Friday, October 25, 2019

Making Ford Thunderbirds fly with turbos: Swapping a 2.3 into a 2002-2005 T-Bird

Retro Modern Boost. I admitted to myself and other staff members of Junkyard Life that I am indeed a Thunderbird fan. I really love to read about the 1983-1988 Turbo Coupes with their unique powertrains. Before I came out of the Thunderbird closet, I almost bought one one of the Turbo Coupes. That is what first started my infatuation with Ford’s versatile intermediate and forced a deeper dig into the history of the Thunderbird.

“Versatile” may not be the right way to describe Thunderbirds. Their evolution is unlike any car’s history. First introduced as a two seat sports car in 1955. The stylish, 3,000-pound car ballooned to nearly 5,000 pounds by the mid-1970s. The Thunderbird went from nimble and sporty, competing with the Corvette for buyers, to a really big, luxury cruiser. It was not the same animal. 

In 1987 the 2.3-liter turbocharged four cylinder received an intercooler and revised engine control, boosting output to 190 horsepower and 240-lbs.ft. of torque on Thunderbirds with the five-speed manual transmission.
(Photo by Joe Bays)

Return to roots minus the engine
But after many design changes and during in the infancy of the “throw back” designs (Volkswagen Beetle-1997, Dodge Challenger-2009, Chevrolet Camaro-2010) Ford brought it back! Yes! The sporty Thunderbird was back! A two-seater – stylish, and it was a sports car with a clear vision of the Thunderbird versus Corvette origins! Only one little thing. They forgot to put an engine in it.

Well, it had an engine. It was just not fun or strong and would not fare well at any American red light war. I thought it would only be a matter of time before the famed 5.0 would find its way under their hoods and give Camaro a run for its money. Later I had the same thought with the introduction of the Coyote motor. A new Coyote motor in a tiny Thunderbird? Bring on King Corvette! Now the blue oval guys have something for you.

They didn’t. They had nothing of the sort. It appears that the chassis design on the new T-Bird is not what a Coyote engine would need to live under there. Are you kidding? Ford, who would shoehorn a Modular 4.6 into a Mustang, how could you let this happen? Where the heck were the focus groups? 

“Let us bring back the Thunderbird-well, half of it.”    

1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. Ford built 128,533 turbo T-Birds from 1983-1988. 
(Photo by Joe Bays)

"We are gathered here today to join this engine and this…" 
Okay, stay with me here…what if?…a Turbo 2.3 was transplanted under the "new" (2002-2005) T-bird’s bonnet? That’s right, a Retro Modern Turbo Thunderbird! Would you like it then? I would!

Ford did it with the Turbo Coupes in the 1980’s. It seems like there are plenty of nice examples of these 2002-2005 Thunderbirds still around. If they made it where a V8 would not fit, fine. Let us do it with a smaller motor. Under boost, the Turbo would assume the characteristics of an engine twice as big. I know the Thunderbird demographic evolved over the years. It was not the same buyer in the early 2000s that craved the Thunderbird’s appeal in the 1950s. But what about us?

Leave it to hot rodders to take something no one wants and turn it into something cool. We were the original recyclers. In an era where transplants are common place, why not have one that makes sense and gives a right pedal appeal to a whole other world of enthusiasts? 

1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe with the 5-speed manual transmission. 
(Photo by Joe Bays)

More ideas

Wait! I have another idea. A very enthusiastic proposal…what if we could transplant the Ecoboost twin-turbo power plant in that very Thunderbird? That has very real possibilities of being an absolute terror on the streets. Maintaining a balance, if you will, of drivable manners that Miss Daisy would be pleased with and a tire shredding persona that wakes up when provoked. 

Are 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbirds prime candidate for a turbo swap? 

Barbie car?

I realize the power plant was only part of it. These cars somehow missed their target audience and landed somewhere south of manly and dare I suggest…even a little girly at times? So, let’s stay away from light wispy colors and go with more masculine shades of whatever Ford will give us. What if we ditched the factory wheels (Editor’s Note: Ron has never uttered the words “ditch the factory wheels-this may be historic) and go with some aluminum slots. Black exterior, aluminum wheels and a very unusual sound we have not associated with these new T-Birds. Okay. Now, we are talking. 

Official mandate
I must wrap this fantasy article up with a disclaimer. If I find a Thunderbird in the Junkyard Life garage that must live with our Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, it would be a 1988 Turbo Coupe, similar to our buddy Joe Bay's Thunderbird. You already know that. Here is the situation. They sold a good bit of those throw back Birds and they are NOT in the junkyards. So, someday, someway, you may be presented with the opportunity to pick up a nice low-mile example of Ford’s attempt at retro. So, whatcha gonna do? 

Ron Kidd
— Junkyard Life: The Story Beneath the Rust

1983-1988 Thunderbird Turbo Coupes were a blend of Lincoln Mark VII luxury and Mustang performance. Some say it's the perfect touring car with a stick.
(Photo by Joe Bays)

1988 was the high water mark for the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. More than 35,000 were sold. I'm sure the success on NASCAR speedways by Awesome Bill from Dawsonville had a little to do with the sales peak.
(Photo by Joe Bays)

Got a classic car in your driveway? Send us details!  Send emails to Jody Potter at and Ron Kidd at

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