Market Spotlight

Ford’s Thunderbird Turbo Coupe is soaring once again

by Sajeev Mehta
18 May 2023 4 min read

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.


  • jim says:

    i purchased a 1984 ford t bird off the showroom floor v8, it would misfire to the point it would die out,turned out faulty control module. ford did not recall the modules until some years owes me for at least 2 or 3 control modules.

  • William Bulpitt says:

    I hate to rain on the parade, but the 1987 Turbo Coupe I owned for three years was the most unreliable car I have ever owned. I bought it with 55000 miles on it in 1993, and kept it three years. It was a beautiful car, but a nightmare mechanically. This was my experience:
    1. On the first day I owned it, the catalytic converter failed thereby clogging the exhaust system and making it undriveable. The previous owner split the $500 cost of repair at the time, and I did not realize it, but this problem was the subject of a “silent recall” from the factory, and I was eventually reimbursed and gave the PO his money back.
    2. After I owned the car for a month the timing belt failed (at 56000 miles). Luckily this was not an interference engine.
    3. The car was on a wrecker twice for ignition system failure (solid state ignition module).
    4. Alternator failure also put it on a wrecker.
    5 clutch replacement and repair of noisy transmission “blocking rings.”
    6. Intermittent failure of automated suspension adjustment controls.
    7. While idling at a stoplight the engine would just randomly quit running. The dealers could never figure it out. Luckily it did not happen while going around a curve at 60 MPH.
    Anyway – the car was like a boat – I was thrilled when I first bought, but glad to see it drive away (sold for $3000 after three years and probably 38000 miles)…

  • SJM1 says:

    I don’t think that the author ever drove one of the NEW ‘Birds, back all those years ago. It was overweight, under powered, and had severe reliability problems (not unlike my then new SVO Mustang). It certainly looked good on paper, but in real life, it was not all that stable (unless you liked lots of stable understeer), and was not at all “fast”. It was slow to respond to the throttle, had plenty of lag, and at the track, often went into limp home mode due to excessive heat. So much potential, wasted on that silly, vibrator of a 4 cylinder, and the flacid chassis V8… Went from my SVO to a Saleen Mustang, ordered a bunch of good parts from Global West, and never looked back. Maybe you want to pay $20K for a T-Bird… I would stick to a Fox Mustang, even with a stick axle. It’s a far better car, with a better upside. Maybe the T-Bird might have some investment potential, provided you inherited a near perfect example, and never drove it.

  • paul s murray says:

    I knew more than one person who had a Turbo Coupe and none of then had the problems William did. They all used them as daily’s ( here in the mid-atlantic/north-east ) with few problems and no complaints so? Maybe the PO was a POS who beat on it like a red haired stepchild. They did have the ignition modules problems on the Limas ( I still have that tool ) but really other than that. I wouldn’t buy one though. Sooner or later the temptation to swap the goodies into a Pinto would overwhelm me. Same power in a car that weighs 1000 lbs less. Even the rims swap. An SVO Pinto, complete with off center intercooler scoop but no telltale badges. That would probably be too wrong but one that had been t-boned? What’s the word?

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    I don’t know why Hagerty repeats articles but as I said before I loved these things as a kid.

  • Patrick O. says:

    I had a 1986 and was a reliable car and got good gas mileage and had it for 3 years and traded for a 1989 Taurus SHO.

  • Mark Bouchard says:

    this all amazes me..I own an 84 bird..and get has a v-6 engine. [.and if I got the story straight.
    ].that was manufactured in winsdor canada..which I recently..had it rebuilt..[ basically stock specs ]buy a top of the line racing engine builder..[beglers of willmington illinois ]..and talk about a car that really runs..that v-6 sounds,,and runs like a little v-8..gets fantastick,,,gas mileage too I dont know if there is very many of these out there..but I would..a million times over,,have one of these..rather than ..the turbo 4 cyl and this little v-6 is a non turbo throttle body

  • paul s murray says:

    MaRk, you’re a man in desperate need of a Super coupe.. [oddly not! mentioned ] …..with a fresh set of heads….and a freed up exhaust …..[2 prevent that problem in the future],,, ….& < para -besides +en thesis a placing ]…in.. {dark}… blue.

  • Linda S. says:

    I had a 1980 Riviera T-Type with the early turbo. It was a beautiful car but that particular turbo had issues and when it finally died and I needed a new car in 1987, it was a toss-up between the Mustang and the Thunderbird. I went with the 5.0 litre Thunderbird rather than the Turbo Coupe because of the previous issues with Riviera. The Thunderbird was pretty fast for it’s time and sure was a lot of fun. I still have it but it’s been off the road for 15 years or so. It’s nice to see that the values are coming back up because when I stopped driving it, it was only worth about$1,500. Maybe it’s time to get it back on the road.

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