of Turbo Coupe ownership: Parts are plentiful, and cross-pollenating Fox platform bits (like a 1-inch rear sway bar from a 1994-plus Mustang Cobra) only add to the excitement. Thanks to the 2.3-liter engine’s immense popularity in grassroots motorsport, a plethora of performance upgrades are readily available. Though Ford ensured a stock Turbo Coupe never exceeded the horsepower of the Mustang 5.0, the aftermarket tweaks to Ford’s turbo four enabled enough power to cause concern among five-liter owners that pulled up next to a Turbo Coupe at a stoplight.
Speaking of wrenching, working within the ample underhood space of the Thunderbird is a straightforward affair. And since it wasn’t a drag racing darling like its Mustang sibling, abuse from previous ownership is less of an issue. The only major concerns these days are the lifespan of the 1987–88 ABS accumulator (a costly fix, or quickly converted to non-ABS with off-the-shelf parts), and rust damage. The latter can be addressed with Fox Mustang repair panels, not to mention the other behind-the-scenes components (like seat belt sleeves) being reproduced for the Thunderbird’s platform-mate.
With close to 900,000 Thunderbirds made from 1983 to 1988 (roughly 15 percent being Turbo Coupes), the odds of finding a suitable Turbo Coupe and donor parts are still very good to this day. (This doesn’t even include production of the sistership Mercury Cougar.) Although Thunderbird sales made the surprising point that aerodynamics and fuel-injected performance were our automotive future, there’s nothing shocking about a Euro-tuned 1980s icon appealing to a slightly younger demographic. Hagerty data finds that roughly 55 percent of those who call to request quotes for Turbo Coupes are Gen X and millennials, though boomers still comprise 33 percent of inquiries.
The last few years have been good to Turbo Coupe values, especially the more powerful, more technologically advanced examples from 1987–88. Prices saw a significant rise in 2021 for Turbo Coupes in #3 (good) and #2 (excellent) condition, the latter falling almost precisely in line with a Mustang GT of the same vintage. Transaction prices for a 1993 Mustang Cobra are regularly two to three times higher, suggesting the Turbo Coupe’s aforementioned rear disc brakes are better off on a Mustang in modern times. But where’s the fun in that?
The beauty of Ford’s Fox platform was the Lego-like interchangeability. When new, this allowed for rapid creation of distinct vehicles on a common backbone. In the downward spiral of depreciation, the Fox’s value-laden parts swapping kept many examples roadworthy and has helped give rise to a healthy following rooted in new generations of enthusiasts.
Within that love for the Fox platform, the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe is a soaring spirit for the chosen few who are interested in a more unique take on ’80s American performance and luxury. Affordable, immensely entertaining, and cheap to maintain or modify, the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe offers a personality all its own, even if it shares a few parts with a famous pony car.