Ford Thunderbird SC: Why This Car Was Ahead of its Time

Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird | Ford

After the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe was named the Motor Trend Car of the Year in 1987, Ford had its work cut out for them with the Super Coupe set to debut in ’89. Prior to its unveiling, expectations had never been higher and the pressure was mounting for Ford to deliver something special.

Lavish luxury and underrated performance had always been the Thunderbird’s calling card — especially in its highest trim level. The previous generation’s light Fox body chassis, shared with the Mustang, was great for performance, but not exactly the platform of choice for the superior handling and ride quality expected of Ford’s iconic personal luxury coupe. As a result, the 11-year-old Fox chassis was scrapped, and the 1989 Thunderbird debuted on Ford’s new MN12 platform.

Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird | Ford

The change was made largely so the Thunderbird could compete against more sophisticated, higher-priced luxury models from overseas. With an independent rear suspension, Tokico adjustable shock absorbers, and four-wheel disc brakes straight from the showroom floor, the Super Coupe was a pioneer in terms of handling and technology.

Its advanced chassis was a step in the right direction, but the engine would have to be equally as impressive if Ford had any hope of competing against its European rivals. Sure, the boosted 2.3-liter engine in the outgoing Turbo Coupe could pack a hefty punch with its 240 pound-feet of torque.

But in the ’80s, four-cylinder engines were far less refined than they are now and the Thunderbird was no exception. Turbo lag was still prevalent, and the four-cylinder buzz wasn’t exactly music to drivers’ ears. While it was certainly a respectable performer that delivered excellent fuel economy, it can be argued that it hampered the model’s premium feel.

Ford Thunderbird
Ford Thunderbird | Ford

Ford had to be sure that it wouldn’t make the same mistake with its range-topping Super Coupe in 1989. As a result, engineers developed a supercharged 3.8-liter V6 engine intended to be as smooth as it was fast. With 210 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque, the Super Coupe was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Only special 16 by seven-inch cast aluminum wheels, lower body side cladding, and a “Thunderbird SC” embossed rear bumper separated the Super Coupe from its base model trim.

With its sports car handling and underrated performance aside, what really stands out is the engine’s unmatched level of refinement. Peak torque is available in the low RPM band with instantaneous power delivery from the Eaton M90 supercharger.

More than a quarter century later, this combination creates an exhilarating driving experience that is still rewarding — especially if you opt for the five-speed manual. Its low-RPM torque makes for a fun stoplight racer, but the Super Coupe shines brightest on the open road. Very few cars of the era feel as composed around sharp corners at high speeds.

In 1994, supercharger improvements, larger fuel injectors, and an increase in compression added 20 horsepower and 20 pound-feet of torque. According to a Motor Trend road test, the changes enabled the refreshed Thunderbird SC to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in a brisk seven seconds and fly through the the quarter mile in only 15.2 seconds at 88.1 miles per hour.

The innovative Super Coupe was built ahead of its time and came standard with a plethora of features that are just now becoming popular today. Perhaps that’s why it was named Motor Trend Car of the Year in 1989 — making the SC the second Thunderbird to win the award in just a three-year span.

Its supercharged 3.8-liter V6 engine and sophisticated MN12 chassis enabled the Super Coupe to become one of the first domestic cars that could go toe-to-toe with its European challengers on a road course. In an era where American cars were continually ripped apart for their subpar handling, the Thunderbird SC certainly helped change the status quo.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.